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God Loved Me First

Roanoke, VA

“I’ve always had this feeling that I’ll never be enough,” says Dustin.

All his life, Dustin Stradley struggled to find acceptance. It started when he was eight after his parents divorced and Dustin thought it was his fault.

“I felt guilty. As if I was letting one or the other down. I so badly just wanted my family to be together. So, from that point on, I wanted to please everyone around me,” says Dustin.

Before the divorce, they had gone to church as a family. Now, living with his mom and seeing his dad on weekends, Dustin went less often. Not that it mattered. He’d always seen Christianity as just a list of rules he had to follow.

“In order to have a relationship with this God that everyone talked about, you have to meet certain requirements,” says Dustin. “Anytime I did something wrong, so—a Christian had something to say about it. And that was my experience with who God was. He was just mad at me all the time,” says Dustin.

Eventually he stopped going altogether, drifting through his teen years, bouncing from group to group trying his best to make friends. “I was trying to please anyone and everyone and, in the process, just trying to figure out like, do I fit in anywhere?” says Dustin.

By high school, he had found one key to fitting in was partying. “So, I started to drink, and I was on the wild side. I would drink harder than most people and most found it humorous and I was the life of the party,” says Dustin.

Then at college Dustin partied even more. He was arrested on a DUI charge his freshman year, but that didn’t keep him from drinking. In fact, it got worse. “I almost flunked out of college. It just reinforced these feelings of I'm not good enough. I’m not worthy,” says Dustin.

Now, Dustin was out drinking every night. Some mornings he couldn’t remember how he got home. It scared him, and every time he swore he’d stop drinking.

“But I would turn back to the bottle pretty quickly and start drinking again to numb that and forget about that,” says Dustin. “I didn’t want to process those feelings.”

Then one morning in 2009, while still in college, he woke up in jail. “I wasn’t just in a drunk tank, I was in an orange jumpsuit, locked in a cell. Laying on the floor. And not knowing where I was or how I got there,” says Dustin.

Later that day, he was released on bail. After he got home, Dustin took a long look in the mirror. “I was disgusted with what I saw. And so, I just, to release the pain, just punched the mirror and shattered the mirror and fell down and just started bawling, crying and it was—it was a dark place, scary place,” says Dustin.

A couple days later his dad gave him a Bible with a note saying, ‘This is God’s love letter.’ While Dustin still didn’t believe God could love him, he hoped it could be true. So, when his roommate invited him to church weeks later, he decided to go.

“The sermon was incredible,” says Dustin. “Uh, spoken to me in a way that I understood it. And I felt a little bit of hope.”

That hope faded quickly as Dustin couldn’t stop drinking. Even after court-ordered AA classes. Now, he needed it just to function.

“I didn’t know how to stop,” says Dustin. “I was addicted. I would feel sick if I did not have alcohol in my system.”

A few years after college, Dustin had a good job with an encouraging Christian boss. He occasionally went to church yet never felt good enough. Then finally, in January, 2012, during a revival at his church...

“I realized God loved me, period. Even though I did all these things, God loved me exactly like I am,” says Dustin. “And He wants to have a relationship with me now. Exactly like I am. And I said the prayer. And I began to truly believe and just internally say ’God, I acknowledge that you are real, and you did die for me,’” says Dustin. “I felt a sense of peace. I felt hope. I felt for the first time that someone is pleased with me, and loves me, for who I am.”

From that point on, Dustin stopped trying to fight his addiction on his own and surrendered it to God.

“And it went from drinking seven days a week to three days a week, to two days a week, to, ‘Why am I really doing this in the first place?’” says Dustin. “I felt conviction now. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew that it wasn’t guilt. I just felt like God was saying, ‘I love you,” says Dustin. “Like, ‘I’ve got something better in store for you.’ I’ve been sober for eight years now. And God has completely removed that desire,” says Dustin.

Now he was at church every chance he got, and today, he is the campus pastor.

Dustin says his greatest joy is seeing people experience the same unconditional love he did.

“I get emotional every week when I see someone pray and accept Jesus into their life, and tears are flowing down their face and they raise their hands and I think back to my moment and I think of how God met me right there, and He’s doing the same thing for all of us,” says Dustin. “It’s not about earning more of God’s love. He loves you right now, exactly like you are.”

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