The Wrestle with Hell
Well, I’m Paul Granger and one of the things that I’ve learned about who I am, is that I’ve been invited to be an ambassador of Christ. Which I’ve learned means that in any interaction, any moment, and anything I do, I am representing Christ. It’s like I’m pointing and saying, “This is what Christ looks like.” So that’s shaped a lot of who I am. I’m a full-time volunteer, doing ministry. I’m a father and husband. But in all of it, I’m learning more and more what it means to be that ambassador of Christ, to be a conduit of God’s love, and to keep on figuring out how God’s positioned me uniquely.
I’ve always been a Christian, I grew up in a Christian household, and my mom was a strong believer. She shaped my faith. In middle school and then in high school, I started to ask myself, what does this actually mean for me to be a Christian? I realized, if being Christian is just a label, what good is that? But, if it’s something that I’m saying I believe in, that probably should shape my entire life, that should shape who I am, what I think, how I function, what I do, and even what I’m expecting for my future. So very quickly, I felt a sense that God was calling me to ministry. Of course, we tend to think of that as functional ministry, right? Like, you have a job doing ministry. I don’t believe that in the same way anymore, which I’ll probably get into.
I went to a Christian university thinking I needed to get an education about how to do this. But the reality is that God was beginning to shape me into being that ambassador of Christ. He wasn’t preparing me for a singular functional role, but preparing me to live ministry, to do ministry as a lifestyle. Over the years, it’s taken functional forms. I’ve worked for functional ministries.
For the last five years, I’ve been a full-time volunteer, and I’m serving alongside Youth With A Mission but not a single person at Youth With A Mission gets a paycheck. So it’s not quite the same as a normal ministry job. But what I started to see more and more and more is that God was inviting me to just live ministry with whoever came across my path. I realized there’s many stories that I could tell. There’s many stories that I have told. I’ve been on podcasts before and some stories I’ve told dozens of times.
I felt this clear sense that I wasn’t supposed to tell any of those other stories but I didn’t know what story to tell. Then there is this moment that a very specific story came to mind that is unseen, that I have not been able to tell. There can be a lot of reasons I wouldn’t want to tell it because one, it’s not packaged nicely. Two, it carries a lot of weight and a lot of things that people don’t know and that brings trepidation. But three, I would feel like I’d need to be in the right mindset and mood and today is not that day.
I woke up and the power went out. Then the internet went out and it’s still out. I’m running off a hotspot. This is not the context in which I would want to, as a human, step into this story. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that when God invites us to tell our stories, it’s not about whether or not we know what to say, or how we feel. It’s about being willing to just step in.
This particular story goes back to 2007. I was serving with the ministry, Urban Promise Wilmington, and basically not making anything. I was a volunteer and got a small stipend. By the time I finished, there was no money left in my account, but I was happy because it was very clear that this is where God invited me and how He invited me to serve, and how He was growing me. It was this beautiful time of personal and spiritual growth.
One evening, I was walking by a room where one of the summer interns was sitting, and it was clear that something was wrong. Others noticed that too. When everyone asked, she just said, “I just have this really bad headache, I get migraines.” However, there was something in me that told me that it wasn’t just a headache, that there was something more. She left the room to get away from people and went to the kitchen and sat at the table. I felt like God was prompting me to go in there and say something of encouragement. I don’t even know what to say, I don’t even know what’s wrong.
I can’t remember what our conversation entailed, but I remember one singular moment when I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to be helpful at all, but I feel like God’s putting this verse in my mind and it’s Romans 8:38. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the president nor the future, nor any powers, neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” She just stares at me and then she reaches over and pulls out her Bible and a slip of paper and holds it up. She says, “That has been one of the most important verses in my life for the past year or so.”
It wasn’t until just this last year that God prompted her to share her story on the podcast that I host the Where Did You See God podcast. And it was something that she did not want to do in and of herself because it was not a common thing. It is something that could raise a lot of questions for people and it is something that neither of us understand. There’s a longer version of this, obviously, on the podcast, but the short version is, I came to learn that year, a year or two years before I met her, she had had this experience of hell. That’s the best way that she could describe it. Something happened, she blacked out and she believed that she was in hell, hat she was experiencing the senses. The memories that were seared into her brain all felt like this was just a deep, profound separation from God.
So that night, when everyone else thought she had a headache, she was reliving these moments. Something triggered her and these memories were flooding back in. She had to put all her energy into telling herself that God actually loved her and that she was not in hell at that time. That reality wasn’t hell, that this is reality. And so, God prompting me to share that at first was God meeting her in that moment.
After that interaction, and over the next few months, we began to sense that God might be inviting us to a deeper relationship, a more intentional relationship. You know, I stepped into this season where it’s very clear, I mean, the invitation from God to love, my wife’s name is Becca, to love Becca was so clear that there is no question in my mind about it. I knew that God was saying, “I want you to love my daughter.” I knew that there would be hardship. I knew that there would be challenges. But it was just so clear that there was this joy and peace in stepping in. We ended up dating for about a year and then it took a bit for us to get engaged because of what she was struggling through, she did not want to put that on me. She knew what that would mean but at the same time, it was clear to hear that God was doing something through our relationship, so it kept her from just cutting and running. Even when we got engaged, it was still hard. But God had given me this piece, this confidence that He was inviting me to love His daughter, that that was the invitation. It wasn’t about feeling good or being happier and it was about authentic love, the giving of oneself for the greater good of another.
So we got married and, you know, now we’re in the same house, sleeping in the same room. That’s when I first began to experience the attacks that she was having. They sometimes are triggered during the day and it brings on a slew of memories, but the worst ones are triggered at night. It’s something akin to an intense panic attack. Anybody who’s ever woken up from a dream knows a bit of this moment where there’s this space where you’re not quite sure what’s real because you were in a dream, and that felt real. There’s actual reality that you’re heading towards, and that is real, but you’re in this middle space, so you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. This is the most torturous part of her experience – The inability to know what’s real.
The experience of Hell was so realistic, that there are moments in her waking hours where her mind can say, “Well, what if this isn’t real? What if you are actually in hell right now, and this is the dream.” Like, this is the depth of what we’re navigating. She would wake up in the middle of the night with everything in her telling her that she was in hell, that God had abandoned her, that God didn’t love her. That’s it and there’s no way out.
I had no idea how to navigate this. The first time it happens, I’m like, What in the world? But there is still this, this awareness that God has called me to love her and this awareness of how God can work. So I’m praying for her, I’m present with her, and we’ll get through it. Like, eventually, I can kind of talk her through to what’s real, whether it’s through hugging her or just speaking things. It’s, you know, imagine the tactics to get someone from a panic attack times 1000. Like, we’re doing that, and she’ll come out of it. But typically, after an attack like that it could be days, weeks, maybe even months of this lingering anxiety, of this lingering fear.
To her credit, I need to affirm my wife, because there are few people I know that are so trusting in Scripture. Because in those moments, she will go right to Scripture, whether it’s calling it out or pulling out her Bible. It is ingrained in her that Scripture is real and that God speaks through it. And, to her credit, she believes that. Even though lies are telling her that she is unloved by God and that she is in hell, right? It’s at that point, you would do what Job’s wife told him to do, “Just curse God and die.” Clearly, He doesn’t love you. But Job was like, I don’t understand why God is doing this, but I’m staying at the table.
So these would be hard moments leading into hard days, hard weeks. It would affect how she would function, her moods would affect all kinds of things. As her husband, I’m doing my best to navigate it alongside her, to be aware of the environment. We get to five years, we get to 10 years. And that once zealous, like, I’m gonna be there for my wife, I’m going to pray for her, is getting tired, getting worn out. It’s getting to be too much.
I remember one of the first moments she’s having one of those attacks and I just feel like I’ve got no idea how to fix this. “God, shouldn’t this have been fixed 5 or 10 years ago? Why is this still going on?” I’m starting to feel helpless. Meanwhile, I’m having my own struggles. A lot of things are going on outside of our home, including one of the heaviest ones was a very toxic ministry environment. There were several years where it was just, it was just a horrendous experience. And it would have been on its own, but it’s also happening at the same time as I’m navigating all this. I hit a point where, between all of what was going on, I was just kind of at the end of myself.
I remember sitting on the closet floor and feeling hopeless, like God I’ve tried. I’ve tried everything in this work environment. I’ve tried everything at home. I don’t know what to do. I feel like there’s nothing I can do. And in that moment, I feel like God was saying, “Yep. Because it’s not about you fixing anything. It’s not even about the situations being fixed. It’s about you trusting Me and My invitations.” Essentially, God was saying if I want to invite you into a hard space, are you willing to trust Me?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were invited into a furnace. Nobody would choose to walk into a furnace. They didn’t choose to walk into a furnace. What they chose was to honor and obey God, which necessitated a furnace. Right? And so God brought me to this place of developing peace around trusting His invitations; it did not mean that everything got better. But there was a peace, a joy that existed in places that didn’t make sense. It was clear that God was doing new things. And there was a part of me that was starting to hope that maybe, maybe this means that there will be transformation for Becca as well. Maybe she will find freedom from this because first and foremost, I longed for her to have freedom from this. And then secondary, I also kind of wanted to have freedom from this.
That’s not what happened. The attack continued to hit. We ended up hitting this moment. I’ll fast forward all the way to what I shared earlier. In the midst of all this, there is this morning I walked down the steps and I heard her listening to an episode of the podcasts that I had recorded. And there’s so much that she takes care of that it’s very hard for her to find time to listen to a podcast. So it’s not common for her to hear my podcast. So the fact that she was listening stood out to me. She stops it and she turns to me and she says, “This is gonna sound crazy, but I, I think God is telling me to share on your podcast and specifically to be the finale episode of this season.”
The season was a series focused on sitting in suffering, and that is what she has been doing for 15, 16, 17 years. I remember when I started, I had this sense, not that I should ask her to be on, but this subtle sense that she might end up being on. I don’t even know if it was in those words, I just knew something was going to happen. So when this moment hit, and she said, “I feel like I’m supposed to be the finale guest.” – Which was totally out of character for so many reasons.– I just smile. She’s like, “You already knew that, didn’t you?” I was like, Yeah, I feel like God told me that.
I’ll be honest with you. This is what I expected and what I hoped for is that this would be the moment that brought freedom because in sharing her story, her unseen story, suddenly that would unlock something or freeze something or do something. Maybe even during the episode. Like, she’s recording and suddenly she starts to cry because she feels this deep sense of freedom. And then I’m crying, she’s crying, and it’s this restoration. That’s not what happened. I mean, it’s a good conversation. But there was no moment of freedom. In fact, quite the opposite. She ended up having probably the worst attack she had had since the initial one, shortly after we recorded.
So I’m like, What in the world? Like, I’ve been trying to be obedient this whole time, God. I’ve been trying to seek You and I’ve been trying to love. I’ve sacrificed and I’ve given up and I, how much longer? She has been praying and seeking You so deeply and she has poured herself out. How much longer God?
But there is this sense that God hadn’t abandoned us. And, in fact, one of those moments of affirmation came from my wife. She said, “I know there’s a chance that this may never go away. I have the opportunity to trust God in the midst of it,” something to that degree. Her owning and recognizing that this might be something that would go on for a lifetime, and yet still choosing to trust God was a deeply powerful moment, and was encouraging for me because it was affirming that God was working in the midst of that. And that solving this wasn’t the solution that had been the whole point of this sitting and suffering series. It’s not about God fixing the suffering. It’s about meeting God in the midst of whatever’s happening. So our journey continues.
The piece that I didn’t mention when I said that there are reasons that I might have not chosen to share today is last night, she started to have an attack. It didn’t get as bad as it usually does. It took more of the form of a panic attack. But she woke me up and I rarely do I go to bed early, but I was feeling so awful that I fell asleep. So she woke me up from my sleep. And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. She sat and she read the Bible for a little bit. –She’s learned skills and so forth to be able to come through quicker and quicker.– But I’m laying there thinking, this has happened and I’m talking about it tomorrow. God, what are you doing?
The truth is I don’t know what He’s doing. I don’t know why He’s allowed my wife to experience what she’s experienced and why He’s invited me into this hard caregiving role. But even though I don’t know why, I do know that God is God and God is good. I do know that He is present and active. I do know if He has chosen not to change certain things, it’s because He’s after abundantly more than anything that we’re asking for, or anything that we’re imagining. So the continuing journey is one not towards fixing it, but growing more and more and what it means to trust and seek God, no matter what happens.
So, yeah, my wife’s unseen story is also my unseen story. One that I’m still unpacking and unraveling, recognizing the connecting points of what was happening at home and how it impacted me elsewhere. But I do know that God works through stories and so I’m grateful that God prompted my wife to share hers so that I’m able to now start to share mine more openly.