Some people complain that their jobs are boring and mundane. That was never a problem for me. Beginning in my 20s, I worked for decades as a film and television stuntman, facing injury and even death for a living. On the set, I rubbed elbows with celebrities and movie stars—and sometimes made more money in one day than previous jobs had paid in a month. I was living my dream.
My philosophy in those early years was to go as hard as I could, as fast as I could, for as long as I could. Outwardly, I maintained a façade of indestructibility, suppressing any fears or anxieties with various forms of distraction and self-indulgence.
At age 26, however, I received a gut punch when my 32-year-old brother suddenly collapsed dead from a heart attack after Thanksgiving dinner. For the most part, I successfully buried my pain by working and playing even harder. But in rare moments of quiet, usually after a considerable intake of alcohol, I would ponder the senselessness of his death. I also recalled a 10-year-old nephew who had perished years before from a deadly reaction to a children’s aspirin tablet.
When I was around my nephew’s age, belief in God had come easily. A neighbor had introduced me to Jesus, and I had attended church camp for a couple summers, absorbing the message that nothing bad will happen to you when you believe in him. Sometimes, in my search for answers, I would try to summon up that believing little boy, but he was nothing but a distant memory. At least, until I heard the name of Jesus in the last place I would have expected.
The Stone in My Shoe
It happened after moving across the country for film work. One day, I overheard someone talking about God with one of the stunt guys. To my utter surprise, it was none other than the movie stunt coordinator himself. Eavesdropping on that conversation conjured up some old memories and questions. Did I still believe in God, or had I outgrown the childishness of Sunday school stories?
For one film gig up the coast, I caught a ride with the stunt coordinator —a man I dubbed “the Preachernator.” When conversation inevitably turned to religion, I told him I was doing fine without God, and I began regaling him with stories of my close calls and narrow escapes on set. There was the time, for instance, when I was tapped for a fire stunt at a monster-truck rally. The idea was to paint myself with a flammable substance, drop from the rafters, and land on the roof of a waiting car, whose driver would reach out the window, set me on fire, and peel out toward a wooden wall.
But nothing went according to design. First, my rope line snagged, and instead of rappelling down to the car, I had to cut the rope and plunge a long way onto its roof. Then the fire wouldn’t light, and after the fifth or sixth attempt, I gave up and signaled for the driver to floor it. When he stomped on his brakes, I went flying through a wooden wall, only not on fire as planned.
As I picked myself up to the cheers and groans of a confused audience, my heart leapt into my throat. I realized I had completely forgotten to apply the protective stunt gel to my head and face. Had I actually been set ablaze, I almost certainly would have sustained serious, possibly fatal, injuries.
The Preachernator listened to my story and said, “Sounds like God was still looking after you.” His words cracked my pride; I began to question whether skill and occasional luck were really responsible for keeping me alive. Could God have been looking out for me, even when I was so far astray?
We had more conversations over the following year, and he would ask what was holding me back from committing to Jesus. I told him I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I knew I couldn’t go from being a perfect sinner one day to a perfect Christian the next, so why even try? “Who’s perfect?” he said, laughing. “The Holy Spirit changes you over a lifetime, not right away.”
I remained hesitant. But the Preachernator’s words were like a small stone lodged in my shoe—a persistent irritant to my comfortable but godless lifestyle. As time went on, I found myself thinking about God on a daily basis. Is he real? Could he really love me again after I had turned my back on him?
Everything came to a head one dark and rainy night. I had been hired to jump off a 50- or 60-foot-high catwalk, grab a large dangling chain with one hand and slide down the chain to the cement floor below while firing a pistol with the other. This was dangerous enough before factoring in my hatred of heights. Fear began to overwhelm me, and I couldn’t shake the thought of possible catastrophe. I wondered if the moment to give my life to Jesus had finally arrived.
As I took a brief walk off the set, an internal debate raged within. One side of me said, “You’re only doing this because you might die, you hypocrite! Do it after you finish the stunt.” But another side said, “No, the whole point in giving my life to Jesus is in case I die. It’s smarter to do it right now.” So that’s what I did.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but there was no immediate change—no obvious physical, emotional, or spiritual sensation. Had God heard me? In any event, I didn’t dare tell a soul, just in case what I thought had happened hadn’t really happened.
The following weeks confirmed two things: God had indeed heard my prayer, and the stone was gone from my shoe. Before long, I worked up the confidence to evangelize my fellow crew members. And there were sudden changes in my behavior, too. Among the first things I noticed was that my go-to indulgences no longer held any appeal, and the dirty humor I once relished no longer struck me as funny. Meanwhile, my habit of cursing like a drunken sailor had vanished. After smashing my knee into a steel bolt at work, I started to swear and then stopped myself mid-expletive, surprising everyone within earshot.
I couldn’t explain these changes; neither could anyone else. Some accused me of pretending to be righteous, but deep down I knew the Holy Spirit was at work. The Preachernator was right.
The Gift of Struggle
God granted me dramatic change in some areas, but in others he gave the gift of struggle. In fact, I have experienced some of the greatest grief life has to offer.
Once, during some downtime on the set, a crew member asked me why his friend’s child had died. Where was God in this tragedy? I tried explaining God’s heart to him. The crew member said that much of what I shared made sense, at least compared to other religious people who trafficked in platitudes about God working in mysterious ways. But he also wondered whether my faith would survive the death of one of my own children. So did I.
I think of this conversation from time to time, because the question has been answered. I have lost children since that day. I watched my wife’s heart crumble as she rocked our 19-day-old son while he died in her arms. Three years later, my wife watched me cradle our newborn daughter as she met the same fate.
God never promises us a life without pain and suffering. However, he more than sustains us through challenges. From the tremendous joy of a beautiful, 20-year-old daughter to the depths of deep sorrow, my life attests to the truth that absolutely nothing can separate me from God’s love (Rom. 8:39).
Robert Wilton currently works as a photojournalist in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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