As an honors student, drum major and president of the debate team, Jonathan Cao experienced success in many areas from an early age. From an outside perspective, Jonathan appeared to have a picture-perfect life, yet he struggled to find acceptance and a place of belonging.
“I think from a very early age, I had the idea that I needed to earn my parents’ love and achieve some arbitrary standard,” said Jonathan. “I did everything to earn their affirmation, but I just always felt ‘other than.’ I didn’t feel like I fit with them.”
In middle school, Jonathan was exposed to pornography and also began to struggle with same-sex attraction, which he kept hidden from others. Jonathan’s anxiety escalated to the point where he wanted to run away from the pressure—he longed for a fresh start. His escape route came in the form of a scholarship to a boarding school in Tennessee.
“I went there with the intention of making a name for myself,” Jonathan said. “I earned every award that could be won and gained every position that could be attained…I was spending all my energy to craft this perfect image on the outside, while the inside was just breaking apart.” As he continued to seek affirmation through awards, achievements and peer relationships, Jonathan only found himself feeling more and more empty. Living a dual life of indulgence in alcohol and parties, alongside the constant pressure to achieve perfection, Jonathan spiraled into a cycle of depression and anxiety from which he could not escape.
In his senior year of high school, Jonathan had a new teacher and dorm parent, Bart, who was a Christian. Bart was not only confident in what he believed, but he spoke about his faith openly and lived it out through strength, humility and prayer. This stirred Jonathan’s curiosity.
Though he was a self-proclaimed skeptic, Jonathan accepted Bart’s invitation to attend church with him and his family. Jonathan didn’t believe in the church’s teachings, but he continued to be drawn in by the calling of the Holy Spirit and the authenticity of the believers there. As the stress he put upon himself became unmanageable, Jonathan confided in Bart, who encouraged him to pray for the first time.
“It felt like I had not taken a breath until that moment, and that was the moment that I realized God loved me and everything else would be okay.”
“I remember going into that conversation feeling like I could literally not take one more breath because living hurt too much,” said Jonathan, “and leaving that room that day and feeling like I could breathe for the first time ever. It felt like I had not taken a breath until that moment, and that was the moment that I realized God loved me and everything else would be okay.”
The first time Jonathan confessed to someone his struggle with same-sex attraction felt like a relief from trying to live a double life. “I realized I could never create worth or image for myself that was worthy of anyone’s admiration, and He met me and gave me the reassurance that despite my brokenness and depravity, He would still love me and heal me,” Jonathan said.
Throughout the rest of Jonathan’s time at school, Bart and his family showed him what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. As Jonathan moved on to college at the University of North Texas, God continued to surround him with believers who were willing to open their hearts and homes and share their lives with him. Ordinary activities like mowing the lawn, chopping firewood, folding laundry and having family dinner around the table became the backdrop for these “adopted families” to teach Jonathan how to walk as a Christian—to pray, to read the Bible, to serve and become part of the body of Christ.
“These men and women were just willing to share their mundane lives with me,” said Jonathan. “And in the context of those mundane lives, they were able to share Christ with me and help me to grow in Christ.”
This invitation into the lives of believers gave Jonathan a picture of the Lord’s invitation to him to be in His presence and be a part of His kingdom. Jonathan and some friends also began to attend an early morning men’s bible study at The Village to study the Scriptures and meet with a group of older men who were willing to invest in the younger believers.
“They were so well-spoken and so humble and willing to pour into us,” Jonathan said. “We formed relationships with these men, who are pillars of faith in my life, because they were willing to show up at 6:30 a.m. and pour into this bunch of stupid college kids.”
Through the faithfulness of His people, the Lord matured Jonathan in his own faith and gave him a family in the people of God. As a part of that maturity, God has given him wisdom and the ability to extend grace for past hurts, specifically the tense relationship with his parents.
“God has healed that part of my heart that is frustrated that I didn’t have [a strong father-son relationship] or longing to have that because He is the ultimate Father,” said Jonathan. “And, that’s not a consolation prize. That is the epitome of fatherhood. Not only does He know and hear all my hurts, He has spoken into them. I don’t have to strive after affirmation anymore.”
After college, Jonathan accepted a job as a teacher in the Plano area and began attending the Dallas Northway campus of The Village. He went through a difficult season of trying to find community at church, feeling isolated because his work and home were far from the church campus. When The Village opened the Plano campus, Jonathan viewed it as an answered prayer to be a part of a family of faith in his neighborhood.
“These men and women were just willing to share their mundane lives with me.”
Initially, it was a challenge for Jonathan to find a place where he fit in, being one of the few single members at a family-dominated campus, but he set to work by joining a Home Group, serving the body and gathering others together. His persistence and prayer has given way to deep, gospel-centered friendships and a true sense of belonging among the community in Plano.
“These are my people,” Jonathan said. “We are each other’s people. God is so gracious to have built this community around us, that we have a place where we belong, where we can serve and have friends who push us to God.”
The diverse group that God has gathered together to form this community is further evidence to Jonathan of the Lord’s provision and care for His people. Shared meals, a welcoming porch light that is always on and evenings around a fire pit are just a few ways that God answered the prayers of many individuals longing for rich, authentic friendships that point to the Giver of all good gifts. As Jonathan has grown in his faith, it has become more natural for him to come alongside others and invite them into his experience of community with other believers.
“I think that it has become a way for me to extend the same invitation outward,” Jonathan said. “To say, ‘Somebody invited me in, and because of that, I love God. And I hope that when I invite you into the things that are happening in my life, that you love God more.’”
And while Jonathan continues to put to death sexual sin, he also sees God’s faithfulness through it all, especially with the community God has provided for him. “Honestly, I still struggle with unwanted desires, but He is teaching me through battling that He is a patient God, and He is a persevering God,” Jonathan said. “He will not relent in His love toward me, even when I feel like I have given up fighting.”
Just as Jonathan received community and discipleship from others, he carries that forward by investing himself into others. The invitation into God’s kingdom family goes forth—one life poured out for another at a time.