Part 1

Year 2000 Cornell University. The start of the fall.

“What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” (Job 3:25, NIV)

The eczema that was see-sawing in my earlier years started to progressively get worse. The best medical practices at the time could only cure the symptoms short-term. All sorts of alternative treatments like chinese medicine and supplement still could not get me into the “sweet spot”of long term stability. Like plugging 12 holes in a broken boat with 10 fingers. The boat will eventually sink, it’s just a matter of when, depending on how many fingers you want to use to plug the holes.

Simultaneously, I was assaulted spiritually and emotionally.

On the surface, people knew I was dealing with a debilitating health problem, slowly and steadily robbing me of common things people could do. In addition, my dear mum passed away due to cancer and I suffered a relationship betrayal and breakup at the same time. Over time, I develop some OCD and symptoms of ADHD as well. However, what people didn’t know was that my struggle was not just in multiple directions, but multi-dimensional. My faith was undermined secretly by intellectual assaults as well.

I had to grapple with the full-force of liberal ideas about Jesus, taking 2 advanced classes in liberal religion classes. I had to grapple with multiple historical models by liberal scholars that Jesus was merely a man whose deity was embellished by bias Christians in an attempt for significance and power. Though an engineering student at the time, the professor gave me an ‘A’ for my final paper defense (32 pages of it) on the possibility that Christ could truly be what the gospel writers wrote about him. It saved my core relationship with Christ, but it still left me battle-scarred and tainted. I knew that if Christ was different from what was talked about by biblical writers, then all the powerful promises of God through Jesus would just be positive thinking – a placebo. A placebo works for people who have it together and need an extra edge, but not someone who is getting crushed by real forces in life. I kept the deep questions about the validity of the Bible in my heart for years as absolutely no one I met in Singapore, pastor or otherwise, could answer my deep scholarly questions. I couldn’t address it with them because I didn’t want to shake their faiths.

But because of my deep conversion to Christ before, Christ hung on to me. However, many days left my soul shrouded. The intellectual assault continually poked holes in my attempt to be child-like before God. Many Christians attributed my dissonance to a “lack of faith”, some even stopped me from serving because of it. They did not know that those judgments about me were far more damaging than my physical pains. They did not know that it was because of faith that I hung on while having blaring intellectual issues that they themselves never even had to think through before. Surely, they “jests of scars and never felt a wound”. It was quite insulting and sad at the same time. They compared their minor challenges which was confined to the limits of their more-or-less healthy world (which is their norm) with the depths of what I had to go through. Like Romeo and Juliet (where the quote comes from), it was ironically tragic. As ironically tragic as Job’s friends – who did the best for Job when they kept their mouths shut. It is when people don’t think they are condemning you – that is when the condemnation is of full effect. As they firm up their own views and egos, it leaves no room for you. When God’s people disappoint you for too long, it will eventually reflect on God himself. Was God there?

On reflection on the book of Job and my own experience, Job (including the discourses of his friends) essentially went through the cycle of Western Rationalism (all things must make sense to man) which leads to Existentialism (each individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately) which leads to Nihilism (nothing makes sense). Any man who goes through continuous increasing adversity and deemed irrelevant by society would go through the same cycle – things just don’t make sense and it leads to unyielding despair. The same was happening to me, and that’s when my seminary mates coined the term for me as the “modern-day Job”.

Yet despite my tumultuous past which led me into an Abyss of sorts, what caused me  ending up more along the lines of a CS Lewis and a Henri Neuwen rather than a Bart Erhman?

By the end of the book, I give full credit to the transformative grace of Christ… so please do read to the end, you will not regret it.

In the mean time, I find it useful to ponder upon Erhman’s perspective on the problem with pain.

I read Bart Erhman’s journey from being a Christian intellectual to a skeptic and I literally went through the same intellectual journey. I read many of the same books and had very similar observations. He writes in an article on how the problem of pain ruined his faith:

How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives?

… I read philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars, great literary figures and popular authors from Plato to Sartre, from Apuleius to Dostoevsky, from the Apostle Paul to Henri Nouwen, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot to Archibald Macleish, from C. S. Lewis (with whom I was very taken) to Harold Kushner to Elie Wiesel.

… My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.

Erhman recognizes the powerful and striking biblical answer for evil. But in the end, he claims he has seen too much meaningless evil in the world to accept the tenets of the biblical answer. But he is partially right in that suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation. Suffering can be redemptive in the hands of a loving God, but the problem is human nearsightedness and impatience. God is doing something, but it may take much longer before our human eyes can see it’s meaning.

Concurrently, he misses out a dimension in his retelling of the biblical tenets of suffering. By definition, an abyss is one of worldly hopelessness. But divine purpose can make the journey within the abyss meaningful because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For the world without God, the light at the end of the tunnel is an illusion. For the one being carried by the promises of God through Christ, the tunnel is the illusion, not the light at the end. The experience can be painful, but rich. Isn’t that what life is about? Meaningful, rich experiences? Have not the most beautiful art and songs been created under pain and despair? Behind those pieces of art (which is external) comes from an enriched heart and that sees portions of heaven when there isn’t any around.

Is that not exquisite? The arduous journey in the desert is long and hard in the sweltering heat, yet in the aimless monotony, do we not appreciate water multiple-fold? Do we not finally we beauty in the oscillatory nature of the sun and how it hides itself within the clouds? Do we not see oases and mirages that we would never have seen otherwise? Do we not start dreaming bigger dreams, even different type of dreams? Even delirea can serve the unintended purpose of exposing the subconscious, hidden things within our hearts. Do we not saturate with the whole range of the human experience from desperation to hope? Can’t the new realizations within the desert season be superimposed on to the new season to actualize your fuller potential and dreams?

Joseph wept tears of joy to forgive the very people who betrayed him to a long season of darkness. Yet God had used the very thing that betrayed him to elevate him into a higher position (governor of Egypt). This out-of-this-world goodness and grace transformed Joseph to then save, forgive and even thank the very people who betrayed him.

Here is where my perspective and experience differed from Erhman, I have gone through the Abyss and have seen where the escalation of pain and meaningless could take me, whereas he looks in from the outside. As far as I know, his major disappointments are a divorce from his 1st wife and a major disagreement with his church. That’s not an abyss. Outside of God, he could always have hope, being an intelligent healthy man, to build a life.

This book is not just to show you how the two bookends of my story worked out. That would be too trivial for you. That would also condone the convenient avoidance of dealing with people with true despair by superficial people. Superficial people want to hear the 1 minute good ending so that they don’t have to deal with what you have gone through, or challenge what could be a faulty worldview. Hence, I would not insult many of you who are currently in the midst of the Abyss. Let me also show you the intricacies of my evolution of my faith, heart and knowledge of God and this world as I extract the gems that came from the pressure of the 20 year capitulation and redemption.

I hope this does justice to your present struggle, dear friend in suffering. Know that you are not alone.
I hope this those justice for you, Lord; that it shows how unexpected and amazing your trans-formative grace is through Jesus.
Here is my story and the dark, light, pain and redemption along the way.

 

 

 

 

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