Colleen Chao: In The Hands of a Fiercely Tender God
About the Guest
How do we suffer long and well? What do we do when we feel cheated? Author Colleen Chao draws from the deep well of her experience with God through pain.
Colleen Chao: In The Hands of a Fiercely Tender God
Dave: So I have a question for you. If you had to answer—this is a deep one—are you ready?
Dave: Let’s go deep.
Dave: If you had to answer what causes people to lose their faith, if you only had to pick one thing, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Ann: I think pain: “How could a good God allow this kind of pain in my life,” or “…someone else’s life?”
Dave: I didn’t think you’d pick that. I thought it would be doubts, or questions, or skepticism.
Ann: Oh, no. I think that’s one of the things I’ve struggled with, and a lot of people have. I just had a girl, yesterday, call me and say, “My 29-year-old best friend just passed away, and I don’t know how God could allow this.”
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I think how a person handles or navigates pain/evil in the world determines the depth and future of all of our faith; I think it’s that critical. We’re going to talk about that today. We have Colleen Chao with us; she’s a writer, an editor, a mom, a wife.
Colleen, welcome to FamilyLife. You’re a woman who has experienced a lot of pain; but first of all, let me say, “Glad to have you with us.”
Colleen: Oh, it’s such an honor and joy to be with you two today. Thanks for having me.
Dave: I didn’t know your story until just recently. I know a lot of people have heard your story. You’ve written a 31-day devotional, which is really about how to walk through pain. It’s called In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God: 31 Days of Hope, Honesty, and Encouragement for the Sufferer. Obviously, the first question is: “Okay, you must know a little bit about pain. Why don’t you walk us through your story a little bit?”
Colleen: I love to say, up front, I’m not an authority on suffering—far from it—but God has allowed a story that I never would have chosen. Pastor’s kid, first-born, ambitious, big dreams—I was going to change the world—at 18, I was ready to do that. There were some hard things in growing up, but I felt like I had the world on a string at 18.
And then, was blindsided by depression when I was 19—I mean, blindsided—it was deep, dark depression.
Ann: Did something happen that spurred that on?
Colleen: Yes; and yet, for the gravity that it was, it didn’t make sense. But I think it was my first taste of: “Oh, life doesn’t go exactly how I’m planning it to go,” even though it was a great goal; and I was ambitious to get overseas. My 20s were kind of a cyclical depression—it wasn’t constant and sustained—but there were cycles of depression and anxiety that I had never even known existed in that form. That was my first taste of: “Okay, this is going to go down a little differently than I thought.”
But by the time I reached 25, almost all of my friends were married and starting to pop out kids; and I was single. At 25, I felt old; because I was running in circles, where everyone got married young. I just didn’t know where I fit; I didn’t know how this would look on a daily basis: “How do I do singleness? This isn’t what I prepared for.” I started to wrestle with God some and, also, started to experience the fact that I was finding Him to be who He said He was in the Word: “You’re actually fleshing this out in my disappointment.”
Thirty rolled around—still single—and then, around the time I met my husband, some little irritating physical symptoms, I had for years, started to explode into chronic illness and pain. I got married. Even as we beat a path to the altar, we were going to specialists, and trying to figure out: “What is going on with my body?” And then, we were so blessed to get pregnant right away; that was such a miracle. We would never be able to have more kids after that, which was a different heartache at a different time.
We got pregnant, and I just got so sick; and then gave birth to a son, who had multiple health issues. It was just a time of struggling with the fact that: “Here, these things I’ve prayed for and waited for, for years, and now they’re surrounded by all this pain and grief,” and just trying to hold on.
Then, when my son was six, we had six weeks of health—he and I were doing so well, health-wise, for six weeks—and my husband and I just thought, “Oh my goodness. Maybe some more freedom to do ministry and things we’d dreamed about.” And then, at the end of those six weeks, I found a little lump on my breast; I was like, “There’s no way; there’s no way, Lord.”
Ann: —because you’ve already been through so much.
Colleen: Right; and you know, as humans, we think, “Oh, only this much and then God’s going to—then something else is going to happen here: more of the time of blessing or coasting, even—if you want to say that.
But sure enough, it was cancer. But God started to—all of these things, all along the way: each of these disappointments, and pain, and sufferings—God was showing Himself to me in ways that, once we kind of moved past one season, I would say, “Oh, my goodness, I wouldn’t have missed that for the world, because what I was finding about God.” He was showing: “I am who I say I am,” and “Let me show you more and more of Me.” It’s kind of C.S. Lewis, in The Last Battle; he says, “[Come] further up, [come] further in!” That’s what I felt like was going on—even in the midst of the heartache, and the wrestling, and the anger, and the fear, and all of that—it was coming with an experience of God that I didn’t want to miss that.
A few years after, I was—I mean, they said: “Cancer’s gone. Can’t say cancer-free yet, but…”—a year ago, we found the cancer is back, and it’s terminal; so that’s a whole new level of walking with God.
Ann: Well, Colleen, I’m imagining—you’ve lived through, and you’re living through—a lot of us, it’s our greatest fear—
Ann: —especially, what you just had, is to hear a terminal diagnosis. When you were delivered that news, walk us through: “What did you feel?” “Where did you go?” “What did you do in those moments, and days, and even months after that?”
Colleen: Well, I’m sure you’ve been through times, where it seems time stands still—you have those first moments—it’s just an other-worldly experience. But this is the crazy thing—because of COVID and crazy, weird things—I was by myself when I got the news. I walked out to my car alone. As I was walking, I felt the presence of God so keenly; and He said, “I want you to write. This is one of the reasons I’ve entrusted this diagnosis to you.” It was so clear, and it’s—you can say, “The Spirit pressed on my heart,”—however you want to say it, it was so clear.
The kindness of Him in that moment—because I had said, “I would never put anything in permanent print until I was 80 and wise,”—but the kindness of Him in that moment to say, “I still have work for you to do; this isn’t the end. This is part of your story—is I want you to care for others—even as you hear this crazy news that’s going to make life really, really hard.” He was giving me good works to do, that He’d prepared for me beforehand; and He was speaking that to my heart.
But after that, even though there was a lot of grace—I think we all experience that in those moments of shock and trauma, there’s a lot of immediate grace—and God just carries us along for those first moments. I met up with my husband before we went home. My parents were watching my son; we got home. It’s almost indescribable to have to tell—he was nine; Jeremy is nine—and to walk in and to tell him the news. We’d resolved to be honest with him, all along the way, since the first time I had cancer. We were so honest, because we want him to see God in the suffering.
Those moments, and then telling other people, sent me into my closet, in the fetal position, just wailing; I cried, and cried, and cried, and cried. I tried not to lose it in front of my son, just because he was bearing so much grief. We snuggled at night, and he asked the hard questions. I said, “You can ask anything; you can say anything; you can feel anything. You let us know where you’re at.” And he did, so we did a lot of heart talking and grieving.
And then, I also had kind of this compelling—like, “Okay, let’s go,”—I was on my Word Doc, putting together a plan for the end: “Okay, this is what has to get done.” It was a mix of all those things. But I don’t know if I could ever put into words the grief and the darkness, especially the first months. I don’t think we’re made to know our own death; I don’t think our brains are really wired to handle that, necessarily. But God was meeting us, and He was doing extraordinary things—still is—in the midst of this.
Dave: Was it the same thing for your husband? I can imagine—if Ann came back, after we both thought it was gone/maybe completely gone, and then she comes back from an appointment and tells me it’s back, and it’s terminal—I’m not sure how I would respond. “How did that go?” and “How does a married couple navigate that kind of valley?”
Colleen: Man, well, we’re not examples; we’re just slugging through it by grace. But, you know, God—again, I think He put some buffers on some things for my husband at first, because we just had to—we had to line up chemo; there’s so much to do, right away, with that kind of diagnosis. I think there was some grace that held him together; and then as time went on, I think the reality sinking in—it’s so much on a husband; it’s so much—and I think, him trying to process grief, it was hard for him.
So hard, and he would tell me—he wouldn’t cry in front of me—but he would tell me, “I cried on my way to work.” Honestly, it puts a lot of pressure on a marriage; and there are some beautiful moments, where you just appreciate each other more, and then there are some moments, where you think, “How are we going to make it through this?” And then God keeps holding it together; and you get on the other side of those desperate moments, and you think, “Wow; God’s holding this together. He’s got us.” But there are moments in time, where I just say, “Oh, Lord, help!”
For us, finding people to talk to—and finding people outside this circle of grief—so that we can be healthy, separately; and be strong, as a couple, has been really significant.
Ann: It’s amazing that you both are allowing God to continue to shape you. Instead of pulling away from Him, you’re drawing closer to Him, where you could be angry or resentful—and I’m sure you’ve gone through days of that—
Colleen: Oh, yes; definitely.
Ann: Yes, that’s why I appreciate your honesty and realness, even when I was reading your blog about getting chemo. I’ll just read the first few sentences; you said, “Why would I ask to be delivered from this awful diagnosis if it means bringing Jesus’ hope, and light, and love to the darkest corners of this chemo ward and beyond? Why leave the suffering to those, who are alone and without the love of Jesus? We, who know and love Jesus, are here for just this purpose: to lay down our lives to love others for Him.”
When I read that, I’m like, “Oh, my goodness.” You’re in chemo—getting chemo yourself—but you have your eyes on everyone else around you, thinking, “How can I bring Jesus to the others around me?” That is being so other-focused. Where does that come from?
Colleen: It is such a work of God, because I’m so selfish naturally. I think the grace gift of the years—of plowing through pain and suffering with the presence of Jesus—is that He changes us, one day at a time, and makes our hearts a little bit more like His. Then you see these glimpses of: “It’s miraculous what He’s doing in my heart; it’s not me.” That’s what is stunning to me—that He has not given up on me—He’s never said, “Ahhh, you’re not getting it; peace out.” He just keeps pursuing me and saying, “I’m going to finish this beautiful work I’ve started in you.”
If it takes pain and takes suffering to get there, it’s amazing, for me, to experience His Spirit’s power in me in the midst of things that, 20 years ago, would have made me never get out of bed. Now, to be compelled to get out of bed; because there’s still beautiful work to do and people to love, that’s a work of God. That’s His Spirit that is so powerful in those of us, who believe, because that is not me.
Ann: Have you met anyone—even on the chemo floor, as you’re getting chemo—who has asked you, “How can you have this attitude?”
Colleen: There was one chemo patient—we’re still really good friends—and have had amazing, amazing conversations about Jesus over the last four or five years. But typically, I’m not sitting by the same person ever again; it’s always someone new.
But my nurses—that’s typically where I’ve seen the most incredible conversations happen—because they’re stuck with me for hours, and we’re talking about hope. I’ve been able to say things that I just marvel: “Oh, my goodness, I got to share the hope of Jesus; and they know that I’m in the process of dying.” What a powerful moment to say, “Jesus is so worth this. This is worth it, because there’s something better. Because this life is not all there is.” Yes, there have been really sweet moments and conversations—and with doctors—I would say doctors and nurses, especially.
Ann: That’s cool.
Dave: I think I know what you’re going to say; but again, I’m struck by your joy. You have joy in the middle of a terminal diagnosis, with a husband and a son, knowing you’re going to miss things in their future.
Dave: Where does that joy come from? Is it beyond saying “Jesus”?—because I know you’re going to say, “Jesus.” [Laughter]
Dave: I think every person wants that—and they know the name, “Jesus,”—but how does a person access what you’re talking about in terms of a relationship? How does that joy permeate your soul from Jesus?
Colleen: I feel like that answer could be hours, because there are so many layers to that that I’ve seen over the years.
But one thing that stands out—the first time around—I went a couple hours away to San Diego for a specialist and a specialized imaging. I saw the image, and I knew—that was the time I knew it was cancer, and I walked out trembling—I mean, I was shaking uncontrollably. I called my husband, and I said, “It’s cancer; I know it.” I had two hours to drive home by myself. It was such a gift that I was alone that day, because I poured out my soul to God; and His Spirit filled up that car.
One thing that I asked/I said, “Okay, if this is where we’re going—and I don’t want to go here; this is not where I want to go—but if this is where You’re leading, I need You to give me more joy and more peace than I’ve ever experienced in my life.” It wasn’t like a soft request; it was: “God, I see a little bit of what You’re doing here; and I’m not ready for this suffering. But this is what I need from You…”
And He has answered that request for joy and peace in abundant measure, like multiplied crazy amounts of both. I think, sometimes, we ask too little instead of expecting God to do more than we could ask or imagine. Because His glory is at stake, or because there is a story being written that goes beyond us and our little lives, He’s doing something eternally significant, and so to lean into that and say, “I need You. Please show up because I can’t do this without You.” It is extraordinary to be experiencing joy, and the answer to that prayer, five years ago.
Ann: That’s neat.
Dave: That’s really beautiful. As you think of—we’re all terminal—we know that.
Colleen: Yes, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: And yet, you’re feeling it in a way—that somebody who doesn’t have an immediate diagnosis—we don’t live in that reality, even though we know it.
Colleen: Totally; yes.
Dave: So even as you think about your husband and your son, after you’re gone, what do you hope for them?
Colleen: Oh, man; I’ve prayed so much. I think we all know one of the great callings of marriage and motherhood is to be a prayer warrior, but this diagnosis highlights that even more. I’ve prayed that Dave would love Jesus more, and more, and more; that the grief wouldn’t swamp them or harden their hearts—especially, my son—and that he would experience the reality and nearness of God because of seeing the joy and the goodness in the suffering, that he’d forever be shaped by that.
I think, as I pray, I’m sensing that God is giving gifts to my husband and son. This idea that my son’s world is going to have even more suffering—I think, for those, who follow Jesus, to be able to walk with him through suffering, and show him God’s goodness, and show him we can have joy and still laugh in the midst of so much pain—that God shows up—that He’s kind, that He’s faithful and good—is a true gift to be equipping my son for his world that’s going to be harder than my world was at his age.
I’m praying for my husband:
- that he would experience more of Jesus;
- that he would have more grace to face the grief and to be a single dad for as long as that lasts;
- that God would just expand his capacity to handle so many things when I’m gone that are just extraordinary stresses and burdens on his own;
- that God would reveal Himself to him;
- that he would see God and see that God loves him even more than I do.
- that He is working a beautiful thing in Jeremy’s [our son’s] story; that Jeremy could sense that; that there would be hope for Jeremy instead of darkness and grief, because it has been a year of incredibly deep grief for him.
Ann: I think of your prayer for peace and for joy—and I think about your prayers that you’re praying over your husband and your son—and it reminded me of Psalm 145, verse 4, that says: “Let each generation tell its children of Your mighty acts.” There is one thing to talk about God’s mighty acts when things are going well, but to be able to tell of God’s mighty acts, and His goodness, and His love, and care for us when we’re walking through the valley—that’s a testimony that your son/he’s watching you praise Jesus with a terminal illness, knowing and wondering, “How does she have the capacity to have that joy and peace?”—and you continually point him, your husband, and others to the source of that: “It’s this good, great God.”
Ann: You’re inspiring—even writing the book, taking the time to help us journey through suffering—it’s been a gift.
Colleen: Thank you, Ann. It’s such a gift to chat about this. It just reinforces what God’s doing in my heart to be able to share it. So thank you.
Ann: I would love to pray for you. Can I pray for you?
Colleen: Oh, I’d love that.
Shelby: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today. You can join Ann in prayer for Colleen Chao in just a minute, but I want you to know that Colleen’s book is called In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God. It’s a 31-day devotional for people, who are suffering. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you could just give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, we really believe, here at FamilyLife, a relationship with God is the ultimate desire that sits at the center of every human being. That’s true, whether we’re going through suffering currently, or we’re not suffering at all. What we always need is connection with God.
When you partner with us to make every home a godly home, you’re literally advancing the work of taking the gospel, that makes that connection possible, to homes across the world. So would you consider partnering with us, at FamilyLife, to see that gospel-work come to fruition? When you do, we’d love to send you a copy of Jackie Hill Perry’s book, Holier Than Thou. It’s our way to say, “Thank you,” to you when you partner, financially, with us today. You can give online, again, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Okay; now, back to Ann with a prayer for our guest today, Colleen Chao.
Father, thank You for Colleen. Thank You that it’s so evident that she’s walking with You, that Your Spirit abides in her, and she’s abiding in You, and the gospel is being lived out in her life.
Lord, I pray, God, that You would just heal her; and You could do that. But Lord, thank You for the way that she’s used her life to point us to You, that You are a good, good God, no matter our circumstances. And Father, I do pray for her, that she’d continue to feel Your presence, Your power, Your joy, Your peace.
And I pray for her husband and her son, God, that they would bow before You; they would call upon Your name; and they would follow You and walk with You all the days of their lives; and they would be honest in what they feel/what they’ve gone through. I pray that You would be their hope, and You would be their life. And thank You.
And I pray a blessing upon this book, that it will touch and will continue to touch so many; because so many of us are suffering, Lord, and need the hope of the gospel in our lives. I pray a blessing upon Colleen, Lord. Thank You for her and how she’s even touched our lives today. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Colleen: Amen; thank you so much, Ann.
Shelby: Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson will be joined by Jeremiah Johnston. He’s going to talk about something people need a little bit more of in their lives, God’s peace; isn’t that true?—oh, my goodness, yes.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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