The three years immediately after I returned to the US from living in China are both hard to speak about and about which I have most to say. They have been some of the most significant in my journey with the Lord so far.
I moved to Boston at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008. It took me what felt like forever–a whole three months, a flash in hindsight–to find a job, but I found a church quickly and got plugged in. Very soon after getting back, though, I realized something was off. I wrote to a friend just a month after my return:
“My memories of the abundant life are vague and quickly fading. Recently, even my desire for that is waning. My heart feels solid as a rock. I can’t seem to get back that hunger for the word, that joy in worship. 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.”
Thus began my slow and tortuous decline. By Christmas that year, my family didn’t even recognize me anymore, I had become so jaded and full of doubt. I felt very out of touch with God. His Word fell flat. My prayers were met with silence. I began to think myself as dead. I remember attending a baptism–I, who had been once so zealous about people coming to know the Lord–and feeling sorry for the guy, hoping he had a better go of things than I had.
Almost exactly ten years ago from today, in March, I wrote to a friend:
I’ve had a few good months here spiritually, though not recently. 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 and not really paying for the whole of my sin? And I know that those thoughts are wrong. I know what the Bible says. But I guess from the way I actually live life 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’ve been struggling to believe that His love really is amazing. 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 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) but 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 it where I don’t need grace and then 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 be the best person, but even more than that, 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 totally inflames my pride and causes some pushback. 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 shaken up my idea that I was ever good.
I’ve been, at times, completely overwhelmed with my own sinfulness. Unusually so. There were nights I cried myself to sleep because I felt like its prisoner, completely enslaved as God graciously showed me how my sin touches every single area of my life. There came a day when I really believed and 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 (God works in us to will and act according to his good pleasure), that my faith was a gift in the first place and that 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 illustrate the point, 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 when I most want to. It’s driving me mad. I feel paralyzed. Too filthy and broken to move toward God, too weak to crawl out of this pit, too jaded to believe I could even lift my head and call for help. He has crushed my bones. He has taken my gifts. He has exposed my nakedness before my lovers and I am at a loss for words. Add that to my unbelief in his goodness, love, mercy and grace and that’s a bad combination.
So I’ve been struggling 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 its 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. The verse in James 4:9 “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” I understand that. 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. It’s like I’m frozen in place.
Ironically, I believe I’m at this impasse because in my life I have been too big, God has been too small and I’ve taken it all for granted. Last night I had this image in my head of these embers over a fire that had long gone out. In one scene there I was desperately blowing on these sticks to reignite a flame. It was so good for my heart to know there was still something there, albeit small though it was. I blew and blew until there was no breath left in me. And then God breathed on them. I didn’t see anything beyond that, but I felt that His breath carried power and life in it, that His breath was sufficient to turn smoldering fire into dancing flames.
My roommate asked what word I would use to describe this season of life and I said death. It’s hard to explain why I choose that word because it’s not so much dead and buried. Rather, the picture I got was that I was still on the operating table, the last surgeon had left the room, but I would live again. Perhaps this is exactly what God wants. You know that song “In Christ Alone”? I love the line where it says, “when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.” I have this feeling that as I wait on God, He waits on me to come to the end of myself and my strength. He waits until I truly fall back exhausted from trying to breathe life back into the sticks myself so He can step in with His own. There’s a little fight in me left, I know. But I don’t know how to stop. I haven’t surrendered everything yet but I also don’t know how.
A year later, I quit my small group. A month after that, I left the church. I was set to move to Seattle in a few months for graduate school and Boston had left a bad taste in my mouth. But even after moving to Seattle that fall, things would get worse before they got better.
I tried out seven or eight churches. Wherever I found myself, 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 the first week I went I cried.
Seattle turned out to be a city of many tears. 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.
Since middle school, I’d kept a journal, often filling up one every couple of months. In Seattle, however, I went through one in a year and it was mostly the same entry: How long, O Lord?
In April, I finally reached out to some old friends asking for help:
For those who don’t know, my walk with the Lord has been unraveling for some time. It began shortly after returning to America in 2008 but has become really pitiful the past year and a half. 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 and then strength and then faith and now I find that I have nothing left. I’m a mere shell of what I used to be. I am broken beyond anything I’ve ever experienced and can not seem to find my way out of this time. There is a gulf that I can’t seem to cross and I’m so so so tired and worn out and dry and lifeless at this point and I would really appreciate your prayers. I can’t go on like this. Matthew 12:20 says that a broken reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, but I feel broken and snuffed out, and I’ve felt this way for the better part of the past two years.
If you’d asked me then, I’d have told you that only defeat awaited me. I could not image a life where I wasn’t dry and brittle and worn. Last summer a friend asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m a wreck. I just want to think about, talk about, and spend time with the Lord. I’m totally overwhelmed by his goodness and faithfulness and beauty and all that is so delightfully and unconventionally attractive about him. Like bliss wreck, where he is everything, can do everything, and is better than everything.” How I’ve been doing the past couple months (ironically, as I’ve been studying suffering) makes even that seem mild. The Lord has been kind to revive me far beyond what I could have imagined. I treasure what the Lord taught me of himself through surviving those years.
Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”