Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. My victory and honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge.
I’ve been trying for a few days to write out for you all that I learned at the TCK retreat from which I just returned; there’s an urgency in my processing, for fear that if I lose the first flush of debriefing, I’ll fit back into my old life without carrying with me any of the lessons I learned, lessons that have the potential to be life-changing.
But in many ways, the lessons I learned were so heavy that I struggle to get them into adequate words; so instead of giving you a play-by-play now (hopefully one will be coming eventually), I thought I would write up for you the notes I wrote for the session I led on “Image of God.” This is a doozy of a post, and my regular readers have probably seen all this before, so you can just skip past the italics to the little wrap-up at the bottom.
Matthew 27: 45-46
At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”, which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” That has been the cry of my heart for the last two years.
Before arriving at CIU, I was growing and maturing spiritually by leaps and bounds. I felt God’s presence tangibly. I couldn’t get enough of his Word. He didn’t give me everything I wanted–my dream of working as a community developer, for example, was shelved until further notice–but he was there for me, and he guided me to CIU with a clarity that convinced me that he would work in my life in very concrete ways once I got there.
I arrived at CIU with a sense of purpose, a life plan, with a solid sense of self, an eager expectation of the community I would find at CIU, and best of all, with an obvious sense of the Lord’s presence.
And within a very short order, I lost them all. Circumstances and input from others made me wonder if I could cut it on the mission field; debt and unanticipated licensure issues made it unlikely that I would get there anytime soon. The process of working through the counseling program ripped my heart out and revealed to me exactly how ugly, insecure, and selfish it is, leaving me with a very tenuous sense of self and a complete inability to see anything redeemable about me. I couldn’t seem to connect with people at CIU, probably at least in part due to the freshly harrowed insecurities in my soul. Without a plan, without a purpose, and without a community, I lacked the security I’ve always craved; my biggest idols and desires were ripped from me without warning, and I was shell-shocked.
I had always been told that God gives grace to get through hard times, and I had always equated grace with a sense of His presence, a sense of His comfort.
But–and this is the wound than ran the deepest–at that critical time when all I wanted was reassurance that God did indeed know what he was up to, when all I wanted was for God to demonstrate his love to me tangibly, he withdrew. He hid his face. I could have dealt with all the losses above if I knew that he knew what he was up to and was caring about me throughout; but he didn’t give me that reassurance.
I felt abandoned, hopeless. It was particularly difficult to be at CIU, where everyone seemed to have a sense of him. I kept looking at them, thinking, “God, why won’t you love me the way you love them?” He must love me less, I surmised. Why else would he make his love so apparent to them and leave me with nothing? Perhaps he only had so much to give, and I was less valuable. That pain was agonizing and heart-rending. I remember driving home one night, bursting into tears, and screaming at God, “I know I was a mistake, but I’m YOUR mistake, and YOU HAVE TO FIX THIS!”
I tried everything I could, tried to manufacture purpose or worth for myself, but every time I came close, I lost it. I felt as though God was walking behind me, slapping hope out of my hands. Worse than abandoning me, he seemed to have graduated to actively inflicting pain upon me.
My resounding question through it all was “Why don’t you love me?!” It would have been so easy for him to make me feel loved, yet I felt so unwanted. If he loved me, surely he would never let me live in that state.
I would read Scripture and try to tell myself that God loved me, but my circumstances led me to conclude that it was the worst love ever. It felt as though his love delighted in making me hurt, and I was tired of doing all the work to convince myself that I was loved. I wanted him to step up to the plate.
Then, this spring, through a series of classes, encounters with friends, etc., I started to wonder: “If God is loving, but I can’t see his love for me, maybe my love radar is off. Maybe I’m not looking for love through the right lens.”
I came to realize that for a variety of reasons, my default lens for God was that of a dictator whom I had to please at any cost. He said he loved me, and I had to agree, lest he otherwise squish me like a bug, but his love was not something any rational person understand as such. He might like me if I did the right things, but it was up to me to figure out what those things were, and ultimately he could change the stakes at any given time. I was at his mercy, and it was terrifying.
I knew that the God of the Bible was different, or at least claimed to be different, and as I thought about it, I realized that I had been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt by dictating the terms by which he could prove that he loved me. I had gone to him with my default lens in one hand and a bullet-point list on The Care and Loving of Lauren in the other, and I had essentially told him that if he followed the terms on the list, I would then be willing to try out a new lens. I promised him that I would only ask for things that were holy-sounding, like the knowledge of his love so that I could then love others well, to make it easy on him; all he had to do was give me these things that would expand his kingdom, and I would know that he loved me. Then we could have a real relationship.
God, in his grace, did not squish me like a worm, and for a couple years, it worked–my last few years of undergrad, he lived closely enough by my script that I was starting to feel secure in our relationship.
And then, upon my arrival at CIU, he tore the list from my hands, ripped it to shreds, and started loving me on his terms.
He knew that the relationship we were building was on a very unstable foundation; it couldn’t last, because I was always waiting for the day when he would go off script. And when that day came, I would take up my default understanding of him once again.
So he “left”, and he took a lot of the things I was clinging to with him.
I fought back, hard and dirty. I was, by stages, furious and rebellious, uber-spiritual and obedient, and finally, deeply hurt and broken. I played every trick I could to get him to come back to my rules, but it didn’t work. I felt emptier and lonelier with each attempt I made to get him back, and though I knew in my head that I was probably going to learn some kind of lesson through this, I kept begging him to choose another way. Surely there was a gentler means of lesson-teaching. . .why did I have to go through cosmic abandonment and bone-deep loneliness and fear to get there, when others were loved gently back to the fold?
Though I had no concept of how to view God aside from my lens, I was eventually brought back to the image of the suffering Savior. His heart cry and mine were the same. He felt at least as alone and hurt as I did. But his lens was different. He knew God the Father as he is. Jesus begged God to find another way; he desperately wanted to avoid the cross. But he knew that the way God chose was the best way. He knew the love of the Father in such a way that he could trust that any pain he went through would be worked out for good.
When I look at my current circumstances through my default lens, I’m left with the conclusion that God has left me, that I’m a mistake.
But when I choose to take on the lens of One who knows the Father intimately, when I root my understanding of God in who he says he is, I see unexpected swathes of grace. Grace alone has kept me hanging on; there have been many nights when I have wept myself dry, telling God “I give up. I can’t keep going,” only to have a sense of determination wash over me that enables me to stand up and keep going, weary but not yet defeated. I haven’t walked away from my faith, and I’ve not yet become brittle, too bitter to learn what he’s been trying to teach me about himself. That. Is. Grace.
Furthermore, the lens of Christ enables me to look at my circumstances and see intense love. For a Father to look at his beloved daughter when she is in agony and crying out to him with all the anger and hurt of perceived betrayal, for a father to see her faltering and screaming for relief, and refuse to give in to her because he wants her to eventually have security in his love. . .I can only imagine how difficult that must be. He must love me excessively if he’s willing to put up with the intensity of my pain and accusations of abandonment so that I can eventually realize the steadfastness of his goodness and love, regardless of circumstances. I can’t imagine a greater love.
But I’ll be honest. This isn’t easy. It’s excruciating. I thought that once I learned the lesson of his love, he would come through for me in ways I could appreciate more easily, but my season of testing isn’t over. I have no guarantee that it ever will be. I may never sense his presence or guidance again as long as I live. Perhaps, for some reason, my life will be one characterized by the silence of God. It still hurts. And I’m scared.
But I believe that He’s going to give me grace to make it through. That’s hard for me to say. Just this week I got some news that felt like one more instance of God tearing hope from me. The pain feels pretty gratuitous at this point, like “You’ve already taught me that! When do I catch a break?!”
I’m sitting here with faith stretched very thin, and almost at a lost for hope. But that “almost”, guys. . .that “almost” is what’s keeping me holding on, and I believe that God will grant me that “almost” as long as I need it. Proverbs 3:5 has been my mantra, and I’m choosing to believe through gritted teeth and God’s grace that there is purpose in my pain, that this is the result of being deeply, richly, and truly loved by a good God. . .that this will all be worth it with one glimpse of his face. I truly do believe that.
The lessons I expressed in that session were taught to me more poignantly than ever before last week. I went to the retreat so harried in my spirit that I was barely able to sleep or eat; I spent the majority of my nights wrestling with God, begging him to finally throw me a bone. He didn’t. And finally, near the end of the week, I gave up. I realized the only way I would achieve peace in this season is if I choose to trust. . .trust that God is good, trust that what He’s giving me is good, even if it’s not what I want, and trust that He loves me. I’m writing this now, still hurting, still wishing that things would work out the way I want them to, but claiming the peace that passes understanding; my understanding is limited. His is complete. It’ll be worth it all.