I see a hand when I am fourteen. Immaculate and outstretched. It beckons me off of my knees and off of the ground that I had fallen onto at a college auditorium in Indiana, where I had traveled for a Christian retreat but first and foremost, in my heart, for a social time with my friends.
I was raised in a Christian household. I grew up attending every form of church: Presbyterian, Methodist, General Protestant military chapel services. I thought I knew God because I had spent my life hearing Bible verses every Sunday. I said I was Christian the way I said that I was American, that I had family in Korea, that I liked musicals and I didn’t like ranch dressing: it was one of many facts about me. But it wasn’t until I saw His hand that I realized I had never actually believed God existed.
That night in Indiana, the minister encouraged us to spend an hour reflecting on our past year and praying. Images flooded my mind with astounding vividness: a small, bespectacled girl in clothes too big for her, curled up on a chair in a dimly lit room, crying by the window because she didn’t think anyone cared about her enough to miss her if she ended her life. And then I heard His voice, rich and resonant, embracing His scared, broken, and lonely child:
“I was there with you the whole time.”
I had gone to Joshua Generation to see my old youth group from Kansas City, friends I had spent just one precious year with before the military had uprooted my family yet again and shipped us across the ocean. After two of the darkest years of my life, I just wanted to feel high on love from other people again, love I had felt so starved of during those past two years. I had forged my way to Indiana in pursuit of a well that would quench this desperate thirst and prove that, despite what my heart had come to believe, there were people who loved me. I didn’t expect to receive from God’s well and to learn what His love was.
I thought I was Christian. Jesus showed me I wasn’t. He saved me from a lifetime of performative worship of an abstract idea and asked me to come talk to the person He was instead.
After dinner on the first night of a college ministry fall retreat, the staff intern brings out a large sheet cake adorned with candles, singing Happy Birthday. I sing along, smiling, wondering who it’s for. Then the cake lands in front of me.
“Happy late birthday!”
Days earlier, an hour before the retreat bus left campus, I had broken down in my dorm room. What had I done, signing up for a retreat in New Hampshire less than a month into college, surrounded by people I didn’t know and others I had just barely met? What if the weekend away made me feel even more scared and alone? When we arrived at the campsite, I watched people congregate at tables in the canteen, laugh and talk and make plans together. I searched for an empty seat, memories of the high school meals I ate at odd times in odd places—classrooms, libraries, everywhere except crowded and social cafeterias—filling my mind. I wondered if I had made a mistake.
On the first night, I called my mother in the cabin bathroom, voice hushed. “I don’t think I’m fitting in here.”
“Be patient,” she said. “You have one more night.”
When I got into bed, I stared at the bunk above me and asked God for a sign.
The next day, I receive a birthday cake. My face burns and my ears ring.
We worship in a cozy chapel that night, where I feel toasty and warm and small, eyes closed, hands raised. My body tingles with the awareness of the cold campsite air and the expanse of the land miles and miles around us. I feel miniscule and far away from everything, and for a moment that scares me. Then I hear Him, a rich and reverberating voice speaking one simple sentence in Hangukmal.
(It’s the first time I’ve heard God in Korean. It hadn’t occurred to me that He spoke it, too.)
“,” God says.
My lip quivers.
“You’re doing well. You came out all this way. I see you. It’ll be okay. Just hold on a little longer.”
I am back in New Hampshire for my second year, this time with less baby fat, new clothes, and a new position on the spreadsheet of cabin assignments: Small Group Leader.
Sophomore year is my glow-up. It’s the year I turn my life around—because until now I have been ugly, and starting now I will not be. Starting now I will draw in my eyebrows and fit into my jeans, and I will say smart things and mentor new first-years because the new Karis will be known as kind and beautiful and intelligent, and she won’t be judged for being antisocial and having no friends and sporting a lot of splotchy flesh in her cheeks.
The new Karis won’t feel excluded.
(I am terrified that people will go through my Facebook and discover old pictures of me and not want to be my friend.)
But God is silent again. I thought His hand three years ago could serve as enough of a miracle to sustain me. But fear of being judged comes with fear of being stupid, and I keep wondering whether I was making it all up in my head. I wonder whether I have placed my faith in the wrong thing, and if I’m just gullible. I hate being gullible. I hate feeling like a klutzy and awkward lump who takes up unnecessary space. When I was fourteen, I thought that knowing Jesus would cure me, but why are my pain and my fear still here? Why have they gotten worse?
I don’t know what my legs are doing as I walk up to the guest speaker after the Q&A. I want answers to questions I don’t know how to ask. What ends up tumbling out of my mouth is something like: “It’s a new year, and I came here as a leader, and I want to be perfect but I’m not. I came to Christ three years ago and I thought that would be enough, but I’m doubting whether God even exists.”
The pastor doesn’t attempt to placate me. He doesn’t offer platitudes. He doesn’t echo the old words I have been repeating to myself about having hope and God being good, things I’m not sure I understand right now and that will make me want to yell and cover my ears if I hear them.
Instead, his smile is so wide and goes from ear to ear.
“Thank you for telling me,” he says. Then he asks me for my name. And then, “As I drive home tonight, I will be praying for my sister Karis.”
Maybe it’s a leap of faith to believe that he will. But I do. There’s hope in me yet.
“I get it,” I tell my ministry intern, waving my arms. I place the book she lent to me on the table between our coffees. “I realized why there has to be the Trinity.”
God the Creator, Jesus the Companion, the Holy Spirit that Resides in us. All in one and yet completely distinct. I am reeling at the realization that perhaps I am, as they say, forming my theology. I am learning of the character of God. Certainly I don’t understand everything, but moments of clarity are brilliant and golden, and they ring in my ears the way only a heavenly voice can.
I didn’t realize how much of the Apostle’s Creed I didn’t understand before until Sunday comes and it hits me that this time around, the words are striking my heart.
It’s a harmless conversation, one that my parents had no intention of following through with.
It goes like this: Korean Boy grew up in church but went to college and doesn’t really know, or care, what he believes. His Christian Korean Umma is concerned. Christian Korean Umma meets another Christian Korean Woman and learns that Christian Korean Woman has a Daughter who is around the same age as Korean Boy, and this Christian Korean Daughter actively goes to church and believes in Jesus. So Christian Korean Umma asks Christian Korean Woman if they can set their children up on a date sometime, so that maybe Christian Korean Daughter will become Christian Korean Girlfriend and make her son Christian Korean Boy.
My parents have no intention of regarding the passing comment as anything more than trivial. My mother laughs as she recounts the story to me and my father. But my blood is boiling.
“I’m not a tool,” I say, not realizing how venomously I meant it until the words have been spat out of my mouth.
I know that my parents don’t see me as one, nor have they ever been anything but a dynamic example of the healthiest marriage I know. But between this Christian Korean Umma and a lifetime of witnessing, with growing awareness, the gulf that exists between the decorum expected of me in public spaces and the way I am subsequently judged for not exhibiting said decorum, the way I have seen in life, books, and movies so many couples made of belligerent men and demure Christian women who patiently and piously nurture their husbands because “that’s what Jesus would do.” I am preemptively angry at the potential assumption that I am a submissive Korean girl who had a retreat high and loves to serve her male Jesus, and is waiting for a husband to whisk her to an isolated domestic room where she will live out 1 Peter 3 while he’s allowed to get drunk with his friends at the bar and have affairs because his wife just isn’t interesting enough, and then when she dies tragically of a mysterious illness, he will lament at her funeral about how he realized too late that she was the best of women and too pure for him.
I serve no one.
“Not even me?” asks God.
I avoid answering, unable to admit that my inability to respond is answer enough. Perhaps anger is a sin, but burning in it feels violently cathartic.
I am a worn paper that has been scribbled on, over and over again, with unfinished fragments and run-on sentences and many, many question marks.
I am Christian, insofar as that is the word I have to express that “I believe the Gospel,” insofar as that is the word I have to illustrate that “yes, I believe that human beings had to have been formed by a Creator,” and “yes, I believe that it had to take Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man, to die for sinners.” Insofar as “sin” is the word I have—
But this line of thought takes me nowhere. It’s such a stupid, hard way of thinking. And taking the time to attempt this is like chipping at a tunnel with a spoon, so I keep quitting prayers as soon as I start them because no word in my vocabulary feels like enough to even begin to express the vastness of the thing I want to articulate. The limited linguistic and rhetorical tools at my disposal, the ways I have been taught to reason and process and express myself in English, have been influenced by layers upon layers of translation, of human fingerprints leaving indentations and oil-marks on whatever God first sent down to earth, each transmission further and further from the source. Of white men on ships with Bibles and guns prying open the doors of another continent, of a history that has brought me to speak a tongue that some people, to this day, are still surprised to hear coming out of my face. Sometimes, even I look in the mirror and feel unsettled by the language coming out of my mouth. I know that God speaks through human vessels, but where does the vessel end and God begin?
I am reminded of Baruch’s scroll in Jeremiah 36. No matter how many scrolls Jehoiakim burned, God simply used Baruch to write His Word again and again, each iteration enriched even more than the last. The Word of God is not common word; it is evoked with a capitalized W for a reason. But even as I remind myself of this, whenever I stare at my ESV Bible I wonder who is really speaking to me. I wonder what agenda they had when their human hand was putting pen to paper.
To have faith is to take a plunge into what one does not completely understand, but to do so knowing that the answers will be provided in time. I know this feeling because it trembled through my soul five years ago, when I was a blank slate meeting the Savior, utterly unaware of what lay ahead, but filled with the surety that simply being with Jesus was enough. But I am not a blank slate anymore. I am a worn paper that has been scribbled on, over and over again, with unfinished fragments and run-on sentences and many, many question marks.
“God is good,” well-intentioned, and Christ-following, people have told me. “He loves all His children. We are one body, one people, one race.” But what this often means is: surrender your race. Stop harping about being a woman. Acquiesce to the order of things and be grateful. But while I know that, somewhere down the line, I do not want to be angry and frustrated anymore, if God wanted me to get rid of the color in my life, why was I born into these things in the first place?
“God is good,” it seems, is often a cop-out from people who don’t want to have these conversations. “God is good” should be a rich, deep, powerful statement. But I don’t really know what it means, and I wonder who around me does.
The fruit from the tree of life wasn’t enough for me. So I cast it aside and demanded the knowledge of good and evil. I traded in my fear of naivety for a reduction in the ability to imagine. And this diminishing ability to imagine resulted in an increasing inability to hope.
I want it back, I realize. I want to trust in something so fiercely that my heart swells at the thought of it. I want to know what it’s like to be vulnerably raw again, but surrender and submission feel so viscerally acquiescent that they anger me. And I am afraid of losing the world
I have crafted around me. I am afraid of being disappointed, because
I have witnessed every human around me fall short of goodness, myself included. It would take pages on pages to list all the ways people have disappointed me, and the ways I’ve let people down too. I don’t believe that anything can be good anymore, even as I say that God is.
How do I find the joy again?
Perhaps that is the question that will guide the next year of my life.
Karis Ryu is a senior at Brown studying History and East Asian Studies.