Based on personal experience and diligent research, Russian novelist and political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago (1973), which focused on the Soviet prison system. At the heart of his monumental work was this understanding:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
Three years earlier in a recording studio in London, four young men were laying down a track that included a line that has become indelibly etched in my mind: “Treating people just like pawns in chess.” The band was Black Sabbath and the song, “War Pigs”, which gives you an idea of my early influences. Taken together, these two quotes are something of a transcript of my life.
I grew up in a family environment in Christchurch, New Zealand where “God” and “Jesus” were words only heard when someone accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer. Racetracks, pubs and the darker side of life were the norm in my formative years—it was a very fertile nursery.
Somehow, at maybe seven years old, I found myself in Sunday School. I wasn’t too sure what that was all about! However, I vividly remember being instructed to kneel and ask Jesus to come into my heart. I duly did and, inexplicably, He did too. So, while my other activities included selling bottles to get the money to bet on a horse, sipping alcohol and seeing a raft of villains pass through our home (or visiting theirs), I would read the Bible every day (to the amusement and, I believe, chagrin of my father and his drunken mates).
As Bob Dylan sang in 1979: “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Thus the chess game that was my life began, as two grandmasters sought my allegiance.
Hindsight is the clearest lens, they say, and it’s only through looking back that I can see the times I was a pawn in a larger game—as well as tracking the modus operandi of the combatants waging the war for my heart. When I was considered old enough, my dad had me sitting in a bar during open hours, drinking with him. I was eight. At that time it would appear that only one player was moving the pieces. Although, at the same age, I had a serious accident while climbing a tree, which resulted in attending the emergency department of our local hospital for a few days in a row as complications developed.
A surgeon was unusually prompted to wander down to emergency to see what was happening on the “shop floor”. All I remember is him using some unprofessional language and shouting, and then me being trundled up into a ward for emergency surgery. I had advanced gangrene; in just one or two more days they would have had to amputate my leg. If the delay had been five days, there would have been one less seat at my family’s dinner table. It seemed Someone Else was looking after me. It was the first divine miracle that I can clearly identify, but not the last.
So there I was. This young child reading his Bible, unable to play sport for some time, surrounded by vice and finding school easy. I was a bit of a loner who enjoyed breeding caged birds, but I had a plan: I was going to become a veterinarian, set up a wildlife park, own a cheetah and retire at 30. I was certain, I was focused, I was passionate.
Then, as a young teen, I was introduced to rock music by a family friend and in just three weeks my life turned to custard. The transformation was breath-taking for my family, teachers and neighbours, while the ride from the inside was surreal. My clothing, habits, associations, motivations and attitudes were almost unrecognisable a month later. After caressing my ears with the soothing strains of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and their ilk, I had stopped reading my little Bible every day.
During this time I dropped out of school to play the fool. At 14, I exited a disco to see group of gang members confronting a lone man on the street—I didn’t know at the time, but all the “tough guys” from school were hiding behind cars. Some sense of injustice overwhelmed me, so I went and stood with the lone figure. He didn’t seem too emboldened by the arrival of the skinny 14-year old cavalry, but he did manage to avoid a swinging machete as the gang attacked. It’s not fair that this man should die alone, I was thinking.
The timely arrival of the police spared me from martyrdom at that point; it didn’t go so well when the same gang members met me coming out of the movies a week later.
The point of the story is that, three years later, the man who I’d sided with recognised me and took me under his wing. My new mentor then led me down a spiralling staircase of violence, selfish sex and drunkenness. He also introduced me to New Zealand’s national obsession, rugby.
It seemed I had an unusual aptitude for the game—I became overconfident, full of myself, which Satan used as his next tool to ensnare me. Looking back, I see the hand of a merciful God in the events leading me to be banned from rugby for five years at a time when I was on the brink of moving up to the provincial honours level of the game.
Around this time I met the woman who is now my wife. She introduced me to the world of illicit drugs and it took only nanoseconds for me to realise, There’s money in this stuff! Hence my violent and rugged climb to the top of the drug world began.
In the midst of all this madness I was led to research the connection between diet and disease. At 21, I made a complete dietary change that cleared my thinking. I strongly suspect that I was one of the very few drug-dealing, gun-carrying, senior-rugby captaining, deer-hunting vegans on the planet at that time.
As the stakes got higher the game became more intense. I don’t have space here to give the details of all the times God miraculously delivered me, even though I was on His enemy’s team. I do know, though, that it was Him who sent an angel to catch my out-of-control car as it left the road and flew into a forest; it was Him who blinded eight police detectives and their dog while raiding our house; it was Him who made bullets miss my head by inches, told me to stop the drug-dealing as the mountain was about to crumble, and spoke His word to me through some followers of an Indian guru in 1982.
It was God who called “check” on the devil when He led me back to His Word and showed me that this strange protective force I’d come to call “the Thing” was in fact Him, working out of pure love.
So I surrendered my life and told God I would do whatever He wanted me to. He has since asked me to be a pastor, an evangelist, a prison chaplain and an author. My favourite verse tells us we are a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). We are kings and priests in His eyes, no matter how much we have been moved around by the other player.
Solzhenitsyn was right that in evil hearts there is a “small bridgehead of good”. Yet I am keenly aware that a small corner of evil is ready to grow again unless I allow Him to uproot it every day. The game’s not over yet.
Gordon Gosset is a prison chaplain and pastor of the Ilam and Oxford Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Christchurch, New Zealand. His book ‘Who’s the know?’ is available on his website, mysolarprice.com.au. He’s currently working on his second book, which details the many ways God has led and protected him and is provisionally titled, You Can’t Make Honey Out of Goat-droppings, but God Can!