It’s a tragic story we’ve heard too many times—children who grow up in loving homes decide to rebel when they hit adulthood. Maybe it’s drinking. Maybe it’s drugs. Maybe it’s both.
Stephen McWhirter is the son of a preacher who got into drugs as a teenager, eventually spiraling into an addiction and depression to the point where he didn’t even care if he died. He started with marijuana, turned to cocaine, then to crystal meth. He was deteriorating, weighing less than 100 pounds at the height of his addiction.
His faith was in trouble, too. Although he was raised in a Christian household, he struggled to reconcile his father’s preachings with the way he acted at home. His dad was angry and took that anger out on those he loved the most.
However, when Stephen was a teenager—he rejected his father’s faith and anyone who tried to discuss Christianity with him.
“I was the guy who, if you would even mention Jesus around me, I would cuss you out,” Stephen said.
Stephen was living in rural Indiana where kids would ride their bikes around town before getting bored and getting into trouble. He even smoked marijuana at church camp one time, but that’s a story for a different time.
“I was the product of my environment,” Stephen said. “It was a very small-town scenario where everything escalated. Most of the meth problems are in the country in trailer parks…It’s because out there, it’s just like one thing leads to another is commonplace. It happened as a natural thing. I’m with these friends. One day we’re drinking and smoking… and the next thing you know we’re doing cocaine, we’re doing LSD…and the next thing you know we were doing crystal meth out in the country by the time I was 17.”
Stephen spent the next five years addicted to crystal meth, a highly addictive drug that is growing in both popularity and the number of deaths it causes each year.
Truth at 3 A.M
Although he was going downhill fast, his sister never stopped praying for him. Once, she gave him a book, Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” It sat in his room for a while until insomnia hit him early one morning.
“It was three in the morning, and I was reading this book. And even in this dark spot, as I was reading it, I just felt the presence of God in the room,” Stephen told CBN in 2014. “The false joy and happiness that I was trying to fill for all those years with crystal meth, I felt that night in the presence of God.”
Even now, more than 15 years after that night, Stephen can’t explain what made him accept that book from his sister without a fight, and even more, what made him pick it up that night when he had drugs sitting on the bedside table next to him.
It’s not an easy, intro-to-Christianity book or one of those simplified pamphlets given out to convert people to a certain religion. Lee Strobel takes on some of the bigger topics facing atheists and Christians.
“Why was I even reading it,” Stephen said. “I was reading this book, and a lot of these things about Jesus…just started making sense. I started believing it for some reason as I was reading it.”
Over the course of a week, Stephen started the book, quit drugs, got baptized and then went back to finish the book.
He actually quit drugs overnight, acknowledging that the idea of beating addiction in one day is unheard of by most people. He hears that a lot, but he can only explain it was God who helped him.
Stephen believes he encountered the presence of God in his room. It was an awareness, rather than hearing God or seeing Him in the room. He had a conversation with God, telling Him he wanted to quit the addiction, but he didn’t know how.
“In a thought more powerful than words, I feel like the Lord said to me, ‘You don’t have to do it. I will,’ ” Stephen said. “I got out of bed and fell to my knees with tears in my eyes and gave my life to Jesus and quit everything overnight. Now, this is usually the part where people say, ‘It doesn’t happen like that.’ I could tell you something else, but I’d be lying to you. I quit everything, but it wasn’t easy…I had a willpower that honestly could not be attributed to me. I don’t care what anybody says, it cannot be attributed to me just pulling myself up by my bootstraps.”
For the next year, Stephen worked at a pizza shop while diving deeper into the Bible and going to different churches to find better friends.
When someone told him about an opening for a worship leader, he knew they would never hire him because of his past, but he went to the interview anyway. He was honest, telling the church leaders where he came from. They gave him the job, but slipped him a list of songs he was allowed to play.
Music had always been a huge part of Stephen’s life. From the time he was a teenager, Stephen had been playing in metal bands—a far cry from the contemporary church service they hired him to do. The wildest thing he was allowed to play was MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine.”
Then he heard about a ministry in Louisville, Kentucky, that met in a barn and was founded by a former CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He joined their worship community, returning to his rural roots of barns, church and fried foods.
Today Stephen is part of Iron Bell Music. The name is a nod to Americana, with the iron bell that called so many farm workers in from the fields, and they released their first album, “God That Saves,” on May 19.
Stephen’s lyrics come straight from experience. The title song, “God That Saves,” serves as a testimony for the night he met God at 3 a.m.
“This song is my story, but it’s more than that. It’s a song that adores the Lord and declares His name and nature, over every circumstance, as the God that saves.”
For more information on Iron Bell Music or Stephen McWhirter, check out their website. The album is available iTunes and Spotify.