The Religion Chronicles—Part 3: Death Ousting Life

The global financial crisis welcomed me back to America, specifically to Boston, in the fall of 2008. It took what felt like forever to find a job, but I found a church and small group quickly. Almost immediately, though, I realized something was off. I wrote to a friend just a month after being back:

“My memories of the abundant life are vague and quickly fading. Recently, even my desire for intimacy with God is waning. My heart feels solid as a rock. I can’t seem to get back my joy or hunger for the Word. I used to have discernment and once upon a time the Lord heard my prayers but I feel that that time is gone and irretrievable.”

By Christmas that year, my family didn’t recognize the jaded, joyless and doubting shell of my former self I’d become. It felt like God and I were going through a very public separation, one I didn’t welcome. I felt a blend of bitterness at feeling abandoned mixed with the sweet aftertaste of past intimacy. I’d tried sharing where I was with my small group but they didn’t get it. I suppose I couldn’t blame them; I struggled to make sense of it myself. The Bible fell flat. My prayers were met with silence. The Christian life seemed, for the first time in my life, impossible to live.

I listened to this song, Hear our Prayers, on repeat for weeks on end.

Hear our cries Lord,
Hear our prayers.
Take our burdens,
Calm our fears.

God will you make us
A people that love You.
Please take our offerings
That we set before You.

God hear our prayers
That we’re lifting up to You.
God see our tears
That we’re struggling to see through.
God, hear our prayers to You.

In our weakness,
You remain.
When we’re broken,
You sustain.

God hear our prayers.
We lift them to You.
God hear our prayers,
Lord make our hearts true.
Will You make our hearts true?

God hear our prayers
As we lift them to heaven.
We’re praying the angels
Receive and embrace them.
The hopes of the empty,
The cries of the broken.
We’re reaching our hands out,
Oh Lord will You hold them?

A concerned friend intervened, inviting me to join her at a café before work to read our Bibles together. At the end, she’d ask what was going on in my heart. The answer was always nothing. I’d go to her house to pray, fast, and watch sermons—I was grateful she tried to resuscitate me—but at the end of the day, it felt like death had ousted the life once in me. I hadn’t known it was possible to do all the right things to no effect.

I went through two years of empty motions—and not empty because I wanted them to be; nothing could have been further from the truth. I envied friends who’d tell me about what God was doing in their lives and the things they were learning, when all of that was so freshly foreign to me. I wondered, “Why them and not me?” I remember attending a baptism—I, who had been so zealous about people coming to know the Lord—and feeling sorry for the young man, hoping he’d have a better go of things than I had.

My family had been helping me out financially as I continued to look for work. I couldn’t help but feel their generosity came with strings attached, everyone’s did. Once my older sister graciously gave me money and then weeks later turned around and asked, “When are you going to stop living off other people?” Hurt and frustrated, I projected their way of giving onto God and began to question His generosity.

In March, I wrote to a friend:

“I remember praying in December and January that God would help me know him better and that’s what I’m thinking is happening. Perhaps He’s taking everything I took for granted about Him and having me question it. Is God really forgiving? Did Jesus really pay it all? Do I still owe God for my sin? Was Jesus more just like a loan? I know that those thoughts are wrong. I know what the Bible says. But I guess from the way I actually live I don’t really believe that. I’m always trying to pay God back. And I interpret any kind of pain as his way of collecting. I think he can’t really have just sacrificed himself for nothing and isn’t even using that as a bargaining tool to get us to do whatever he wants. Sort of like when parents say, “After all I’ve done for you blah blah blah…” I want to know that, really, God would say, “After all I’ve done for you, you could walk away and do nothing.”  And I guess in my mind I’m sure that’s probably true, [that he’s not holding his sacrifice and gift of grace over my head], but my heart thinks that no one does that. People always keep a tab.

I’ve realized too that because I’m so proud, aside from not believing grace is really good (because it leads us further into debt with God) that I don’t even want it. When I’m honest, I really just want to be able to justify myself, to have my own righteousness, to somehow be disciplined enough to get to where I don’t need grace. Then maybe I can manipulate God into giving me what I want.

I’ve realized that for the most part God has never been the end, he’s always been the means and what I really just want is to feel that I am better than others. I want an exalted position. I don’t want to be the least of these. I don’t think last is best. The thought that God chose me because I’m foolish inflames my pride. I think, “I’ll show you who’s foolish, it’s all the other people you saved but not me!  Look at how disciplined I am, look at how hard I try to keep the law, look at how good I am.”  But the past few months have completely destroyed my idea that I was ever good.

There came a day when I really understood that I am nothing, that I have nothing, that I offer God nothing of value in and of myself, that my obedience is ultimately the work of his hands (Philippians 2:13), that my faith was a gift in the first place and that even my “personal righteousness” is as filthy rags to him. I feel spiritually bankrupt and barren, incapable of doing anything good on my own. On top of that, I feel like to really drive it home, God has suspended some of my gifts. No matter how hard I try I can’t be wise or discerning anymore. It’s driving me mad. I feel paralyzed. Too filthy to move toward God, too weak to crawl out of this pit, and too jaded to believe I could even lift my head and call for help. He has crushed my bones. He has taken my gifts. So I struggle with my own wretchedness, disbelief in Christ as my true pardon and forgiveness, resistance to grace because I just want to perfect myself, and the painful knowledge that it’s not within me to do so.  And that verse in Galatians, “the law was put into effect to lead us to Christ,” has jumped off the pages and become a part of my actual life experience. Lamentations 3:1-33? I could have penned that myself. Hosea 6:1 is my hope. Ezekiel 16 is my story. And I don’t know where to go from here.”

A year later I quit my small group. Almost like Job’s friends, they could not support what they didn’t understand and I felt I was wasting my time. A month after that, I left the church and, though my move to Seattle wasn’t for a few more months still, I didn’t look for a new one.

All my friends had been from that church and when I left, most didn’t stick around. A couple months later, I injured my sciatic nerve and could hardly walk. I could also barely sit. Basically, movement of any kind was painful. For the 4th of July, a coworker invited me to his apartment to watch fireworks on the Charles and even with the aid of a pillow I could not sit without great discomfort. I could no longer avoid going to the hospital but had no one to call for help. Since I didn’t drive, I ended up walking, hunched over at the hip and shuffling my feet. What normally was a 15-minute walk took 45. The doctor said I’d need to have outpatient surgery immediately. I called my mom to tell her the news and she could hear me trying not to cry and asked, ‘Are you crying because you’re in physical pain?’ and I said, “No, because I’m alone.”

I felt both God and His followers had failed me.

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