Recently, during a conversation with a group of teenagers, I asked them, “What is happiness, or what would you like to have so that you might be happy?” I heard a variety of answers. “Happiness is when you are secure financially...,” and “I would be happy if I was dating a famous pop star...,” and “I would love a nice, new car,” and “I would like to be someone important in this world.”
At 40 years of age, my ideas of the meaning of happiness are quite different from what these young people mentioned, but their answers did not surprise me. My personal understanding of happiness changed many times. At five years old, I thought that happiness was when my parents bought our first television. A majority of people still had black and white televisions, but we had a color! At ten years old, I was convinced that I’d be happy when I would finally become a young communist pioneer and wear the red scarf with pride! At twelve years old, during difficult economic times, happiness for me was being able to still buy a few loaves of bread after waiting in long lines at the grocery store. As I grew older, my idea of happiness changed even more...
I was born in April, 1976, in Southwestern Russian, and when I was still a very little girl my adventurous parents moved to Ukraine to pursue a new job opportunity in a growing, young town of the Zaporozhye region.
My loving parents gave my two younger brothers and me as warm and happy a childhood as they could. Even during the difficult years of “perestrioika” that would come in the ‘80s, they did their very best to shelter us and provide for us.
My childhood was typical for that time when we were taught from kindergarten that the most important thing in history was V.I. Lenin and his great accomplishments. I especially remember my long-awaited first day of grade school, September 1, 1983. It was an important day, not only for me, but for my entire family. All summer long, my parents and I had been anticipating that moment of celebration, and I remember thinking that this was happiness!
From the first pages of our textbooks, we were looking into the face of our great hero, Lenin. We saw pictures of him sacrificially giving gifts to the children of an orphanage. We saw illustrations of him, dressed in his suit, helping common workers carry heavy logs. We memorized poems about him and sang songs to the glory of the society that he had created. We read stories about his life so that we could learn, by his example, kindness, care, and self-sacrifice. On every floor of the school and in every classroom his busts and portraits reminded us of his importance.
When it was time for us first-graders to write our first word, that word was, “Lenin.” I clearly remember how our teacher warned us that, because this was the most important word of all, we must learn to write it slowly and clearly, with gratitude for all his contribution to our lives. Our teacher often reminded us that we should strive to do our best to be worthy citizens of our great Soviet socialist state.
In second grade, we became “Young Octoberists,” and in third grade, we graduated to becoming “Pioneers.” I remember at the ceremony of acceptance into being a Pioneer, we walked thirty minutes from our school to the town Palace of Culture. It was cold, the snow was falling, and the wind beat our faces, but didn’t complain, for it was a great honor to become a Young Communist Pioneer and wear the red scarf! Almost every day, before school, I would iron that scarf....
When one of our respected teachers returned from a trip to Moscow, all of us students listened with open mouths to his stories. After he told us that he went to the famous Red Square, we asked him if he had enjoyed the privilege of going to Lenin’s mausoleum to see, with his own eyes, the body of the great leader. On television, I had seen the long lines of people waiting to have the honor of visiting this special site. Our teacher answered that he had not gone to the mausoleum, and when, in disbelief, we asked him why, he answered, “For me, Lenin is alive and always will be alive.” What an answer! We admired such devotion.
Although I was taught to imitate these high ideals, even as a child I began to notice many puzzling contradictions. I couldn’t understand why the teacher who taught us beautiful slogans was not, herself, an example of love and kindness. I didn’t understand how, in a nation of supposed equality, social status was still so important. Why did our teacher show special attention to the children whose parents were doctors, lawyers, or the director of a government distribution center? My parents were merely engineers with a higher education, and not being able to provide my teacher with valuable service or gifts, it was obvious to me that they had little importance in my teacher’s point of view. Therefore, I seemed to have little importance as well.
Then, times began to change in my country. It was “perestroika,” and the Soviet Union was slowly beginning it’s collapse. As the political and economic system underwent a transformation, we were shocked to learn that so much of what we had thought and believed no longer had any meaning. For example, one our teachers told us one day, “You must turn in your history textbooks and you will receive new, corrected versions.” The deeply believed, accepted facts or our lives were suddenly being questioned.
By the age of sixteen years old, I could already clearly see that many had used the communist system for their own advancement but had not lived according to the standards they had idealized. Even as a young teenager, I felt disillusionment as I observed all of this.
So, what was my idea of happiness at this age? My answer was very similar to what those teenagers of the present day told me. For example, I thought that happiness must be in the attainment of material things.
I wanted to have fashionable clothing, and since there was a shortage of clothing during these years, our family even traveled to Moscow so that we could purchase better clothes. I was looking forward to being able to brag about my new boots and leather coat, a rare item. Yet those material things did not bring me the inner happiness that I anticipated.
I was convinced that having popular friends could bring me satisfaction. My new friends and my way of life disappointed my parents, but I decided that I wouldn’t let anyone get in the way of my search for happiness. I found friends who were considered cool, and I learned that their “exciting” lifestyle consisted of smoking, drinking alcohol, and flirting with boys. However, I soon began to see that their lives were as empty as my own.
I remember being at an apartment with some of my friends and watching as they hungrily drank from a three liter jar of “samagon” (home-made alcohol) in an effort to get drunk. Their uncontrollable behavior and the smell of the alcohol and cigarette smoke sickened me. I felt that this was not the way to happiness.
Analyzing my situation, I determined to be more diligent in school and get better grades. I constantly set various goals before me hoping that those accomplishments would fill the inner desire for happiness I felt. When I would reach those objectives, I received some momentary satisfaction, but I saw, in time, that true fulfillment was not in the attainment of these academic goals.
I began looking to hobbies for my fulfillment in life. During this time, it became popular to have pen pals. This was still years before the existence of internet and cell phones, and writing back and forth to others was, during that time, considered as cool as text-messaging today! As I heard others brag about letters that they received, I, too, wished to have friends in other places. I loved skateboarding, and as I threw myself into this hobby, I soon had contacts from all over the former Soviet Union who corresponded with me. Our mail-lady couldn’t even fit the letters that I received into our mailbox and had to deliver them to our apartment door in bags! My friends envied me! I enjoyed my hobbies, but in spite of that, I knew that something still was missing in my life. I sensed a certain emptiness deep inside of me and could not figure out how to fill it up.
In the beginning of the ‘90s, one of the changes that I noticed was the new openness with which people spoke about God and religion. It seemed that suddenly nearly everyone was becoming religious, going to church for holidays, making Easter bread, and lighting candles. Yet, a few years before, my teachers had explained to us who Christians really were. They told us that it was foolish and shameful to believe in God, and that religion was only for the uneducated. When I had been in fourth grade, one teacher gave us a lecture that really frightened me. Some of the parents had been complaining to the teacher that we weren’t coming home straight after school. Hoping to put an end to this lack of discipline, this is what she told us: “After school, you are to go straight home because crazy Christians will catch you, cut you to pieces, and bring you as a sacrifice to their god.” Her strategy worked.
However, now things had changed! I began to feel left out when people would ask me, “Why weren’t you baptized as an infant? You need to be baptized!” So, in 1992, while on a trip to Odessa, Ukraine, I visited the Uspenkiy Orthodox cathedral and was baptized. I had huge hopes something special would happen on that day and that my life would be radically transformed! Perhaps, I thought, if God exists, then He could give me the elusive happiness that I had been seeking.
However, that did not happen. I paid money, the ritual was performed, but nothing inside of me changed. As before, I felt like a dirty, empty sinner, and could not understand why I had to pay money for something like that. This seemed like my last hope. I was expecting more from religion, and in the end, it, too, left me disillusioned.
In the spring of 1993, I was visiting my grandparents in Russia and read a gospel tract that I found in their mailbox. In this little booklet, I read about God’s love for humanity and about how God can fill our lives with true meaning and purpose. As I read those words, I felt anger. I had tried religion! I had been baptized at a famous cathedral! Yet absolutely nothing had changed in my life. I was irritated by this propaganda and wondered how they could lie to people in this way.
As soon as I had returned to Ukraine, I wrote a scathing letter to the organization that had published the tract, describing to them how religion had disappointed me and that I had come to the conclusion that God did not exist. I hoped to open their eyes and prove to them from my own experience that there was no God.
I sent the letter in April and received a response several months later in August. Yet during those short months, events had transpired in my life that immediately made me ashamed to see the letter that now sat in my mailbox. I took it in my hand and my mind went back to the first days in June.
As I had been walking the streets of my little town, I noticed on an announcement board an invitation to an “evangelical service.” I first, I paid little attention to it, but I began to see the invitation hanging in many places around town, and became curious. I had no idea what an “evangelical service” was, but the invitation mentioned a guest from America and a choir, and I assumed that it must be a type of concert.
On the appointed day, I stopped by the market to buy flowers, for it is a custom in Ukraine to present flowers after a performance. Arriving at the Palace of Culture auditorium, I saw many people, and it is likely that they had a better idea of what was going on, for I observed no others with any flowers!
It was not a concert, even though there was much singing. Yet it was vastly different from the singing and music that I heard at the concerts and discotheques where I often went. It was melodious, beautiful singing. There were also several speakers who shared. They spoke of how this beautiful world in which we lived has a Creator who made humanity. Yet they explained that this humanity is now in the chains of sin. Rev. Daniel Glick shared a parable of a little boy who put sparrows in a cage. A kind man was saddened to see the boy treating the birds cruelly and offered to pay a high price for the sparrows. When they were his, he opened the door of the cage and set them free.
As I listened, I felt like one of those little birds. Even though I was not in a cage, I knew that I was not free. I saw how Satan and sin had tormented me. In my mind, I saw people in the chains of sin as ugly and self-centered, but a Holy God of love and compassion who desired to buy them back by paying a high price for their salvation.
I listened to the preacher, and understood for the first time in my life that Jesus Christ had come to this world to take our sins upon Himself in order to turn us back to a loving God. I did not want to stay in the “cage!”
At the end of the meeting, an invitation was given to anyone who wanted to be free from sin and give their lives to God to come to the front and pray. I knew that there were people in that audience who knew me, and that if I would go forward, they would see me, but I could not bear the thought of continuing my life or even leaving that place without peace with God. So, I was the first one to stand and make my way to the front, and soon other followed.
I acknowledged that I was a sinner and asked Christ to come into my life and change me. After I prayed, I immediately knew that something had happened with that emptiness deep inside me. I realized that the space I had tried to fill with so many things was the space designed for God. That’s why nothing had worked before, and I suddenly experienced a new meaning, purpose and happiness!
In the time after my decision to follow Christ, I shared with my friends about my new faith in God, but they couldn’t understand me. They told me, “Oksana, you were not a bad person! You never killed anyone or hurt anyone! You didn’t commit any terrible crimes. Why do you need God to forgive you?” It’s true that I was a decent person in the world’s eyes and didn’t have the wild life that some other young people had. I understood, though, that even one small sin of wrong thoughts, jealousy or anger was a blemish on my life that would separate me from God.
At first, even my parents could not understand me. Because they loved me and cared for me so deeply, they were concerned that I had become involved in some kind of cult. It was so different from their upbringing in the Soviet Union, and they also knew my youthful tendency to go to extremes. Only after some time did they come to see that this was not just a fad, but a genuine faith.
So it was, that, when I held that letter from the Christian organization to which I had written, I felt deeply uncomfortable and ashamed of myself. I had accused them of being wrong, and yet, in reality, it was I who had been so mistaken. I opened the letter to find that a sweet, Christian lady had written to me a very kind and understanding reply. She explained to me that baptism should follow the most important step of faith, which is called repentance. She encouraged me to repent and personally invite God into my life as Savior and Lord. As a Christian, she added, it is vital to read the Bible so that I could grow in my faith. Then, she wrote that the next step was to find an evangelical church that taught the Word of God and only then be baptized as an outward affirmation of my commitment to Christ. She assured me that she would be praying for me.
The most amazing thing to me as I read that letter was that God had already helped me to take all four of those steps by this time! I saw that it was the Lord who had answered her prayers for me. A few months later, while I was visiting my grandparents in southern Russian, I had the joy of personally meeting Nina and thanking her for praying for me. I shared with her the incredible way that the Lord had led me to Him.
In the years that followed, the Lord gave me the opportunity to study in Bible College where I eagerly grew in my relationship with God. I loved sharing with others about His love and grace, and anticipated a life in His service.
To my surprise, I found that God didn’t want me to do this alone! He brought a young pastor from America named Scott into my life who shared my interest in Christian missionary work, and we were married in May of 1998. We have been blessed with six precious children and, together, we are serving God in Ukraine, in the region where I grew up.
Now, I want to ask you, have you found true happiness and purpose for your existence? God created us and gave us a beautiful world to enjoy but not of the pleasures or success that we experience can be compared to the supernatural freedom from sin that Jesus Christ gives us. He brought me back to God, and His love cannot be compared with anything! If you are not experiencing such joy, then don’t hesitate; hurry, for God is awaiting you with open arms to accept you and forgive you unconditionally.
If you are already a child of God have taken those four steps, as I did, that Nina had shared with me in her letter, then I want to encourage you to treasure your relationship with God. Don’t let anything or anybody stand between you and Him. Keep Him on the throne of your life and dedicate yourself wholly to Him!