Life is not easy but my theological perspective on suffering has made it worse. I was the youngest girl of a poor, uneducated, and extremely religious Korean-American family. As an immigrant family, we faced lot of social challenges. Language and cultural barriers did not help my parents find economic security. Like most KA immigrants, my parents were small business owners. We were always struggling, always anxious about paying the bills. I don’t remember a moment in which we did not worry about finances. And since we, the children, were the interpreters, we were actively part of the labor force, management, and legal consultations. We knew the ins and outs of the business and later the church when my brother decided to go into ministry. I grew up really fast or maybe I was never a child. I don’t remember a time in which I did not have grown-up concerns.
Rather than explain the difficulties as part of life, my mother would try to find some theological explanation. It was that we failed to pay enough tithe, failed to pray adequately, or failed to read the Bible. Anything my mother interpreted as sin in her eyes or heard from one of the ministers’ sermons was an apt explanation for a traffic violation ticket, car accident, sickness, loss of business, or any other mishap in our lives. God was punishing us so that we become better Christians. It was a form of discipline, to prepare us for the paradisiac life in the heavens. We should be grateful for the special attention we received from God.
Yeondan — Refining Fire?
Then, as we grew older, my mother started explaining hardships as yeondan. I always thought it was a Korean word but it is actually borrowed from the Chinese characters, lian-dan (“to refine” by means of forge). She couldn’t explain certain hardships as punishment so she adopted yeondan theology. When I didn’t get into a certain school, got rejected for a job, or was sick from too much stress, she would be quick to point that these trials were forming me into a great leader. But the rejections, financial worries, and hardships grew worse every year.
When I could not find the permanent teaching position in the ideal location, she believed that the answer to her prayers was coming tomorrow. Always just around the corner. And the longer it took, she believed, the greater I would become. And let’s face it, I really needed to be transformed before God could use me. After all, I was a lesbian who did not believe in the absolute authority of Scripture for everything in life. My liberal education in Hebrew Bible at some of the most sacrilegious universities had led me astray. I was an impossible vessel. Yet she never gave up on the idea that I would become a reformed straight woman. She still prays; she still believes.
I had an unhealthy relationship with a God who either punished or tried to build character by bringing trials in our lives. What kind of a petty God would sit around and hurl a stick and put up an obstacle course to transform humans into some robotic likeness of this cruel God? I believed not because I thought God was a wonderful deity, but out of habit. Despite the years of trying to undo the theological garbage, I was afraid of skipping church or missing a tithe. Even recently, when I got a speeding ticket, I would think it was because I didn’t pay enough tithe. It was God’s way of getting the money back from me.
But to be honest, I thought I was paying enough tithe. The first thing I do when I get a paycheck is set aside the tithe. But should I have tithed before the taxes? I admit, it’s not logical; it’s just my theological baggage. I cannot seem to get a break from this exacting deity.
It has taken me a while to understand my mother, who felt the need to clench on to this notion of God. She had a very traumatic childhood filled with sexual violence, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and abandonment. And her adult years were not that wonderful either, surrounded by scoundrels taking advantage of her and our family. She is not completely innocent; she somehow made herself susceptible to them. Still, she felt out of control, unsafe and insecure, and she tried to control her world by sheer willpower. She brainwashed her children through bad theology, verbally and psychologically reproached my father into obedience, and tried to control God through 5-6 hours a day of prayer. She believed she was praying for God’s will to be done but in actuality, she was trying to force God to do her bidding.
But it is useless to point out this fact now, because everyone has been too afraid to confront her all her life. The more she suffered, the more ferocious her will became. Nowadays, I try to show her it’s a form of idolatry but she is convinced that God has given her visions. Her will is God’s will. Nothing will change her mind. She has survived this world because of her fierce beliefs and most likely, she would fall apart if she had to give up her theology. Sometimes, I am tempted to completely break her world apart because of the damage she has caused in my relationship to God. I cannot believe or think of God without some level of anger and bitterness. But what good would that do? The damage has been done.
It has taken some time for me to come to terms with the reality of her perspective, her theology, and her worldview in my head. I have chosen not to consciously accept this reality but I cannot fully escape the brainwashing. Even with all the years of studying, my experiences in life, and encounters with people who live and believe differently, I sometimes go backwards in my thinking. Maybe, it’s because I don’t have a comprehensive theology that helps me understand my or anyone else’s journey. I don’t understand why my mother had to endure such a traumatic journey, why I feel all doors have been closed on me despite some major breakthroughs, and why there is so much suffering/trials. I don’t know. But I feel like God is still punishing or transforming me into something that I know I cannot become.
White Progressive Theology of Friendly Jesus
Yet at the same time, I cannot come to embrace the white progressive theology in which a friendly Jesus walks beside me through difficult times. I have been attending a predominantly white church with one or two people of color. And over the years, I have heard a number of sermons in which God does not punish or bring trials in a person’s life. They cannot explain the suffering, but Jesus is always there by your side. It’s like Jesus is your dog, who can’t really protect you from or prevent evil but is a great buddy. I love my dogs but I do not want to worship them. They are wonderful to have around, to cuddle with. But to go from believing that God controls everything to seeing God as a friendly buddy—well, that would be too great of a shift in my thinking.
The only good thing that has come out of my journey is that my intellectual and spiritual curiosity has been piqued. I am writing a book and hopefully teaching a course on transformative journeys. It is my way of making sense of the journeys people have taken in the biblical narratives. I do not believe they reflect divine truth or are historical reports of actual people. Like great fiction, they reveal truths about people’s understanding of suffering, of trials, of hardships. Perhaps this endeavor will help me figure out how to understand or frame my own journey. Otherwise, it would seem like my life was just an endless string of random, meaningless events. And that would be too difficult to accept—more difficult than belief in a God who is mercilessly breaking us.