Have you ever been… in an Abyss?

“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Abandon all hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy.
Have you ever been inside an Abyss?

An Abyss is not just a difficult time in our lives.

It’s that no-mans-land where difficulties transition to impossibilities, suffering into anguish and disappointments into resignation.

It’s that place where it seems that the questions of life can never be answered and you might expire waiting for those answers.

It’s a place where your world shrinks down to the size of a pea and there seems to be no way to increase it again. It’s a place where we realize the world is an unfriendly and cold place and we don’t belong in it.

It’s that place where we believe that we might never have that which would make us happy again.

It’s a place when we are exhausted from fighting that losing battle, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it.

It’s a place in our lives filled with hopelessness.

We know we are close to it when we entertain thoughts of suicide, and when the idea of a loving God becomes more fiction than fact.

There is a difference between going through a hard time and going into Abyss.

Human beings can suffer through a great deal if the duration and purpose of the sufferings are known. The more you know how long the suffering will be, and the benefits of going through it, the more pain you can take. Pregnant women are willing to take 9 months of discomfort and pain because they know after that period lies the blessing of a newborn baby. If you told a suicide candidate that his sufferings had an expiry date, I am confident he will be able to hold on till then. People enter the Abyss and contemplate suicide then they believe there are no options left.

Those going through the Abyss don’t know how long or bad the suffering will be, and cannot see a purpose for it. There seems to be no silver lining or moral lessons to learn. This futility and emptiness of purpose do more damage than the physical discomfort itself.

The prisoners in Auschwitz. The slaves on racist slave plantations.

These people were treated like animals by other people, to work or for slaughter; and there was no way they could remove the chains that bound them by themselves. These people found out real quickly that the world is not a friendly place.

Job was in the biggest Abyss. Sores covered his whole body. He lost his family and business, all out of his control and completely undeserved. Instead of empathy, his “friends” judged him instead. They constructed their own stories about Job based on their own understanding of reality. God is good and rewards the good, curses the bad. Job had the worse curses reserved for very evil men, hence Job must have done something to deserve such punishment. That was the box his friends enclosed Job in. This box was so rigid and small that there was no longer any space for the real Job, only inaccurate images of Job conjured up by the extension of their pre-conceived religious sensibilities.

That futility. That blatant challenge to the notion of a loving God he deeply carried for so long, shaking the foundations of truths he held so deep and dear. The lack of answers. The rejection. The senselessness of it all. So incredibly lonely.

Auschwitz prisoners, slaves and the Job of the Bible.

Those are extreme cases, but today we have people who are closer to that Abyss than most.

The homeless, the drug-addicted, the chronically diseased. Women subjugated in middle-eastern religious extremism. Or, that person that could be suffering all of them at the same time.

How could any of them dare to dream or make something out of their lives? There are too many things out of their control.

My Abyss

I was somewhere in-between.

Since the age of 8, I’ve had severe eczema that got worse every year.

By the age of 34, I was forced to hospitalize myself at home for 2 years. This was the Abyss period was the darkest period of my journey.

I was jobless, career non-existent, with 70% of my body covered with burn-like sores that couldn’t go away. The rest of my body was thin and pasty due to too much topical steroid application over the decades.

Kenneth Koh Ezcema Severe LetterstoamoderndayJob Job
Decades of severe eczema. 70% covered with thick inflammations. Rest of flesh sickly and pasty.

The last decade saw me resign as an engineer in an MNC (the industrial plant was too hot), and then resign as a physics teacher (I thought the climate exposure was more comfortable) as the eczema went from bad to worse. I went from a promising Church youth leader that was invited to speak at events to now being unable to go to church regularly. Now I spend my days usually bent over in pain, my mind all hazy because of the unholy mixture of physical pains and drowsiness due to some of the anti-histamines and sleeping pills I was given.

Many people, friends, church mates, and even family gave up on me. They all had ideas of how severe my problem actually was or wasn’t , what the solutions were, and what was so wrong with me for God to “punish” me with this “curse”.

I was either too lazy, too unmotivated, unwilling to pray enough, unwilling to go to church enough or had the wrong type of faith. There was always something wrong with me. If I didn’t heed their advice, they assumed I failed because of it. If I took their advice and got worse, they would soon disassociate with me because they either didn’t know what to do with me, or they knew I wouldn’t be buying anymore of their products anymore.

The years of constant medicines and immuno-suppressants didn’t lead to a long term solution and left my immune system weak. My immune system was so weak that I was hospitalized, emergency warded, because of a sudden onset of cellulitis, an infection of the soft tissue under the flesh.

On the hospital bed, any wrong movement would result in sharp pains because my lymph nodes were as big as golf balls, I realized that was just a matter of time before my time is up. How many months or years left because my immune system critically breaks down?

I realized that I was slowly dying bit by bit every day. The emergency visit to the hospital put to the forefront what I had placed in the background for too long.

Few friends or old church mates visited. I could count all visitors on one hand.

Most harrowing was the idea that the longer this eczema could not be cured, the closer I would be to death. Left unchecked, inflammations lead to more inflammations, which lead to infections, which lead to deeper infections. This caused the cellulitis, where infections go from flesh level to the underlying tissues, which can cause life-changing damage, resulting in a closely monitored ward with an antibiotic drip by your side, wondering when your painful enlarged lymph nodes would finally subside.

Before this happens, the doctors would take out the big guns and give me a high dose of immuno-suppressants. These “knock” the immune system and makes my inflammations subside. However, these immuno-suppressants are not long-term fixes because prolonged use for more than 10 years will cause liver damage. After a couple weeks, the immuno-suppressant wears off, the eczema rages back quickly. I’m back at square one. I’ve literally had at least a hundred cycles of immuno-suppressant dosing and seen the eczema return each and every time. Each time cementing my futility a little bit more.

Having no solution for my worsening eczema means I need shots of immuno-suppressants. But these suppressants only buy me time. 10 years before the buzzer sounds.

So since 2001, I lived every year thinking that by 2011, the life that I knew would likely be over. Every year that passes without a long term solution made me realize that I am closer and closer to the end. So no matter what I do, whether it is enjoying a good book or a deep conversation with close friends, this idea will always be in the background haunting me. Imagine enjoying the company of a friend in a car while being the only one aware that you are going to have a slow-motion car crash.  Imagine trying to plan any sort of future knowing that there might not be a cure, and life will gradually be more painful until death at year 10.

It was hard to live this way.

It would take a miracle to heal from my eczema. The best doctors money can buy couldn’t fix it over the last 2 decades, why would anyone think I could recover from this?

Even if for some unknown reason that I break through this unbreakable wall of eczema, I felt I was too old to start all over again to make something of myself. During the months before I entered the Abyss, even finding internships were difficult.

The road ahead seemed to be a dead-end with an imposing wall, with too long a road that extended on the other side.

My metaphorical fists were bruised pounding on this wall for so long, and voice hoarse from crying out for help to which little came. The cellulitis came in 2008. Only 3 years left before I expected the doctor to say I have to stop the immuno-suppressants due to liver damage… and then the eczema would finally be free to consume all of me… I could picture the increasing inflammations to inflections to worse and having to accept that the world will not miss me when I am gone.

Only 3 years left. No solution. On the hospital bed, lymph nodes too swollen to walk.

This was my Abyss.

Truth not Comfort

I longed to be free of pain, to have a girlfriend, to be healthy, to have a career that I could be proud of.

I wanted to be comfortable. Everybody does.

But I was in the middle of a war zone. A war on my body. A war in my soul. A war on my faith.

During my Abyss period, I read hundreds of books of all topics. One reading came to mind. He talked about both war, religion and faith. So that reading was for me.

“In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I stopped looking for a miracle cure for the eczema. I stopped thinking of the hundreds things I might do to incrementally move up the worldly ladder. But I also decided to not live in the environmental bubble of my room, which slowed down the dynamically declining eczema. If I “got out there” more, I know I would accelerate my decline. But when pressed against the wall, what is difference between living 2 years longer compared to 3 years if those years were going to be meaningless anyway?

I decided to look for Truth.

Truth is a very obscure word. Truth about what? Which religion is best? Scientific truth? Why the stock market behaves the way it does? The mysteries of the human heart? What can we say about the origins of the universe that corroborates with personal experience, history and science?

All of it, I read as much as I could. Over a hundred books. From the madness of the financial markets to philosophy to Bible skepticism. I remember both books “God is not great” by Hitchens and “A Jesus I never knew” by Philip Yancey stacked on top of each other on my desk, stained by my leaving bloodstains and dusted up by dead skin. Books by Malcolm Gladwell, CS Lewis, GK Chesterton and about Warren Buffet and Jesse Livermoore filled my shelves. I would read until the pain was too great. I would take medicines to reduce that pain and then read again.

To put knowledge into practice, I opened a stock trading account and learned to trade … like a mad scientist, forgotten in a dark basement. I experimented based on the knowledge of dozens of financial trading books integrating what I hypothesized about human psychology and markets. The Great Financial Crisis was at hand, the market movements powerful and volatile like a great Tsunami, and I decided to be a voluntary surfer in it.

Most importantly, I decided to pursue as much truth as I could before I died and write about it.

At that moment I decided that, I “accidentally” got connected to the only full-time Christian apologist that was residing in Singapore. That meeting in itself was a divine appointment. I rarely went out, gone to church and lose contact with many, how did I end up finding him?

I peppered him with dozens of questions – from nuanced questions on church history, to the authenticity of the Bible. I used study textual criticism while in my liberal college and had many unspoken questions.

He couldn’t answer the majority of the questions and said, “your questions are way too broad, my focus is narrow. The best place to explore these questions is in Seminary. You should go to this one … ”

He advised me to go to Veritas Seminary, Murrieta, California.

If the Jesus I knew was real, I knew I had to have all these questions answered. There is no other hope for me save for the promises that only Jesus could give. No other religious figure on earth could make a promise and back it up the way Jesus did, I knew that Jesus was the only religious figure to claim to be God himself and can undo the forces of the world.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I placed my faith in medical institutions of knowledge, church-ianity, people, places and pop psychology. This is what the world is made of. None of them truly satisfied. Only Jesus was arrogant to say that the world only gives trouble and put faith, not in His teachings, but IN HIM.

Ballsy. And the only option I have left.

Because He said that He is more powerful than what the world offers, that’s why He can also say equivalently audacious statements that promise to make all things work out for good, and restoring what the world had stolen:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, NIV

God, your God, will restore everything you lost; he’ll have compassion on you; he’ll come back and pick up the pieces from all the places where you were scattered. No matter how far away you end up, God, your God, will get you out of there. Deut 30:3-4, MSG

I decided to have an honest search.

I also knew that going to a new country for a few months and braving the 24-hour plane ride would utterly destroy my eczema. The exceedingly dry air in the plane would desiccate me. Eczema patients do badly when its too hot, humid, or dry. We need a Goldilocks kind of climate.

I knew that if I went, I would likely cut my life down by a couple months since the eczema would spike because of the transplantation shock.

By “faith” in a potentially real God, I went to pursue Truth.

Either the Bible is fake and I’ll hate the Bible writers for all the false promises, or the Bible is worth exploring and it might just change my life in a way the other things couldn’t. Christianity is either the greatest investment we can ever have, or the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

I told God, “if you exist, I will pursue the Truth and it should lead to you. If not, then I am done. Life is ugly and the church is a farce. Either way, I will search and write a book about my discoveries. This will be my last legacy in the last 3 years.”

Unknown to my parents, my trip to the Seminary was to have the space to write a book before I would resign out of life. I would write on all my discoveries about life to that point. My observations having a debilitating disease, about the beauty, but short-sightedness and self-serving nature of the world, about the creative nature of humans to craft stories to allegorize and point out nuances of the world.

The book I had in mind at that point was going to be a one-part heartwarming one, showcasing how suffering can reveal many great things about people, but also another part a fatalistic one, that in the end, none of it matters and the world is not worth saving.

That was the story I had in mind.

Fast forward.

But I am one of the fortunate to have entered in an Abyss and had emerged in victory, surprising almost everyone.

I went to seminary to write a heartwarming and fatalistic book. A book split on personality as my own psyche. I wished God to exist, but felt He probably didn’t. I wished that the worldly pursuits were a means-to-its-own-end for satisfaction, but statistics showed it didn’t satisfy.

I found some of the answers that I seeked. I put my trust again in the Bible. I purported to try to make something out of my life, I embrace the Grace of God, kept Jesus in view, as I re-engaged the world. In the middle of Seminary, I started studying the CFA and CMT (Charted Financial Analyst, Chartered Market Technican). I taught my seminary mates how to get an edge on the markets. I had a chance to fly to Kansa City, the teach a Christian Business ministry class how I managed to correctly identify the absolute bottom (Mar 2009. I went all-in with whatever was left of savings in Feb 2009) of the stock market recent financial crisis. I decided to give whatever I could to the Kingdom, even if my health was going to give way soon.

Then God rewrote the story to one of powerful redemption.

This is the book I am trying to finish up now. I have to tell people what I learned in this whole process from having-it-all to hopelessness and back. I have to tell people what is the ideal mindset to have, to prepare the way for God to do His breakthroughs. He does His part, we also have a part to play. Too often we don’t know the extent of His part, and we play our parts in our own ways and not in the way God decreed in the economy of Grace.

A Biblical Redemption

Over the span of the next 8 years, God healed my eczema, one part supernatural, one part finding the correct balance of lifestyle (Grace and Wisdom!), to the point where doctors cannot explain it. I am taking only 30% of my original doses of immuno-suppressants and am high-functioning, while before, I was taking 100% of the dose and was low functioning. Just last year, I bumped into an ex-church mate at the bus stop (who was in a prophetic ministry), he was stunned. After a moment of silence, seeing my skin free of inflammations and having a healthier sheen, he asked, “Which prophet prayed for you? Which church did you go to?”

I told him, “only the best one ever – Jesus. And, He came to me when nobody wanted to… while I was isolated in my bedroom and unable to go anywhere. He was preparing my future while almost everyone else wrote me off.”

He didn’t know how to respond. He always thought that I was either sinning too much. Or I had a curse on my life that only an anointed man with the right qualifications can pray for.

I learned that Jesus is enough.

And living a disappointed life, sinning to numb the pain, in a forgotten prison, is not enough to repel Jesus’ love, and His power to save.

That’s God’s redemptive style, it always surprises.

The only qualification? Not your works or worldly qualifications. But that you are broken-hearted (Ps 34:18, Matt 5:3) and your broken-heartedness leads you to call out earnestly to Jesus as a Savior (Rom 10:10).

Isn’t this such comforting news? You don’t need fancy methodologies, the favor of church leaders, praying in tongues, or the laying of hands of “anointed” people – an earnest cry to Jesus, and then to explore and walk the ways of Grace is enough.

I just realized that my story is like what you might find in the Bible.

Isn’t it so eerie that the Bible is a living document? You keep reading it, accepting it’s truth, and you might up living a Bible story? The Bible says the more you see Jesus in an unfiltered way, “the more you are transformed into His likeness.” (2 Cor 3:18)

When I investigated the word of God, I thought I was scrutinizing it, thinking I had the power to condemn it if I found it wanting. Little did I know that the Word of God was scrutinizing me instead, with the power to save me.

God didn’t just reserve a spot in heaven for me. He did much more. He is the God of the How Much More.

So from having no professional experience in business or finance at the time of my Abyss, I ended up spending 2 years in the Bible seminary – God wanted to firm up my understanding on certain theological aspects. After this time, God opened doors for me to be a professional stock market analyst and then a senior business analyst for a large Radiology firm hired directly from Singapore to the USA. To give some context, virtually no one in Singapore gets hired directly to the USA for a senior role unless you have a Ph.D. or you have a stellar reputation coupled with years of experience. I didn’t have any professional experience in the business of radiology or operations research which I ended up doing.

While working as a senior business analyst, for my side hustle, I continued managing my own funds and some of my family, trading the stock market. With all glory to God, and I know I could never have done this without God’s favor, wisdom and bringing the right information and friends to me at critical trading moments, I outperformed the markets on average for the last 8 years. God was “making up” for the lost career and lost savings in the decade prior to the Abyss. God is faithful, and that is His redemptive style, that you are restored more than you lost.

A decade ago, I didn’t have much money or a career. I seemed doomed to live with my parents, living with special needs. Today, I am sitting comfortably in a home that I fully own, being able to pursue what I need to pursue, traveling back and forth from Australia to Singapore, unhindered by sickness. Unthinkable. I still pinch myself today, remember how I couldn’t even go out of my home, let alone countries. I am enjoying the warmth of the sun, whilst before I would avoid it at all cost because it would accelerate my inflammations like a vampire.

As much as I saw that almost nothing I could do to stop me descending into the Abyss, when God’s grace activates at the proper timing, nothing can stop God lifting you up either.

My ex-seminary mates called me the “Modern-Day Job” because of these experiences.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”
– Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

What happened during my Abyss period that started the change that eventually changed everything?

This is what this book is to unpack.

My hope is to share the life-transforming truths to those who are in positions like my own… those in their own personal Abysses.

I want to unpack certain Bible truths and life lessons that I never knew even after more than 20 years in Christian leadership roles. These lessons I could never have learned without going through not just dark times, but very dark times.

If you are presently going through this Abyss, let me leave you with something prematurely: you have a tremendous opportunity. This opportunity will not be recognized by others but is available to you. You will get a chance to the world and God very differently than before. And, in that space between how you saw God and how you will see Him later is how much more your legacy will eventually be.

Just as real faith is seen better in the dark, so is God’s grace. In fact, everything that is worth pursuing is always seen better in times of testing and trouble, and not in times of comfort and entitlement.

Why I am Writing

Those going through the Abyss have very special needs.

Those going through a difficult time have different needs than those going through an Abyss. Those going through a difficult time need to be told to have an open mind, to have perseverance, to not give up, to be motivated. Those going through the Abyss need the same things, but they also require a miracle, a powerful Grace working with them on top of purpose, clarity and assurance.

But while waiting for that miracle to occur, the challenge is making sense of all the madness, to find beauty in darkness and what mindsets to have in the meantime to hasten the restorative grace God has in store for us.

While struggling through my Abyss period, I remember how I yearned for someone to help me make sense of this all and to share with my knowledge that could empower me through a difficult time. I yearned for anything that could give me reasons to hold on just for one more day.

And so, I write these letters today for those who are currently going through the Abyss. In doing so, I am vicariously writing to my former self. I write these letters sharing a Jesus I never knew and a Grace more powerful than I originally thought. I want to share what I know now but needed to know back then but had no one to tell me. As I write, I am picturing exactly what I would tell my early self. That man dying alone in his bedroom, hidden from the world where nobody thought he could amount to anything.

These are the 10 letters written to a Modern-Day Job.

May they guide your way through the Abyss.

May the Abyss that threatens to diminish your life serve to enhance it, and your service to others. Only the healed can truly be healers. Only the brave can be real inspirations to others.

There will be a victory. There will be a breakthrough. There will be reasons.

We just need to hold on until God changes the seasons.

I hope these letters can help you do just that.

 

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