The Religion Chronicles—Part 4: Nothing Good vs A Little Bad

Although I couldn’t move to Seattle fast enough, things would get worse before they got better.

I visited seven or eight churches but regardless of where I was, I mostly just sat off by myself and cried. Sometimes I’d sing, but most often I couldn’t. I joined a small group that winter and was the resident crier. One week, we were supposed to pray out loud for ourselves. When my turn came, I sat choking back sobs, nose running, head pounding, heart breaking and words would not come. They couldn’t. I just didn’t believe God heard my prayers anymore. I don’t even remember if they skipped me or if someone else prayed for me. All I could think was, “How far you’ve fallen. The same woman who spent hours in prayer for others, who’d inspired her mother with her faith and who’d gone to the ends of the earth to bring others to God can not come to Him herself.” Defeat never felt so bitter.

In April, I finally reached out to some old friends asking for help after page upon page of my sporadic journal entries read, “How long, O Lord?”

In terms of my personal relationship with God, I’m just so filled with anger and bitterness and disappointment that I no longer approach him. It started with losing hope, then strength, and then faith and now I find that I have nothing left. I am broken beyond anything I’ve ever experienced and cannot seem to find my way out of this. There is a gulf that I can’t seem to cross and I’m so, so, so tired, worn out, dry and lifeless at this point I would really appreciate your prayers. I can’t go on like this. Matthew 12:20 says, “a broken reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Yet I feel broken and snuffed out, and I’ve felt this way for the better part of the past three years.

Later that month, I saw Tim Be Told, an Asian-American Christian band, live. I could never have predicted how God would use that night. Tim, the lead singer, had developed an incurable condition that ate away at his vocal cords. What kind of God takes away a man’s vocal cords who wants to use them for Him in the first place? As they performed Lament, a song inspired by his diagnosis, my heart stirred.

You say You are jealous
You say You are kind
But the ‘jealous part’ seems to win all the time
If You’re so mighty, why do you break
The weak and the weary, and steal what they make

You say You’re forgiving
That You’ll not forsake
But You punched me out when I made a mistake
I try to find beauty in the mess that You made
But You just stayed angry and never forgave

Yes, I know You are great
But is a bad God better than none?
How much more will it take to undo the damage that You have done?
‘Cause the wicked and wayward continue to thrive
And the martyrs continue giving their lives
Oh, the faithful never survive

You’re the Almighty, so I am afraid
You crushed me to pieces, then stole what I made
If hopeless delusion is a righteous man’s fate
I don’t know how much more I can take

God are You listening?
Please hear my cry
I don’t really believe You’re more cruel than You’re kind
But I’m getting tired of repeating this line
That the faithful never survive

Yes, I know You are great
That You’re a good God, and You are love
How much more will it take to undo the damage that I have done?
Please conquer these demons and the darkness inside
Shine Your light on this cold heart of mine
Maybe my faith will survive

Finally, someone understood! With Tim’s closing words, God sowed in me the first seeds of new hope. Maybe my faith would survive.

Scared by how easily discipline turned into legalism for me, I shied away from structure. Instead, I’d pray randomly throughout the day and it was actually during my prayers walking to and from the gym that God spoke. I pondered my faithfulness in going to the gym day after day despite never seeing any immediate visible difference. If I could trust that incremental and imperceptible changes took place in my body everyday, why not trust God could be at work the same way?

Joy and intimacy crept back into my life that summer. (And my new found hobby, swing dancing, stole my heart.) By the fall, I felt restored—like a smoldering wick rekindled.

Just as the summer began with a song, so it ended. Early fall, my friend Anna emailed to say she was struggling. Knowing what that was like, I sent some scripture and a song to encourage her, encouraging myself in the process. Unlike the song that opened the summer from a hurting and doubt-filled child to God, this was God’s broken-hearted response to a weary child.

I will show you love like you’ve never loved before
I will go the distance and back for more if you just say the word
‘Cause you will come alive again
Call the trying times your friend
The pain that you have suffered through
Will never get the best of you
You will hope in something real
Won’t depend on how you feel
When you call my name, then I will answer

Walk out on the water
Where you have no control
Scared to death of failure
Sacrifice your soul, please let that go
‘Cause you have climbed an uphill road
You have worn a heavy load
You have cried through endless nights
Nearly given up the fight
Watch your dreams like fallen stars
Heartache made you who you are
Looking back you see that I have always been there

‘Cause I am on your side
Though the wind and waves
Beat against your faith
And you were on my mind
When the world was made
Trust in me my child

‘Cause I have heard you cry
And it breaks my heart, for I love you so
I would never lie
This is not the end
There is still a hope

These words accompanied that song to Anna:

“Darkness, pain, suffering—these are things we’re promised. I forget that. I resent that. I complain. I throw tantrums. It’s not that I want everything to be easy, but why do they have to be so hard for so long? Why does it seem that broken and hurting is my default state? Where’s my green pasture? Where are my quiet waters?

Don’t stop struggling. As hard and tedious as it may feel, keep bringing your true feelings, frustrations, disappointments, inadequacies, suspicions and heartaches to God, even when it seems he’s not listening, unmoved, or inattentive. It may seem that way, but that’s never true.

When I moved back to America, I also felt that God took away my gifts. Even now, three years later, I don’t know when they will be returned…or if they will be returned. But I know God hasn’t left me and He didn’t take them because He doesn’t love me. Maybe he took them because he loves me?

He is not a God who promises to keep us in our comfort zones. But, wherever we find ourselves, regardless of how formidable an opponent we face, His promise is to be with us there (Psalm 139:7). I think God would have it that even when we have nothing but our breath, we can rejoice in our relationship with Him and His unchanging love for us.

1 Peter 5:10 says, ‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.’ This I choose to believe only because the alternative is to be crushed under the weight of thinking that only a miserable life awaits me. What is true is that even if I don’t know when these feelings will end, they will. And even if I should find myself back in this place somewhere down the road, I signed up for life with God and he walks the road with me. I choose hope, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have days where disappointment and doubt don’t gang up on hope for power over my thoughts.

Psalm 77 says, ‘I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?” I think it’s OK if that is our prayer.”

When small groups resumed in the fall, mine marveled that I not only had made it through a meeting without crying but also that I had joy, hope, and seemed like a different person. The leader asked if I’d share my story with the women of the church and I told them about my struggle over the previous three years:

Despite my best efforts, God seemed to be getting more distant and the fellowship I once enjoyed further out of my reach. As weeks turned into months and months turned into years I wondered, “When will the bottom come?” Hope became a burden. I wanted to give up my faith completely, to believe that God wasn’t real, but after seeing what I saw Him do in China I couldn’t deny that He was. That infuriated me. I lost faith in prayer and stopped asking God to provide for me to avoid more disappointment. My biggest grudge against God was that I felt I had always come to Him asking for good things—to make me humble, to give me patience, to help me stop judging others—and for years I saw no change. Bible study after Bible study, prayer after prayer, fast after fast, my requests to be made “spiritually mature” (whatever that meant) went nowhere. In a journal entry I railed against God asking, “Why do you watch as I’m crushed by the unbearable weight of your absence? Why do you continue to give me life without giving me yourself?” I fell deeper into my despair. I continued to go to church but I refused to go to the Bible to read about promises I no longer believed true, a God I no longer believed kind, and a life of victory I believed I would never have.

A friend from China visited about a year ago. The first night, she sat watching me cry my eyes out for hours as I entreated repeatedly through tears, “What else am I supposed to do?” It was all I could say. I had come to see there was nothing good in me and that I couldn’t even produce desire for God. I had watched myself be stripped of all I’d taken pride in and had run out of solutions. I resigned myself to a life of defeat and was confident of only one thing: all my efforts to restore myself to the life I’d had before wouldn’t work. Rather than being able to muster up enough faith or strength to run back to God, He came and found me in my pit, lying there with my previous ideas about “maturity” in ruins about me with nothing to offer him and he reminded me “this is how you come, broken and empty handed, not put together.”

I learned more about God from reaching the end of myself than from all my previous study. The gifts I’d so grieved the loss of were good, but they’d eclipsed God and I’d come to worship them instead. When God said “You shall have no other gods before me”, he meant it. As much as I knew I didn’t want to walk out of that desert thinking my own hand had saved me—that when things got hard I could just pull a trick out of my bag and save myself—God would not stand for it. In a way, it was as if God waited till I’d emptied my bag and seen every trick fail so he could reveal Himself to be the center of it all. Job 33:29 says, “God does all these things to a man—twice, even three times—to turn back his soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on him.”

Reaching the end of myself was the last of the three possible moments when I became a Christian, when I came to see there was nothing good in me instead of believing there was just a little bad, when I embraced my empty hands. It says in Psalms, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” I’d finally found an offering God would accept.

I’d always found sanctification to be an idol for me, but it had finally been cut down. Neither the asceticism and study of my college years nor the acceptance-seeking service of my time in China had gotten it right. Jesus’ words took on new weight, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” But for grace, mine could never.

It’s crazy, to think that three years of acute and chronic heartache could very well have been the answer to five years of prayers for humility. That somehow in my dismantling, I was actually being built up. That I’d recognized no wisdom in knowing nothing but how little I knew.

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