Part 1 saw how God used a Cheese Snack, $5.32 and a pocket dictionary to teach me in Matthew 6:32 in a deep way. I gave God an 8-year-old’s year of savings, and God gave me something even more precious a couple days later.
For the pagans strive after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. (Matthew 6:32)
God was showing how He will not short change us in this world and we can trust and give our lives to Him. However, real life can be difficult and twisted. For years I thought it was a cruel irony that the beginning of decades-long frustration started with a loving touch from God. It felt like being stabbed in the back after sealing a promise with a kiss.
After this watershed moment, once my parents returned us back to Singapore, started a 30-year-struggle where my eczema would grow to be an overwhelming problem. Where a once-promising Ivy-League graduate regressed to a diseased Pariah.
The continuous blows to me till the age of 23 was severe, and it was just the iceberg of my problems. Me throwing the symbol of God’s grace, the prized dictionary, into the trash was a foreshadowing of my own life.
By the time I was 34 years old, an age where most peers are established in their careers and families, the eczema had worsened until I was forced to stay at home for the greater part of 2 years. Gone were the dreams that I could have any career, or a family of my own, for just going out would exacerbate my already unstable inflammations. My nerves were saturated with the burning pains of my body covered with sores. The high levels of immunosuppressants threatened future liver failure(1). It was hard to sleep. I was overweight. I would hyperventilate at times as I turned anemic. My mind was numb most of the time even in the day because of the constant painkillers and sleeping pills. I would lose track of time, not knowing if it was morning or evening. When there is no meaning or hope to life, all hours of the day look the same.
In the brief times where physical pains would subside and my mind is clearer, I would have to confront broken memories of how regressed from an ivy league graduate a broken, then non-existent career. I was forced to resign as an engineer even though I was set up for promotion in just one year, later I was forced to resign as a physics teacher even though I was voted best lecturer by the students, both times my body broke down. My romantic relationships couldn’t work; and, how after serving the church till I literally bled, so few people would even visit me, or call.
Wrong judgments on the severity of a person’s struggle often lead to more harmful judgments of character.
The most painful part of this was hardly the physical pains. Those were the easiest to bear. The pain hardest to forget is being misunderstood by family, doctors, and the church. The very same people who are to be the greatest source of support and comfort were also the ones that judged me, albeit unconsciously. Many thought I was either too lazy, too dumb, too unmotivated, too “psychologically damaged”, not having the right faith in God or not taking holy communion in the appropriate manner.
I was known as the guy that would cancel appointments at the last minute, forget mundane things to do, or turn up 20 minutes late. They judged my character because they underestimated just how the eczema ravaged both mind and body. Doing simple things not only became a big chore, but doing those simply things made the eczema worse. Even walking to the bus stop would cause inflammations that might take days to stabilize. I would never know which day would be worse than the day before until the day itself. I’d never know if an uncontrolled bleeding incident would make me have to spend another half hour treating myself.
I was trying so hard to cling on to any semblance of life, to meet, to do things, to serve. But many thought I was just irresponsible and unwilling – the same people never had deep conversations with me or visited me.
The biggest blow is seeing how my church supporters if I were to number them, dropped from 100s, to 10s, and finally to a small handful.
Around 2004, before the Abyss fully took hold on me, I was still active as a Christian speaker. A friend and church leader invited me to speak at church. After my address, his congregation was so impressed and considered my sermon “anointed” that he told me that I could speak at his church anytime I wanted. Fast forward 3 years later, I was trying to reach out, I needed people to hold my hand as the walls came crashing down. By this time I had stopped going to church because my eczema would worsen each time I went. This was the start of my isolation at home. I had no career and lived a painful existence. I knew I was wasting my parent’s money on medical bills. I seemed to be a financial and emotional liability to just about everyone.
I was thinking of ending my life.
Me: I can’t explain to you the despair in my soul. I know God, but nothing is working out. I know the promises of God, I’ve walked with Him deeply, but it seems He has turned His back, and no one seems to care.
Him: Ken, you’ve stopped going to church. If you joined us at church, and took part in worship and prayer, and “pray in the Spirit” you wouldn’t feel so alone, and God can work in your life.
(This was already hurtful because I was in active ministry leader in the past, did those things more than he ever did and yet my situation still got worse .)
Me: I’ve been trying for years, and I’ve stopped because it’s been getting worse each time I went. Now, my health has reached a bad threshold, my skin can’t take it. I can’t quite take a bus, and when I play drums for worship, my fingers bleed.
Him: I’m trying to help you Ken, but if you keep hiding behind your skin problem, no one can help you.
About a year later, I was on the tail end of serving the worship team on the drums. After one painful day of playing, I was close to exhaustion. Previously, I met the worship team once a month, but we never had quality interactions. Contemplating how I might have to quit going to church now, on top of my recent quitting of my teaching career, I finally pull the worship leader aside after breakfast. My fingers were bleeding because I played the drums. The eczema caused the skin on my fingers to split. I could feel the eczema spreading under my long pants.
In a pensive, anguished soft voice, I said: “XXX, I don’t know to say this … I think … I am dying.”
I said it slowly, with an earnest gravitas, and a sadness.
We never had a proper time of getting to know each other, but the way she responded totally threw me off.
“Please Ken, everybody is dying.”
She said in an exasperated tone and went shorty left to do an errand. She didn’t even bother to ask me why I felt that way. It was obvious that she belittled my immune system problem, and judged my character. I looked at my bleeding fingers that said otherwise. I did try to reach out to them, but they were too involved in their families. They liked socializing in cell groups, going for BBQs and having their kids play with each other, I didn’t fit in there since I could hardly go out. I was too different. I was only the only single and sickly guy among family people.
But just like the Job in the Bible, after years of hindsight, I discovered that my reality threatened their worldview. The reason why most could not understand the extent of my anguish is that they either could not understand how severe my disease was, or the type of relationship I had with God, or both.
That day, something in me died. I realized that I was truly alone now. If “mature” ministry leaders can’t understand, who can? Today, I realize that at times, leaders are appointed by the church because they have human charisma or confidence, and not always because they are mature in Christ. Maturity in Christ is usually borne out of victory over suffering and rejection. Divine courage is seen when you don’t have the support of the crowd, and not when you are the flavor of the month.
I approached these two “leaders” because I was in the Abyss, but their responses to me made me go even deeper in the Abyss.
They didn’t think the eczema was such an unwinnable problem and assumed that I had the wrong mindset, faith or character. This hurt me the most and taught me a lesson.
When people fail to assess the true reality of someone’s struggles, this physical misjudgments often evolve to character or moral judgments. We should check ourselves when we judge others, for if we are wrong, it may cause great harm to the other.
I finally started to realize how Job felt. What makes Job “Job” is not just his setbacks or sufferings, for many people suffer greatly. Actually, no one on earth can be Job, because what makes Job “Job” is that the world cannot help but despise him. And, there was nothing Job could do about it. They assumed to know his reality and cannot help but be severely mistaken. The prevalent theology of the day that everyone, including Job, abided by, is that if you do good by God, He blesses you; and if you do evil by God, He curses you. The Bible tells us that Job was the best of all of them, but God allowed the maximum of curses on him. His friends have no choice but to think Job is a great sinner that is unrepentant, while Job is left scratching his head wondering what he did that was wrong, and worse, what he could do to change God’s mind and the people’s mind. But there was no solution. I can imagine Job’s obsession and futility to find the reasons and the answers, it’s like trying to use your fingernails to carve a way out through the prison wall. God let the rest of Job’s friends play by one set of rules, and then changed the rules for Job alone. How impossibly unfair. In other words, he deserved so much more, and yet got the total opposite. Job was the most deserving of praise and blessing, and he got maximum curses and people’s scorn – this caused over 20 chapters of anguish for Job’s soul. A man grows mad when he doesn’t know who to blame, and worse, how to save himself.
Like Job’s friends, they have to believe I was doing something wrong in order to validate their worldview that they are doing better because of (fill in the blanks). The doctors couldn’t solve my issues with classical treatment programs, hence the problem must be me. Church mates seem to be blessed with a good job and family and I wasn’t, hence the problem must be me. In the end, I was simply crushed by the collective egos and worldviews of the people that simply had no room to explain what happened to me.
Many days, when I would see my disfigured face in the mirror, I contemplated smashing the reflection that reminded me how far I had fallen. And when I realized all I was good for was wasting thousands of dollars of my parent’s money for futile medical treatments, I wanted to take the broken shards and end it all. A slice on the neck or wrist, I would imagine.
I should be impaired or dead by now. If not by the disease, then by my own hand. I hope you reading this post in itself is an encouragement to you, because this post shouldn’t have existed.
Until today as I wrote this post, no one knew I felt this way. Not even my parents.
I felt thrown away by God and society.
In. The. Trash.
During the struggle, when reminded on that $5.32 watershed experience, I would feel betrayed as if my father promised to protect me, then did nothing as a fire was burning the house down. My soul would ask: Why did I spend so much time as a cell group leader in church? Why did I give my time and money to help my peers, or endure ridicule sharing the gospel on the street as an 18-year-old? I loved God, why did He allow a slow meaningless death tending towards irrelevance? I can easily take disaster and pains, I can easily take being crippled but a meaningless debilitation coupled with misunderstandings leading me to feel like a pariah is senseless. For what good is physical life, if you cannot connect with the world in a meaningful way; what good is trying harder than most, if you are going to be judged inadequate no matter how hard you try?what good is trying to enjoy some of the pleasures in life if physical pains dominate such that you can’t enjoy anything.
These questions would plague my subconscious, no matter how I might have distracted myself. (2)
And these questions would follow me into the 2-year period I called the Abyss. A period charactered by pain and reflection, as I was “imprisoned” by my own body, hardly being able to come out of the house, desperately trying to find the meaning to life.
(1) I was on 300mg of Ciclosporin. The maximum allowable for my weight. Studies show that patients on such doses for more than 10 years likely develop liver failure. So when I was on it, I felt I was on death row… except my death sentence would occur 10 to 15 years later so long as I can’t get the eczema under control. The year 2007, where my Abyss period started, would mark my 6th year of unsuccessful control of the eczema. I literally felt I had 4-6 years left to live.
(2) As a youngster, I had a childlike faith in God’s reality and love for us. But by the time I was out of college at 24, the cold indifference of the universe and the selfish, myopic nature of people exposed only by how they reacted to my downfall, led me to doubt. At worst, God doesn’t quite exist, and at best, the Bible is just a man-made document, so can’t really know the true nature of God. Do you feel the same?