How do you experience God? Do you ever feel a physical experience of the Divine surrounding you? Or is it more of a faith-based experience of trusting that God is there, even if you never feel His presence?
For me it has been mostly the latter, although I have had times in my life when the former happened too. And I’ve been desperately hoping for that overwhelming physical experience of being surrounded by love and support for quite some time. But I just couldn’t find it.
pushing God away
If you’ve been following my journey, either here on the blog or over on instagram, you’ll know that life has been unbelievably hard for us over the past few years. It all started in 2011, when the pregnancy I had dreamed of for as long as I could remember, turned into the hellish torture that 9 months of Hyperemesis Gravidarum and additional complications bring with them. During that year my entire experience of who I am and who I thought I was meant to be came crashing down.
The following year, as my baby began to grow up faster than I thought possible (how could the months fly by when a year earlier they had dragged into a seeming eternity?) I remember being so angry with God. Why had He made me so deeply maternal that all I had ever dreamed of was becoming a mother, if doing so was going to destroy my body and my soul? I had to choose not to have another baby, and it broke me.
Which led me to starting to write a book and working closely with a charity supporting women suffering from severe pregnancy sickness. I thought that maybe this was the reason for my suffering, so that I could use my writing and organisational skills to help others. And in my desperation to find a new purpose (and avoid the deep grief I was feeling), I ignored all the warning signs that this wasn’t where I was meant to be.
reaching breaking point
Which leads me to 2014, which I have described in the past as my “breaking point”. It was a year in which I should have been happier than ever, but in reality I was falling apart. I was ill-equipped for the role I ended up in, and by the time I learnt the importance of boundaries I was already broken. I remember walking to pick my son up from nursery and I would just sob the entire way there. And I remember lying awake at night, running conversations around in my head and feeling sick with anxiety over it all.
In reality, my time working to support others was more traumatic to my mental health than my pregnancy had been. And the impact of running on that much adrenaline for so long began to have an effect on my physical health too. By the end of 2014 I had been signed off work sick, and I was miserable.
Then, one evening I decided to watch a replay of one of the Thrive Moms retreats, and at the end there was the option to pray and ask Jesus into your life. I had always resisted this, given that I wasn’t sure I really fit into the Christian community. But that evening I really felt the pull to join in. So I did. And I felt an overwhelming sense of security fall over me.
I remember ending the retreat and continuing my prayer, saying to God, “okay, I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t know how to get out of this situation, please, show me the way.” Immediately I thought of the word, “Surrender“. I just knew, in that moment, that I had to surrender everything to God, and so I did. A week later I found out I was being made redundant from my role, and I thought, “well there’s an answer to a prayer for guidance on next steps!”
learning to surrender
I remember, at the time, it all felt so simple. Nothing seemed to sway me, as I was riding high on the experience of having felt God with me so clearly. I had experienced moments of being connected to the Divine in the past, during meditation or whilst out in nature, but I’d never received such clarity in the moment. It was like a whole new experience for me, and I was on top of the world.
It felt like nothing could bring me down. I was turned down after 3 job interviews, each time because the employer felt like I was over-experienced (I was a graduate coming from a managerial position, applying for part-time admin work). I could see their point, but I also knew that I needed to take a step back in my career. I had a 3 year old son, and I wanted to spend more time with him whilst he was still young. So I kept applying, trusting that the right job would present itself.
A few months later it did, and I began working in a charity shop. I enjoyed the work, and it gave me 4 days a week to just potter around the house and enjoy being with my family. It felt perfect and I honestly thought, “this is it”. And then I got sick.
My health began to decline rapidly until I was signed off work sick in the Summer of 2016 and never returned. I would work 3 days and feel like I had the flu the rest of the week. I would get migraines lasting for days. I would wake up and feel like I would vomit every time I moved. My hips and pelvis became so unstable I could no longer use the stairs in our home properly. I became pretty much bed-ridden, and life was hard.
Whilst this was happening my husband’s health also declined, and we both ended up out of work and reliant on a cruel benefit system. Our son was also diagnosed with Autism. And within a couple of years my extended family experienced so much grief and pain (my Nan, my Great Aunt, and my Aunt died, and two of my uncles were diagnosed with cancer). It felt like blow after blow, and I felt incredibly worthless when my own health kept me from being able to support my family in any useful way.
faith in the darkness
However, throughout all of this my faith began to blossom. At a time when I realised I could no longer rely on myself, I had to learn to rely on something greater than myself. I began reading more about Christianity, and thanks to books like Setting Jesus Free, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes, Convictions, and The Case for God, I began to realise that my own relationship with God and Jesus was not only beautiful, it was also okay.
I had long believed that I would never fit in, and my fear of being “found out” for my more liberal (and “out there”) beliefs kept me from joining fully into a faith community. And yet I desperately sought it. I remember clearly feeling God impress upon me that it was time for me to take the next step, as I sang a hymn one Sunday in church. I realised it was time for me to choose to affirm my faith, and that day I spoke to the minister about being baptised.
Since then I have grown deeper and deeper in my faith, both through being in community with others who support me and through my own desire for answers and support during my suffering. One of my favourite parts in the Bible has come to be 2 Corinthians, in which Paul writes about his own suffering:
I cannot even begin to comprehend Paul’s experience of being content with his weakness, of which he experienced far more than I ever will. And yet, this speaks to me so powerfully of the idea that when we are weak we are made strong, at least where our faith is concerned. It is within having everything stripped away, all the things I thought that mattered most in giving me value, that I realised the true value of my worth as a human. It doesn’t lie in what I do or what I achieve, rather it is in my ability to live a good life, wherever I happen to find myself.
learning to let god in
And yet, despite all of these developments in my faith, I continued to feel distanced from God. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have faith, for I have always had that in abundance – in my darkest moments I have raged at God, and it’s hard to be angry at something you don’t believe in! Rather, it was that I felt like I was learning to understand God on an intellectual level whilst holding Him at arms’ length.
That’s not to say that the intellectual stuff isn’t important, because it is. Exploring the wider context of any spiritual teaching to discover how it might be relevant to your life is crucial. I’m a huge advocate of Biblical Literacy, as well as Interfaith Dialogue. I find it all fascinating, and something which deepens my faith. But there’s only so much you can read and think about faith before you need to experience it too!
So over the past few weeks I’ve been purposefully asking God to help me take that step towards him, opening my heart to the experience of Him, so that I could know Him in a deeper way. I’d become so caught up in trying to understand the nature of God that I’d lost sight of that experience I knew and recognised as the Divine. And over the course of a couple of weeks I felt myself being guided to make little changes, all of which left the gates open for God to sneak in.
so *that’s* what god is
This all led to a wonderful experience the other night, when I was laying in bed thanking God for having helped me to see changes I needed to make in my life. I knew that the clarity I was receiving could only be coming from a closer connection to God, and I was feeling gratitude for that. As I thanked Him, I felt this sudden rush of love sweeping towards me at great speed from all directions. And in that moment I knew – this was God.
“So, that’s who you are!” I said, smiling to myself. “How could I have forgotten?” I couldn’t describe the indescribable, and yet I found the words to express the experience. “You’re love, pure and simple. You’re everything. You both male and female, whilst also being neither of those things. You just are.” It all made sense, and though I felt the feeling ebbing away as I got caught up in my attempts to verbally describe the experience, I knew that a fleeting moment was all that I needed. When something is so powerful, you only need a momentary glimpse to keep you going.
I know now that I’ve been worrying too much about whether I experience God or not. The experience was beautiful, and I wish I could bottle it up and share it with everyone I know. But that’s not how it works. It isn’t necessary to “bottle it up”, because it is there for anyone to experience, at any time. God doesn’t stay away from us, it’s we who keep him at what we think is a safe distance, when we are too caught up in thinking we have it all figured out.
embracing my weakness
I also know, without a doubt, that I’m going to repeatedly do that throughout my life. I’m only human, after all, and I will often believe that I know what is best for me. Life experience has taught me very clearly that I often don’t, but I’ll still fall into the trap of believing I’m doing okay on my own. This is especially true when life is going well, but also true when things start to go wrong and I feel like I need to fix it.
So whilst I am a very long way from what Paul describes as being glad in his weakness, I can now see the depth of the truth within his message. For it is when I am brought to my knees, whether through pain or awe at the beauty of this world, that I truly open up to the experience of God.