Jess Lester, journalist writing for Christian Premiere Magazine out of the UK, told her story recently on the Unbelievable podcast in an interview with Justin Brierley. She is Jewish by descent and culture, but she attended a Christian school in her youth. Her parents are no-practicing Jews, but her grandparents were observant.
She grew up with exposure to the Judeo-Christian world, but God was more of an intellectual idea to her than a personal reality. As a teenager, however, she consciously turned her back on God when her very good friend suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her unable to speak. Jess spent several days a week in the hospital with her friend trying to help her speak again, only to experience her friend suffer another brain hemorrhage that left her brain dead.
After her friend’s parents took her off life support, Jess was devastated. She poured herself into her friend’s recovery and prayed along with the family for healing, and God didn’t deliver. God took her friend, she thought, and it angered her. Why would He do that to such a good person?! This experience led Jess to reject God openly and consciously. Following her friend’s death, Jess lived in open rebellion and defiance toward God.
Over the next few years, things went from bad to worse for Jess. She drank, did drugs and slept around in open hostility to the God she thought took her friend from her. She also fell into depression to the point where she had suicidal thoughts and even planned her own demise. She got desperate, admitting to her mother that she needed help, but the turning point came in a very unlikely place.
Jess attended a concert where a favorite band of hers, the 1975s, were performing. They sang a song that that was defiant toward God. She had played it a dozen times a day and knew the lyrics well. It wasn’t a Christian song in any sense of the term, but she found herself crying out in the middle of the concert these lyrics: “Jesus, Jesus show yourself to me!”
While the lyrics are meant more as a taunt than a plea, she made it her plea from her heart. Looking back now, she says this is when God responded. Subtly at first, it became more apparent to her as time went on that God was with her in her dark times, and He was reaching out to her. I won’t recount the details, here, but they are well worth listening to, along with the other guests that were interviewed for the Christmas Special – Dean Mayes, Jess Lester and Rupert Shortt Share Their Stories.
This story reminds me that we do not always find God in the pious, religious places where we might expect Him. God is everywhere, and that means He is with us in our darkest times and in the darkest of places. While the song that prompted Jess Lester to cry out was actually anti-Christian in its intended meaning, God used that song that Jess knew well as the vehicle by which she connected with Him.
Jess makes the point in telling her story that things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good. That idea of God using bad things for good purposes comes from the Old Testament story of Joseph, who was left for dead in the bottom of a well by his own brothers and taken off into slavery.
We all have a story. Part of my story is a night that I got recklessly drunk at a bar. I had encountered God about six to nine months before then and prayed a “sinner’s prayer” asking Jesus to be the Lord and Savior of my life, but I had slipped back into my old ways.
I lost consciousness (blacked out) at some point while playing pool. The next thing I remember was walking back to my dorm room in the middle of the dark campus alone. I was reeling drunk, and I realized in that moment that I was desperately trapped in my own self-destructive ways, and I cried out for God to help me in a loud voice. Even in my drunken stupor, something caught in my spirit in that moment.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last memory of the night. I still recall throwing up all over the dorm bathroom later that night. I also remember cleaning it up with a horrible a hangover the next day. (God doesn’t necessarily rescue us from the consequences of our actions.)
We don’t expect to find God in our darkest places, and yet He is there. He was with me on that desperate night when I cried out, I am convinced of it, and He answered my cry for help. It wasn’t an immediate answer, but it was a certain answer that started with a still quiet sense in my heart that remember to this day, even in that condition I was in.
I have often thought that a person needs to come to the end of himself or herself before God can really take hold. That is how I now describe my own experience. God took hold of me, or began to take hold of me, or took hold more of me that night than He had before when I cried out to him in authentic desperation.
It’s a process of learning to die to self, learning to let God be God of my life. The process continues, and sometimes I go backward in that progress, but I have learned that whatever I do, God is Him … and with ourselves. He knows exactly who we are, inside and out, but we aren’t always willing to be as honest with ourselves.
The story of Jess Lester reminds me that God is always right there with us in the dark. He is just waiting for us to step into His light. God can also use the most unlikely of things, even a song that was intended to be anti-Christian, to accomplish His purpose in our lives. Sometimes we miss God, I am convinced, because we don’t understand that He can work all things together for the good. (Romans 8:28)
Postscript: The title for this blog post should remind a person of God in the Dock, a collection of previously unpublished writings by CS Lewis that were compiled posthumously. The title is derived from an analogy Lewis uses near the end of the essay “God in the Dock” (pp. 200–1 in Undeceptions), alluding to the English phrase “in the dock” which suggests an accused person on trial. The analogy suggests that modern people tend to want to place God on trial, standing in Judgment of God, rather than seeing themselves standing before God as judge.
Jess’s reaction to her friend dying is a very human reaction. It’s human to get mad at God. Instead of condemning God in her judgment, once and for all, however, she eventually cried out to Him, giving Him opportunity to “prove” Himself to her. It wasn’t until she cried out from a place of her own weakness that things changed for her. In that moment, she was not condemning God as the lyric from the song was intended to do; she turned it into her own cry to God for help.
That made all the difference. It wasn’t God who changed, of course. God was there all along, waiting for her to want Him. God won’t force Himself on anyone, but He is there and waiting for us to turn to Him authentically. When we do that with no pretensions, even with anger, hurt and confusion in our hearts, He is able and willing to meet us and lead us out of that darkness.
Post-postscript: And to put some emphasis on a point, as I was posting this blog piece, a blogger I follow, posted on a similar theme – God works all things together for good. Her story is an amazing case in point. You can read it here: Beauty from Ashes