I was seven years old when I got in my first street fight in the only tenements that my parents — struggling poor Koreans they were — could afford. I had fought a much older single mother and lost. To my credit, she started it. At twelve years old, I decided I was an atheist. At fourteen, my parents divorced, as if to confirm that God couldn’t exist. At sixteen, I had my first drop of an ensuing ocean of alcohol. That same year, I went to what they called a “Gentleman’s Club” and stumbled upon a terrible addiction. By nineteen, I had lost my college scholarship and dropped out with a 0.9 GPA. By twenty-two, I had swallowed a bottle of pills over the girl I was living with, who had cheated on me twice. I spent time in what they call a “mental institution,” which was perhaps an improvement over the Gentleman’s Club.
I understand these problems do not compare to those of the world over: but the contrast was that I hardly felt anything. I was following the latest, loudest emotion, just the exit ramps to the bigger neon sign. And soon I was staring into the mouth of a senseless life with little purpose and no meaning — and it was all rather hilarious.
In my apprehension towards all-things-God, I would stay up until three in the morning watching the ceiling fan, knowing there was more to life than the empty vacuum of sweaty drunk faces and the smear of red-and-blue cop car lights. At some point in college I was certain that God was at least a real being, if only because I had looked into the face of nothingness and knew that no one could possibly sustain a life in that direction. But I didn’t want there to be a God, not with a capital G. It was horrifying to think so. It was crazy to think I couldn’t call my own shots and that I was somehow not the main character of my own existence.
I went to church anyway. Quite faithfully, too. I got caught up in the music, the messages, the social fervor, that moment after the sermon in the lobby when no one talks about the sermon. I started bringing my friends by the dozens because I was good at that sort of thing. And somewhere along the line, almost imperceptibly by degrees, I started hearing the messages. I really started listening. I heard about a God who loves us and became one of us and died for us and defeated death and invited us into the best relationship there is. Not a God who gives us everything we want, because that would be no better than Santa Claus with a pager. But a glorious, grand, dynamic, pulsating God, who was writing this incredible drama with His Son at the apex of history and letting us all in. Even letting me in. Almost by accident, to my growing disdain, I was feeling alive for the first time.
A few years in, I went to this huge conference. There were probably 10,000 people. I was both excited and uneasy because it rubbed against my dislike for the institutional manufactured hype of religious emotionalism, but then it was quite a sight to see so many Christians singing and praying and even taking notes during the sermon. The praise leader, Matt, was apparently famous and he shared his testimony. He said when he was just a kid, he had been molested by his uncle, and in that same bed, Matt had written worship songs.
I couldn’t comprehend this sort of resilience. That sort of hurt would’ve turned me off God forever. And I came around to thinking that my hatred against faith was merely a conditioned childish rebellion against Santa Claus and not the real God, because my childhood was all kinds of unfair and screwed up and wrong. I had been shaking a fist at a phantom of my own trauma, wrought by a misconception of “God” who I could blame any time I didn’t get what I wanted . I thought my objections were intellectual and foolproof and full of scientific defense, but really I was just regurgitating the same anger that the human race had displaced from their disappointing parents onto the easy target of a keychain-pager-God.
There was suddenly the invasive uncomfortable idea that perhaps God was real and He had a name and He actually wanted to know me — and He didn’t wave a wand to make everything easier, but He did promise Himself inside the furnace of our broken chaotic mess.
Predictably enough, I began to cry. I couldn’t stop. I was with my friend and he began to cry too. We were both really embarrassed but we prayed for each other, and I think I heard God say, “You have a story to share.”
At the end of 2007, I applied for my seminary. Despite my really weird school record, they graciously accepted. It turns out that ministry is not a picnic, at all. No one told me how hard it would really be. But as I took those first baby steps into loving the unloved, I found that this was the path I never knew I wanted but had always been made for. I began to believe God made me to share a story: namely, His. I went feet first into the places where no one else would go , to wretched doubters and picketing haters and the impoverished and ostracized and fatherless, and there I would tell them about grace and a mission and a final home, and that this earth was not it. I embraced the calling to give away my life so that others may see life. I’m not saying that you need to be a pastor. I’m not saying that you need a wild story to be “useful.” I’m not saying there’s a binary choice between the world and your soul.
I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else. I just know what God can do through people like me, and like you.
I’m still not sure that God uses such pain to make us stronger. But I believe He can make us stronger than the pain.
This is our testimony.
When you call out to Him: He has been calling to you all along.
— J.S. Park