Finding God in the Great Controversy
Within Christianity, the concept of a cosmic struggle between good and evil is uniquely articulated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s eighth fundamental belief as the Great Controversy, a struggle between Christ and Satan that ultimately reveals God’s loving character. Carlos Craig has spent a lifetime coming to understand not only how the Great Controversy plays out in this cosmic sense, but also on a very personal level.
Carlos is the president of the Southwestern Union, a position he says he never would have imagined, something he often metaphorically scratches his head at and remains in awe at God’s leading.
Carlos was adopted as a newborn into an Adventist pastoral family in Kansas, and never met his biological mother, a 16-year-old Cherokee, or his biological father. His adoptive father was a dedicated pastor, and the family moved for the ministry from Kansas to Florida and then to Colorado, where he attended Mile High Academy. While Carlos says he knew his family truly loved him, he struggled to find his identity within what he felt was a very rigid Adventist environment that didn’t always emphasize the love of God. Rather, he felt that it focused on fitting a specific mold of what Adventism looked like: strict rules with little focus on love, forgiveness or grace. He struggled so much that he was kicked out of the academy twice for his behavior.
While he did graduate from the academy in 1979, his concerned parents searched within Adventist education fora conservative university for him to attend. They found the University of Montemorelos in Montemorelos, Mexico, over 1,000 miles away from Denver.
Unsure of his future and faith and speaking only the Spanish he learned at the academy, Carlos says that he performed very poorly academically in his first year at the university. A young man named Tony Anobile befriended and encouraged him. The two bonded over their love for music and played guitar and sang together. The following year, his grades and Spanish improved. He also met his future wife, Letty. He did better academically, taking a dual undergraduate program for education and theology. He began to feel optimistic about his future.
Carlos and Letty married and had their first child, Danette. After they graduated, they moved to Keene, Texas, where he hoped to secure a pastoral position at the Texas Conference. He was able to arrange an interview with the Texas Conference, but the president took one look at him and said he would not hire him. Not only that, he told him that Carlos would never be employed as a pastor.
He was devastated and deeply frustrated. He left, not understanding what about him caused the president to be so dismissive. But, with a family to care for, Carlos took on a list of odd jobs, including delivering pizzas, laying asphalt and working in nearby Southwestern Adventist University’s cabinet shop, where Letty also worked.
Three years passed before his friend from Montemorelos, Anobile, called him and said there might be a position for him in Los Angeles. “Come on out and see,” he told him. So, Carlos went and was offered a position as the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Long Beach Adventist Academy. “I learned more in those two years of teaching than I have in the other 33 years in ministry,” he says. Teaching kids at this pivotal age taught him a lot of patience and instilled in him a passion for teaching Jesus’ love to young people.
It was at this point that he began to separate how he had been raised so that, although he knew his parents loved him and were concerned about his eternal salvation, he had trouble seeing a loving God. He’d obeyed out of fear of God’s judgment or even the judgment of fellow church members. While following the same tenets of Adventism as his parents, he wanted to present Adventism to the people around him— his family, students and church members—through the lens of a loving Creator, forgiving and full of grace, who gives each person free will rather than one of a harsh warden focused on retribution.
After two years of teaching, Carlos took on the role of an associate evangelist and then pastor in California. In 2000, he received an unexpected call to return to Texas to be the conference’s youth director. With Letty, their oldest daughter Danette, son David and youngest daughter Daphne, he moved back to Keene. He would also take on the role of Hispanic ministries director and then, in 2009, accepted the role of executive secretary. In 2010, he was elected president.
His former Bible teacher from Mile High Academy, Victor Brown, called him, asking if he was really the Carlos that he had taught. “He couldn’t believe it,” he says. “He came to visit me to make sure it was really true.”
Thinking back, Carlos says he now understands why that former Texas Conference president said he would never hire him. “I wouldn’t have hired me, either. I was arrogant.” That experience, while disheartening, was pivotal in creating a change in mindset. That president “did me the biggest favor of my life,” he says.
The new position came with its challenges, including a number of legal entanglements within the Texas Conference that took years to unravel. He also faced health challenges and had to change his diet radically. It was another point in his life that he felt was a tremendous challenge, but an opportunity to change and further grow in his relationship with Christ.
When his youngest daughter came to him and Letty and told them she was pregnant at 16, his family faced another challenge. In addition to feeling as if he had failed his daughter, he was aware of the scrutiny his family would undergo as a family in ministry. Even as he had just taken on the leadership of the Texas Conference, he contemplated leaving the ministry.
Following an executive committee meeting at the conference, he left the office with his head down, feeling inadequate. He was stopped by a friend and colleague, Phil Robertson, now executive secretary/treasurer of the Texico Conference. Something was wrong, Robertson could tell. Carlos told him about the pregnancy, and how he thought it may be time to leave the ministry. Robertson reminded him that, although the situation wasn’t ideal, children are a gift from God, and they would be blessed; this was not a hopeless situation.
Carlos took Robertson’s advice to heart. With the Lord leading, he and Letty raised Dorian, their grandson, who lives with them and calls them mom and dad. “Phil was right. When I would get home from a long day, that little boy would come running to me and all my worries just melted away.” Dorian was an unexpected light amid a challenging situation. The two bonded over their love of basketball and played together often. Now 14, Dorian towers over Carlos, but they still play together.
Letty and Carlos have a close relationship with their three children and now six grandchildren. He looks back on his experiences and says he feels tremendously blessed to see where God has led him and his family through many obstacles. The battle between good and evil is clear to him, laid out in poor decisions and times he didn’t listen to the Spirit’s leading. Now, he sees it clearly. Throughout his life, he’s seen God’s character revealed in every struggle, which has reinforced his conviction that Adventism needs leaders and members who believe in the importance of sharing God’s love.
“When I was young, the Great Controversy invoked a lot of fear and apprehension in me. Maybe because of the way it was preached and taught. My father’s generation of preachers leaned heavily into the ‘wrath of God’ side of the belief. As I grew in maturity as a pastor, I began to see how Satan was dealing with me in particular and that there was a struggle in my own, personal life on a daily basis. I would be confronted with my own character and tendencies.”
Carlos says he would challenge each person to look at their own life and see where God has led through the ups and downs, and to understand it as a reflection of the eternal conflict still at hand, but to lean on the promise of help and comfort from the Holy Spirit.
By Jessica L. Lozano. Lozano is a writer and consultant who lives with her family in Northwest Arkansas. Carlos Criag is the Southwestern Union President. He and his wife Letty live in North Texas.