I was born into a Christian family, raised in the Church, and steeped in the language of the faith. I was saved at a young age, baptized as a child, and continued to grow in the Lord throughout my teens. My parents, family, teachers, and church had taught me the Gospel. They had laid the strong and sure foundations for my faith, and had done well in leading me in the paths of God. I loved the Lord and desired to be obedient and faithful to Him. I found great joy and meaning in my relationship with Christ, and found my faith being strengthened as I matured.
By the time I arrived at my middle and early highschool years, I was learning what it meant to be a Christian who is mature in Christ, not a spiritual child who is fed on milk. The Holy Spirit continued to work in my heart, helping me to fight sin and love Him. I made as much a habit as I could of daily prayer and study of the Bible, understanding the feeding of my faith to be a serious responsibility. During that time in my life I went through many challenging events. The challenges I faced, though they were difficult and sad, helped to grow my relationship with the Lord and to blossom my love for Him continually. There were times when I was a great pain, yet simultaneously felt like I would burst from how much love I felt for the Lord. The hardships taught me to conscientiously rely on God more and more during these years.
In 2016 I spent two months of the summer living in Papua New Guinea on a program called INTERFACE. INTERFACE was designed to give students a first-hand look at cross-cultural missions, while providing them with about a semester’s worth of biblical study within the course of a few weeks. I, along with 24 other INTERFACE students, spent nearly 6 hours each weekday in Bible and mission classes and intensive groups, the rest of our day being spent in cultural immersion, language learning, prayer groups, and free time. That summer immersed in the Word of God helped me to not only love the Lord with my whole heart, but to love His Word with my whole heart as well.
Little did I know, when I flew home from Papua New Guinea and turned 18 a few days later, that I was about to enter what would be the most painful and defining season of my life up to that point, and that that season would last for over three years. There would be grief, sorrow, loneliness, and suffering. It was a season that would lead me to question and doubt everything I had ever clung to in my faith. From the existence of God, to the hypocrisy in the Church, to the validity of God’s character, to the certainty of knowing anything is genuine truth–I questioned it all. Doubt overwhelmed me, and all of the questions swirling inside of my mind made it feel hard to breathe. All that had felt steadfast and supportive before seemed unstable and fleeting. The question what if this–my Christian, life, faith, and God–are all a lie? was continually running through my mind. What if everything I had been taught was nothing more than a lie? To question all of the things in which I had previously trusted was a terrifying place to be.
During this season I realised that some of the “episodes” that I was experiencing were a sort of anxiety attack–my hands shaking, a racing heartbeat, and finding it difficult to breathe. This type of physical response to anxiety was not something that I had dealt with before, and I often found myself quite frightened and worried. There came a point where I had the overwhelming emotion of being suffocated under a giant rock or drowning in the middle of a dark, stormy sea. One thing after another, wave after wave, struggled breath after struggled breath. It felt like I had lost nearly all of the earthy things that I cherished–family, friends, home.
There is a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry Potter’s godfather and most personal connection to his dead parents, Sirius Black, is killed by the witch Bellatrix Lastrange right in front of his eyes. As Harry watches Sirius die and disappear into magical fog, he lets out a scream of agony where, through his physical response, you can practically see Harry’s heart break into a million pieces. In the movie, the scream is muted with music overlapping. The director and producers said later that the scream was so heartfelt and intense in real life that they needed to subdue the sound in the film. It is an extremely moving and emotional scene, and is also one of the most famous from all of the Harry Potter films, because the heartbreak and sorrow are so deeply palpable.
In the deepest year of my grief and confusion I felt like my body and mind were trapped in a heartbroken scream like Harry’s. I was hurt, scared, angry, lost, suffocating, falling–just hoping that someone would be there to pick me up off of the floor once I hit. In many ways, it felt like death was at work in my own body, heart, and mind.
There were nights when I began to not be able to sleep, or if I was sleeping, to be tormented by stressful dreams and nightmares. There was a recurring dream where one of my best friends was freezing to death inside of an ice-covered car, and I could not break the glass in time to save them. Each time that dream came, I would wake up in tears.
I went through a period of many months where I could not get myself to read the Bible without great force, and the Holy Words seemed hollow and without comfort. The one chapter that I could seem to bring myself to read and repeat was the 51st Psalm, King David’s confession of sin before the Lord, returning to it again and again.
Prayer also eluded me, and I did not know how to pray, so I mostly avoided it. It seemed that the closest thing to prayer that I could muster was the phrase “Lord have mercy–I will not be ignored.” I could barely even bring myself to sing in church each week. To have my mind, heart, and body fight against prayer and Bible reading made me feel like a complete failure and horrible Christian, and I began also to question if I was really saved. I felt like I was a complete hypocrite, someone who was living a lie, and questioned how many other people I knew could be living in a similar way.
Nothing seemed to bring me joy anymore–not friends, not family, not hobbies or passions, not entertainment or music. I have a deep love for writing, and yet during this season I could not get more than a few sentences on a page. I felt how my sorrow and confusion were visible in my body and words (or lack thereof). Anxiety left me feeling continuously nauseous. I was overwhelmed with doubt.
As each day passed, the Lord was showing me more and more of just how deep is the sin of my heart. I could not get away from my sin. It overwhelmed me, and though I tried as hard as I could to hide from it, the sin lived and grew inside of me. Add seeing the depravity of my heart on top of grief, confusion, and doubt, and I was left feeling completely helpless and horrible.
There were days when I simply wanted to die. It was not that I was suicidal, and I had no thoughts of killing myself, it was more that living felt so exhausting, that I longed so deeply for rest.
In my head I knew that the Bible was true, that God is good, and that I am saved by Jesus, but I did not feel it. There was a great disconnect between knowing and feeling, flesh and spirit. When you know something, but do not feel it…..well, reconciling the two can be an extremely difficult thing to do. I knew that I am a saved Child of God, cherished and loved by Christ, but I did not feel it, and so I nearly walked away from God.
A point finally came, because I was dying inside, where I knew that I had to make a decision: either I was a Christian and had to somehow get through the Valley of Shadow, or I did not believe and there was no point to my practice of Christianity. Were my faith, culture, salvation, and God all a lie? Or were they all true despite my pain? I desperately wanted to cling onto my knowledge of the Truth, but my flesh wanted me to run to what I could feel, and what I felt was that the Truth of God was a lie. If only the knowledge between my head and my heart would compute. The balancing act between the two was killing me, and the crippling sense of being stuck in a scream like Harry Potter’s would not let me go.
The winter of 2018/2019 I attended a weekly study on the attributes of God that my pastor was leading at the homeschool group across the road from my house. My pastor had to be away for a week, and asked me ahead of time if I would be willing to cover the lesson for him, which I agreed to do. The attribute that I was assigned to teach upon was God’s goodness.
This study was taking place right at the climax of my struggle with grief and doubt, and as the day that I was supposed to teach grew closer, I began to think more and more that I would not be able to teach it. Did I even believe it? If I did believe it, wasn’t I too sinful of a person to be a teacher? Or was I simply a lost hypocrite?
In late March of 2019 I was at my church on an errand, and stopped by my pastor’s office to say goodbye as I was leaving. We chatted briefly, and he asked how preparations for leading study were going. There in his office, on a random weekday afternoon, I knew that I had to tell the truth and that that truth was ugly. I was afraid to share about my struggle, because I was scared that I would be met with disdain and told to just have more faith. The last thing I felt capable of doing was mustering up some more faith, and I didn’t want to be labeled as a “doubter” amongst people who valued faith. I remember saying in a whisper “I don’t think I can do it, because I don’t know if I believe it.”
That is when the tears started, and I could not get them to stop. I had tears streaming down my face our entire conversation. The burden of doubt and simultaneous belief was too overwhelming. In a strange way, even then, those tears seemed to symbolize a new beginning in my mind.
Over the next hour I shared with my pastor about the struggles, sins, and doubts that I was having, and we talked through them. I am not sure what response I expected, but my pastor did not meet all of my doubt and brokenness with scorn or condemnation, but with gentleness and compassion. He did not make me feel ashamed. Not once did he tell me to just have more faith.
That day in my pastor’s office was the beginning of the end of that season. What I had known about God and Who He is began to blossom from knowledge into understanding. Not that I was immediately healed of pain, the nightmares never returned, or that the rest of the road through that valley was smooth sailing–It wasn’t easy at all, but I began to truly understand that Christ came for people such as me. People who are broken, who have many doubts, who do not want to believe, whose hearts overflow with sin, people who can’t even bring themselves to pray–Jesus came for the weak and lowly.
My pastor sent me home with the book The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, recommending I read it. So that’s what I did–a page at time. Part way through the book I came across a quote that helped me understand just how deep Jesus’ love is, even…especially…for the weak.
“Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in something or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep. He seeks that which was lost, and brings again that which was driven out of the way, and binds up that which was broken, and strengthens the weak. His tenderest care is over the weakest. The lambs he carries in his bosom. He says to Peter, `Feed my lambs’. He was most familiar and open to troubled souls. How careful he was that Peter and the rest of the apostles should not be too much dejected after his resurrection! `Go your way, tell his disciples and Peter’. Christ knew that guilt of their unkindness in leaving of him had dejected their spirits. How gently did he endure the unbelief of Thomas and stooped so far unto his weakness, as to suffer him to thrust his hand into his side.”Richared Sibbes “The Bruised Reed”
As a child I looked down upon the disciple Thomas for his doubt of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I remember hearing a Bible lesson in children’s church that taught not to have as little faith as Thomas, finding his doubt shameful. Thomas was a role model of what not to be. Thomas was a man of shame and doubt–He was not lifted on a pedestal from the pulpit as some of the other Bible characters tend to be. Thomas was weak, despised, and lowly.
I realised that I was Thomas. I was the person I looked down upon.
It was not the biblical account of how the strength of a mustard seed size of faith could move a mountain that led me from the valley of my doubt. No, it was the account of Thomas and his doubt, the account of the tenderness of Christ. The story is not so much about Thomas as it is about Jesus and His love.
The picture of Jesus tenderly guiding His friend Thomas’ hand into the wounds in His side, so that Thomas might not disbelieve any longer, was a lightbulb moment for me. The words “lightbulb moment” seem such trivial words to use as a description, but it was that picture of the compassion of Jesus Christ that shone a rich and healing light on my soul, helping me to heal. The Lord used that story to metaphorically guide my hand to His side, giving me the faith that I could not make within my own power. As with Thomas, it took Jesus lifting my hand to the cleft in His side to bring me beyond doubt. In His compassion He suffered my doubt to pierce His wounds again, leading me in my faltering sight. I had not even the strength to lift my arm–Christ lifted it there.
I had never known the love of Jesus to be so sweet before. His compassion for the weak is an inexhaustible source. My sins were not too many for Him. My doubts were not too great. My griefs were not too heavy for my Savior. Where I had failed a thousand times, He succeeded perfectly. The Savior who died for my sins has mercy enough to suffer my doubt.
It was not until I had come to know Jesus Christ as a loving, compassionate shepherd, that I began to understand the doubts that I was facing were actually a gift and a sign of spiritual life. The nineteenth century author and poet, George Macdonald, describes this well:
“A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…. Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed.“George Macdonald
The road to healing was long–I still wrestle with certain doubts, struggle with many sins, and am processing through certain griefs. But there did finally come a day when I began to feel like I could breathe again, when the long scream ended, and the healing began. Over time I was able to again pick up my habit of daily Bible reading and prayer.
I do not have a faith deconstruction story, but I wanted one. In my flesh, I wanted my sin, and not faith. I remember telling my pastor that I didn’t want to believe in Christianity, because it felt like a burden that was too heavy. My flesh wanted me to believe that I was being enlightened or going through a de-conversion, on the other side of which would be found the freedom of a gospel made by my feelings. The temptation to walk away from Christ was strong, and I wanted to. If the Holy Spirit had not kept a hold on my heart, I would not still be following the Lord. I did not want God, but He wanted me. I was the prodigal son that left home in search of better things, Jonah who ran from God, and Thomas who did not have the eyes to believe without contact with His Savior’s side. God’s Word recounts a thousand times, He is the God of goodness, love, and mercy.
As the hymn Abide with Me says so well: “Thou hast not left me, though I oft left Thee. On to the close, Lord, abide with me.”
Resources that helped me heal:
- The album A Mighty Refuge and song Twenty Three by Aaron Strumple
- The album Voices, Vol. I by Young Oceans
- The song Doubter/Friend by Liv Douglas
- The hymn/song How Heavy is the Night by Coram Deo Church
- The song Jesus, Strong & Kind by CityAlight
- The song Lord, Have Mercy by Sovereign Grace Music
- The songs Eustace Scrubb and Blood for Blood by Sarah Sparks
- Dark Clouds Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop
- The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes
- Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
- Every Moment Holy Vol. I by Douglas Kaine McKelvey
- Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
- Suffering is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot
- Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson
- Streams of Mercy by Barbara R. Duguid