There’s no magic place, plan, or program when it comes to life change; no secret formula or guarantee. Each August, hundreds of Bible Institute students walk across the stage on Graduation Day as different people than they were on the day they arrived. While that fact remains consistent from year to year- Word of Life is a place where lives are changed– this is a change that begins as a result of the Lord working in an individual heart.
Jess Richards is one of those individuals who saw God do incredible things in her life during her year at the Bible Institute, but that change didn’t happen overnight.
“When I was six I accepted Christ, mostly out of fear of going to Hell. I had a difficult time understanding the sermons as I was growing up, and my church was kind of strict. I pretty much lived the next eight years just going through the motions. I didn’t do anything to stand out for Christ.”
In the summer of 2012, Jess visited Word of Life Island for the first time.
“Coming to the Island was cool because I finally heard the Word being preached in a way I could apply and understand. By Friday I had made the decision to really get saved because I understood that God had a plan for my life and it was better than what I could ever dream up. The same day I had made a decision to come to the BI after high school.
Right before my senior year, I got into a relationship. This guy was saved, but it wasn’t a God-centered relationship at all. I made some bad decisions. We dated my entire senior year …but that relationship made us both not live for the Lord. I was lying to my parents all the time about where I was, skipping school, and my fellowship with the Lord was just getting broken. We broke up a week before I graduated. After that, I felt like I had just gone so far that I didn’t know where to begin. I’d been messing up and not even caring, I thought God was probably angry with me. I thought it was just easier to fill the void in my heart with other things. I began drinking, partying all the time, hanging out with the wrong boys…all last summer was horrible. A lot of things happened during that time that really hurt me, really broke me… but nevertheless, I still ended up at the Bible Institute.”
God had plans for Jess that she knew nothing about. While her year at the Bible Institute seemed to be off to a good start, there was still so much that hadn’t been dealt with in her heart.
All the same struggles
“Over the summer I had been really depressed, but I came here and I was meeting new people and playing soccer, and I felt better. At least for a little bit. Once soccer ended in October, I had all that extra free time to think, and all those negative emotions and feelings of depression hit me again. So I’m here at the Bible Institute, listening to all this truth, but still struggling with everything that I had been struggling with before I came here. I would listen to Joe Schenke speak about bitterness and be like, ‘I have reason to be bitter, I’m not going to hear this.’
My RA poured so much into me, she tried loving me so much, and I didn’t want any part of it. I was really giving God the stiff-arm. I was so miserable. I was a mess and I didn’t want to hang out with anybody, didn’t want to go to meals. I went to class and I went to bed, and that lasted all the way until January.”
Jess continued her school year with walls of bitterness and depression built up around her heart, until one night, enough was enough.
“I had been sick all week, sleeping all the time. I really wanted to go to class on Friday so I could work at Snowcamp over the weekend, but Thursday night I couldn’t sleep. The WIFI was out, fortunately, so I couldn’t distract myself. I’m laying in bed and I’m just hearing God say ‘You need to get your heart right.’ So I said, ‘Alright Lord, I’m here and I’m willing to listen for once.’ I was crying and thinking about all that I’ve done and the way I’ve been acting towards all these different people. I said, ‘Lord I’m miserable. I’m depressed, I’m angry and I’m bitter, and I hate feeling like this.’ There’s a song that I grew up singing in church that says ‘I’m trading my sorrows’ and I began to pray those words. ‘I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my shame for the joy of the Lord,’ because everybody here has it and I don’t. I claim to believe exactly what they do, but I’m miserable and they’re not. I’m done living like this because I know I don’t have to. I’m choosing to hold onto these things and these people who hurt me, and I don’t want to.’
It felt like hours. In the middle of the night, while my roommates were asleep, I could feel that burden being lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I thought I’d be sleeping through class the next day, but I wasn’t. I was so happy. My friends noticed and asked me ‘Are you ok?’ and I kept saying ‘I’m great! God is good, ya’ll.’
When I finally decided I was ready to get right with Him, and I was done living for myself, the Lord began to work in my heart and really fill me with joy that was real, not just worldly happiness that can fade away.”
From Snowcamp to Summer Camp
The months that followed were far from perfect, but even in her mistakes, the Lord was teaching Jess that the sinful things which previously filled her time no longer satisfied. “When I went home I stopped drinking and partying, and God’s just been teaching me so much.”
Those lessons only got bigger and bigger as the year went on. Jess was assigned to be a counselor on Word of Life Island, the same camp where she had made a decision to trust Christ just a few years prior.
“Right before the academic year ended something happened that caused my best friend from the Bible Institute not to come back for summer ministry. I went home for summer break and I didn’t know if I wanted to come back either. My unit leader called me and asked me, ‘How are you going to feel about missing out on all this?’ I realized I was going to miss the opportunity for God to really show me some cool things and use me and work in me, so I decided to come back.”
And she is so glad she did! “Last week was Week One [of camp], and it was awesome. We had fifteen girls in our cabin and it was so cool to see how God was using the tragedy in life and all my mistakes that I’ve made to reach these girls and connect with them and make them want to be closer to Christ. Like wow, He’s using me- even despite my mistakes. And for some reason, I just really want to share my testimony all the time! It’s so crazy to me that I can see all this bad be used for God’s glory.”
That first week, Jess had a camper in her cabin that she knew was not saved. As she talked with her throughout the week, it was clear that this camper had no interest in changing her lifestyle. Jess tried to share the Gospel with her one last time on Friday night, just hours before she would return back home. Again, Jess was met with the answer, “No, I’m not ready yet.”
“I got the chance to share the Gospel with her again. I made sure she knew she didn’t have to get herself to a good enough starting place for God to work in you. God loves you just the way you are- He sees where you are and He’s just waiting for you to make this decision. Living for the Lord Is the best decision you’ll ever make. But she still wasn’t ready. I told her that I really hope and pray that she would make a decision before she left (in a few hours). Before I went to sleep, I prayed, ‘Lord, if she is asleep right now, I pray you wake her up and keep her up until she makes a decision.’ It worked for me! In the middle of the night is when I made a decision for Christ. So I asked God to keep her awake, and then I went to bed. The next morning, we were walking down to the boat and everyone is hugging and saying goodbye. This camper looks at me and says, ‘I’ll see you again.’”
Jess assumed this girl was referring to a future visit to The Island. When she asked her about it, the camper replied, “No, I’ll see you in Heaven one day. I decided to trust Christ last night.”
“It’s been so cool to see the Lord answer prayer so quickly. I’m praying for all these campers and the Lord is still working in me. I’m asking Him to change them and He’s changing me. In the past 6 months, the Lord has completely changed my life.”