Check out how Jesus radically transformed Emily’s life and watch her get #dunked Baptism Weekend, July 29 & 30.
My name is Emily Zhang, and I am about to be a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park. I’m currently studying Neurophysiology and Biology and am planning on joining staff with my campus fellowship, InterVarsity, after I graduate.
Unlike many of the Christian friends that I’ve made, I did not grow up in the church. My parents stopped going to church when I was born, and the concept of religion was never spoken of in my house. I grew up in a fairly strict household. My parents pushed me to achieve perfection in all of the things that I did, but particularly in school and in music. I remember when I entered middle school, I started participating in more piano competitions and going to more violin auditions. It didn’t matter though, if I won or if I lost, because the result was the same. I was never good enough for their high expectations of me and I would be punished regardless.
I began to feel like I was worthless, like I was a waste of their time and money and energy. I never felt like I was good enough for my parents. I felt like I never rose to their standard of what they wanted in me and that their expectations were too high. The weight of what they wanted for me was too much for me to handle.
In addition to my family struggles, I was also struggling with my friend group at school. Growing up, I had a group of five girls who were basically my sisters. But as we entered middle school, I started hanging with other people because I had classes with them. My friends said that I was changing and that I was different, and that I was too weird to hang out with them anymore essentially.
I started second-guessing everything about myself. I would look at myself sometimes in the mirror and hate who I was and how I looked and how I acted. I felt alone among my family and my friends, and I fell into depression. I tried to commit suicide multiple times because I was so fed up with myself. And I was so certain that if a God did indeed exist, then he must be the a spiteful God.
I treated God in these times as a vending machine: I would strike up deals with him, saying that if I practiced piano for x amount of hours then I expected him to allow me to win the next competition and gain approval from my parents. And when he didn’t deliver on those deals, I would become bitter and angry. And as my issues continued to exist, I became more and more angry at God for not fixing it.
I came to a point where I decided that I had to take matters into my own hands. I could not rely on a God or on anyone else to change my life for me. So, I decided to practice piano and violin harder than I ever had before so that I could try and meet those expectations. I changed the way I dressed, how I looked, how I talked and walked and laughed and acted, and I stopped hanging out with certain people so that my friends would take me back. And it worked!
For a while it seemed that I was fixing my life and I was happy. But a part of me was still unsatisfied. I was still bitter at God that I had to pretend to be this person in order to be accepted by those around me.
As I entered high school, I started to become more and more exposed to religion. My boyfriend at the time started telling me stories of this Jesus and all of the things that he did and said. And this Jesus seemed too loving to be real for me. Because the Jesus that he preached did not match the Jesus that I saw the people following. Some of the friends who had bullied me in middle school identified themselves as Christians. This Jesus that my boyfriend was telling me about could not possibly be loving or merciful or accepting, because his followers seemed so judgmental and petty and hypocritical. And I did not want to be one of those followers.
He and I dated for about four and a half years. And when we started dating, he was a Christian and I wasn’t. Not too long after we started dating, we started toeing the line of our physical boundaries. I had no religious grounding on why I should or shouldn’t do certain things like he did, but I had my own moral and personal reasons for not going past a certain line. And he would continually say that he wanted us to have a Christ-centered relationship, but I didn’t really know what that meant. And time and time again, we would push our physical boundaries further and further. He was older and more experienced, and I didn’t really care about my own body, so I let this go on. About two years into our relationship, we thought that we would eventually get married. There seemed to be no reason to wait to have sex after marriage at that point, and so we decided that we should just go for it. I remember afterwards I felt so much shame and I felt so impure. Our relationship after that was very broken and difficult.
He started to seek Jesus more after that, and he became really passionate and on fire for Christ. More than ever, we were on two completely separate chapters in our lives. He started trying to tell me how to live my life, how to dress, who and who not to talk to, all because of the convictions that he started having when learning more about Jesus. And I didn’t want to be a part of that. I did not want more expectations or rules placed on me.
During this time, I started becoming more interested in service. I had gone to Brazil the summer before and fell in love with service. Coming back, I told my parents that I felt a desire to go to Kenya. I had no idea how I was going to make it happen, but I just told myself that it would work out somehow. A few weeks later, my dad came home from work and told me that one of his patients was taking a team of high school students to Kenya that coming summer and asked if I was interested. I immediately signed up, excited to jump into this next service opportunity. I pushed aside the fact that I would be traveling with a group of Christians. I instantly labeled them as petty and hypocritical, based on my previous experiences with Christians and because of the tension I was having with my boyfriend.
A few weeks before our trip, I began to become fearful. I was scared that I would come back from Kenya as a changed person, and that I would not be able to do the things that I want to do anymore. I would be living instead this restricted lifestyle, filled with more expectations and rules. And so, because of this fear and because of the tensions I was having with my boyfriend, I rebelled. I would sneak out of my house every night and let guys take advantage of me. I had no value for my own body at that point.
Until finally, the day before I left for Kenya, I was struck with such a deep sense of shame, and I began to realize just how broken I was. That I truly am a sinful and terrible being, for toying with the emotions of the people around me, for cheating on my boyfriend multiple times. I opened a Bible and flipped to a random page, and began to read the book of Ephesians. I was overcome by the depth of my own sin, and the even greater depth of the Father’s heart. I left for Kenya with a more open mindset of what Christianity could be and who Christians were.
As I began to serve alongside my teammates, I was in awe of their character. They were nothing like the Christians I had met before. These people embraced me with such acceptance, despite our clashing beliefs, and they welcomed me for who I was. My roommate, Sydney, and I would have conversations almost every night, talking about who Jesus is and what he is calling us to. She would ask me about my beliefs and my opinions without judgment, and she showed me such genuine and raw love. And suddenly this Jesus that I had heard stories of became more visible. I could see the Jesus that I had read about in these people, in the way that they loved each other, the way they served others. They carried this joy in them that I couldn’t try and fake if I attempted to.
And one day we went to this church service in the countryside. I saw this local woman walk from the back of the church to the front, her arms in the air and tears flooding down her face. She cried out to the Lord with such raw vulnerability and I was shocked that she could approach God this way. I closed my eyes and began to pray, asking the Lord to make sense of all of the things that I had been seeing and experiencing.
I received a vision of Jesus, holding me on his lap, and asking me about my life. And I was taken aback. And I said, “Why do you care? I’ve spent the past x amount of years shamelessly saying how much I hate you and how much I hate your followers. Why do you care about me?”
And Jesus looked at me and held me, saying, “It’s OK. You’re here with me now and I love you and have always loved you.”
And my heart was filled with a peace and love that I had never felt before.
And now it’s been about four years since the Kenya trip. At first, I was embarrassed almost by this new identity, scared of what my friends would think of me now that I was a follower of Jesus. But the Lord has walked patiently with me, teaching me what it looks like to really follow him and not be ashamed of who he is making me to be.
As I reflect on my past three years in college, I am blown away by his faithfulness and his goodness. I have learned so much through my campus fellowship, InterVarsity, and especially through my staff worker, mentor, and friend Jon who has been discipling me tirelessly.
The Lord has taught me how to love the scriptures and his people, how to fight for justice and how to fearlessly tell the world of who he is. He has delivered me from the bondage of shame and sexual sin, and has given me freedom and abounding joy.
I used to have this fear that the goodness that Jesus offers is not available to me. That I was too impure for it, that I wasn’t good enough for it. The concept of being raised from death to life was a concept that seemed too good for me to have. It was a concept that I didn’t believe I could live up to. I was afraid that being baptized would mean that suddenly I would have even more expectations placed upon me. My whole church family would keep be keeping me accountable in this new life, and I was fearful once again that I would not live up to that expectation. I was fearful that I would continue living in this death instead of living in this new life.
But I came to the realization that this call that Jesus has to be his followers is not some burdensome expectation or rule, that I don’t have to be perfect to gain his approval, that when he said, “it is finished,” he truly meant it. That this gift, that this promise of death to life is a promise that is for me too. And the call to obedience to him is not a restriction, but it is the most freeing call I could ever receive.
Baptism at Grace
During all worship gatherings on Baptism Weekends, we celebrate the very reason we exist as a church: Christ’s mission to make disciples, baptizing and teaching in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28: 19-20). We share testimonies of how Jesus changes lives now and for eternity. And the best part… we baptize with a joy that’s out of this world!