An interview with Ruth van Reken
by Diane Benge
In 1951 a very young Ruth van Reken, daughter of American missionaries, boarded an aeroplane in Nigeria and flew away to boarding school.
It was the beginning of a time of deep personal struggle for Ruth as she battled the pain of being separated from her family, and tried to fit into an 'institutional' lifestyle. In her book Letters Never Sent1 she tells how life as a missionary child profoundly affected her relationship with God.
One of Ruth's gifts to the Church is her encouragement to us to remove the masks which make us acceptable to other Christians, and look honestly at some of the things we struggle with but are afraid to admit.
In this interview she examines such questions as: Why am I angry with God? Can God's will for me be painful? Do we have permission from God to experience pain, or is grieving unspiritual?
Angry with God?
Ruth van Reken believes many Christians are angry with God and therefore depressed. "If we believe in the sovereignty of God then we believe he could have changed things and yet he did not, and so we are angry.
"Much of the time we really don't trust the character of God. One of the things that I have seen in my own life (and in other people's) is that we have this idea of how God is supposed to act. If we are good enough - if we do our part, if we read our Bible, if we pray, if we ask - then God is supposed to answer us and give us what we want."
Ruth recalls the time a few years ago when her two adopted Liberian sons (who had returned to Liberia after attending school in the United States) got caught up in the civil war there.
"For six months we didn't know if William was alive or dead, for nine months we didn't know if James was. Every day I prayed and every day the news was worse. It just seemed like God was absolutely not listening. And it hurt. There was nothing I could do to help our boys, we didn't even know where they were."
Ruth became very depressed. She knew she should be trusting God, but she didn't understanding what he was doing. "The first question you ask is 'God, are you there?' And then the second question is 'If you're there, do you care?' And it felt to me like God didn't care, because if I could have stopped a war I would have. He could have, and he didn't. You just exist through the silence, trying to trust but barely hanging on."
During that time Ruth came across a note in her journal about relearning your faith in every situation. She determined to make a new start in her effort to trust God. "So I finally said to God, 'I can't figure out what you're doing, it just doesn't make sense to me, but I'll begin all over again.'"
A few weeks later she read this passage in Hebrews: "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him."2
"And I thought, 'I've tried to believe, I've tried and I've tried to believe,' but in the end you stop. Because you believe for what you want - and then he doesn't do it."
Ruth knew that God was asking her "Do you believe that I am good, no matter what you see?"
"Finally I had to make a choice to believe in his very character. I had to believe he was faithful and true and that he was good, no matter what it looked like. And I think that's what we really don't believe about God. We don't trust that when things aren't going my way he is still loving me, that he's still good, that somewhere in his plan there's a greater purpose - a greater good for me."
Ruth recalls being at a conference where the speaker asked everyone to "let Jesus take you to the Father so you can know him as Daddy". She had an instant picture of Jesus at the foot of some big steps. At the top was the Father on his throne. She was amazed at her response to him.
"I was tucked away behind Jesus saying 'let's not bother the Father because he's the one who always hurts you. He's the one who's sovereign and if he doesn't notice you he might keep out of your life.' Until that moment I thought I loved and trusted him, but that's when I knew I didn't trust him. I saw him as just waiting for me to be happy, and then . . . swipe!"
Ruth asked God to change that image. Later she found herself in the same scene. "The Father came down to where Christ was and said he would pick up the child. And so I ran around Jesus to have the Father pick me up. But he said 'No, Jesus will give you to me'. And I got mad because I thought 'I've been so good. You should just pick me up.' Then for the first time I realised that I had been trusting in my own goodness, thinking the Father should accept me because of that.
"The thing that was so wonderful about that picture was that I realised that if Jesus gave me to the Father and it wasn't because of what I'd done, then he's also not going to zap me for what I didn't do! He takes me from Christ as a gift with love, and that is not related to what I have or have not been doing."
Can God's Will be Painful?
Ruth has learned to live with the fact that pain and faith are not mutually exclusive.
"I find it incredible, almost paradoxical, that these two can be so profoundly expressed in the one person simultaneously. We live in a world that seems to say God would never ask us to suffer, and yet we do suffer. For years I denied my pain and clung tenaciously to my faith - almost as a banner - to prove I had no 'problems'. But God showed me another way.
"This new understanding came to me one day in Liberia when my uncle had been in a motorcycle accident. He lay dying in one room of the hospital while I was with my cousin, who had also been badly injured, in another room.
"I had no idea how to pray. If I prayed for his recovery, would he ever walk or see again? Would it be my fault if he died, since I didn't have faith enough to believe he could ever be completely well?
"In the midst of this, I had an experience unlike any I've had before or since. Christ somehow took me with him to the Garden of Gethsemane where I saw him doubled over in deepest agony. Then he said to me, 'Ruth, I know what it is not to want the Father's will. Sometimes it is very hard. Because of that, I'm not going to push you through this, I'm going to carry you.'
"In the time of Christ's greatest act of faith, he endured the deepest pain possible. But his 'nevertheless'3 - the ultimate acceptance of moving on to do the Father's will - could only come after he wrestled with that pain, not after he denied it.
"That single understanding - to see the incredible paradox that I am able to wish the Father's will could be different, right in the middle of obedience to that will - gave me the freedom to begin my journey back to sort out the pain issues I had denied for so long.
"I no longer had to decide if my parents had been right or wrong in sending me away to boarding school, if the mission was a terrible system, if God had failed me because it had been hard to leave my family. I no longer had to deny my own pain in order to prove my parents were 100% correct in the decisions they made seeking to follow God's leading for them and our family."
A few years after this experience, Ruth spoke at a conference on Missionary Kids (MKs). She shared the story of how Christ had given her permission to suffer pain.
"The next day one speaker seemed to extol all the positives about being an MK. The problem was, I agreed with all these positives and soon I was crying, feeling again like the child who was wrong because she wasn't being brave enough. I ran to my room as soon as I could and cried out to God, 'What's the truth? You said I could deal with my pain, but everything that man said today was true. With all that wonderful stuff going for me, how could I have possibly had pain?'
"And Jesus said to me, 'Ruth, faith and pain, even joy and pain, aren't mutually exclusive. You don't have to choose one or the other. You can live in perfect faith and deepest pain at the same time. I'm not the one who ever told you they couldn't exist together.'"
Ruth began a study of the Gospels to see how Christ dealt with his own pain. "Over and over, he expressed pain. 'My soul is in despair unto death' - and when it got worse, he asked for it to be removed - 'let this cup pass from me'.4 Then, after yielding in the Garden, the pain became literally unbearable on the cross and his first words were, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?'5
"Until Jesus worked through the pain of feeling utterly abandoned by his father, he could not say, 'Forgive them for they know not what they do,' or make provisions for his mother to be cared for. But after facing the pain, both in the Garden and on the Cross, Jesus was able to go ahead and do God's will.
"I believe once AMKs (MKs who are now adults) are free to look at the past without the fear that they will have to reject their parents, their faith, or their personal heritage if they come across a painful part, then true healing can start."
Is it Unspiritual to Experience Pain?
On the contrary. Some of our most profound spiritual refining can occur during the times of our greatest pain.
"Some of the things that Satan would use to destroy you with can be the very things that teach you the big spiritual lessons," says Ruth. "The night that my uncle died we went home and our whole house was so empty. You really feel like God's forsaken you at times like that.
"But when I think of the spiritual things I learned, I would not have been spared that experience. I watched my aunt walk in faith through that crisis, saying to God 'He was yours before he was mine'. Things like that are very powerful. The experience changed my life. But I'm sure that Satan would've wanted to destroy my faith through it.
"Aunt Louise taught me another thing. She said 'Everybody's trying to give me a reason why this happened, but the only reason good enough is that God allowed it.'"
Ruth believes it is possible to have the deepest peace in the middle of the deepest sorrow. "Christians can fall into the trap of believing that God's greatest desire for us is that we feel happy and good and joyful, but there's a difference between peacefulness and happiness.
"In Liberia we were robbed ten times. At times like that we need to ask ourselves: Does everything I have belong to God or is it just the big stuff?' Do those things that were taken belong to me or to God? Does my bed linen belong to Jesus? And my jewellery?
"These experiences were painful but they were redemptive in my life, in spite of the horribleness, because through them I knew Jesus better than I ever had. And that's what redemption is. He can redeem everything. I believe that."
Ruth knows that choosing to believe that God is sovereign can change even the most painful experiences. As the redeeming work goes on in each of us, those experiences build us up into wholeness.
"Even the things that are somebody else's fault (and that is a really hard one, when somebody else did me wrong) - even that. God can deal with it - if I look at him, instead of the person who wounded me. If I look at God and I don't keep my fist in his face.
"I'm a great one for asking 'Why?' But God doesn't owe me an explanation. He never explained to Job either! He just said 'Job, who am I?' And when Job trusted his character then Job was at peace. And I think that's the only way you can be really happy, if you trust in his character.
Getting to the Bottom of the Problem
If redemption is a process, do we go on being given the same lesson over and over until we learn it?
"I believe that God works in layers. And I have far more layers that need to be refined than I know about! But in the infinite goodness and mercy of God, he starts at the top layer and he works on that.
"I see the huge symptoms (which I think are the actual problem) and he works on those. And I think 'Great - it's all gone!' But then it comes back and I'm disappointed. I think God didn't do anything after all. But he did. He's just moving on to the next layer, until finally he can get to the root of the problem.
"That's what he did for me with my depression. I could not understand why depression was a recurring theme, why anger was popping up all the time, why I was so anxious. I saw all those problems and I was trying to find reasons for them. But God took one thing at a time, and together we worked back in layers."
Life is a learning curve. Denying the negative in our lives only throws up road blocks which God has to carefully dismantle in order for us to continue growing.
"Jesus is the Redeemer," says Ruth. "Somehow he takes all our joys, our sorrows, our brokenness and our gifts, and he builds them into a 'whole' from which good springs forth."
Ruth van Reken is the daughter of missionaries (who were themselves the children of missionaries). She was born in Nigeria and attended boarding school there until her return to the USA at 13 years of age. After her marriage she served as a missionary in Liberia for nine years, then in Kenya for one. She now lives in Indianapolis. She has 3 adult daughters.