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by Shanon Hinkel
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by Shanon Hinkel

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened
by a yoke of slavery.

As far back as I can remember, I believed in God. As a little girl in my bed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I even felt the hand of what I believe to be an angel. It was a heavenly being of some kind, and I shudder to think that perhaps it was Jesus himself. I don’t know. I will know when I meet Him. Whatever the case, it was a source of great comfort. I think it was God’s way of setting me apart from the world even as a child.
My prayers growing up and into adulthood were always the same. They went something like, “Lord, I’m sorry for all my sins that I committed today. Please help me to obey and love you more.” This came at the end of the day, usually when I was in bed at night. I would remember that I did not say my bedtime prayers and so then I would say them. Sometimes I would even get out the rosary and pray it once or twice. I always felt that I was going the extra mile when I did that, even though I didn’t really enjoy it. I remember saying prayers over and over again because I realized that I had daydreamed through most of them. I never did understand all of those mysteries. I had my own version of the rosary and for me it worked fine.
I remember when I had received first communion and one of my cousins played around with me and gave me a potato chip. “This is the body of Christ,” she said, and before I could answer she shoved it in my mouth. I thought that was a horrible thing to do with a potato chip.
That about summed up how I always felt. God was something to be feared, an obligation to fulfill. When I stopped going to church after I got married, I felt so guilty. I knew that I needed to go to confession to make a clean slate if I ever wanted to return to church on a regular basis. When I had children, I began to think about their spiritual well-being. What kind of parent would I be? I wasn’t even attending church. My prayers were waning as well because I felt so unworthy to speak to God.

In the very same way that farmers used to bind their oxen together with yokes, I was bound by my belief system. I viewed God as my adversary, like I always had to do good things to please Him. As if somehow if I was good enough I could earn brownie points with Him, and He might just answer a prayer or two of mine. After all, if I wasn’t good enough, He might just take some blessings away. He was a God of vengeance and just rewards, right?
Indeed, he had begun to set me apart even as a small child. I began to have questions about what I believed. I knew in my heart that God loved me. I wanted to know the truth. Did I really have to fulfill traditions to earn my way to heaven? Was there really a hell? Would God, who’s supposed to be so loving, really send anyone there? What was the difference in a protestant and Catholic Bible, anyway? And, was Mary really sinless and can she answer prayers?
The questions about Mary came when a co-worker of mine asked me if I prayed to her. “Yes,” I replied. “Of course I pray to her.” My co-worker, who was also raised Catholic, suggested to me that Mary was a person just like me, with faults and failures and should not be prayed to. Mary was to be honored, she insisted, because she bore Jesus as a human baby. But she was not to be esteemed as the Mother of God.
This truly angered me. How dare this woman question my faith in Mary. Of course she should be prayed to. Or should she be? I did not admit that I had questions myself. I knew that if she was right, it would uproot my entire belief system. And if she wasn’t... well, I just had to prove to her and to myself that I was right. Of course I had questions, but I could never leave the Catholic faith. It was part of me. It was who I was. And so I began to search.
I read everything I could about the Catholic faith. I started with the Catechism of the Catholic Church along with its little companion book. I looked online for articles defending the faith. I desperately wanted to know the truth. Either I had been right or I had been wrong about everything I believed all of my life growing up. I cried out to God to show me the way. It’s like an unseen magnet was pulling me toward something I couldn’t yet grasp.
My co-worker directed me one day to a Bible passage, James 1:5, which says that if we ask God for wisdom in something, He will give it to us without judging us. She urged me to pray this scripture if I truly wanted to gain wisdom in my search for truth. I followed suit on her suggestion, and I soon began to be drawn to the Word of God.
I went to a local Christian book store and bought a Bible. It was an NIV (New International Version) study Bible called The Quest. It was perfect for me. It even had little questions and answers in the margins relating to scripture verses. I was glued to it. I could not get enough of it. I wanted to read it all the time, and strangely enough, for the first time in my life, it actually made sense. I began to look up verses about things of which I was questioning, such as the possible deity of Mary and whether we should confess our sins to a priest.
One of the first things I discovered is that the Word of God says that when we confess our sins to Him, our sins are separated from us as far as the East is to the West. The Word also says that when we confess our sins to God, He is faithful and just to forgive us. I was totally and completely fascinated with this. A light came on in my brain... all I have to do is confess my sins to God, and he will forgive me? That’s it? It seemed too good to be true.
Long about that time, I stumbled across the verse that says that there is only one mediator between man and God, and that is the person of Jesus Christ. As of that point I had found no mention whatsoever of anyone else being able to mediate, answer prayers, or the like. Not Mary, not the angels, not even deceased saints. In fact, the Bible called living believers saints! It was all very overwhelming. It seemed way too simple that Jesus would be the answer to everything. And, even if He was, how was that relevant to me? And how did I disconnect myself from my old belief system? I felt still tied to it somehow. There was so much that was still unresolved. Still, the grip I had on Catholicism and the teachings of the Catechism was being loosened as the Word of God began to fill my heart and mind. I continued to pray that God would give me wisdom according to His promise from James 1:5.

My desperate search for truth did not take me where I had intended. I just knew in the beginning that I would be victorious in proving my coworker wrong… that I would at last have the solid proof I was looking for to defend my entire belief system, Mary and all. However, I never found that proof. Instead, I found that I was lost and in need of forgiveness… that I was in a state of sin. I found that I was born into sin, because the world is filled with sin. The Bible called even my good works “filthy rags.” There was nothing, nothing I could do to be worthy of a relationship with God. It didn’t matter that I never understood all those mysteries because the Rosary was not the answer. And neither was Mary.
I could pray to any person I wanted to, dead relatives or saints, and they would not hear me. The Word of God says that praying to the dead is an abomination… that people who are dead go either to Heaven or Hell, and don’t hang around here answering our prayers or worrying about our problems. No, if they’re in Hell, they have problems enough of their own… and if they’re in Heaven, they’re in the very presence of God.
The truth was beginning to come into focus, kind of like a camera lens… blurry at first, but then ever so much clearer than before. And with it came a sense of assurance like I had never known. I no longer felt the need to debate anything with anyone. There was no need to defend myself. And my coworker never questioned me. I think she knew in her spirit what was happening because she never stopped praying for me.
For the first time in my life, I began to understand why Jesus came to Earth, and why His mother had to be a flesh and blood human, and a sinner like the rest of us. To say that Mary was perfect and divine is denying the truth about who Jesus is. I began to see that when Jesus came, he was 100% man… meaning he had an earthly mother with earthly problems. He felt pain. He stressed his mother out. He went through every stage of life that every single one of us do. But he managed to do that without sinning… not even once. And the reason for that is because while he was 100% man, he was also 100% God.
Mary, therefore, was not the mother of God, but the mother of Jesus, the man. The earthly, fleshly, human man. Mary could never, ever, be the mother of God. That was God’s doing alone, and he only used her as a vessel to bring Jesus into the world. I never understood that before, but it suddenly made perfect sense.
Something else that made perfect sense is why Jesus came in the first place. I had heard the verses growing up. I had sung the songs. I had indeed said it and heard it all my life. But as I read the Word of God, the truth began to come to life inside me.
I could never do anything to make up for the fact that I am a sinner. There is nothing I can do… no good work, no amount of charity, nothing that I could ever do to make up for the fact that I was born a sinner separated from God. The separation between man and God occurred at the Garden of Eden. Sacrifices were required in the Old Testament to make up for this separation, and atone for sins. God promised that he would make a way for salvation, however, and this promise was finally fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He was to be the bridge that would reconnect man to God.
When Jesus came, he took on every single sin man has and will ever commit. This includes everything imaginable. It is totally unfathomable to me what Jesus took upon himself. It is no wonder He was so miserable in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He died! He knew what was coming. And I believe the reason he began to sweat blood that night is because He could actually feel the burden of the weight of the world’s sins.
Every sin imaginable. I think of World War II and Hitler. I think of child abuse, murder, rape, robberies, the most horrible sins. I think of the sins we like to think are less serious like lying and stealing. I think of hate, and the fact that the Bible says that if we hate someone we’ve actually committed murder in our hearts. Who of us has never hated anyone? Certainly not me. I have hated many people at different times for many reasons. I am technically a murderer, then, am I not? Still, Jesus took it all.
The criminal that died beside Jesus asked Him to remember him in Heaven, to which Jesus said, “This day you will be with Me in paradise.” That criminal, likely a murderer, realized he was a sinner and needed Jesus. He humbled himself, admitted he was wrong, and asked Jesus to accept him. And that’s what I did on May 7, 2001 when I asked Jesus Christ to come in and rescue me from myself. He did. I know He did. The reason I know is because my life has never been the same. It has been rough at times, and I cannot even say my life has been easier. But I have had my eternal Father by my side every step of the way, and I have felt His presence. He carries me when I am weak. He goes before me when I cannot see the path in front of me. He lifts me up when I have fallen. And I fall a lot.
The key to finding the truth for me was admitting that not only did I desperately want the truth, but that I wanted it at any cost. I was no longer defending what I wanted to believe, but humbling myself to admit that I didn’t have the answers. That I couldn’t do anything worthwhile on my own… that I needed Jesus to lead me to the truth. I owe Him all that I am. Apart from Him, I can do nothing. It was at this lowest, humbling place in my life that God reached in and lifted me up. In my weakness, He was made strong.
I have a lot of growing to do, but I know how Jesus sees me. It is hard to see myself that way… but I know that He sees me as a new creature, born again, with my sins separated from me as far as the East is from the West. I no longer belong to the world and the devil… I belong to Him, and He has promised to do a work in me to make me more like Him every day. I know that perfection will not come until the day I meet my Lord, but I hold on to the promise that He will use everything that happens to me for my good, because He loves me and has called me to His purpose.

I am completely assured that I did not and still do not deserve what my God has done for me. I get glimpses of the way I was through others and am reminded of the grace and mercy that God has given me. I believe He wants me to share what He has done, and the truth He has given me, with others. It is my prayer that His light will shine brightly through this broken vessel… guiding others from the darkness to the blessed light that brings peace that transcends all understanding.

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