I remember once reading a book, and I’m going to have to be very imprecise about the attribution here, but I think it was probably one by Jamie Buckingham. He described meeting an elderly man who had a particularly close relationship with God. He asked the man how he had come to know God so intimately, and received the reply, “How does anyone come to know him? Trouble!”
I was thinking about that this morning as I was taking stock of my own journey. I don’t claim to be close to God in the way that man was, but I do recognise that my journey has been bringing me closer to Him.
There has been “trouble” in my life. There is “trouble” going on now. In all of that, God hasn’t changed, but my responses both to Him and to “trouble” have changed.
As a teenager, I went through a very traumatic incident. The disturbance it caused built up in me for a couple of years, years during which I discovered the French Existentialists. By the time I had immersed myself thoroughly in their philosophy, I could see no point in going on, and made several suicide attempts.
After that, I found my way back to faith in Jesus by a rather intellectual route and settled into a somewhat cerebral relationship with Him that had little effect on my everyday life, though it did give me a taste for apologetics – that’s probably why I eventually ended up teaching religion, philosophy and ethics.
During that time I made a disastrous marriage, and began to make the first tentative steps towards finding God for myself. Like Leah in the Old Testament, I craved my husband’s love and dedicated a lot of time to trying to win it, and like Leah I gradually came to a place where I resigned myself to the status quo and praised God instead (see Genesis 29.35). I was beginning to form a very vague idea that my affirmation and self-worth could never come from any other human and would have to come from God. The trouble was, at that stage I had only the vaguest idea what God was like, and He was more to be feared than approached.
Four years into the marriage I gave birth to a very seriously disabled child. For 3 months she fought for life in hospital, and when she eventually came home it took two and a half hours to feed her, which had to be done six times a day, so fifteen hours out of every twenty-four were spent trying to feed her. Even so she failed to thrive and at five months old weighed only four pounds and fourteen ounces. In addition, she stopped breathing six or eight times in every twenty-four hours and I had to rush to her again and again, day and night, to restart her breathing. Sometimes she wouldn’t start, or only very inadequately and we had to make an emergency dash to hospital. During her first two years of life she was in hospital twenty-four times with pneumonia, her lungs damaged by ten weeks on a ventilator.
At fifteen months old, she was diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy and a learning disability, which subsequently turned out to be severe autism. God seemed to be a million miles away. If He knew what we were going through, He didn’t seem to care. This fearful, distant God whom I had decided to follow appeared to be quite absent in my hour of need. But then a friend’s testimony of how tragedy had drawn him very close to God caught my attention. I cried out to God that I didn’t care what I had to go through, I just wanted to reach that place of abundance which my friend had described. Things got dramatically worse as my baby became still sicker. But God intervened in a dramatic way (the story is too long to tell here). I began to realise that He did know what I was going through, and He did care enough to get involved.
Shortly after this, my life was quite literally turned around by coming across this verse in the Psalms: “Listen O daughter, consider and give ear; forget your people and your father’s house. The King is enthralled by your beauty. Honour Him, for He is your Lord.” (Psalm 45. 10-11). My false ideas of God were overturned in a moment. I saw that He delights in me and longs that I will feel the same way about Him.
Thus began a love affair that became the wellspring of my life. It carried me through another 27 years of painful marriage. I can’t pretend I have been as faithful to God as He has been to me. Shortly before my eventual divorce I remember quoting Shakespeare’s words to my pastor: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” But such cynicism couldn’t last in the face of God’s relentless love. As my marriage entered its death throes I came to appreciate and rely on His unfailing faithfulness.
The day I moved into my own home as a newly single woman, I didn’t even feel as if I was single, because I had such a strong sense of God moving in with me as my Husband. That’s why I haven’t rushed out to join dating agencies or look for someone new – Jesus is all I need, His love is sufficient for me.
There is still trouble going on – one of my daughters is seriously ill; one is having a crisis in her university course; my disabled daughter, now quadriplegic, partially sighted and with a profound learning disability is experiencing a lot of pain and all the while the DWP are trying to assess her as fit for work – a battle I could rather do without at present! I’m caring for my elderly mother, too. But one thing has changed along the way.
Never, even for a moment, do I doubt God’s love or blame Him for my hardships. Through it all, by an imperceptibly gradual process, He has drawn really close to me and poured His love into my heart. It has become a well that never runs dry; no matter what demands life is making of me I can always be replenished from that unending supply. Maybe by the time I’m as old as the man in Jamie Buckingham’s story, I will exude that same closeness and intimacy with God – I really hope so.
One thing I do know. None of this has happened because I’ve been a particularly good Christian, or have been exceptionally faithful to God. Quite the reverse. I’ve had my moments, my doubts, my wobbles, even my times of open rebellion. But God’s love has been unswervingly faithful. He is the Rock I can rely on no matter what in my life falls apart. I really love Psalm 91.4: “His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Yes. It’s His faithfulness, not mine, that has got me this far. All the pressure is taken off me when I realise that it depends on His faithfulness, not mine. Mine will wobble and shake and evaporate, but His remains rock solid. Trouble? It’s not what I would have chosen. But then again, if that’s what it took to know His precious, tender, faithful, sustaining love, it’s been worth every moment.