I have thought a lot about writing an article for the magazine I help put together every quarter. Many times I have put pen to paper and written about university life, my testimony and my faith. I have dismissed them all for one reason or another. As I approach the end of my time at university, I feel now is an appropriate time to share a little of my journey with God over the past six months.
For those of you who know my family, you will know how very fortunate I am to have such wonderful parents, and to have had such a safe and happy upbringing. To an extent, there is little to complain about. Paradoxically, but equally as valid is the reality that life is, at points, extremely hard. The past two and a half years in Bristol have proved to be the happiest to date. It has been, and is continuing to be, a wonderful experience.
Last summer, as I approached what I have found to be the most busy and stressful term of my degree so far, something in me shifted. It is extremely hard to pin down or articulate, but I began to find myself becoming angry. This wasn’t an ‘I’ve stubbed my toe or misplaced my keys’ kind of anger. This was a deep-rooted, painful anger that grew in me as if from nowhere, with no real stimuli. It was directed at God entirely. I became embittered by unanswered questions and unanswered prayers, dissatisfied at the ‘copy and paste’ Christian answers I received that “the world isn’t as God intended”. I knew all that, I have been in church my whole life. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to know why hell existed, why bad things happen to good people, why God wasn’t intervening in areas where he was being cried out to. I began directing my anger inwards, frustrated at myself for being a product of the church, regurgitating Christian clichés in situations I didn’t understand. I look around my church here in Bristol with its 1000 strong congregation as people throw their hands in the air, praising God for all His goodness, and I am angry at them too. As Philip Yancey states in his book ‘Disappointment with God’, “You can’t have it both ways...If God gets credit for the survivor, he should also get blamed for the casualties.”
Irritatingly, Martin, our student minister, makes it mandatory for student leaders to attend the Woodlands weekend away. I am a student leader. I begrudgingly took my baggage, both physical and emotional to Chepstow, and there spent a frustrating weekend around wonderful but overly joyful Christians. I listened to the sermons, I joined in discussions, and all the while I got angrier. That day we had been on a walk through the countryside, fumbling over rocks alongside the river. I had been told that every year there’s always one person to slip in the mud. Unsurprisingly it was me. As I slipped, I went to grab onto a branch which, unbeknown to me, was rotten. It crumbled in my hand, and a furious family of woodlice were revealed as I fell into a puddle of mud. This serves as an accurate metaphor for my faith. I trusted it to be strong, but when I really tested it, it crumbled and I fell.
Later that evening, I sat with Martin as I shared the overwhelming pain that filled my heart. I was trying so hard to find answers and search for God. At no point have I stopped attending church, seeing my mentor, or surrounding myself with helpful and encouraging people. As we talked, I told him I felt unequipped as a student leader and I needed to stop. There was no way I could lead a group of Christians when my faith was in tatters. As I cried, Martin told me this:
“I had a picture a few years ago of a fabric factory. It was my factory, and I was standing outside it having my photo taken for the press. It was full of beautiful materials and huge rolls of silk. I was so proud. What I didn’t know was that behind me, someone had planted a bomb inside, and in doing so, destroyed everything. I walked around my factory, desperately trying to collect and restore the burnt and ruined fabrics, attempting to sew back together a roll, at least one roll. What I realised was that this factory represented my faith. I was so proud of it all, and in an instant it was gone. And I had to answer to God because he was the author and perfecter of it. Ashamed, I presented to Him the ruins of my single roll, badly sewn and burnt. God turned to me and said that it was enough. It was enough.”
This was one of the most important moments of my journey in faith. Martin received this picture shortly after their 11 year old son was killed in a hit and run accident. As we sat in tears, Martin told me that if I needed to stop being a student leader, then that was okay. He then added that if I were to continue, my tiny ball of burnt, crumbled faith would serve as an incredibly powerful image of what it means to truly follow Jesus. We’re so proud aren’t we? We’re so proud of what our faith says and how it impacts others. About our prayer lives and our acts of service. There is a lot to be said, I think, for the humility found when we accept that God is hard to understand, and not everything is black and white. If we're hurting, let’s be real about our pain. It takes a lot to lay yourself bare to those around you, and admit that being a follower of Jesus can be hard. I walked away feeling free. Not because all was right with God, but because I had found revelation in Martin’s story. I feel compelled to encourage you that wrestling and doubting and questioning God is healthy. I sense time and time again that we feel pressured that our faith be a spotless beacon of light in great darkness. The reality is that however hurt or angry we are, God uses it. I actually think that often our suffering speaks louder than when we shout about how good God has been to us. The bible is full of these people - Job as he grieved, David as he cried out to God, Jacob as he wrestled with the angel, Thomas as he doubted. It’s a timeless feeling and it’s as real today as it was then. I have spoken in past tense for much of this article, but I am very much in the same position. I still am angry and hurting, and my misshapen faith leaves much to be desired, but at least it’s my own. For the first time, I feel a release in being completely honest about my faith.
I am still a student leader.
By Eleanor Shakespeare