You’re probably familiar with the popular arcade game called Whac-A-Mole, where mechanical moles randomly pop out of their holes while you try whacking them with a mallet before they retreat. I grew up in a “reverse Whac-A-Mole” world, feeling like the only mole in a family of mallets.

All the men in my family had significant issues. When I was 12, my dad left our family for a married woman with three kids. While some divorced fathers become “Disneyland dads”—showering their kids with gifts and fun events to make up for their physical absence—mine didn’t. He withheld both financial and emotional support, and he rejected or mocked conventional displays of affection, even to the point of withholding birthday or Christmas gifts.

He was also verbally abusive. According to my mom, as he was exiting our family, he only came home to eat, sleep, and berate my brother and me. He especially relished picking on me, nicknaming me “Idiot Child” (as well as something worse that is crude and unprintable). In Matthew 7:9, Jesus asks, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Well, I have someone I can nominate.

But my dad wasn’t the only disaster in our family. His father was a sullen man who apparently had a mean streak. I’m told that when my dad was about five years old, the two of them were having a conversation about electricity. My grandfather handed my dad a paper clip and told him to stick it into an electrical outlet to see what would happen. Such displays of malice may help explain why my dad ended up such a mess.

When my grandfather was in his 60s, he decided he had cancer, so one day he jumped in front of a speeding train at a railroad crossing about a mile from our home. His was not our family’s sole suicide. My brother, who was a year older than me, suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression. After spending most of the last 20 years of his life in and out of mental hospitals, he hanged himself. We’d never had any kind of brotherly relationship, and I always felt like he treated me with contempt.

My mother’s side didn’t escape dysfunction either. Her father had an emotional breakdown and spent several months in a hospital for indigents. And then there were the uncles and cousins. These included an alcoholic, a hoarder and hermit, one who traveled to Thailand to participate in the sex-trafficking world there, and another who cheated on his wife and allegedly maintained low-level ties to organized crime. There wasn’t a healthy man anywhere in sight.

Article continues below

Bottom line: I seldom felt accepted by my family and had to be on guard around most of them. This dynamic was one of the dominant factors of my upbringing; the other was my educational aptitude. I was always the “smart kid,” the proverbial teacher’s pet and curve-buster. I racked up dozens of academic awards, honors, and scholarships. This did nothing to endear me to my peers, which made my high school years very lonely.

Religion played almost no role in my family. And no one I respected intellectually seemed to have much use for the Bible, which led me to dismiss it as a quaint book filled with fairy tales and fables. But despite my façade of intellectual bluster, deep down I knew that something was wrong in my life, which led me to dabble in occult practices like astrology, séances, and white magic.

During my sophomore year of college, I stumbled into a campus Christian meeting and heard the gospel for one of the first times. As the presenter spoke, the Holy Spirit burned two realizations into my heart: that this “new thing” that I didn’t even recognize as Christianity was 100 percent true, and that I would be a part of it. That night, even though I knew almost nothing about the theology of salvation, I brushed aside my intellectual skepticism and eagerly made a commitment to Jesus.

A few days later, as I was returning to the dorm after class, I saw that my roommate Ken had posted a nasty note about me on our door. Although Ken and I had only been roommates for a few months, his hypochondria and ultra-neatness had already bugged me to the point that I’d been publicly ridiculing him around other guys on our floor.

Furious, I ripped his note from the door and stomped off to take a shower, the rising steam mirroring the steam coming out of my ears. As I considered how to get even, a strange thought popped into my mind. I realized that I was the one responsible for starting this whole public spat. Ken had finally gotten sick of my verbal grenades and was only responding in kind. All these years later, I recognize I was merely replicating the pattern of harsh criticism I had learned from my family.

As I turned the shower off, something amazing happened. I don’t know if it was truly a vision or just a vivid thought. I imagined I was in my mother’s attic rummaging for something. Suddenly, I spotted a partially hidden door behind a metal wardrobe. In my mind, I pushed the wardrobe aside and opened the door to discover a previously unknown room.

Article continues below

My next thought was Wow! That Christian speaker had said that if we start a relationship with Jesus, he will show us new things about ourselves. I bet this is an example. Making the connection between discovering this new room and discovering that I, not my roommate, was the instigator in our conflict, I walked away from the shower surprisingly upbeat. No longer was my mind filled with thoughts of revenge. Instead, I decided I needed to learn more about Christianity.

Top: Glenn’s personal Bible. Bottom: Glenn’s church in Wrightwood, California.
Image: Ryan Contreras

Top: Glenn’s personal Bible. Bottom: Glenn’s church in Wrightwood, California.

Over the next few months, I became increasingly involved with a couple of campus Christian groups. I was impressed by how “together” the members seemed and by the quality of their relationships. I also began applying my intellectual curiosity to questions surrounding the Bible’s reliability. I discovered far more support for the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith than I had ever supposed.

Unfortunately, not everyone celebrated my ability to ask a million questions. Rather than feeling inspired to keep seeking answers to my legitimate curiosities, I remember feeling tolerated at best. Recently, I reconnected with one of the first guys who discipled me. Recalling our weekly meetings, he said, “Sometimes I thought you had a question mark for a brain.”

Despite this lack of encouragement, I eventually found an outlet for my curiosity by writing a book called That’s a Great Question: What to Say When Your Faith Is Challenged, exactly the sort of resource I would have craved in my early Christian days.

Years ago I visited a counselor, hoping to piece together the complexities of my background. After hearing parts of my story week after week, he commented, “There is no explanation for you. In my professional opinion, someone with your background should be unemployable, divorced three times, abusive, an alcoholic, or some other kind of addict. The fact that you’re none of these things is a testimony to God’s incredible grace.”

A wonderful advantage of my toxic background is how it allows me to relate to other people’s struggles. In recent years, I’ve established one-on-one mentoring relationships with about two dozen younger men. These are informal meal meetings with no agenda. I just try to understand their circumstances, communicate that I’m on their side, and point them to practical insights rooted in Scripture and tempered by real-life experience. Essentially, I’m offering these men something I never had. It’s just one way God continually uses what could have been a curse on my life to bring blessing to others.

Glenn E. Pearson spent 19 years as executive vice president of the Georgia Hospital Association. He and his wife currently live outside Los Angeles. More information about Glenn is available on his website.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.