Mary Shuford had pretended. She had stopped pretending. She had failed to understand. She had given up trying to understand.
Unturned stones were few.
"I was utterly hopeless," she said.
A friend approached her with a simple request, despite her lack of interest in returning to church. She asked Mary to pray for her pastor who had a brain tumor – and three young children.
"I didn't know who he was," Mary said. "But I started praying anyway and got curious."
That curiosity begat her first visit to The Village Church and, eventually, her first real relationship with Christ.
Mary's life began like so many others in the Bible Belt. She said the prayer to invite Christ into her heart. She memorized John 3:16. She wore the W.W.J.D. bracelets. She said her prayers before drifting off to sleep and accompanied her parents to church.
One box by one, the checklist complete.
"What I could never really grasp was why I needed Jesus and what He could possibly want with me," she said. "That left me feeling empty, alone and afraid."
After a family intervention, Mary entered rehab. The alcohol was finally gone, but Christ hadn't replaced it.
She looked around and saw how happy alcohol and marijuana made her classmates and made her decision: she'd join in. "I felt satisfied like never before. I could feel okay in my skin for what felt like the first time," she said. "I felt full of life, lovable and unafraid."
Failed drug tests and strained relationships followed close behind. The same feelings of loneliness, emptiness and fear returned.
This left Mary desperate for something to convince her into sobriety, so she signed up for a mission trip to Belize. "I didn't know what was wrong with me when I went. I just knew I needed to change and hoped that maybe getting away for awhile might jumpstart the process," she said.
She didn't find what she was looking for, but she did find more alcohol.
Near the end of the trip, her classmates sat and shared their dreams for the future and what Christ taught them. Finally, it was Mary's turn. "I literally don't care about anything. I don't even care that I don't care. I feel numb all the time," she said. "It's not so much that I want to die, I just don't want to be alive anymore."
Months later, Mary grabbed a drink and headed to church. After that, she had more. By noon, she was in the hospital. Mary had heard of "rock bottom." Now she was experiencing it.
After a family intervention, she entered rehab. The alcohol was finally gone, but Christ hadn't replaced it.
When she arrived home, Mary joined a 12-step program and got help from a sponsor. Part of her sponsor's job was to show her that self-will is what led her to rehab. Along the way, that sponsor mentioned her pastor's battle with cancer, and curiosity about him and her purpose led Mary to The Village Church.
"I wanted to know more about God, Jesus, understand more and really have a stronger foundation of who He was and who I was in Him and what my real purpose was," she said.
Her third Sunday at church, the band played "Restoration." By the time it finished, Mary was in tears. "I felt this overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit," she said. "I was just completely vulnerable in the presence of the Lord."
Mary had tried it all, but finally the one thing she hadn't tried to find true joy in became clear. Christ was her new focus. With Him came joy.
One verse emerged for Mary when she looks back on what led her there: "We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God," reads Romans 5:2-4. "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."
Everyone doesn't have to go through the dark times, but Mary did. And because of them, her faith was ultimately strengthened.
Her will brought about little more than pain. Christ's will brought a new life.
"Whatever it might be, I know it's what I want," she said.
For now, that's meant enrolling at Criswell College in Dallas. She's studying biblical counseling in hopes of making her life, both personal and professional, consumed by Christ.
"I want to be able to counsel young women like I was counseled," she said. "I want to interact with young girls or families dealing with addiction and give them the hope I was given."
She knows struggles will come. She's already experienced plenty, and this time she's armed with more than a meaningless bracelet or half-heartedly memorized scripture.
"I believe that God knows the wickedest areas of my heart and loves me despite my shortcomings. I know that no sin is too great to present to God with a repentant heart," she said.
Now, she hopes to help girls headed down her path find Christ without making the same mistakes she did, futilely chasing her own will.
"I want to lead them toward the solution that the Bible has given," she said.