I am reading Aleteia editor Elizabeth Scalia’s Strange Gods right now and it’s cleared a pathway right to my heart. I want to share a special insight based on Scalia’s approach to idols (things that we inadvertently elevate and place between ourselves and God):
I have five past traumas or struggles that I am trying to understand in the context of my Catholic faith. Each affects a different category of life, but each has done damage to my sense of well-being, safety, and trust in God (which in turn damages my relationships with other people, my husband, and, you know, God).
Here I am, laid bare:
- A sexual relationship as a 15-year-old that involved abusive sexual behaviors and resulted in a serious case of psychological infertility that I’m struggling with now.
- An overwhelming experience as a high school teacher that led to an emotional breakdown.
- The activation of a chronic illness.
- A layoff.
- The sense of struggle and “lost-ness” I experience with my current (financially successful) self-employment.
When I reflected on these experiences throughout my counseling sessions, I started to form a few tough questions: Where was God during these traumas? If he is always with me, how did these awful things happen? Doesn’t the pain I experienced mean that God abandoned me? If God abandoned me, that means I’m really on my own, and in each of these situations I couldn’t trust myself or other people, because my thoughts and feelings and those other people led me to make bad decisions…. so, this whole thing is hopeless.
Glass Rainy Car Rain (2014) via Pexel, CC.
Even phrasing this question, my throat thickens a little and I feel the tears coming. Each experience on that list brought me a boatload of pain and alone-ness. I felt like a failure, an unwanted mess, and someone without hope. It’s been hard to see anything redeeming, valuable, or loving in any of those experiences… until now.
Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods But Me… Because It’s Not Pretty When You Do
One of the many special moments in Scalia’s book was the following:
…God — who created a world of order that far surpasses our attempts at order — points his cannons at those heaping compartments [of things we value more than our relationship with God]and goes “ba-boom!” And when we ask (because we never learn), ‘Why did you do that when I had it all so beautifully planned, thought out, and settled?’ God says, ‘It was blocking my love. My love couldn’t reach you with all that stuff in the way.’ p. 47
Reading this paragraph — in combination with the rest of the chapter, of course — was a “ba-boom” to my heart. God didn’t leave me when those things happened. He was there, hanging out. But I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at the idol I’d created of whatever I was dealing with, and that’s what let me down.
Each of those situations listed above was an idol I’d set up between God and myself. Here’s how they look with the veil removed:
- A sexual relationship as a 15-year-old that involved abusive sexual behaviors. –> My incorrect assumption: Love and lust bring fulfillment, security, and satisfaction.
- An overwhelming experience as a high school teacher that led to an emotional breakdown. –> My incorrect assumption: Education, knowledge, and passion for service bring fulfillment, security, and satisfaction.
- A chronic illness. –> My incorrect assumption: My physical body brings fulfillment, security, and satisfaction.
- A layoff. –>My incorrect assumption: Money brings fulfillment, security, and satisfaction.
- The sense of struggle and “lost-ness” I experience with my current (financially successful) self-employment. –> My incorrect assumption: Money and success bring fulfillment, security, and satisfaction.
I was relying on each idol to “see me through” and bring meaning to my life, when the only source of meaning that is permanent is through God.
Far from abandoning me, God gave me the freedom to make my choices. He waited patiently in the background while I built these idols and re-arranged my life to pursue them (doing whatever my boyfriend wanted without regard to what God intended for sexuality, pursuing a degree in teaching and letting it consume and pour out my life without feeding or filling myself back up with spirituality, etc.).
None of these failures were God abandoning me. He was with me when I sacrificed my body and my mind for each of the idols I created, and he was with me when each idol — inevitably — came crashing down.
But through each of these phases, I wasn’t with God.
When each idol fell apart, the ground under my feet dissolved. But it wasn’t God that dropped out, it was the idol that fell away (and God fell with me), revealing a huge pit of failure and wasted time because I had poured myself into yet another thing that couldn’t hold me. Each created a hole I tried to fill with other idols, which also failed. Until I realized I was on a path where I would have nothing left but God.
I Wasn’t Waiting On God — He Was Waiting On Me
There was a piece of the puzzle missing for me all this time: God wants our consent. He wants to be chosen. Until then, he is always with us, and he will turn what happens to us into goodness. But he can’t stop us from reaping what we sow, because that’s not how free will works.
God wasn’t passively watching me get railroaded by life over and over again. He was patiently waiting for me to realize that these idols weren’t worth my time. He was watching me get exactly what I needed: cut off from physical temptation, boarded up from pouring myself into my work, and withdrawn from the temptation of money, success, and ambition. And if he ever removed that choice from our hands, we would lose the amazing freedom that comes with choosing him.
I can now see that the pain and mourning I felt (and feel) for each of those struggles is not for the permanent damage inflicted on me at that moment, but for the idol I lost forever.
And now, what scares me most is that when the idol left, I let it take with it the goodness God intended, resulting in my current issues with my relationship with sex and love, knowledge, money, and success. I fear all of those things, even though they all have an equal portion of good allotted to them as bad. I also have deep trust issues for people in general.
I think my journey now is to rediscover the good that God intended and heal the burn wounds from my experience with idols… but this time with my priorities aligned with God’s.
Pursuing these things again — love (like God’s love), sex (like Holy Communion), knowledge (of God), money (my daily bread) and success (for the glory of God) — through a lens aligned with God before them all.
Have you ever felt like God abandoned you? What were you trying to hold onto, instead of embracing God?
A version of this post first appeared on the Sarcastic Catholic blog.
Copyright 2016 Hannah Jean Kahn