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Struck by Truth

It is universally acknowledged that people everywhere yearn for meaning and search for reality. The questions we ask are: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Then we are left to wonder why wehave such yearnings.

For me, “born in the new society, growing up under the red flag” generation in Shanghai, China, my early ideological education was shaped by Marxist philosophy and communist theory. The societal ideal of abundance of material goods, unselfish human beings, and equality in society framed such a glorious picture in my mind that even as an elementary school student every essay I wrote ended with the sentence, “I want to strive for the cause of communism to the end of my life.”

As I tried to live out the communist philosophy in one of the best high schools in Shanghai and, after that, one of the best universities in China, I began to experience conflict between the outside world and myself. Competition became compelling, sharing with others became a struggle, and I began to doubt the practicality of communism. I wondered if the selfish human nature could ever disappear even if there were an abundance of material goods.

Infected by Existentialism

Just when I was losing faith in communism, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism became a popular topic on my university campus. Existentialism emphasizes self-value, which is realized when we prove our existence through self-striving. Though this philosophy appealed to my ego, I felt despair thinking how dreadfully small the chance was that I could prove myself or earn recognition on a grand scale. I became more attracted to humanism and universal love, ideas expressed in many classical Chinese and Western literature.

My major was chemistry––a natural science discipline. I knew there were chemical laws, physical laws, and other laws of nature. I wanted to believe that there were also laws of the universe, and laws of human existence. Sometimes I cried out: “God, please help me! God, please tell me why I am here and who I am!” “God” at that time stood for a universal truth, only I did not know what it was.

It was hard not to be affected by Sartre’s existentialism; after being exposed to it, it was like an infection. I wanted to prove myself, however small the chance was. Curious about Western democracy and Western science & technology, I decided to go to America to get an advanced degree in science as my first step in a scientific career. Both my husband, Haibin, and I were fortunate to be simultaneously admitted into the Ph.D. program of the Ohio State University Chemistry Department.


We arrived in Columbus, Ohio, in late summer of 1986 to begin the real life test of adjustment to the U.S. Faced with new temptations and the individualistic mind set of Americans, we found we had nothing else to count on but ourselves and the academic achievements we desired. So we stayed focused on our studies and research and proved ourselves on a tiny scale, though neither of us felt completely satisfied.

One day as I strolled across the Oval Mall on the university campus, I came across a lady holding up a sign, “Join Bible study and win a bike!” I needed a bike so I signed up. I did not win the bike, but I did “win” some new friends, Sarah Perry and her husband Pastor Glen Perry. They visited our home and invited us to join their Bible study as well as their church. We attended the church, but my heart was hardened against accepting the church’s teachings. When I heard that everyone is a sinner and needs to be “saved,” I thought, “Marx was right—religion is the opiate of the masses to manipulate and desensitize our minds.” Another teaching, that God created the universe and all humankind, contradicted everything I had been taught about Darwin’s evolution theory and the law of conservation of matter.

After earning our Ph.D. degrees, both my husband and I did twoyear postdoctoral work at Cornell University. In 1994 my husband was offe ed a faculty position at the University of Kentucky Chemistry Department, so we moved to Lexington, Kentucky. I soon found a good research position at the UK Medical Center. At that time we had been married for eight years and had a two-year-old son. We felt that through years of self-striving, we had definitely achieved something!

Striving for What?

The success we had in our careers was followed by a period of depression, apattern I was beginning to recognize in myself. I questioned, “Is this all?” I needed something else to re-prime me, some stimulation to keep life fresh and exciting. I told my husband that the day I was completely able to rise above myself would be my day of eternal peace and happiness. He agreed with me. He wanted to give our son the fortuitous Chinese name, Xiao-yao, which means free and unfettered. We wondered how we could rise above ourselves, or if it was ever possible considering the sinful natures we could not do anything about. Were the vicious cycle of striving and the uncertainty of life the only meaning to life?

My husband suggested that I might find help from a book about spirituality by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, Dr. Peck says we are here in this world to learn. He also says that religion is actually a worldview, and after years of study he thinks Christianity is closest to the truth. I had a genuine trust in what Dr. Scott Peck said and, as such, began to be desirous to know more about Christianity.

An Unthinkable Loss

At that time we were new to Lexington and hardly knew anyone besides colleagues, most of whom werenon-believers. Earlier in the year my parents had taken our son, Aaron, with them to China. At Christmas I returned to Shanghai to bring Aaron back. My husband drove to the Cincinnati airport to pick us up at 8:00, the night of December 28. We were happy to be reunited again and also excited because the following day we were to sign the final papers for purchasing our first home.

That night Aaron was very content and went to bed promptly. I was extremely tired after twenty some hours of traveling, so we did not talk much. After saying “I love you” to each other, both of us fell asleep. At around 3:00 in the morning, I was awakened by a strange hum coming from my husband. When I shook him, he did not respond. Then I found he had no pulse and no heartbeat. I called 911 and began trying to do CPR on him. While Aaron was sleeping soundly in the other room, I cried out, “Oh, God, please do not let anything bad happen, he is only 31, and he is a very good man. Please, please, please! ...” After the ambulance came and took my husband away, I called my colleague Steve Brown to drive me and my son to the hospital since I was not in any condition to drive myself. Once we got to the emergency waiting room, I told Steve that everything would be all right and he should go home. But he insisted on staying. When the doctor came out and pronounced my husband dead, I turned to Steve and said, “Life is meaningless!” Then I demanded of God, “Why did you do nothing?”

At this point one thing became clear to me: I was not the master of my life or fate. There was something up high that was in charge of the universe. I wondered, Is it God, the Thing I’ve been searching for?

Truth, Where Do I Find You?

Because I had responsibilities and was a mother, I had to continue living. And my parents, sisters, relatives, and those who really cared about me wanted me to live and to live well. Having lost the person closest to me in life, I wanted more than ever to find some meaning of life. Without meaning, life would be just too painful.

Slowly I struggled through the natural mourning course: from denial to acceptance, then to recovery. During the recovery phase, my emotions went up and down unpredictably. Nevertheless I was not forsaken. Tremendous love and support poured in from everywhere, including brothers and sisters in Lexington Chinese Christian Church who held my hand through this most difficult period.

It was puzzling to me that a “good” God would allow this tragedy to happen, yet in my grief I sensed that He was taking care of me. I contacted Professor Joseph Wang at Asbury Theological Seminary and asked many questions. He clarified for me the confusion I had about sin since “sin” and “crime” sound the same in Chinese and it is easy to think sin is robbing a bank or committing murder. He explained that sin means disobeying God which leads to separation from God. Dr. Wang also asked me if I was willing to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, and I said yes. I figured this was a good way to start—to accept Jesus as in mathematics—accepting axioms or generally acknowledged truth before moving on to solve other problems.

I started going to LCCC pretty regularly, listening to sermons and attending Bible study classes. I learned things about the Bible that astonished me—it depicted human nature and human emotions the same way as did the distinguished literature and art work in our world. But the idea that Christians should be joyful was a problem for me. How could I have joy after losing my loved one? I also struggled with having to be baptized. I felt as if I was being asked to marry someone I didn’t know very well. I really was afraid of establishing a relationship with God, fearing that it might restrict my freedom, especially the spiritual freedom that I valued the most. Except for being able to locate Scripture in the Bible a little faster, I had not experienced spiritual growth. A gap existed between God and me, one I didn’t know how to bridge. I didn’t know how to take a leap of faith and reach God. I had to keep seeking.

The Anti-God State of Mind

One day while talking to brother Y-T Chen, I told him I had just seen the movie Shadowlands and really liked it. He said he could give me a book written by C.S. Lewis, the leading character in the movie, played by Anthony Hopkins. The book Mere Christianity attracted me immediately. C.S. Lewis began the book with “The Law of Human Nature” and finished it with “The New Men.” On a quiet night in June, 1996, I was reading Chapter 8, “The Great Sin,” and I was struck.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is one vice of which no man in this world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else and of which hardly any people except Christians ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. This essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through pride the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Power is what pride really enjoys. Pride is competitive by its very nature, that’s why it goes on and on.”

(As I read to this point, my mind thought of Sartre’s existentialism, how it caters to self-centeredness and pride, and I understood why it had become infectious to me.)

I continued reading what Lewis had written, “It is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. In other words, it is this complete anti-God state of mind which causes all the misery. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: drunken people or unchaste people may find jokes and friendliness among them. But pride always leads to enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. As long as you have pride, you cannot know God.”

These words, like lightening, struck through my heart. That moment I saw all of my sins exposed under the daylight, and I asked for forgiveness. I felt my old prideful self melt and disappear, and my heart was filled with a serenity I had never experienced before. I knew that Jesus had comeand borne my sins, and He is the person through the Holy Spirit who entered my heart that evening. Jesus is the way, is the truth, is the life, and we cannot reach God except though Him (John 14:6). All of a sudden I came to truly understand John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Truth that Sets You Free

As I’ve listened to other people’s testimonies, each one different, of how the Holy Spirit came into their heart, I have found it rather mystical. It is something you cannot understand until you experience it yourself. My experience was real and vivid. Since that special night in June, 1996, I wake up every morning looking forward to a new day. I have become more disciplined, work more efficiently, and most of all, I am truly joyful. I have never felt so free before. Indeed, “truth has made me free”(John 8:32).

I understand now that having questions, as I did, is a good start. The yearning and searching bring us to God. God gives us a free will, but he longs for us to return to Him just as a father longs for his prodigal son. For me, finding the meaning to life involved first, learning about God; second, knowing God; and third, establishing a relationship with God. I’m glad my yearning led me to search because God has promised if we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

(Born in Shanghai, China, Jian Tan lives in Northern Virginia with her husband Boli Zhang, pastor of Harvest Chinese Christian Church (HCCC), daughter Xiaoxue, and son Aaron. Tan serves at HCCC while being an adjunct chemistry faculty at Northern Virginia Community College. Tan received a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1992 and a B.S. in Chemistry from Fudan University, Shanghai, China, 1985.)

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To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Apr-Jun 2010. CCMUSA.