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Life of turmoil stirred teen to pray, then to church, then …

Joani Barlow's Christian friends have shown her she can "have a bunch of fun doing things that glorify God.” Photo by Suzanne Rhodes/Union University

ANKENY. Iowa – Joani Barlow’s parents divorced when she was in the fifth grade, leaving her “lost and confused. Nobody really explained anything to me. I didn’t know why. I just knew that my family was breaking up,” with her and an older brother adjusting to the strains of joint custody.

Her Grandfather Barlow died several years later. Her dog had to be put down. And she was coping with rigorous exams at school.

Jonie Barlow recently began her freshman year at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Photo by Suzanne Rhodes/Union University

“I felt like I needed to pray, which is so random because I wasn’t raised as a Christian,” she recounted. “But I just knew that I wanted to pray. I needed to be comforted by something other than myself. So I started praying.”

Before long, “I began feeling a call to go to church.” A friend named Nathan “had always invited me to go (to Grace Church in Des Moines, Iowa), and I had always refused. When I went up to him and said, ‘I really want to go to church,’ he was super surprised.

“So I started going to the youth group on Wednesday nights” in February 2021, her junior year of high school. “And I loved church, I loved the worship, I thought it was a lot of fun.

“But I didn’t, you know, have a relationship with Christ yet.”

She attended her first Sunday service the following April. “And I liked it. But I was in some bad relationships, and I felt that was really holding me back from a relationship with Christ.”

Needing answers

At a youth campout, Barlow told the church’s youth intern and Nathan that she had “a bunch of questions, and I really need them answered. Is there any time we can sit down to talk? So, we met at 11 p.m. after all the activities were done.”

She asked, among various things, about the Big Bang Theory taught in her science classes and its compatibility with faith.

Before long, she began comparing herself to people she had come to know at church “and how they seemed so amazing. So (the intern and Nathan) asked me, What’s holding you back from having a relationship with God? I told them I was in relationships that I shouldn’t be in, and I didn’t feel like God would love me because of it.

“And they were like, You are so incredibly wrong. God loves you and is calling you exactly how you are. You do not have to change for Him, you do not have to be better for Him. You don’t have to fix those relationships yourself because God loves you and wants to help you and guide you through them.

“That was mind-shattering for me,” she said. “It’s not my own power, it’s God.

“And then they asked me if I wanted to put my faith in Jesus.

“And I said, Absolutely. So between 11:44 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. on June 7, that’s when I put my faith in Jesus.

“I was basically saying, God, I understand that your Son died on the cross for me and you raised Him from the dead. I asked for His forgiveness for everything that had happened before and for the relationships I was in.”

Not a ‘little prayer’

“It wasn’t like a little prayer that somebody prays and then they don’t actually believe it,” she said. “I can’t say that I truly believed it 10 minutes before. But I knew that I genuinely believed it then.” A few minutes later at that night’s campfire, “everybody was super excited for me,” clapping and some welling up with tears of joy.

Her new birth in 2021 left her feeling “relieved, knowing that it was no longer my fight alone, but that God was with me through it.” In the following days and weeks, “I felt so much clarity. I started feeling new convictions. I stopped cussing and got out of the bad relationship I was in with my boyfriend. God showed me what relationships I should be in with friends and how I needed a strong foundation at church.”

Yet there was a problem – “I kept pushing aside forgiveness. I didn’t want to think about it because I knew it would lead to thinking about my dad. And I didn’t want to do that. So for six months probably, I was choosing not to forgive him. And it really weighed down on me.”

The trauma of the divorce several years earlier carried on. “For about a year, it had been just me and my brother comforting my mom. It was really hard and sad.”

But “out of the blue, my mom said, ‘You need to forgive your father. Your relationship with him is not OK. You should not be so angry toward him.’ She was the last person I expected to say this,” having suffered through the divorce and her ex-husband’s remarriage.

Barlow soon began encountering the necessity of forgiveness in sermons and, at a student conference in Des Moines, she heard the story of someone who had been brutally raped at the age of 15. The survivor turned to Christ a few years later and subsequently came to a point in her heart to forgive the rapist. The following day, the man was apprehended, and the survivor asked her husband, who is a pastor, to visit the man in jail, to relay her forgiveness and to tell him about Jesus.

‘Beautiful’ forgiveness

“What an act of forgiveness,” Barlow said. “The man who could have had a hold on her for the rest of her life, she forgave him, and then asked for him to know Jesus. I thought that was so beautiful, and it really helped me understand that I needed to forgive my father.”

It was as if Jesus was saying, “I don’t want to hear about your unforgiveness,” because He forgave those who crucified Him though he was the perfect Son of God. “Oh, my goodness, who am I to not forgive my dad? I was not raped. I was not murdered, though I’m not trying to downplay what I went through.” But it underscored to her the New Testament passage Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.”

“It was super-awkward” when Barlow met her dad and grandmother for lunch, since, at one point, they hadn’t spoken for two years. “Seeing him, I knew that I had forgiven him. I didn’t have this weight and dread on my shoulders. He was just another person who needs the love of Jesus Christ. I don’t deserve it. And he doesn’t deserve it. And nobody else deserves it. But Christ gave it to us anyway.”

And, now, “he knows that I go to church and that I’m passionate about it.” After her new birth, she lost a number of friends “because I was a completely different person than before. They said I was taking Jesus way too seriously.” She said her mother, who holds a Ph.D. in literacy and education, remains apprehensive whether her earnestness will endure, and her brother is puzzled why she goes to church so often.

‘Next step of obedience’

For her baptism, she waited until a Bible camp, wanting it to be “at a beautiful place, something that I would truly remember and be really happy it happened there.” She hadn’t realized, though, that 200 kids would be watching, many of whom might be searching for faith and might be helped by a witness that “I do love the Lord and this is my next step of obedience. I thought it was really cool that God gave me the opportunity to do it there and do it very publicly in front of so many people.”

New birth has stirred Barlow to be vigilant amid the sway of contemporary culture. “Before I was a Christian, I wasn’t convicted about certain things,” such as her love of reality TV dating shows. Now, she tells herself, “I can’t watch this … because they’re doing a lot of things that are not OK in a Christian relationship or not God-honoring.”

Contemporary Christian music has become a mainstay instead of popular secular music. “I would have listened to them before I was a Christian. It wouldn’t have been a big deal and I would have been singing the lyrics. The songs want you to cuss. They want you to think about sex before marriage. And they’re even talking about murdering.” Such songs, she said, can leave a believer “with ideas that don’t help their faith.”

Her friendships in church have prepared her for her freshman year at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., Barlow said. “They’ve helped pull me up and, through them, I’m able to help pull other people up because I have a good foundation. … They’ve helped me grow closer to God on a daily basis – their passion for Christ, their knowledge and just showing me that we can have so much joy and so much love, and just have a bunch of fun doing things that glorify God.”