[Editor’s note: On Friday we released a new song by Ron Block, Jeff Taylor, and Rebecca Reynolds (also featuring Julie Lee). Rebecca, the co-writer of the song, also wrote this companion piece. It’s well worth your time.]
I wish I could tell you that I never have any doubts about God, but trust seems to run strongest in the very young and the very old in faith, and I am neither. When I say that I doubt, I don’t mean that I doubt everything. For instance, I rarely doubt that God exists. Walking in the decay of a December wood, reading through a journal of this year’s medical discoveries, listening to a Bach aria, scrolling through Hubble updates, I can tell that God lives.
The stuff of earth doesn’t provide a complete theology. In fact, it often leaves me with as many questions as answers, because the Almighty will not be pinned to a card like a giant stag beetle. However, the beauties and wonders of the universe do tend to point me toward a Creator. They whisper that He lives within and beyond the dimensions in which my brain operates.
What I doubt most often is that God loves me, and usually that doubt rises from pain. It can be hard for me to understand why Someone with the power to stop hurt wouldn’t do it.
When pain lasts a long time, I can begin to wonder if my suffering is a result of punishment, or if God just doesn’t like me very much after all. Cognitively, I know this sort of thinking contradicts the gospel. I could point to verses in the Bible and prove to you that this doubt is invalid. Still, there is something deep inside me that struggles here again and again.
This Christmas completes a difficult year for our family. Two weeks before school began, my husband was asked to resign from a church that he planted and pastored for ten years. The town in which we live is industrial, and the leaders of our church decided that they wanted to take a more corporate approach to ministry. They explained that they wanted a CEO-type leader instead of a shepherd/teacher.
We understood this decision. It is true that our vision for ministry is not business-oriented. (I’m an artist. My husband is a gentle, patient, teaching soul.) However, the request hit unexpectedly, just as I was entering the flurry of a demanding new teaching job, and just as we were learning that my father needed serious heart surgery. For several weeks, I felt like I was falling off a swing.
At first I just wanted to die. I could barely even breathe. I was devastated to learn that people I loved considered our investment disposable. It took months to scroll back through a decade of memories, reexamine faces I had thought safe, and realize that things had not been what I had imagined.
Then, as the days passed, my sense of rejection expanded from man to God. I thought that maybe friends and leaders weren’t the ones rejecting me, but heaven itself. Maybe God was throwing us away, too.
This has been one of the hardest years of my life, but it has also provided a pain that I needed to know. God is using this particular humiliation and loneliness to show me things about his love that I couldn’t have known in safety and comfort. Furthermore, I am not the only one who has ever lived through rejection. As a writer, as a friend, as a mother, God saw fit to train my soul in how an essential sorrow works.
Maybe you have lived through a rejection, too. In fact, the world is so full of hurt, it’s likely that you have known pain far more severe than mine. Maybe your spouse was unfaithful, or maybe you lost a close friend to betrayal. Perhaps years of a relationship were pushed aside, or maybe you were shunned by a group of people to whom you had given everything. It’s possible that a parent broke your heart, or that a sibling used you. It could be that a thousand tiny disappointments finally collected until you grew so bruised that you could hardly function at all. As I sit here making words for you, trying to reach my hand out to yours, I wonder if you are sitting in your chair, staring into the computer screen, knowing the full ache of being disposed.
Children of this long, discarded night, will you walk a while with me? Would you tuck a weary arm through mine so that we can step in cadence and talk over the bitter questions that rise from such years as what we have had?
If you are very much like me, you have already been trying to make things better for a very long time. Do I see exhaustion in your eyes? Have you used up all your strength? That is what most of us do, I think. When trouble threatens to break us, we threaten trouble by working harder. Some troubles overcome by labor, I suppose. But there are other sorts which cannot be defeated by effort, though we spend everything we have upon them. We work, and we work, until one day we wake up and realize that we are working more from habit than from hope.
Perhaps your hope has even died. Mine did for a while. I lived with a fear of drowning choking in my throat. I struggled like a man treading water, tangled in ropes, fighting in a vast, roaring ocean. I fought my way through each day encumbered by the bonds of my own labor’s strain. Do you know what this is like?
Then come step with me into the night. It’s freezing out here. I’m wearing my duck cloth jacket. The hood has fallen back so that the winter wind stings my ears. You are standing beside me, blowing heat from your lungs into the pink cup of your fingers. The grass below our shoes crunches. Without speaking, we turn our faces up to the expanse, blinking our burning eyes against the void, finding nothing to see at all.
How empty it is. I am tempted to squint and try to find an angel in those clouds. I am tempted to do that because this is the sort of void that I don’t like to explore. I’d rather make something up.
Where is God in our pain? If He loves us, why would He veil Himself behind the pitch of night? Why would He refuse to come to us in the way that we were expecting? Doesn’t He know that we are so tired it seems as if our hearts are growing back into the earth? Doesn’t He know that we are like Adams being unmade by sadness, being turned back from warm flesh into sod and into stone? We stand like forgotten towns, waiting for a Messiah.
There is only quiet and cold between us for the full pulse of an hour.
Then, standing beside you, I remember a song stitched from the best old stories. It was woven from the first tales we believed, tales of beauty, and battles, and the kindest of Kings. Those stories once blew against my heart like breath on a fire, like wind on the strings of an Aolean harp.
I will sing as much to you as I can remember. However, this tale will require all of your thirst, all your want, all your pining, bitter grief. It will ask you to follow the thread of your pain like a dim lantern, into the trajectory of love, and watch while every honest emptiness is torn asunder by radiance.
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Those first, best stories were true, Discarded One. While we tend the flocks of our lives on this biting, barren landscape, the ancient throng divides our sorrow, in wonder it now declares:
“Love is born. Love is born!”
Love is born, and we are chased by it. Even now, in this night of our particular darkness and rejection, in this bleak, freezing, shared silence, grace gathers us ’round like a celestial chorus.
We are seen. We are wanted. We are loved.
The Holy One is come for you, and for you, and for you, and for me.
Fear not. All glory be to God on High.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.