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What I Got Wrong About Grace

Some time in my early 20s, I sat across the table from my mentor and pleaded with her to explain how grace worked. Life wasn’t quite going the way I wanted and I’d subconsciously been trying to “live right” in the hope that I could wrangle some blessings out of God. I’d exhausted myself, and still my attempts weren’t working.

In contrast, people around me kept talking about this condemnation-free, striving-free, anxiety-free way of becoming a person who would please God (and ergo, enjoy all the perks)—and it sounded fantastic. But no one was able to explain how to get there; it felt like I was constantly hearing about a delicious, free buffet without being given directions to get to it.

I understood some of grace. I knew that it was receiving something that I did not deserve. I believed and gratefully accepted that Jesus swapped my sinful nature with His righteous one on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21), took the punishment that was actually mine to pay for being of that sinful nature (Romans 6:23), so that I could stand blameless before God now and at the end of my life (Colossians 1:22). That was grace; a gift I did and could do nothing to merit.

But that, perhaps, was grace for the after life.

At present, there was still life on this earth to finish living. And for these trials of daily living, there seemed to be another form of grace that the writers of Scripture enjoyed.

Paul received grace that was sufficient to cover his weaknesses when he couldn’t shake off a trying situation (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul also knew that if he walked by the Spirit, he would not gratify the desires of his flesh (Galatians 5:16). The writer of Hebrews knew that he could approach the throne of grace and receive help in his time of need (Hebrews 4:16). And the writer of Lamentations found grace every morning to move through his suffering and anguish (Lamentations 3:22-23).

This was the kind of grace I couldn’t seem to access.

Yet, when my mentor succinctly explained that grace was simply receiving something from God that would be sufficient for my need of the moment, it still felt incomprehensible. As much as I wanted to believe her, my upbringing and culture had shaped me to believe that if I wanted to achieve something, it was my responsibility to work hard to make it happen (and if I asked for help, it meant I was being spoilt). Although exhausting to upkeep, this ethos had served me well in school and in the few life experiences I’d encountered. It was all I knew, and grace felt uncomfortably counterintuitive.

Up to that point in my early 20s, my life had been sheltered enough to make the illusion of being self-sufficient tenable. I couldn’t conceive of what it meant to encounter a situation that I could not work myself out of. This was an arrogance that emerged not so much from delusions of grandeur, but from sheer inexperience about what real hardship or need was.

There wasn’t anything I hadn’t yet solved without rallying my brain and willpower, exercising my strong moral code, or relying on my abilities and education to pull through. So how could my pool of resources be insufficient for anything? Perhaps asking for grace was wanting the easy way out and making excuses for my laziness.

Also, I couldn’t imagine relying solely on the Holy Spirit to guide my life. Did He not need my input? Was I really supposed to wait for Him to prompt me if I was going awry? But . . . what if I missed the prompt? Or what if He was silent and I stayed in need?

I wanted all the blessings that came with walking right with God; what if He didn’t deal with my weaknesses quickly enough and delayed my ability to experience the abundant life? No, no, surely it was better if I got a head start on my self-improvement based on my self-assessment. And if He spoke, I’d just add that to the pile of things to work on. After all, how could I be certain that help would really come, if I didn’t know when it would arrive, what it would look like if it did and how exactly it would help?

I didn’t know it then, but my fierce independence stemmed from a deep mistrust that anyone, even God, would be there for me when it counted in a way that mattered. The autocratic parenting style that I grew up under made it hard for me to believe that any figure of authority would care about, much less meet, my emotional needs. Relying on grace and depending on someone else for things that I really wanted felt far too risky.

Caught in this tension between exhaustion from self-effort and disbelief in grace, I settled for what I thought was a good compromise. My initiative and willpower would primarily drive my life, and grace could be a kind of tonic or supplement to give me an edge or an energy boost. Not really necessary—just in case it didn’t show up—but nice to have.

But my 20s turned out to be nothing like the tidy life I had anticipated. The equation (hard work = success) that I thought would be a cover-all hadn’t prepared me for life’s wild, unpredictable variables torching my carefully constructed plans.

My “rich resources” were as good as ashes. Life proved impervious to my attempts to control it. Producing work to the best of my ability didn’t guarantee me the job I wanted. Doing my best to make godly choices didn’t protect me from suffering the consequences of another person’s actions. And choosing God was impossible when my own brokenness kept me in a relationship that I knew wasn’t meant for me.

Chronically mistrusting God and taking full charge of my own life meant that I had managed to drive it into a dead end by the time I was 29.

Fast-forward a near decade from that first conversation about grace, my mentor sat across from me again. This time my heart was well and truly beaten to finally receive the wisdom of her words. God knows what you need better than you do, she said, and He is good and will give it to you.

With nothing to lose, and with no internal resources left, I decided to “give God a go” and began each day saying, “God, please give me the grace to get through this day.” I tossed the words up to God with no back-up plan, no expectations as to what this grace would look like, and no energy to speculate.

And as I hobbled through this year—grieving the loss of the person I’d loved most, losing my job, and going through the inquiry for the sexual assault I’d suffered in church—God has met every single one of my needs with grace that was in no way superfluous or abstract.

At my loneliest points, sometimes within half an hour of crying out to God, close friends would suddenly send a hilarious or engaging text message and I’d have a good conversation with them out of the blue.

God also started to deepen my delight in the time that I spent with Him, journaling and reading Scripture. He gave me innumerable timely words of comfort and hope from His Word that addressed the fears in my heart perfectly.

He pulled out work for me from the most unexpected of places, without even needing me to send out a single résumé. He gave me justice beyond what I had expected out of the inquiry and assembled the best support from my family and friends to help me survive the process. He has even healed my relationship with my parents.

He also attended to the restoring of my character. In the years that I had depended on my willpower to be a morally upright person, I ended up losing the very traits I was working so hard to keep: my sense of security, integrity, self-control, selflessness, and a clear and discerning mind. I’d never known that God had been giving me the grace to be this moral person in the first place.

This character had emerged naturally as I spent my youth seeking Him that I’d made the mistake of assuming it was an immutable part of my own nature. But as I wilfully drew away from God for a few years, what emerged from me was everything pertaining to selfishness instead.

Now, with a daily prayer for grace, I became keenly aware of the firm, quiet voice in my heart that really did prompt me every time I needed a nudge in the right direction. All I needed to do then was just obey. He had been enough all along! And I was humbled—and rather embarrassed—to have thought that I knew better than God about how to grow in Christlikeness.

I’ve turned 30 a few days ago, and it’s been a year since I decided to ask God for His grace. I’ve realised that I couldn’t understand grace—the receiving of something that perfectly meets the need of the hour—because I didn’t know the true goodness of the God from whom grace came. I didn’t know how astute He was about my real needs, how creative He could be in meeting them, and, most importantly, how deeply He loved me to want to give me good things.

If my 20s was about seeing the foolishness of thinking myself the authority on who I am, and realising the limitations of my human nature, it has been, mercifully, redeemed by discovering just how good God is at loving me. Now, with my 30s ahead of me, I’m looking forward to experiencing life from a posture of dependence.

Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive Myself

I was sexually assaulted by a senior member of my church’s staff for four years. I was 21, and was doing an internship at my local church to explore a calling to full-time ministry. She was 42, and a director of the discipleship department.

It was a classic case of sexual grooming (although I didn’t know the term at the time). She’d taken a special interest in my progress. As a young 20-something, uncertain about my capabilities, her attention was gratifying. To have the support of one of the most charismatic and respected leaders in church made me feel confident that I had something worthy to offer God.

When she shared that she was same-sex attracted and admitted that she was attracted to me, she portrayed herself as a victim of God’s cruelty: wired to love someone she could never be with. To her, God was sadistically intent on denying her the things that her heart truly wanted. Doing life with Him had started to feel like a pointless torture of self-denial.

I was never attracted to her, but the way she told her story filled me with deep sympathy. Without realizing it, I responded to her narrative of victimhood by wanting to alleviate her suffering.  I wanted to demonstrate that the church could be a safe space for same-sex attracted people and redeem her view of God.

It didn’t go the way I planned. I couldn’t see at the time that she wasn’t just a broken and defeated woman, but also someone desperately trying to make me do what she wanted perhaps to fill the void in her heart. This manifested in so many ways that I just wasn’t astute enough to trace the pattern of her behavior. She’d be jealous when I didn’t join her ministries, or guilt me into going on holidays with her. When I resisted, she accused me of withholding affection and being “just like God”. I knew her logic and the way she was relating to me was hugely problematic, but didn’t have the words to pinpoint why.

I did my best to be firm. But she was much older than I was, in a position of power, and so persistent in pushing against my boundaries. Over the years, I questioned whether I was the unreasonable one for having boundaries in the first place and eventually “chose” to give in. A part of me hoped that if she got her way, she’d be satisfied and not ask for more. But it only encouraged her to push against my boundaries even more.

She was a truly gifted storyteller. Each time after she violated my body, she’d have a variety of ways to justify what she did. Sometimes she played the victim card, saying she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes she made beautiful-sounding promises of not doing it again. Sometimes she’d mock how absolutely devastated I was, as though I was overreacting. Sometimes it was flat out gas-lighting, insinuating that I wanted it too.

I felt so trapped. Influenced by her narrative of victimhood, and afraid of her emotional outbursts if I didn’t comply with her demands, I’d been conditioned to “not want to add to her suffering”. Yet, I felt so much pain and disgust for being involved in this. To add to my confusion, she would revert back effortlessly into being the affirming person that I’d first met. Which version of her was real? Was this woman who was violating my body just a helpless victim of an uncontrollable desire? Was the Christlike thing to do to give her umpteenth chances to change?

I was 25 when I finally cut her off for good. I was too ashamed to tell anyone, and, coupled with other factors, I left the church—and God.

Three years of deep unrest followed after. I’d blamed myself for “allowing sexual sin” to happen. After all, she was the victim; I should have been stronger and more assertive. I assumed that the deep revulsion I felt from her actions was remorse for grieving God with my sin. Not that it mattered now that I’d walked away from Him.

And since I was finally free of her, I thought I could move on with my life. But the persistent nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder triggers during these three years suggested that this framework I’d cobbled together wasn’t sufficient to encompass what had happened.

I finally saw a therapist when the nightmares became intolerable. During those sessions, quite unexpectedly God showed me the ways I’d misunderstood His heart for me in the past. Unlike what I’d previously thought—that He was only giving me what I felt was “second-best”—I discovered that He knew my heart better than I did. What I categorized as “second-best” were in fact things that my heart truly needed to thrive! Tracing this pattern throughout the events of my life moved me immensely, and would become a crucial factor in helping me trust God when I had to wrestle with several difficult faith questions in the coming months.

When I returned to Him, He gave me the courage to tell my story to a few close friends. To my surprise, some of them realized that they’d always felt somewhat uncomfortable about this woman, but had never been able to verbalize why. One of them also said she’d felt manipulated by her as well. Their unanimous rage over what she’d done helped me begin to see that I hadn’t been the one at fault: I had been assaulted.

It took a long time to come around to this new understanding. It was initially inconceivable that I could have been so deceived by someone’s manipulation. I’d always been told that I was emotionally intelligent and could usually discern people’s motives. And with the dawning realization that something terrible had happened to me, I started to blame myself for a new slew of reasons. Why was I not sharp enough to realize how duplicitous she was? Had I not been so gratified by her attention, or had my heart not been in such need for affirmation, perhaps I could have seen the truth!

A deep anger towards God followed suit. If I was too limited to protect myself, then why didn’t He? I knew He didn’t cause this to happen or put me through it just to teach me a lesson. That’s a kind of sadism that goes against what the Scripture says of His character and nature. But why didn’t He do more to prevent the assault? Was my heart and my body just not worth His energy?

Job didn’t get an answer when he shook his fist at the heavens, and neither did I. Could I admit that what I understood of the situation was but the “outskirts of his ways”, “a whisper” compared to the true “thunder of his power” (Job 26:14)? Could I accept the reality that I was only “[seeing] in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12)?

Like Job, I had a clear choice before me: either I believe that God’s character (He is good, sovereign, and holy) remains constant despite my circumstances, or I let my circumstances interpret God’s character. Given how recently shaken I was by the blindness of my perspective, I couldn’t choose the latter confidently. But how could I believe the former after what I went through?

We often make erroneous conclusions based on incomplete information. The presence of two variables may point to one conclusion, but the inclusion of a third variable can lead us to a different end. For instance, before I could see that I was being emotionally manipulated, I saw only two variables—a) I didn’t want any sexual contact with her, b) I wasn’t able to resist it. I could only logically conclude that it was my fault for not being strong enough to stand up for myself. But the third variable—c) her thorough manipulation robbed me of my authority to assert my boundaries—made me realize that she was at fault instead. What had looked like my choice to “give in” was in fact not at all autonomous consent but the result of carefully masked coercion. It explained why I was so devastated after each assault; consent does not lead to trauma.

So now, with the two pieces of information that I had—a) I was sexually assaulted, b) God allowed it to happen—I could choose to conclude that He is not good. Or…could I admit that there may be more variables here that I simply could not see, and that when all assembled together would give the situation its complete context? A context that could explain the meaning of all of this, one that would still point unequivocally to the fact that God is good? Did I have enough faith to trust His heart and take Him on His word alone, without understanding the situation completely?

I wrestled with this for months. But I chose to accept the finiteness of my human perspective compared to that of an omniscient God, one who had, in so many other areas of my life, consistently demonstrated goodness to me. Perhaps knowing why God allowed it is not what I need to survive.

In what I have needed to know, His insight has been swift and precise. I recognized that my appreciation for her initial support was not consent to the sinful way she related to me. I learned that however much a person is hurting, they have no right to violate another. I realized that relying on God to fill my needs gives me clarity to see people for who they are. I accepted the importance of being open with trusted friends because they may see what I cannot. And when she was finally fired from the church for this assault, I understood that a true Christlike response is not one that condones sin, but one that will enable the other person to be transformed.

I no longer fault my 20-something self for not being smart enough to know these things.

It has been wonderful to discover that God is capable of helping me overcome and heal from the wounds of my past. There are still difficult days, and the occasional nightmare. But learning to forgive myself has freed my heart to receive His healing, and, as the days go by, is helping me learn how to forgive her as well.

 

This article is the first of a three-part series. Forthcoming—“Surviving Sexual Assault: How I am Learning to Forgive an Abuser”, and “Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive the Church”.

When God’s Promises Don’t Mean Very Much

I was standing at the precipice of a new season, nervously anticipating the last day of my salaried job and the dreaded world of freelancing that awaited me after. It wasn’t a career move that I’d chosen. But the company wasn’t doing well, so I’d been retrenched.

As I prayed and looked for another job, I encountered something familiar: all the doors to the work that I wanted were firmly closed, but the door to the sort of job I didn’t want—freelancing—was flung wide open.

In the week leading up to that last day, friends coincidentally sent me links to sermons and articles, all related to the same verse, “So do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). None of them knew each other or knew about my job transition. Receiving the promise “I am with you” in several different forms happened enough times for me to know that God was trying to get through to me.

So, I sat down one evening and said to God, “I’ve got to be honest. I know being told that You are with me is supposed to be something very precious, but it doesn’t give me the comfort that I think I’m supposed to feel.”

I braced myself for what was surely going to be (at the very least) gentle chastising. What a sacrilegious thing to say, after all. But as I waited on God, a surprising question came to my mind:

When have I felt assured simply because of someone’s presence with me?

Thinking back over my experiences, I remembered two people who had a remarkably reassuring effect on me.

Mr. and Mrs. B. were teachers I had in high school when I was in New Zealand. They would often organize hikes in the New Zealand wilderness during the summer weekends. They were absolute experts, and knew all the beautiful and formidable things about the outdoors, as well as how to navigate through them.

There were always any number of things that could go wrong in the bush: the way the unpredictable New Zealand storms could transform the safest looking path into a deathtrap, or how an unusually hot summer could dry up a stream at a campsite and leave you stranded for fresh water. Someone stepped on an innocent-looking tree root once, some 10 minutes after Mr. B. warned the team not to (tree roots are always deceptively slippery). She had to be helicoptered out of the bush because of how terribly she’d sprained her ankle.

Yet, amidst all the potential for chaos, I was never once anxious about how dangerous tramping could be. I was so assured of Mr. and Mrs. B.’s competence that I knew, when the worst happened, they’d manage it perfectly. I was also certain that they cared about their students and would use their expertise if we needed help. There isn’t much point having experts at hand if they’re indifferent to your situation. This combination of what they could do and who they were made their presence indispensable.

It occurred to me to apply this reflection to my current circumstance, so I thought about the sort of expert I’d ideally like to have during this season of freelancing.

My answer rolled right off: someone excellent at finding jobs for me, the ones I like and can do well, the ones that open doors to meaningful projects where I can make a difference. It wouldn’t hurt if they paid well too, of course, the bills and all that. . .

And then, almost immediately, another question dropped in my heart, “Is there anyone more of an expert and more willing than God is to provide all those things for you?”

It felt like such an obvious question, with such an obvious answer. But I was shocked to realize just how ineffectual I’d thought God was. A source of comfort, sure, insofar as one is comforted by having their hand patted and told that everything will be fine. But that’s not what relieves fear, no.

Fears arise from an acute realization that what one has at hand is insufficient to thrive in a situation. I feared freelancing because I wasn’t sure that the irregularity of the work could always keep me financially afloat. The only thing that would dissipate my fear was knowing I had a tangible way through the quagmire, something I clearly didn’t think God was capable of doing!

My fears revealed my insufficiencies of which I was most aware. And they also revealed the aspects of God of which I was most unaware. My inaccurate impression of who God could be made me ascribe His promise with the value and power of a fridge magnet.

After all, whether the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you wherever you go; I won’t ever leave you,” mean anything to us really depends on the person who says it. (Stalkers say these things too, and that’s what restraining orders are for.) In the same way that I valued Mr. and Mrs. B. because I knew what they could do and who they were, I needed to learn who God is before I could cherish His promise.

In the face of my limitations, God promises Himself to me—with all His expertise and His willingness—so that I will have what He has to meet my circumstances. His expertise is in keeping unstable situations stable (Psalm 18:2), in making something come out of nothing (Isaiah 48:21), in knowing how to give us exactly what we need (Matthew 6:8). How He’ll do it, He’ll never say, but that He’ll keep His word is a given.

I realized it’s a little like how it was with Mr. and Mrs. B. I never questioned the routes they took us on, even through some of the most mundane  landscapes or those perilous cliff edge trails on the side of a mountain. They had my complete trust, so whatever paths we were taking became irrelevant. I knew they would always lead us to some of the most spectacular campsites or mountaintop views that New Zealand has to offer. They always led us somewhere good.

When I question God’s instructions, or if I fear the path He’s taking me down, it’s because I’ve lost sight of how much of an expert He is in that area of my life. He knows the ins and outs of the land and all the tricks of the trade and is the most qualified to navigate me through it competently. He’s the very best at healing broken hearts, in building secure inner worlds, in redeeming failures, in sustaining human relationships, in overcoming the impossible. . . an endless list of specialties for a God with infinite capacities.

I don’t know why being a freelancer is so necessary for me just yet, and I don’t know where it’ll lead. But I trust that He has excellent reasons for it. It’s been three months into this new season, and He’s already given me more work than I know what to do with. Expert, indeed.

How Christianity Ruined My Life

I had a very clear vision of what my life should look like.

I was supposed to be married by now, for one. There was someone I had called the love of my life. And even though I had known for years that I had no peace from God about marrying this person, I did my best to ignore it. I called the absence of that peace so many things: fear of commitment, of change, of moving too quickly. Eventually the pain of living with my heart split in two became unbearable. The day I chose God and ended that relationship, I felt certain I’d just exchanged the person I’d loved most for a lifetime of loneliness.

I was also supposed to have some sort of brilliant career by now. What was the point of graduating with top honors, only to be saddled with middling part-time work, and no career progression, benefits, or opportunities to build any kind of legacy? Meanwhile, my more fortunate peers have landed jobs that put them in places to move financial markets, fight for justice, and heal the sick. I know I’m not without intelligence, but God so firmly closed all the doors to work I considered significant, that I really did wonder if He thought me incompetent.

And I certainly wasn’t supposed to have been sexually assaulted for four years by a senior staff of my home church. Or to need to look for a new place to worship so that I could heal from my post-traumatic stress disorder. At the lowest point of my life, I didn’t even have the familiarity of community I’d come to call family. And God didn’t seem to be in a hurry to provide a new one either. He gave no word on where I could find another church family. It felt like God was content to kick back and read His newspaper while I drowned at sea.

This wasn’t supposed to be my lot. I’d served Him faithfully all my life and lived within the boundaries He’d set for godliness. Yet on all the things that mattered most to me, He stayed curiously silent over the years. I wasn’t asking for much: just someone I could love, work that I could be proud of, a community where I could be safe. These things were biblical, surely, and good. And what was it that Scripture said? “No good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. (Ps 84:11).

As the years went on, that verse increasingly felt like a joke. Around me there were people who didn’t give any thought to God and His ways, but they were getting everything that I wanted! Why did God seem intent on frustrating all my attempts to carve out this life for myself?

Crushed, and furious that I’d “wasted” my life living for Him only to get nothing valuable in return, I eventually left God.

My circumstances had led me to misinterpret God chronically: I thought that He was not good because He refused to give me the good things that I needed to thrive. But after three miserable years of trying to find happiness apart from Him, I realized that I’d gravely misread the situation.

We don’t hear much about idols these days. It seems like such an antiquated idea, people bowing to wooden statues and expecting to be saved. How can they not see that those things are useless?

But what I didn’t realize was how much having a spouse, a job with career progression, and a church community to alleviate my loneliness, had become idols. If only I had these things, my heart unknowingly thought, I’d be saved from pain. They’d meet my needs for significance, love, belonging, and value. God + (insert idol) would make me content. And, if I really had to choose, it wasn’t God who I believed was the more effective of the two.

As He held those things back from me, and watched me rage and rail, God must have been rubbing His temples wondering, “How can she not see that those things will not save her?”

I can’t be certain, but I have a hunch why God ruined all my plans. If He had let me have those things I had wanted so badly, I would have depended on them to meet all my needs. I would then have to spend every waking minute ensuring I didn’t lose them, so that my needs could keep being met. Was I putting enough into my job to make sure I kept getting promoted? Was I being a good enough partner to make sure I wouldn’t be left? Was I meeting the expectations of my community to make sure I stayed valuable to them? Enslaved to a life of frenzied scrambling, I would have been reduced to a mess of insecurity and fear.

And when these idols failed to complete me—as they were bound to fail—I would have been completely shattered. What kind of damage would being so overwrought with fear have done to me? What kind of damage would I have done to the people I loved by expecting them to fill a need no human could fill?

It was out of His goodness that God upturned my life: to expose all the idols that I was relying on to save me. God refused to leave me deceived, clamoring for things that would not work. Instead, He led me to Himself: the True Satisfier (Phil 4:19). I’ve come to learn that being married or having a successful career or a church community aren’t dreadful things to want. But if I couldn’t survive without them, I know I’ve made them my idols.

Since I left my relationship and returned to God, there’s not been a day where I haven’t felt an excruciating loss. But there’s also not been a day where I’ve gone to bed without peace. God has come through, without fail, in quiet and surprising ways to meet the needs of the day. He turns my attention to the beautiful things He already has given me—my family, close friends, the work that I have—and lets me feel His presence through them.

 They aren’t consolation prizes, God tells me, but the very best things I know you need right now to heal. Sometimes He shows up in the books I’m reading, giving me answers to painful questions I haven’t even properly articulated. He even orchestrated an elaborate object lesson once, on my evening walk, to demonstrate how walking with Him will lead me into a life that suits me better than the one I had left behind. These things give me hope that I’ve not been forgotten.

Even without the things I thought I needed, I’ve been sufficiently . . . filled. In letting go of all the crutches that made me feel supported and safe, I can finally give God a chance to reveal His power and make my life whole.

I don’t have a clear vision of what my life will look like anymore. But I am starting to see that I am in safe hands. And perhaps this is as good a starting place as any.