I grew up in a world where spiritual things had no place. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose, as though I knew enough to reject anything that had to do with religion or faith. I simply had no category for it. I’ve recently learned there is a name for this: apatheism.
The Name of God was nothing more than a concept to me. It was irrelevant to me that the Name belonged to a living God—I didn’t have any concept of a God who was real.
I lived this way, believing the only real things were things I could see, until the most real thing I knew was taken from me. When I was 25 years old, my husband, Tell, was killed in Iraq. I was a brand-new mother—our infant daughter, Ava, was 5 months old—and the news catapulted me into a darkness I couldn’t find my way out of. The numbness began as I slid to the floor with the men in uniform standing inside my front door. The only words I heard were mine, pleading for it not to be true.
Sympathy Cards and Psalms
Nothing felt real from that moment, until one day I found myself hastily flipping through the pages of a Bible. I wasn’t even sure how it got into my home, but I fumbled around trying to figure out how to find the Bible verses that filled the insides of sympathy cards I had received.
I landed on Psalm 139, and I couldn’t look away: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (verses 7-8).
I did not respond to these words by immediately repenting of my sin and trusting in Jesus. Instead, I willed the words to be about my beloved Tell—I wanted to believe he was there, I wanted to know I wasn’t alone.
I came back to the Psalms every day, trying to find other places that might bring me closer to Tell. I didn’t know what I was looking for, only that I was compelled to read until my eyes hurt.
I was struck by the words from Psalms 40, 18, 30 and 27. They validated my reality of crying out in grief and helped me understand I wasn’t the only one. But there was a difference I began to see: The writer of these Psalms didn’t think his cries were going unheard; his weeping wasn’t lost in the wind. He knew that when his trials overwhelmed him to the point of distress, he could cry out to Someone who was listening.
I would have expected God to reject those who felt the powerful emotions associated with grief, but these verses were showing me a God who moved toward the afflicted. I saw a God who carried hope to the hopeless.
Who was this God?
God Showed Up
I could see in the pages of Psalms that He was real—a massive God whom the writers of the Psalms cried out to in their despair. And I could see that He responded. Slowly, I began to look less for Tell in the verses and more for the One I felt was holding me in my grief.
In those early days, He continued to lead me into the Psalms until I couldn’t ignore Him or hide from Him. I began to believe God was showing up in my despair and breathing life into me when all I wanted was to die.
But what I didn’t know at the time was this: I was already dead (see Ephesians 2:1).
My sins held me captive. But I hadn’t heard much about Jesus before. I didn’t know He died a death I deserved to die because of my sin—and that this was because of the great love of God (see Romans 3:21-26; 8:32; John 3:16).
What I did know was my grief over losing Tell wasn’t swallowing me whole as often. I knew the ache of hopelessness was fading.
I was hungry to know what it meant to live with a new hope, but I couldn’t understand what that looked like.
The Lord knew exactly where I was, and how He was going to orchestrate the goal of the faith He had given me: the salvation of my soul (see 1 Peter 1:9). He brought a man named Rhodes into my life by way of a group dinner with the rest of the guys from Tell’s unit once they returned from Iraq. Rhodes knew Tell, and Rhodes knew Jesus.
I was drawn immediately to his humility and gentleness. He was not unlike Tell in many ways, but there was a light about him that reflected something new to me. I pursued a friendship with him with a boldness unfamiliar to my character, but he had something I wanted: peace.
By the grace of God, Rhodes accepted my friendship as well as my thousands of questions. He was gentle in allowing me to wrestle with learning I was a sinner and taught me what Christ accomplished on the cross. He rejoiced with me as I fell in love with Jesus. He was there with me when I was baptized. He grieved the loss of my Tell with me, and he loved Ava from the start, never missing a beat to stand in the gap for her in the loss of her daddy. I’ve been his wife now for 12 years, and we have three daughters: Ava, Elloree and Leeona.
God continues to write His story through us, and His grace abounds. The One I didn’t have a category for shows Himself as the Great I Am, and now shows me daily He can’t be confined to a category. The One I was apathetic toward is now my everything. ©2021 The Gospel Coalition
The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Jessica Gray Roberts lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Rhodes, and three daughters. Jessica works as the ESL director at The Church at Brook Hills, leads a Bible study for ESL women and leads a high school girls’ small group.
Adapted from an article originally published by The Gospel Coalition.
Above: Jessica and Rhodes with their daughters (left to right) Elloree, 10; Ava, 14; and Leeona, 6.
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Gray Roberts