When Zach Williams reads the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he sees himself in the story.
Like that wayward son in the biblical story, Williams walked away from his family as a young adult, rejecting the faith and values that had been taught to him from birth. He got hooked on marijuana. He became a heavy drinker. He formed a Southern Rock band and toured the world. And then he realized he had a hole in his soul that could be filled only by Jesus.
Williams goes into detail about his road to redemption in a new book, Rescue Story: Faith, Freedom, and Finding My Way Home, that will be released Feb. 27 (Zondervan). The Christian artist has had a string of hits in recent years that have inspired millions, including five that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Christian Airplay chart. (Chain Breaker, Old Church Choir and There Was Jesus -- a collaboration with Dolly Parton -- stayed atop the charts the longest.) He even won two Grammys.
“My dad was a worship leader. My mom sang in church,” Williams told ChristianHeadlines.
He experienced God in church as a youngster, he said. Other times, though, he would grow uncomfortable during services and go hide out in the restroom until it ended.
“When I turned 18, I ran as far and as fast as I could from that for a number of years,” he said of church. Williams became a partier.
“I was one of those guys that for about seven, eight years of my life, didn't go a day without smoking pot, and it's just how I lived and functioned,” he said. “My dad owned a construction business. And for me, it was the only thing that made going and getting on a construction site any fun. It was just like, ‘If I'm gonna do this, I've got to do this high all day long.’”
Williams then transitioned from marijuana to alcohol.
“I started drinking heavier. I was more of a binge kind of party guy,” he said.
His dependance on alcohol only worsened when he formed a Southern Rock band in 2007, Zach Williams and The Reformation. The group released two albums. It toured the U.S. and Europe. He was doing what he had always wanted to do -- sing music in the limelight. But he found the experience unfulfilling.
“You went on stage, you partied, you got off stage, you partied, you woke up in a different city on a different couch, a different hotel room,” Williams said. “...I got myself into a place where I was unhappy with it.
“For those two or three hours that I was up there, it was really the only time in my life that I felt full,” Williams said. “And then I would step off the stage and there would be this emptiness that I would search for the rest of the time. And I think that's where drugs and alcohol come in is because you're trying to numb a feeling that you only have for a few moments every day.”
The turning point in Williams’ life and career came in 2012 when he was preparing for a tour. His wife gave him an ultimatum.
“I was leaving for Europe in 2012 and [my wife] said, ‘If you can't change for your family, [and] you come back worse than you are, we're done.’ And I didn't want to lose my wife and my kids. My wife was pregnant with our daughter,” he told ChristianHeadlines. “And I remember leaving for that trip, and we were about a week into it, and I was just so sick of being in those places. And I said, ‘God, if You're real, prove it, and if you can [then] I'll walk away from all this.’”
The next day, Williams felt God’s presence.
“We were driving across Spain on an eight-hour bus ride, and our driver was scanning radio stations, and I hear a song by Big Daddy Weave come across the radio and it stops just long enough on the station for me to hear the lyrics.”
The song was Big Daddy Weave’s Redeemed.
“And I got to my hotel room, and I looked that song up and I started listening to the lyrics. And in that moment, I realized that God saw me in a way that I would never see myself. And I called my wife and I told her about it. And I said, ‘When I get home, I'm done [with the band].’ And I came home from that tour, and I quit my band, and I gave my life to the Lord on June 10, 2012. We started going to this church and within a year, they asked me to help launch a campus. And I went to work for them and started leading worship. I started writing Christian music and got invited to Nashville to write some songs.”
During one of those songwriting expeditions in Nashville, he wrote Chain Breaker, which spent 15 weeks atop the CCM airplay charts in 2016.
Williams credits his parents for loving him through his prodigal years.
“I'm just grateful that I had parents who were an example of Christ -- that loved me through, that never judged me, that continued to pray and trust and believe that God had a plan for my life,” he said.
The theme of Williams’ life and book, he said, is hope.
“My prayer is that people walk away from this and see just how much God loves us,” he said. “...If He could do it for me, He can do it for anybody.”
Image credits: ©Zondervan
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.