Bryon and Emily Johnson were serving in Donetsk, Ukraine and were forced to evacuate because of the turmoil taking place there. In this longer than normal blog post, Emily shares what that felt like and how God has used the experience to deepen His relationship with her.
I’ve been wanting to write about some of the emotions I’ve been dealing with over the last few months since leaving Ukraine, but I just haven’t been able to figure out how to say it all.
I’ve been waiting, hoping that a time would come when I could find the right way to articulate everything I’ve felt, but just recently, I realized that time may never come.
So, I want to try to hash everything out here and now.
When we first got back to Colorado after leaving Donetsk, we had a heart to heart with our head pastor at church.
I remember sitting in his office with Byron and crying as our pastor was ministering to us and pointing us to Jesus as we sought serenity in the midst of our chaos.
I remember hanging on his every word, as he spoke the truth to us in love.
He said a lot of things to us, but one of them really stood out to me.
He helped us to understand that what we were going through had a name, and it’s called GRIEF–deep, mourning, grief.
He said that whenever someone goes through grief like that, it changes you.
And whether or not you’re in a place where you want to admit that, it’s true, and the people around you can see that, and eventually, you yourself will see it too.
I really struggled with that idea for a while.
I didn’t want to think that I had changed, mostly because I felt like everything around me was so out of control (although I did recognize that God was in control, even if I didn’t understand what was happening), and that if I really had changed because of everything that had happened, it added an extra level of instability.
I went from knowing who I was and what I was supposed to do, to this emotional wreck that became someone I didn’t even recognize.
I want to say though, I have known all along that I was still redeemed by God and that my identity and value was in Him, but all of the surrounding details became blurry.
The things that I loved were gone and the things that used to make me happy now made me cry.
So, with everything going on, I wasn’t ready to accept that I had been changed from it all.
Of course, there were undeniable signs that everything we’d gone through had changed me in some way or form, but emotionally, I couldn’t accept that yet.
Really, it wasn’t until recently that I was finally able to admit that I’m not the same person I was before leaving Ukraine, and I also understand now that the type of grief I’ve experienced have changed me in a way that is irreversible in a lot of ways.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a fact–grief creates scars, and it’s something that you have to always live with.
I do believe that God uses grief for His glory–the Word promises us that.
But it also causes us to see life differently, and when your world view changes, you have to change too.
Before our evacuation, I rarely cried.
In fact, I thought of crying as something that was really shameful, and it always embarrassed me when I would get teary eyed around people.
But now, everything seems to make me cry.
It’s gotten a little better recently, but I still feel like my emotions are really out of control, and little things can cause tears to come to my eyes.
When we first got back to Colorado, I remember lying in bed, crying about everything that was happening/had happened.
I had been crying for a few minutes, and then I thought to myself, it’s time to stop crying.
But I physically couldn’t stop.
It was like my soul had turned into this deep well, full of pain.
I started to think about the biology of it all, how a special hormone is released when you cry, and that this hormone is actually an antidepressant, and that crying really is supposed to make you feel better at some level–it’s a form of self comfort.
So, I laid there thinking, “maybe if I keep crying, and I cry long enough, I can cry it all away”.
But I couldn’t. I just cried and cried. I couldn’t stop.
And that was the point in which I started to see how in the midst of myself changing, it allowed me to depend on Christ in a way that I never could before.
I’ve developed a new thankfulness and dependence on Jesus.
Sure, Byron can hold me while I cry, but Jesus can listen to the deep cries of my broken heart.
And like I said, I’ve tried crying as hard as I could to make myself feel better, but I truly understand now that the ONLY one that can help me feel better is Jesus.
He heals from the inside out, and my tears are just an outward expression of my inward pain.
It’s been hard for me to accept that I’m a cryer now, but it’s a reality, and it’s something that has produced a closeness to the Lord, and I’m so thankful for that.
Psalm 34:18 “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
That means that the Lord is close to me right now, and if you’re in the midst of pain, He’s close to you in your time of brokenness too.
I also feel like everything that’s happened has brought a heaviness and seriousness to my life.
In a lot of ways, I feel like my innocence is gone.
Before seeing the war break out, I had never truly seen how evil and wicked man can be, and now that I’ve seen that first hand, it’s something that I can’t forget, even if I want to.
Before all of this, I understood that the world needed Jesus, but now, I know it deep in my soul.
Some days, I just can’t even read the news because I understand the depth of those articles.
When people are killed because of war, or really anything that happens and causes unexpected death, it’s impossible for me to see just a number anymore.
I see them as the people I left behind in Ukraine. I see them as mothers and daughters, dads, sons, brothers, and people that may or may not know Jesus – which is the hardest thing to think about.
If these people don’t know Jesus and die, they’re going to spend eternity away from God.
That is heavy.
That is serious.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
This is something that I’ve always taken seriously, but now, it breaks my heart in a way that I can’t explain.
And I think that’s because in my mind, I see people I had to leave in Ukraine that don’t know Jesus, and I understand the heaviness of that, especially in the midst of the war–they could be killed and die without having a relationship with Jesus.
I thought I had an urgency on my heart before, but now, it’s almost a desperation–people need Jesus, everywhere, now!
Have I done my part to make sure I’ve told every person I come into contact with how serious it is, that they need Jesus?
On the flip-side of this heaviness, I am learning how to trust God with the people around me in my life.
I know I need to do my part in sharing the Gospel, but I’m also learning that salvation is The Lord’s alone, and He doesn’t need me to save anyone.
I’m learning how to trust God to reach the people I can’t be with and to draw them to Himself.
I definitely can believe and understand that God has used all of this to work things together for my good, as I love and seek Him.
I think sometimes people use that verse (Romans 8:28) to brush off hardships and difficulties, but I think it’s meant to be something we hold onto as we walk through the hardships and difficulties.
It may be the hardest, most pain inducing time of our lives, but He’s working it all together for our good to force us to change into what He wants us to be.
It produces compassion and empathy in our character, it makes us desperate for God, it makes us seek Him earnestly.
I think, deep down inside, I thought of myself as a finished product.
But after all of this, and seeing the changes that have come about because of it all, I understand that I’m far from finished.
Before, I thought all of my impurities, all of my selfishness, all of my pride, had already been drawn to the surface.
But now, I see that God has to do so much more work on me… And I can finally see that fiery trials, as in the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego fiery furnace trials, are the ones that truly purify us, changing us both in character and in our relationship with God.
As time continues on, I can completely understand how Romans 8 is a section of scripture that is perfect for those experiencing deep grief.
These are the verses that we can hold onto as we weep, as we lay in the depths of our pain, crying out to God. What glorious words:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the images of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” – Romans 8:28-30
But, it doesn’t stop there, praise The Lord!
The best words are still to come:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more that conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels note principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created things, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:31-39
The Lord is good, and worthy of all praise.
He knows our comings and goings, and He desires to have a relationship with us, drawing even closer to us during our times of hurt and grief, as we open our hearts and lives up to Him.