Renee. My mother told me that out of all the names she and my dad were considering for me, they chose Renee because of its meaning. Renee is French for reborn. I cherish the name because the reality of rebirth is so incalculably precious to me, now that I have myself undergone it. However, for most of my childhood the word held only mystery to me.
My mother also told me that while she was pregnant with me, she had a very grave conversation with the Lord concerning my eternal fate. She told Him that if I would grow up under her care until adulthood only to one day reject Christ and be consigned to alienation from God, suffering in Hell in the afterlife, that she would rather me never be born. She would rather miscarry. Not because she didn’t treasure and dearly want the life growing inside of her, but because she knew from Scripture that what happens after death is incomparably more important than the whole sum of our human experience on earth.
There came a time when I thought her ultimatum to the Lord might be my only hope for salvation. This is the retelling of His merciful story in giving me the rebirth for which I was named, toward which my mother prayed, and by which I have been given the everlasting ecstasy of being with the Triune God for eternity.
My entire childhood I was striving and straining and struggling to make God happy with me. I was climbing an unending, impossible ladder. I remember always, always feeling that something was hanging over my head, that He was never pleased with me. His displeasure was scary to me; I didn’t know how to appease God. My spirit felt constantly on edge, like something wasn’t right and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but yet I could never rest or be at ease because of it. (I now know what that was—unconfessed and unforgiven sin and the sentence of punitive death as a result (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)).
And yet, I was blind to my sin. At the same time that I had this suppressed desperation over an animosity and disparity that I felt between God and I, I also was so full of pride over what I saw as (and was reinforced to me many times as) the superiority of my relationship with God. It’s laughable to me now, but it’s also gravely serious, because I see how I could have all-too easily lived the rest of my life deceiving myself this way, to my own damnation. I tried to be a super-saint if ever there was one. I would fill whole journals with fevered, sprawling script of song lyrics and of prayers that could be summed up into one plea—make me a good Christian. When I worshiped either at home or in church, I threw myself into it with every fiber of my being. I rarely read Scripture on my own (that did not seem to make it into my arsenal of self-inflicted religious fervor), but when I did I transcribed whole chapters of Deuteronomy for fear of the sin of omission, though looking back I realize I had not the slightest clue as to the actual meaning of what I was reading. After hearing a missionary speak, I agonized in prayer for the salvation of all of Hong Kong by myself when I still was in my own sin. I was raised by a single, homeschooling mother, so I kept, not the Ten Commandments, but her household commandments with painstaking effort, though even those I transgressed.
Yet I was a child Pharisee. Once, a neighbor friend called me a hypocrite (because I, of course, publicized my adherence to Christian virtue to all my friends), and I was utterly offended. But there is no better description for me at that time. The most painful example of my hypocrisy is in how I treated my Dad when he came back from prison and immediately began calling me and scheduling visitations with me and paying over and above child support to try to be a Dad again. I had never written to him once in the four years that he was incarcerated, though he sent me all kinds of letters and artwork, each with requests for me to write back. I was too busy trying to please my mom, who couldn’t stand the mention of him and did not forbid but definitely did not encourage that I reply.
When my Dad began calling me upon his release, I at first would not even speak to him for the half hour or sometimes full hour that we were on the phone. He would keep up a cheerful, steady stream of one-sided conversation, and I would give grunts or one-word answers to his many questions to make it absolutely clear that I could not care less about him or about the conversation. Finally, my Mom found out about what I was doing, and even she thought this too harsh and told me to speak to him. But when my tongue was loosened, oh the venom that fell off of it! (James 3:9-12)
It was against my cherished convictions to use curse words, so I never cussed my Dad out, but I did say things that I’m sure cut him to the core. I told him with spiteful precision of language that he was a terrible father, and that I would never live with him or so much as spend the weekend at his house ever again. I said this while my mother and I were homeless and in the thick of a custody battle, because I was so fearful of ever having to leave my mother. Fear hardened my heart, and I cut him down. Unknown to me, at this time of life that I was treating him so inhumanely he was floundering in deep depression, thinking of ending it all. I was oblivious to what he was going through—that he was suicidal. He has bipolar, and was trying to keep a job at a call-center amid frequent panic attacks to pay the rent for a matchbox run-down apartment. Just trying to reenter society and the life of his daughter who hated him, all after having sustained trauma from having been around men in prison who were the perpetrators of unspeakable things. It was too much.
God is rich in mercy. If He was not, my dad might have taken his own life, and I would have partially driven him to it. I would’ve had to bear that guilt. It is the grace of God that He sustained my Dad and spared his life.
God knew I would already have more guilt than I could bear.
At around age 8, my mom’s mental health began to severely decline. Nothing was safe from the decaying of her mind. Because of her increasing paranoia, she began to systematically cut herself off from every single member of our family. Her state of mind made it very difficult for her to retain a job. She so dreaded our neighbors that she moved us out without having any other living arrangements. And she left church after church. We ended up being homeless for about a year, during which time we stayed at a total of four shelters.
The first time we were homeless, when I was 13, after we had exhausted all income on a hotel, we moved into my grandmother’s house. It was during this time that the bitterness toward both of my parents began to rear its ugly head. My mother had always been a very authoritarian parent, literally demanding unquestioning loyalty. When I was uprooted from my home and our church, when I had to say goodbye to my childhood neighborhood friends, when I had to tell my family that I was not going to see them anymore, I never thought to tell her that it wasn’t fair, or that I was deeply hurt and wounded at having to leave everything behind. Looking back, I realize that I never knew that I was bitter toward her because I never knew that I had permission to be angry with her.
But I was bitter. So bitter. It was in the quiet day to day rhythms of sharing my grandmother’s guest bedroom with my mom while she was unemployed that this bitterness toward her began to surface from my subconscious. I had never given voice to it, or even identified it for what it was, but totally on its own it began to control me. I remember one day glancing down at the bathroom counter to see some of her Ibuprofen that she’d been taking for headaches and having this dark, evil desire rise up within me to somehow poison them. I was so petrified by the shock of the evil of this thought, and had no idea how to shut it down. Out of desperation I put my fingers on the bottle and whispered under my breath “Bless you, bless you.” More often, I would see her while she was sleeping, and again intrusive, indefinite evil impulses would come, and I would want to hurt her or sabotage her in her sleep. These desires felt akin to what a witch would feel when they were going to put a curse on an enemy. I would put my head under the covers and beg God to make the feelings go away, unable to sleep for hours because of the ominous dread I felt.
But the evil feelings didn’t go away. They would jump out of nowhere and assault my consciousness, and when they came I couldn’t shake them off. It terrified me to see such blackness in my own soul.
I had lived my entire life trying to live in a way that would make God pleased with me, and here I was consumed inside by malice and evil intent, as wicked and far from God as someone who had never given God or religion a moment’s thought in their life. What I had feared most had come upon me. It was like I was a spectator watching myself from a distance, in horror at the wretch I had become, and powerless to change myself. I didn’t know what was happening, why it was happening, and I felt helpless to stop it.
I always told my mom everything, so I told her this too. I confessed to her the hatred that I felt and the compulsive urge to sabotage. She believed that it stemmed from unforgiveness toward my dad, and told me that I needed to pray hard, finally forgive him, and release whatever grudge I had against him to the Lord.
Oh, what agonized prayers I prayed! I remember shutting myself up in a closet and begging God to deliver me, crying inconsolably, not even allowing myself to take a bathroom break, praying until I wet my pants and still continuing on. I don’t remember how many months this time continued. I tried to pray on an open stretch of carpet once, and I prayed so gut-wrenchingly as I groveled on the carpet that I ended up curled up in the fetal position, underneath the dresser. My mom called it travailing prayer. With everything in me, I mustered up my willpower and declared over and over that I forgave my dad and anyone else who had hurt me, but nothing worked. My heart was unmoved. It felt like I was hitting my head against a wall.
I was miserable. It felt like my prayers were futile. I had no sign that God was listening, or that He would deliver me. I felt defenseless against the Enemy, like he was toying with my soul and I was at his mercy. I’m sure if it would have continued on many months longer, I may have fallen into depression or even become suicidal.
We were sharing my grandmother’s guest bedroom, and so my mom witnessed some of these prayers and we had many conversations about my inner turmoil. She finally asked me bluntly one day something like, “Renee, are you sure you’re saved? Because Christians don’t have this level of hatred for others.” I was so broken, I agreed to pray a sinner’s prayer of salvation with her, though I had prayed it countless times before in church. I can see us kneeling down there beside the loveseat, and she told me to pray. I remember exactly what I said. I said with tears welling up, “God, I can’t do it! I can’t get rid of this hatred. I can’t forgive.” My mom must have prayed some things or led me to repeat after her, but at the end of the prayer I know I added, almost as an afterthought, “Would You have mercy on me just because of what Jesus did on the Cross?” I walked away afterwards not even really believing that this prayer in particular would make any difference, not expecting to see any results.
But everything changed after that prayer. I don’t recall if it was the next day, or the day after that, but one of those days after I said “Amen” next to that loveseat, I found myself sitting in love. The love of God. My flawless absolution and perfect consolation. I was sitting alone in that same room, Indian-style on the bed, when as suddenly and subtly as the sun breaking through the clouds I felt a Presence with me in the room. Right in front of me and above me.
I was utterly disarmed to find that He was beaming down on me with pleasure. Either this was a totally different God or I was in a totally different standing with Him, because there was not a trace of displeasure or of thinly-restrained vengeance as I had felt so often before. Just Love washing over me. And the most striking, extraordinary part of it was that I loved Him back. Love just seemed to emanate out of my heart upward to Him, as organically and involuntarily as fragrance out of a flower. All of my fevered petitions and desperation in worship had not served to produce any honest love in my heart for God Himself, but now I found that loving Him was as natural as breathing. As I sat in His Presence, my heart’s gaze fixed on Him, I felt totally comfortable, perfectly safe, completely unagitated. Which in retrospect is astonishing, considering that I had been living in a state of near-constant apprehension for so long. My mind internally stuttered, unable to process what was happening, what was being done for me.
It felt precisely as if He had come to assure me that He was with me, and for me. (Oh, precious words!) It didn’t even occur to me to plead my cause. There was no thundering response to my cries for deliverance. No baritone voice patronizingly explaining away the fear and evil that I had been in such suffering from.
No. When He was there, I wasn’t thinking about any of the last few months. I was just in wonderment at Who He was.
The One who had previously struck terror into my heart was giving me His peace. The One who I had been desperately trying to appease my entire life was giving me His free approval, smiling down on me, pleased with who I was.
I’m crying right now. Do you understand what this means? This means I was given regeneration. That Presence I felt was the Holy Spirit. And He hasn’t left me since. That day my heart wordlessly understood all that the Scriptures speak of concerning my salvation. Every moment in His presence proved the Gospel to me without any explanation.
Titus 3 says that before we are saved by Christ we live in a state of malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But then all of a sudden the kindness and love of God appears, and He saves us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because He is so immensely merciful. This act of saving us from our sins is called a rebirth which is done in us by the Holy Spirit, whom God pours out on us lavishly, after Christ becomes our Savior. Ephesians 2 says that we were enemies of God, and were “children of wrath,” born to suffer cruelly for our sins and born to die. But that God gave us salvation in Christ “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8 says that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That’s it! That’s what happened!
Based on Ephesians 2, I believe that the reason I had not experienced the effects of rebirth before this point is because I was still trying to earn God’s favor. Verses 8 through 9 say, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” On that day, I finally comprehended and admitted my own insufficiency, that I finally stopped trying to save myself. And that is the day when I was visited by God and experienced the realized promises of the Gospel. I received the benediction of the Aaronic blessing, because my High Priest had mediated it for me. Now I can say, “I am blessed. I am kept. The Lord makes His face to shine upon me. The Lord is gracious to me. The Lord turns His face toward me and gives me peace.”
I never even wondered if I would stumble upon such treasure, such wealth. Since that day, I can honestly say that Christ has grown so much more precious to me. There have been times where the Lord has given me glimpses of what it will be like to be before His throne, in the presence of His majesty, in Heaven. These sacred encounters, foretastes of Heaven, have shattered my worldview. The goodness and grandeur of my God surpasses what feels existentially supportable. And this was while I’m still on this earth. It will be no labor for me to spend my eternity pouring out my worship to Him. It will be the joy of my immortality.
I’ll never understand why He chose me. I have a hard time comprehending how we could live for anyone or anything else. And yet I do. I am still so sinful, so adulterous of heart. He has married a prostitute. I’ve found love way out of my league, and I wasn’t even looking in the right places. The incomprehensibility and profundity of His choosing relationship with me is so unsolvable. I can’t get over the fact that He wants to be with me forever. And my only hope is that one day I will love Him the way He deserves to be loved in return for how He has loved me the way I never deserved.