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When God Turned My Sorrow to Joy

Written By Callie Opper, USA

In every person’s life, I believe that there is a defining moment when we suddenly come to realize how small we are compared with God, and how small we are compared with the problems that can overwhelm us. For me, that moment happened on my 14th birthday.

That was when my family received news that my mom had been diagnosed with leukemia. Almost exactly a month later, my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. As a 14-year-old, I didn’t know how to process the news. It rocked my world. And because the seemingly perfect world that I had known was now crumbling around me, I did the only thing I could at the time—I pretended to be strong, even though I was crumbling inwardly. I truly believed that I needed to be strong to make it through something like this, and for God to heal my parents.

As a child growing up in a Christian environment, I had heard time and time again that when life gets hard, we’re supposed to trust God, and when tragedy hits, we should feel unshaken because He’s on our side. But when the storm hit me, I didn’t feel this automatic trust in God’s plan, and I started to believe that He was giving up on me because of my doubts. I had accepted Christ at the age of nine and prayed a prayer whose meaning I knew, but I didn’t understand what it really meant to follow Jesus.

Because of this trial, I found myself feeling alone, even though I was surrounded by so many people who loved me. I let this feeling of abandonment take root and became insecure about myself; I began to doubt if God was present in my world because He didn’t heal my mom. And because I craved attention and belonging, I let the world define who I was. Inwardly, I was running away from the one person who promises to never abandon us; I blocked my heart and mind from letting Him heal the hurt in me.

Over a year after my mom was diagnosed, she passed away. I had to get used to a new normal—a life without her. I kept up an external image that seemed to show a deep trust in God, but inwardly I was confused and lost. I kept asking why, and I became bitter as I watched my dad fall in love again and we moved out of my childhood home.

I believe that God does not forsake us. He pursues us and over time, slowly breaks down the walls of our hearts.

Shortly after my mother’s passing, I signed up for a mission trip to China. But it was for a selfish reason—I wanted to leave the country to escape my world and to get away from the tragedy that surrounded me and my family.

My plans, however, were drastically changed; God had plans to reveal the selfishness of my heart and to truly heal it. One day, on a mountain in China, He used a place of isolation to make me face the weight of the pain I had been feeling and my rebellion against Him, and He revealed to me the condition of my heart. For the first time in my life, I found myself vulnerable before Him. He broke me down using one verse: “In all our troubles, my joy knows no bounds” (2 Cor 7:4). While I had gone to China to escape, God brought me to a place of quiet retreat, to sit in His presence and to experience His life transformation.

I didn’t know what true joy was, but in that one moment, I knew I wanted it. I started pleading with the Lord for joy, to confidently trust in His plans, His ways, and the story He had started writing for me. And it was from that one single moment that God started to break down my walls, to refine me, and to teach me what joy means.

Over the next few years, God chiseled away at my heart to reveal emotions I had not wanted to face, grief that was unresolved, and lies that I had believed about God and myself.

He showed me that joy looks a lot like vulnerability. Joy is not a temporal happiness, but a deep-rooted contentment in God’s plan, which we know is for our good and His purposes. Joy does not mean I will wake up with a smile on my face every day; it does not mean that I will always be rejoicing in my sorrows and in the storms. Rather, it is choosing to see God’s higher purposes when everything is crumbling. Joy is a daily choice. It’s laughing and embracing the tears when they come.

God taught me that being weak is so much greater than being strong. Our weakness proclaims our need to depend on the Lord utterly. He has taught me that it’s okay to not be okay. He welcomes our doubting and invites us to wrestle with Him when we don’t understand what He is doing.

The beautiful thing that I learned about God is that He never gives up on us. He will never stop pursuing our hearts even when we try to run. He will go into the deep and dark places of our hearts to pull us out and to prove that He is good.

I have seen God turn my brokenness into beauty. He has removed the bitterness I held on to tightly for years, by giving me people to walk with me. He used the brokenness of my mom’s death to show me the reality of how short life is, to teach me what it means to value others, and to show me that every second matters. He has showed me the importance of loving and living well, and how much people and relationships matter.

God has been faithful to me in this journey. He has given me so many glimpses of His purposes for my mom’s death. He has given me complete joy and has taught me to embrace weakness, to cling to Him, and to live vulnerably. He has taught me to accept grief. He has shown me that hiding and running from the storms that He allows is useless.

I believe that God weaves unique stories for everyone. He creates masterpieces out of our lives and weaves the deepest pain into something far more beautiful than we could ever imagine. Life is a gift, and the story of our lives, no matter what it looks like, paints a radiant picture of the gospel. Our stories are all about Him and His glory alone.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to tread on the heights. For the director of music, on my stringed instruments.”—Habakkuk 3

Last year I got a tattoo in my mother’s hand writing to remind me of the faithfulness of God, to keep me grounded in Him, and in the meaning of joy.

Crying Over Nabeel Qureshi

Screenshot taken from YouTube

I never thought I would cry over a complete stranger. But the death of a man whom I have never met had me tearing up a few times this week.

Last night, it happened again while I was watching the live stream of Christian apologist and author Nabeel Qureshi’s memorial service. Hearing two of his mentors, apologist Ravi Zacharias and Rice University chemistry professor Jim Tour, recount their time with the 34-year-old and his love for Jesus as well as his non-Christian family, had me welling up in tears.

Perhaps it was because the tributes were heartfelt and heart-breaking, or because it felt like I actually knew him personally. I bought Nabeel’s book two years ago, and have been following his progress since he first announced that he had advanced stomach cancer. Whichever reason it was, Nabeel has certainly made an impact on my life—as well as the lives of many others.

Here was a man who centered his entire life on Jesus and the gospel even though it meant turning his back on the people he loved most dearly—his family, who were staunch Muslims. Not only that, he went on to proclaim the good news of Christ, through talks and books—such as New York Times Bestseller Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus—despite threats to his safety and relentless criticism from those who considered him an apostate.

So many, including myself, were shocked that God would take him home so early on in his earthly life. Like most people, I couldn’t help but wonder, Why? Why now, when he was at the peak of his ministry? Why now, when he had just started a family? Why now, when the world needs gifted and passionate communicators like him to build bridges with the Muslim community?

Though none of the answers that have been circulating online can fully answer these questions, a post I stumbled on provides a deeply encouraging and helpful perspective. It was written by Nabeel’s colleague, the North American Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). In a beautiful tribute to his dear friend, Abdu Murray wrote:

Ravi Zacharias, who loved Nabeel deeply, has written about him in a secular news source. Thousands who had never heard Nabeel or the gospel he loved to preach have now been exposed to Jesus’s life-changing message. People have seen Nabeel’s steely faith remain steelier yet in the face of death. They have seen the “peace that passes all understanding,” as the Bible calls it, in Nabeel’s voice. And they are encouraged to face difficulty with grace. A deaf world is roused through the megaphone of pain to hear the message that God has overcome the troubles of the world through Jesus. Nabeel was a megaphone for that message in his life and he is a megaphone for that message in his passing.

 If not for anything, Nabeel, who made a significant impact during his life, continues to make an impact in his death. Many have come to know of him, his books—and his God—after hearing about his life and death over the past week. I believe Nabeel’s legacy will continue in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Of course, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Nabeel is no longer with us. We will miss him dearly. But while his passing may seem like a huge loss, let us not forget that he is in a far better place today. And let’s not mourn without hope—for we have the full confidence that God will continue to raise up men of great faith to continue His kingdom work. Just as God can raise up a devout Pharisee like the Apostle Paul and an ex-Muslim like Nabeel to become effective ambassadors for Him, He can—and He will—continue to convict the hearts of men in His own time and way.

Learning to Face Death from Nabeel Qureshi

Photo by Nabeel Qureshi

“It’s a little unsettling to watch the vlog of someone who knows he’s about to die,” I remember telling my mother after watching what would be Nabeel Qureshi’s second last video blog on YouTube just last week.

In it, the Pakistani-American Muslim-turned-Christian apologist spoke about his final stages of life and how he was receiving palliative care.

Still, both of us were shocked by how quickly the 34-year-old’s passing came. The popular itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) died on Saturday, 16 September, after a year-long battle with stomach cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Michelle, and two-year-old daughter, Aya.

As tributes poured in for Nabeel over the weekend, I found myself saddened by his death and wondering why God took him at such a young age, when he was still so active, effective, and passionate in ministry.

I first heard about Nabeel two years ago when a friend told me about his book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. Reading his book, I was struck by how thoughtfully and objectively he had presented the facts about Islam and Christianity.

As I started reading up more about him and watching his videos, I was moved by Nabeel’s deep conviction and commitment to the gospel despite what it cost him, and heartened that God had raised such a brilliant and articulate person to reach the masses—in particular the Muslim community—for Him. Months later, I saw the heartbreaking news on Nabeel’s Facebook page: he had advanced stomach cancer, and the prognosis was grim.

As I’ve been following his progress intermittently since then, his death, though imminent and expected, still feels sudden and surreal. But the legacy that he has left behind—and the lives he has impacted during his short 34 years on earth—is unquestionable. Being just a couple of years younger than him, I cannot help but think about my own life and wonder about the kind of legacy I would leave behind one day.

One of the things about Nabeel that has deeply impacted me was how he faced death. Unlike many others, he had the privilege of knowing and preparing for his last days on earth. Even up till his last days, he was still uploading video clips testifying about Jesus. Perhaps, however, being able to stare at death in the face was a little overwhelming—even for a man of great faith like him.

I remember watching his second last vlog and thinking that he sounded almost discouraged and despondent; he seemed to be really struggling to accept that God may not eventually heal him. This both surprised and encouraged me.

It surprised me, because I had assumed that he would be 100 percent settled in his heart by this time, that his time was drawing to a close. But it also encouraged me, because his complete honesty about his desire to be healed showed how even great men of faith had their “moments”. But, finally, it is what he said at the end of the video—without any hint of bitterness in his voice—that I would always remember: “But if it shouldn’t be Your will, Your sovereign will at the end of the day, then I trust You, and I love You anyway . . .”

And I believe that that is exactly how Nabeel would want all those who are grieving over his death to respond: to completely trust God and love God regardless of the outcome. May Nabeel’s life and death inspire us to devote our lives to Jesus for the rest of our days, so that like the Apostle Paul and Nabeel, we can say with confidence at the end of our lives, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)

 

Read author’s follow-up article: Crying Over Nabeel Qureshi

Chester Bennington’s death: Numbing the pain is not the same as healing it

Written By Priscilla G., Singapore

It was just one of many suicides among celebrities. But the death of Chester Bennington, the frontman of American rock band Linkin Park, struck a chord among many fans of my generation.

The 41-year-old was found dead in his home two days ago (July 20), on the birthday of his close friend Chris Cornell. Media reports say Bennington’s suicide is similar to that of Cornell, the former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman, who also hanged himself two months ago.

The news triggered memories of the rasp in Bennington’s voice on songs like “Numb” and “Somewhere I Belong”, which captured the angst I felt as a teenager. Millions of people felt the same way—the music video of “Numb” has had more than 560 million views since it was posted in 2007.

I remember particularly liking that song, which is about the frustration of failing to meet people’s expectations, when I was 14 years old.

I was a head prefect in my primary school when I was 12, and I was very disappointed when I failed the probation to become a (normal) prefect in my secondary school. Becoming a little more rebellious seemed like a cool idea, although I was really more of a closet rebel with angst that I kept to myself. The “Numb” lyrics also expressed how I felt towards my father, whose words typically came in the form of scoldings or instructions instead of encouragement or concern.

I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there / Become so tired, so much more aware / I’m becoming this, all I want to do / Is be more like me and be less like you”. I thought of my father’s weaknesses as I sang that last line, about wanting to “be more like me and be less like you”.

But all the times I screamed out the chorus could not drown out the voice of God in my heart. Towards the end of that year, I rededicated my life to Jesus.

Shortly after, I stopped listening to Linkin Park’s songs, because I grew to realize that the message in many of their songs did not align with Christian values. The last line in the “Numb” chorus suggests self-centeredness, pride and an attitude of ‘I am better than you’ towards authority figures whom we disrespect. The song’s suggestion to numb emotional hurts is also not helpful.

To numb something is to ‘deprive of feeling or responsiveness’. But to be able to feel pain is to be able to sense that something is wrong, and that ability is important. Without pain sensors in our body, a person’s hand on a stove could be burning without him even realizing it. As American Christian author Philip Yancey, writes in his book, Where is God When It Hurts?: “By definition, pain is unpleasant, enough so to force us to withdraw our fingers from a stove. Yet that very quality saves us from destruction. Unless the warning signal demands response, we might not heed it.”

Having read about Bennington’s life from media reports, I see a man who was in pain. My own experiences cannot begin to compare with his, but it seems that he didn’t deal with it in the best way.

From the age of seven or eight, he was frequently molested by an older friend till he was 13. His parents divorced when he was 11. His first marriage ended in divorce in 2005. His struggles with drug and alcohol addiction inspired some of Linkin Park’s top hits, but did not end despite the band’s success.

Bennington said in an interview in 2009: “I have been able to tap into all the negative things that can happen to me throughout my life by numbing myself to the pain, so to speak, and kind of being able to vent it through my music.” Bennington added earlier this year: “If it wasn’t for music, I’d be dead. 100 per cent.”

While venting negative emotions through music or other avenues (such as drawing, poetry, or running) may be better than bottling all the feelings inside, it doesn’t result in a complete healing of emotional wounds.

Numbing pain is like using fingers to plug the holes in a leaking water bottle: the leaks stop temporarily, but it is pressurizing (literally) to keep plugging those holes, and all this does not address the ultimate problem.

If you are feeling broken, know that God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). Broken cisterns that cannot hold water will not help, but the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:13) will. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

I pray that you will find the true source of comfort and joy.

 

Photo credit: Kristina_Servant via Foter.com / CC BY