When you are 17, everything is either absolutely wonderful or absolutely terrible. Thankfully I missed out on most of the drama, because I was homeschooled. But we had recently moved back to Tennessee and I felt so alone. My only real community was church and the friendships I made there. Over time, church morphed into my god… I was completely obsessed with it. And it felt so right, because, after all, wasn’t I really just obsessed with God?
It wasn’t until extenuating circumstances caused us to leave the church that I made this discovery. I remember sitting in that business meeting feeling like my entire future weighed in the balance. I was surrounded by people that I knew genuinely loved me, and they would never know much I genuinely loved them. But, when it came down to it, I loved them more than I loved God. And He would not have it.
Perhaps one of my favorite attributes of God will sound weird to you. I love that He is jealous. I love that He pursues us and gets jealous when He sees us running to other lovers, believing the lie that they will satisfy and fulfill us.
When I was younger, I read the Ten Commandments and dismissed the very first one. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. “Oh,” I thought. “That’s for the Hindus.” I was about to find out how close to home that command was.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing is when you make a god out of spiritual things.
It’s so sneaky, the way the enemy works. The way he allows us to have just enough spirituality to make us feel good about ourselves, without ever having to be on fire for Jesus. How he can tempt us with just enough service and being good and being better than someone else to keep us from falling in love with Jesus.
That night was the last night I sat in that pew. We left in search of a new church. I left in search of new friendships and meaning and in search of where in the world God was. I have never cried more tears than I did in that six month period. It affected me so deeply that there are still days here and there scattered amongst adulthood where I just have to have a good cry over it. It was the axis of my spiritual life.
During one of those crying spells, I remember sobbing into my bedsheets as I knelt on the floor. How could you, God? You left me with nothing. Why did You give it to me, just to take it away?
And as clearly as I know my name, He softly said, “You don’t know how long I’ve given you on this earth. I want you to influence a lot of people, and you can’t do that if you always stay in once place.”
It wasn’t especially comforting at the time. An itinerant wanderer wasn’t on my list of “things I want to be when I grow up.” I went off to college, desperately trying to find a group, to be accepted, to know that someone wanted to be my friend, still in search of someone who would tell me I was valuable.
If we had not split from that church, my life would have gone in a totally different direction. I would have stayed more local for college, and would not have met some of my best friends… ones who would later accompany me down to the marriage altar, knit me free scarves, provide me with deep and lasting friendship, and even offer me a job. It was the distance from Tennessee to Florida that ripped in half the cord of attachment and taught me to make my faith my own…to find out Who God really was. I had believed so many lies about Him.
As a teenager, I sat on my friend Christa’s couch and told her and her husband that if I had a big event coming up, and I was trying really hard not to offend God so that I would look good. They looked puzzled, so I tripped over my words to explain. If I have a zit on my face, I think God is punishing me. When their chins dropped, mine did, too. I didn’t realize I actually thought that. It was a huge moment for me when I discovered that I didn’t truly know God’s character at all.
I had been reading the Bible faithfully, like a good first-born girl should do, but I was reading it looking for myself. Something to help me, to comfort me, to make me feel good. I was searching for meaning and value and narcissism in its pages, looking for ways to feel good about myself, to improve myself, to find worth in life. I highlighted passages that told me how loved I was, how valuable my existence was. I clung to anything that promised me prosperity and affection. I was in a very dangerous place indeed.
My life verse was Philippians 3:10, but it was like I totally skipped over the part about suffering. I wanted to know God, but I wanted it to be painless. I didn’t truly know the heart of God.
Once in college, I began to actually search out the things I was being taught in class each semester about the Bible. I began to see the Book as something that truly had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t my road map, primarily. It wasn’t solely a love letter to me. It was a book about God, and that would change everything; from how I read it, to how I applied it, to ultimately how I saw God for the first time.
When I no longer had anyone I loved and respected at church to teach me what the Bible said, I began to spend time getting to know Him. I have basked in His Word, searching for Him. And it’s actually very freeing and refreshing to realize that life isn’t about me. That the Bible wasn’t written to give me value. It was written to show me how much God loves the world, yes, but ultimately, it was to written to paint a picture of this God we serve. The Bible was written to reveal The God of the universe to us. How it must grieve His heart when we use it only to benefit ourselves. When we only open it when we are in crisis. When we only use it as a magic 8 ball, flipping open to a page and mindlessly pointing to a verse to find our fortune.
I look back on those tear-stricken days that turned into weeks and months, when I mourned my new reality, and the losses that were so deeply felt by a girl who was lonely. But God was gracious in allowing me to feel the loss, because I had a void inside of me that I was trying to fill with everything but God.
“When has a loss of some kind ushered in a season of new possibilities, hopes, changes or responsibilities for you? How does the knowledge that God is with us help us navigate times of change?” Jen Wilkin posed this question in Bible study last week. I now know how I would answer that last part.
With everything that I grasp at to fulfill me or determine my value, I self-destruct.
With every change, He remains the same.
With everything He takes away, He replaces it with something way better.
With every loss, there is tremendous spiritual gain.
With every no, there is a greater yes.
Yes, He is true to His promise to work all things together for good in the end. It might not look good now. Sometimes, it means living in prison for over a decade for nothing you’ve done wrong in order to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Sometimes it means being accused of unfaithfulness in marriage in order to birth the Messiah. Sometimes it means having everything you love on this earth stripped away from you in order for God to show you Who He is. To show you that what He does? It doesn’t have to make sense.
But the greater promise that I cling to? Not just that He gives me better things than the things I desire.
But that He replaces the idols with Himself.
Whatever thing you’re holding onto? Empty your hands so that you can take His. Let Him lead you through the green pastures and by the still waters and through the dark valleys. Let Him usher you in, to joy mingled with pain. Into a new season. But more importantly, let Him usher you into His presence.