In the Palm of His Hand
As I write, I am moved to great humility and gratitude before God, because He has delivered me from bondage to a cult. I spent nearly thirty years as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). I was a follower of men and I have to confess that it was my own immaturity and lack of biblical discernment that allowed me to be deceived. I had, prior to my involvement with the Witnesses, placed faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. But I was young and stupid, and worse, I was not diligent in the Word. So, when the Witnesses came along, the things they said seemed very reasonable and I accepted their teachings and practices as – what seemed to me at the time - the correct way to spend my life in service to God.
There are a few scriptures that have become very meaningful to me in the past few years, because I have been in a position to reevaluate my life and to really see where the Lord has been with me, worked with me and never abandoned me, no matter what happened, no matter where my path took me over the years, even if it was away from Him. He was always there to protect me, to guide me, and to carry me when he needed to. One of those scriptures is found in John 10: 27-29. It says there,
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
As I look back, it is very evident to me that I was in the palm of His hand all along, that he kept me safe and ultimately made the way and drew me back to him.
On the day I was born, my mother - who was a Christian - died. I grew up with my father and his parents, in a home where there was little religious training, though I was taught to have respect for the Bible as God’s Word. Heaven and hell were used as motivators for good behavior and fear played a big part in my perception of God. I had been to church perhaps three or four times by the age of twelve and never to the same church twice. Also, I didn’t know who Jesus was till I was 11 or 12. We sang a song at Christmas about “the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay,” but I couldn’t have told you anything about Him apart from His being a baby. By the age of 11, I was, for all practical purposes, an atheist.
Around age 12, however, my interest in spiritual things was sparked by an unlikely source. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was fresh in the minds of Americans and I read a book about Jeane Dixon, who had supposedly predicted that event in advance. This book at least got me thinking that there might be something to the universe beyond the physical.
I later watched a program on television sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church and as a result enrolled in one of their Bible correspondence courses. While I now regard the SDA church as having a number of aberrant teachings, the presentation of the Gospel of grace in that course was very orthodox. As a result of that study, I asked Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior. I attended that church for a time and even thought I might have a career as an SDA minister.
However, when I was 14, my house was visited by a very pleasant older lady who identified herself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I actually began to argue with her about things I had learned from the SDA’s, but found that her knowledge of the Bible was greater than mine. The following week, she introduced me to a young man who began a “Bible study” with me (actually a study in a Watchtower publication using the Bible as a reference). It took quite some time and a lot of arguing, but the Witnesses seemed to have an answer to every question. Eventually I accepted their beliefs as being correct, and life in their organization as the acceptable way to serve God.
The decision was a costly one. I was 17 at the time of my baptism as a JW and had just graduated high school. My father had finally remarried and because of my association with the JW’s, I was not permitted to live with him and my new stepmother. Rather, I continued to live with my grandparents. I had to give up my high school sweetheart, since relationships with non-JW’s were frowned upon. And attending college was strongly discouraged among Witnesses at that time. But the sacrifices seemed worth it, if it meant that I could spend my life in God’s service.
My next goal was to become a “pioneer”. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses at that time, a pioneer was one who devoted 100 hours per month as a volunteer in the preaching and teaching work. Pioneers are regarded as being specially blessed by Jehovah and the position carries considerable prestige in the congregation. With much effort, I was finally appointed a “regular” pioneer in 1972 and a ministerial servant (much like a deacon in a church) shortly thereafter.
However, 1973 brought a snag. I became involved in some inappropriate conduct and was given a “public reproof.” This is an action taken by the JW organization against sinners who are deemed repentant for their actions. It is a lesser punishment than disfellowshipping, which involves being removed from the congregation and shunned completely by all members, even one’s closest friends and family. Public reproof is less severe. It consisted, back then, of removal from all positions and “privileges”, along with having one’s name announced before the congregation as having engaged in “conduct unbecoming a Christian.”
After this happened, I saw the other side of their love. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that one of the evidences that they are God’s people is that they have “love among themselves” (John 13:35, NWT). After my reproof, however, the congregation became very cold toward me. Where I once had been very popular and felt that I had many friends, I now felt left out and avoided, even though there was no formal shunning being carried out. In retrospect, this may have been the first revelation that the JW’s were not what they claimed to be.
Not very many JW’s today are aware that it was strongly hinted by the leadership that Armageddon might come by 1975. Some of the leaders were specific in speeches, but Watchtower (WT) print articles were evasive, so it is hard today to pin down the false prophecy. JW’s today try to minimize the enthusiasm that existed for Armageddon in 1975, but I was there and we all thought it was coming. A Witness at that time didn’t dare to suggest that the chronology might be in error. The likely reaction would have been a cold stare, as if something vile had been said. I had personal friends who sold businesses or possessions and attempted to use the proceeds to live till Armageddon came. In one case a man who had been part owner of a rubbish removal company sold off his share to his partners and ended up driving a rubbish truck to make a living after 1975 passed without incident. An internal Watchtower publication, Kingdom Ministry, suggested in 1974 that it was a fine idea that some were selling their homes and businesses in order to do more in God’s service – preaching and distributing WT literature from house to house - in the short time remaining. Obviously, nothing happened.
Some years later, I discovered that the JW organization had a long history of such false prophecies and this eventually became one of the major factors in my leaving. Some of the other factors were the lack of love in the congregations. In particular the elders, who should have been tender shepherds of the flock, were very harsh and judgmental. There was even a “spy system” of sorts, under which people were expected to inform on others for a variety of large and small infractions of JW rules.
I also had occasional questions about the teachings, but these did not become serious until later. As it turned out, a couple with whom I was conducting a “Bible study,” trying to bring them into the JW fold, contacted some Christian ex-Witnesses who supplied them with a very difficult list of questions that I now felt obligated to attempt to answer. This process would probably have had me out of the organization within a few years, except that I was forced to put this exploration on the shelf for a while.
I was rather lonely as a young Jehovah’s Witness and wanted a companion. I was introduced to a young Witness woman by mutual friends and we were married in 1978. In 1979, our daughter was born. I continued to study and question, but not at the previous rate because of the demands of married life and parenthood. I was also appointed as a ministerial servant again in a new congregation. At times, I expressed doubts to my wife, but she did not want to hear. The Watchtower teaches its followers not to listen to arguments or read any literature opposed to it and she was faithful to the organization in that way. As a result, my doubts continued to grow, but I suppressed them in the interest of family unity. However, my doubts about the organization were a growing source of conflicts over the years and eventually led to the dissolution of my marriage. On a few occasions, the elders got involved to try to “help” me with my doubts, but the bottom line was always to keep quiet about them or risk being disfellowshipped. One time, a visiting elder actually accused me of hiding some secret sin and trying to distract attention from it with my doubts about the organization. It was simply inconceivable to him that anyone could sincerely question the teachings of the Watchtower.
Eventually, it all caught up to me. The things I have mentioned, such as the lack of love in the organization, the endless rules and the history of false prophecy created enough cognitive dissonance that I had to admit - at least to myself - that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not have the truth. To make matters worse, I had been studying the Bible at least to some degree apart from the “explanations” offered in the Watchtower publications and became convinced of the deity of Jesus Christ. This is a completely unacceptable position for a JW and I could have been disfellowshipped simply for holding that belief (compare John 9:22).
Once I was mentally free of the organization’s teachings, I knew that my life could not proceed as it had. One day around 1995, I drove my car to a lonely mountainside and spoke with Jesus, telling Him that I wanted to serve Him with my life, but that I needed His help in bringing that about. It took a while, but He came through.
My marriage was a very turbulent one and my wife had always maintained that she would leave me if I ever left the organization. JW’s consider “endangerment of spirituality” as a valid, scriptural ground for marital separation. Also, Witnesses have a virtually superstitious fear of the demonic and regard any material from another religion as potentially being a conduit for bringing the demons into one’s life. My wife was unusually fearful in this area, even for a JW. As a result, my interest in other teachings and having non-Watchtower literature about the Bible created a great deal of conflict. Even apart from those pressures, the marriage was never a good one. In 2000, after 23 years of marriage, she moved out of the house and filed for divorce.
Two weeks after my wife moved out of the house, I was at a conference at a retreat center on a mountainside in Pennsylvania called “Witnesses Now for Jesus.” It is an annual event for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who have become Christians and for those in ministry to the cults. It is extremely uplifting, a “mountain top” experience in more ways than one and has become an important event on my calendar every year since.
Just before Christmas of 2000 (the first Christmas I would celebrate in over 30 years), my father passed away. The mood in the family was somber, and I was invited to a family gathering at my cousin’s home on New Years Day of 2001. My uncle brought a big box of old family pictures going back generations. One picture was of me with the high school sweetheart I had given up to become a JW. We were dressed up for my senior prom. I had seen her name on the web site, Classmates.com and I went home that night and sent her an e-mail. It turned out that she had been widowed a few years before. We met for dinner a few weeks later and ultimately ended up marrying in October of 2001.
Life outside the WT is not perfect, but it is infinitely better than being in a controlling cult and apart from Jesus Christ. Many people do not realize that a JW who leaves the organization risks losing everything - friends, family members who are JW’s, employers, landlords, etc. They are instructed to center their lives around the organization, to avoid unnecessary contact with outsiders and to shun completely anyone who turns away from the group. Those who leave are often left with no one.
However, the Lord has blessed me with a wonderful wife and the continuing love of my daughter, who is now an inactive JW, my Christian grandmother (who went to the Lord’s presence on April 27, 2009), as well as one of my closest friends in the organization, who is now also an inactive JW and who continues to be my friend. For about five years, I taught the adult Sunday School in a small Baptist church here in New Jersey. We spent an entire year exploring the doctrines of JW’s and I have been asked from time to time to offer my testimony and teach about JW’s at other churches. I am presently active in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church in my home town.
Thinking back to that day at 13 years old or so when I gave my life to Jesus, I realize that He has been with me ever since. JW’s in general don’t have the relationship with Jesus that I always felt. I always knew that He was central to my faith, but based on all those years of interaction with JW’s, and also upon my studies of Watchtower doctrine, which all Witnesses are required to accept, I have come to the conclusion that in the minds of most JW’s, He’s just a minor character. But not for me – He was always there with me, by my side. I always felt His love, and I know He is the one who brought me to where I am now. I can truly appreciate the Apostle Paul’s words at Romans 8:37-39:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [not even the Watchtower Society] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Lord has shown me how true those words are. Praise God!