For He redeemed (my) soul from going down to the pit and (I) will live to enjoy the light.
My name is Zura, and I was born in 1969. I grew up in Kobuleti (a small town on the Black Sea coast in Southwest Georgia), in a non-Christian home. Of the three boys in our family, I was the middle child and quite well behaved.
My father was a devout Communist, very honest, never took a bribe, and this quite often caused him trouble. He graduated from the university with honors, and in his career, he held very high positions during the Soviet era. My grandfather was ‘almost’ a Muslim, meaning he ate pork and drank wine.
The region I grew up in was mostly Christian Orthodox and Muslim. The name of Jesus was never mentioned in our home. All I knew about Jesus was what I learned through school friends and publicly observed holidays such as Christmas and Easter. As I looked at the different lifestyles in this mixed community, Christianity seemed the more appealing. Muslims had many restrictions, whereas Christians seemed to enjoy more freedom.
My troublesome years began after I finished serving in the army. Life was very difficult in Georgia during the 90’s and I moved to Ukraine looking for business opportunities. While living in Ukraine, I began to lead a sinful life, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. In the beginning, it seemed like a mountaintop experience. I had money, friends, a beautiful girlfriend, a nice car, and a heavy gold chain with a cross around my neck. Yet, I was not happy. More and more I thought about Christianity, and in 1998, I decided to be baptized in a Christian Orthodox church in Odessa. I left the ceremony deeply disappointed, and recall sitting in my car having a conversation with myself.
“I am baptized. So what? Nothing at all happened. I am not happy.”
“But you have all the material things you wished for. What else do you want?”
“I do not have what I was expecting. I wanted freedom, and I did not receive it. I want to feel Jesus.”
Deep in my heart, I wanted to be set free from sin and my addiction to drugs and alcohol. I had a deep desire to read the Bible, but never did. I was too busy partying with my friends.
In the town of Rovno, where I lived in Ukraine, there was a large Evangelical Christian church with a community outreach ministry to individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol. I witnessed how God used this ministry to change their lives. I saw individuals being transformed. Some, who had been near death, were now ministering to me as they shared what the power of Jesus had done in their lives. They would frequently visit me and say, “Jesus loves you, Zurab. Come to the Lord,” but I felt to do so would betray the Orthodox faith I had embraced.
In 2001, I was arrested. While in jail, I again experienced a deep desire to read the Bible, but not one Bible was to be found. Instead, I was given a Christian book about the purpose of life that said, “My dear son, remember, no matter how long you live, at the end you will die.” This got me to thinking about my life.
After seven months in jail, my brother bought my way out to freedom. I still had a strong desire to read the Bible, but once again, became too busy to find time. Brothers from the Evangelical church continued to minister to me, and even though I witnessed the power of God at work, my concern about betraying the Orthodox faith held me back.
In 2003, I was arrested again and placed in an immigration detention center. There I stayed for seven-and-a-half months, with no visitation rights. After two or three weeks of sobriety, my desire to read the Bible returned.
The detention center was an extremely chaotic place, with people from a wide range of backgrounds. There were two other men with me—a 15-year-old minor, and a middle aged man in his 50’s. The 50-year-old had been imprisoned for 26 years for serious criminal charges.
One day, the 15-year-old received a package containing cigarettes, tea, and a Bible. He excitedly took out the cigarettes and tea, and tossed the Bible in the trash. I ran to pick up the Bible, exclaiming, “Why did you throw it away?”
“Why would I need it,” he responded. “I am better off with cigarettes and tea.”
“You don’t want it?”
“May I have it?”
“Sure. You are welcome to it.”
It was no coincidence that the Lord chose that exact moment to grant my wish to read His Word. Praise God, after all these years, I finally held my own Bible in my hands. Oh, what joy I experienced in that moment.
A few days later, the young man left, and it was just me and the 50-year-old roommate. As I lay down on my bed and started to read my Bible, he said, “Brother, if you want to read the Bible, start with the book of John, John 3:16.”
“How do you know all this,” I asked.
He shared some of his life story, and I found out that he had memorized many Bible verses. For 20 of the years he had been in prison, he had been surrounded by Christians, read the Bible, and attended Bible studies, yet after all this time he still had not accepted Christ. When I asked him, “How is it that you don’t have faith,” he responded that he’d never had any desire for God. Can you believe the Lord chose this man to be my guide as I started studying His Word?
God was using a variety of people to draw me to Him. Even in the dungeon, He provided me with a Bible and a guide. What an incredible act of grace!
A few weeks later, my Bible study companion also left, and I was alone in the cell, but God was close to me. There in the detention center, away from everyone, and deep into the study of God’s Word, I repented of my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. My heart was filled with joy, even though I did not fully understand it all.
It would take too long to go into full detail, but there’s no doubt that the hand of God was at work. Immigration had no documents on me, so they could not deport me back to Georgia and I was released after seven-and-a-half months mostly spent in solitude.
I suffered much and for a long time before surrendering completely to Christ and receiving the freedom I had yearned for. Looking back, I think my journey was similar to the Jewish nation’s travels through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. My 223 days in the detention center (the desert) were not wasted. The Lord used this time to cleanse me, to give me a new identity, and to set my feet on the right path.
Unfortunately, after my release, I wound up returning to my old lifestyle and drug addiction. However, I no longer found pleasure in it, and whereas before I gave my heart to Jesus I had no awareness of the effect drugs were having on my body, I could now feel the deterioration of my health. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. Nevertheless, every morning, before getting high, I would pray and read my Bible, and on holidays, I attended the Orthodox Church.
God continued to use people around me to call me and draw me to Himself. One of the sisters from the Evangelical church, every time she met me on the streets, would remind me, “Zurab, I am praying for you. Come to church. We are all praying for you. God wants to deliver you.” And all the while I kept praying, “God, I want to come to you, but I don’t know how. There are Baptist people here, and Orthodox people. I’m confused. I WANT to come to you, but I don’t know HOW.”
I was arrested and imprisoned several more times after my experience at the detention center. My health worsened, and I felt death was near. In 2008, I met an Orthodox bishop on the street who stopped and asked me how I was doing. I told him about my condition and my pain. “My heart pulls me there,” I said.
“Where,” he asked?
Next to the Orthodox church we were standing in front of, and on the other side of the fence, was a Baptist church. “Right there. My heart pulls me there,” I said, pointing to the Baptist church.
“GO!” he responded “Go there. Go where they teach the doctrine of the Trinity.”
Can you believe this is what an Orthodox bishop said to me? Everyone is shocked when they hear this part of my testimony. Undeniably, it was the work of the Holy Spirit, who led that bishop to respond the way he did. Once again, the Lord was faithful. When I cried out to Him in my confusion, He answered my cry.
My conversation with the Orthodox bishop freed me from my fear of betraying the Orthodox faith. I went to that Baptist church and asked if they could take me to a Christian rehabilitation center I’d heard about. I was very ill, very ill. My whole body hurt, both of my legs were swollen, and I was very weak. All those years of drug abuse had taken their toll. My health condition had become so critical, no one thought I’d live more than two weeks tops, but the Lord had mercy on me. By His grace, the brothers at the church agreed to take me to the Christian Rehabilitation center in Ternopol.
After the arrangements had been made, I headed home and packed a bag of belongings. On the way back to the church, I bumped into an old friend who said, “Zurab, what has happened to you? Look at the condition you’ve gotten yourself into. Come with me.”
Do you see the timing of this temptation? It happened right after I made the decision to go to rehab.
My friend kept insisting, “Come with me. I will arrange for you to stay at one of the best hospitals. The head doctor is my best friend. You will have your own private room with a TV. You will receive the best of care, treatment, medications, and I will pay for all the expenses. You will be fully recovered within a month.”
“My dear brother,” I replied, ”thank you for your generous offer, which sounds very pleasing to my ears, but only God can help me now. No doctor can do it. I don’t know how to explain it to you. Every part of my body hurts, but there is also a pain in my heart that only God can take away. I need to repent and turn to Him.”
Tempted at the crossroads, and feeling the weight of death upon me, I knew that I needed to get to the rehabilitation center, and praise the Lord, He gave me the strength to follow through. I turned down my friend’s offer, and headed to the center.
I wish I could say my life turned around when I entered rehab, but I continued to let temptation get the best of me. A money matter needed to be taken care of back in Rovno, and after a week at the rehab center I asked for permission to leave for a few days. The Devil used that trip back to Rovno to derail me yet again.
The problems I faced during my week in Rovno were the worst I’ve experienced in all my twelve years in Ukraine. I cannot go into all the details, but the Lord was faithful, and did not leave me there. He convicted me that I needed to return to the rehab center or my life would come to an end, and so I decided to return there as soon as possible.
It was November 24, 2008, around 9:00 PM, and it was snowing. I felt so ill, I wasn’t sure if I would live to see the next day. I called one of the Christian brothers from the church and asked him if they could purchase me a bus ticket back to the rehabilitation center in Ternopol. Within a few hours of my phone call I was on a bus headed back to Ternopol.
I fell asleep on the bus. At 1:00 AM, when it was still dark outside, the Lord woke me up from my deep sleep. Even though I was not familiar with that part of Ukraine, I knew I needed to ask the bus driver to stop. Our bus pulled up to a small gas station, where I confirmed with the gas station attendant that I was near Ternopol. He told me the rehab center was approximately two miles away, through the woods and up the hill, so I headed into the woods.
The snow was falling. After an hour of wandering around in the dark, I realized I was completely lost. It was freezing cold. I was soaking wet, very weak, and having difficulty walking because of my swollen legs. What should I do? I had no money and no cell phone.
Exhausted, I traced my way back to the gas station and asked the attendant if I could use their telephone. I called Sergey, one of the ministers at the rehab center, on his cell phone. Sergey happened to be away from the center at the time, and there was no one at the center with a telephone who I could call to come pick me up. Unable to help me, Sergey said he would pray for me, and hung up. There was no tangible solution to my dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I was soaking wet and freezing cold.
At this, my weakest point, came another trial of temptations. The gas station attendant offered to stop a passing car and ask them to take me back to Rovno. I felt torn. I could choose to sit in a warm car for three hours, or I could choose to pursue the unknown, and try to find my way to the rehab center. As I contemplated these options, I looked towards Rovno, and saw darkness, my past life. Yes, I would be warm for a few hours on my way back there, but there was hell where I lived. Then I looked in the direction of the rehab center, and felt light and warmth, something I cannot explain in words. Here I was at a crossroads again, and needing to make a decision.
The devil had presented a pleasant offer, but God showed me the truth and gave me the power to reject it. I said a prayer, threw the bag over my shoulder, and headed towards the woods, again. The gas station attendant tried to stop me. “Animals will tear you apart,” he yelled in my direction as I headed out, but once I made the decision not to return to my old life, God filled me with physical strength. I no longer felt the pain in my legs or the cold. I felt as if I were flying towards the rehab center, which I reached with ease in just 30 minutes. Once I got there, I had the feeling that I was home, home for good.
The decision I made that night changed my life forever. The Lord had been patient and kind all those years of calling me and drawing me to Him. Now, at the center I remained focused, and spent a lot of time studying God’s Word.
Yes, the Devil tempted me often, and although the Lord had freed me from any desire for drugs or alcohol, I still struggled with other temptations, and often felt exhausted by the spiritual battles I faced. I also struggled with sadness, and depression, but was surrounded by the much needed spiritual support of the brothers, pastors, and other ministers. They warned me that many temptations would come, but I had been born of the Spirit and could overcome them. They encouraged me to stay strong and commit to daily prayer and study of the Word. After several months at the center, I completely surrendered my life to the Lord and was re-baptized in a Baptist church.
Soon after my baptism, two of the ministers at the center had to take a leave, and I was blessed with an opportunity to assist the other ministering brothers in serving the residents. I served there for over three months. It was a great experience, and I knew God had brought it about to prepare me for a ministry of my own.
When I returned to Georgia, I found a local Baptist church in Kobuleti, and called the pastor even before my arrival two days before Easter. He invited me to share my testimony with the local church at their Easter service.
Back home, many old friends offered me drugs, but the Lord had delivered me from a life of sin and addiction. It’s been eight years now, and I still have no desire for drugs. The transformation of my life continues to be a testimony to my family, friends and community. I share with them how no power in this world, other than the power of God, can set us free from the bondage of alcohol, drugs, or other addictions. If we try to do it in our own strength, the futility of our efforts will exhaust us and lead to depression. Only Jesus can redeem us and replace our old nature with a brand new one, through the power of His Word and His Spirit.
I recall one Sunday morning, when I was still very ill and having difficulty walking, I couldn’t get a car pool and headed to church on foot. I was so upset and ashamed to be late for the service that I turned around and went home in pain and in tears, asking God, “Why couldn’t I be in Your house today?”
Though at first I couldn’t even walk the one mile to church, the Lord has healed me. Praise God, these days I am able to walk up to twelve miles a day, the first nine without taking a break. My health is still frail, but to me what’s most important is being spiritually fit and in a right relationship with the Lord. The times when I was very sick and broken were times of greater intimacy with God, and He revealed to me that when our bodies are weak, our spirit draws closer to the Father.
Once you have a calling from the Lord, there is no peace or pleasure in doing anything else. Serving the Lord at the rehab center was all I ever thought about. The Lord has forgiven me much, and I know what He has delivered me from. In return, I have vowed to serve Him all the days of my life. When I feel lonely, tired, or tempted, I remind myself of all He has done for me and of the vow I made to Him, and He encourages me to continue on in His ministry.
For the past five years I have been diligently praying and fasting for the Lord to open the door for a similar rehabilitation center in Georgia, and in the fall of 2015, Arc of Salvation Ministry opened their doors to six men struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. There, with much joy and a sense of responsibility, I now serve the Lord by guiding others to freedom from sin and addiction through the power of His Word and His love.