“You have an impossible wish.”
The young woman’s words were soft and apologetic, but they lodged in my chest and turned my stomach, voicing the old fear, the one that always prickled beneath my skin. The fear that I hid while I wore the mask of confidence and accomplishment but that I lamented night after night on a salty, mascaraed pillow flattened by the pounding of clenched fists. The words blurred the festivities of the Lunar New Year Celebration planned by the Chinese students at the university, of the red and gold and songs and dumplings that they had lovingly prepared. It was no longer a celebration but a nightmare carnival, one where my reflection in the fun house mirror was actually real. I had walked around in blissful ignorance for years, and now I saw myself for the distorted mess I truly was.
“Are you going to try it?” an older coworker, the one who always made me feel safe with his fatherly smile, asked. “She told me I was going to have an interesting weekend.”
A fortune cookie, I smiled. It’s as harmless as that. The Chinese student tipped a vase full of red tipped sticks. They clattered softly, forming a messy stack. She examined them and flipped to a page in the black book inked with fortunes and translated methodically:
“You are not the type who should get married. You are better off being alone.” She paused, then looked up. “You have an impossible wish.” My smile must have melted, because her face became an embarrassed apology. “It’s just what’s in the book.”
Of course I didn’t believe the fortune. Of course I knew it was meant to be one of the many lighthearted festivities, along with the pork dumplings and calligraphy and magic tricks. And of course I’d been walking with Jesus for long enough to know that there was no power or truth in empty words chosen at random from a little black book. But when a wound is open and festering, even a harmless breath of wind is pain.
It was February 15th. The timing of it all seemed like a teasing from God, a cosmic joke at my expense. Another Valentine’s day had passed with no man in sight. How could I be single at this age? Twenty-seven was coming next month, and I was further than ever from my heart’s desire. I had once imagined that at twenty-six, I would be in ministry with the man of my dreams with baby number one on the way. Instead, I was living alone in Savannah, Georgia, far away from my home state of Maine and even farther from all I’d ever wanted. I knew I had a life that many would envy. Here I was, the youngest professor in the ESL Department of a prestigious art school. But I wanted none of it. I had never wanted any of it.
And that hope, that bubbly hope that had paced my step for years, of joining with a godly man of passion and purpose in ministry and mission, seemed more and more to be a figment of my imagination. I knew her words were random. I knew they held no prophecy or truth. But they knifed the wound that was already gaping and infected. And on that February 15th, my heart sank lower as I grieved the past that hadn’t held what I’d hoped for and scanned the barren future ahead. Hope didn’t die, but it retreated. Hope didn’t die, but it wept anew.
Now, as 30 approaches, the longing is still strong and the disappointment even stronger. There are no clichés or platitudes that can talk this reality away. But I know that my story is not unique. Just in my small community, there are many godly, vibrant, beautiful women my age who are living the life they’d always feared but never truly expected: no husband, no family, and no possibilities in sight. If you’ve read this far, this story just might be yours as well. Like me, you might be one of those Christian women who were promised a husband and family at a young age and are now floundering as what’s been promised has not come to pass.
We are all different, but many of our stories share a common thread. If you grew up in the Christian culture of the 90s or 00s, you were likely told to pray for your future husband, to write letters to him, and to wait for him, because at just the right moment, God would “blow your mind with a love story greater than you could fathom.” The counsel of older sisters and mothers in the faith gave us a sense of security that we would have husbands and children far before 30, just as they had. This was the future we had put our hope in, but this hope has disappointed us. As we face each day of a reality that we did not plan for and do not want, I’ve found myself doing one of three things:
- Digging Deeper
When my prayers continue to not be answered the way I hope, I find myself denouncing God’s character. “If God is good and hears my cries, then why hasn’t He answered my prayer?” I pile up evidence against him, counting each day of unfulfilled desire as a proof for the postulation that He is not good and does not care. When I denounce, I become a cynical and bitter version of myself.
A close relative of cynicism is despair. I often pour my heart out before God, but I remain firmly planted in the belief that he is powerless to help or simply doesn’t want to. Despair has led me to dark places, as far as having thoughts of not wanting to live if God doesn’t plan to fulfill my desire. In despair, I do well in crying out to the Lord, but I stop short of the beautiful pattern of lament and trust in the Psalms.
In the Psalms, I see the raw cries of those who felt forgotten and abandoned by God. In their prayers, two themes emerge:
1. They were unafraid of pouring out the darkest thoughts of their heart to God.
2. While shouting their afflictions, they kept His promises in view.
Psalm 42 is a beautiful example of these 2 themes. The Psalmist is honest about his state: “My tears have been my food day and night…I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?”, but he comes back to the Lord’s goodness: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
The parallel lament and trust in the Psalms show me that I can bring my questions about God’s involvement in my life to Him in all their messiness and cynicism and weariness, trusting that He will give me wisdom and hope that see beyond human logic. Cynicism and despair are ploys to keep me from communing with the very One who made me, knows me, and loves me. On the days when all I want to do is protect myself with sarcastic barbs or stay in bed with the covers over my head, I’m learning to bare my heart to the One who created it while proclaiming his promises.
For me, this season is one of unclenching the fists that have held to my own desires for more than a decade and opening my hands to the abundance God has for me. His abundance may not look like I had imagined it, but as I begin this journey of surrender, I find my eyes clearing and my vision broadening to just how good He truly is. And when I’ve finished this short stint on earth, my eyes will be fully opened to how the story he wrote with my life is more glorious and meaningful than the one I would have penned.