Born into a Muslim family in the Middle East, author Tessa Afshar lost hope for the future after her divorce…until she had a dream
I was born in the land of Cyrus, Nehemiah and Esther. My parents were nominal Muslims who believed in God, but did not adhere to the basic pillars of Islam, such as praying five times a day or fasting during Ramadan. Except for my grandmother, the women in our family did not observe hijab.
A huge upheaval
When I was almost 14 years old my parents divorced, and my mother, sister and I moved to England. Overnight, I lost my friends, my home and my extended family. I even lost my language. But the greatest loss was having to leave my beloved father, who remained in the Middle East to continue practising medicine.
Although not faith-based, the boarding school I attended in Hertfordshire required all students to attend church every Sunday. Those of us from different faith backgrounds had to sit in the balcony during services and read our own religious books. I decided this was an unrealistic requirement.
The Quran is written in Arabic and, being a Persian speaker, I couldn’t understand it. From a Muslim perspective, a translation of the Quran is not considered religiously efficacious. Trying to be compliant, I made a compromise. I decided to read in church…but chose to read romance novels!
Feeling overwhelmed and lost
I moved to the US to go to university and, while there, fell in love with a young man and we were soon married. Except for a year when I moved back to England, the US has remained my home. Having lived in the Christian West all those years, it is interesting that I never heard the gospel until I was 26 years old. Perhaps people did not want to offend me. Perhaps they just did not know how to approach me.
When I turned 25, I went through a devastating experience that made me feel like an utter failure. After my parents’ divorce, I had made a vow that I would never allow my own marriage to break up. But, to my dismay, that is exactly what happened.
In Jesus’ eyes I saw reflected the power that created the stars
After five years of marriage, my husband wanted a divorce. I could do nothing to change his mind. I could not make myself pretty enough, interesting enough or winsome enough to win back his love.
I lost hope for a happy future. Before the divorce, I had believed that my own striving, my own achievements and strength, could carry me through life and lead me to happiness. But I hit a wall I could not overcome. I felt like I was drowning. I looked for answers and found none.
It was during this time of profound shattering that I had a dream of Jesus. In my dream, I was by the Sea of Galilee. A man started walking toward me from a distance. It was Jesus. Having never read the Bible, my only experience of Jesus had been through films I had seen during Easter and Christmas as a schoolgirl. In those movies, the actor portraying Jesus was handsome. But the person walking toward me was homely.
Sadly, my first response to the Son of God was disappointment. This was Jesus? God couldn’t do any better for his Son? Of course, God does not measure beauty by the outward appearance of a person – a lesson I would learn in time.
Hot on the feet of my initial disappointment, however, was a speechless astonishment, for in Jesus’ eyes I saw reflected the power that created the stars. That power mingled with an unearthly love. The love that nailed him to the cross. When those beloved eyes looked at me, I almost fell to my knees. In them, I found a melting tenderness and an uncompromising compassion that made me forget all my sorrows and tears.
Perhaps the most miraculous part of this dream was that I knew the fullness of Jesus’ identity. I knew that this man was the Son of God, and worthy of my trust. Every word he spoke could be relied upon. Every promise he made would come to pass. When Jesus asked me to follow him in that dream, I followed with my whole heart.
I didn’t wake up from my dream a Christian; I still didn’t realise I had to repent and give control of my life to God. But I suspect that encounter broke through a stronghold. It was a crucial exchange that somehow opened the door to my subsequent conversion.
Within months of my dream, Christians began to invite me to church, to Bible studies, to dinner, to parties and to conferences. These crazy people never stopped showing me the love of God! That is when my life changed. I saw Jesus displayed in his people.
Step by small step, I fell in love with him. My intellect caught up with the wonder I had experienced in the dream. Most importantly, I chose obedience over self-will. I decided to trust God above the world, above my family and friends, and above myself.
God had changed me in many ways. But he still needed to heal the wounds of my heart. I had navigated through the baffling pain of two divorces: my parents’ and my own. These losses had left their mark on my soul.
Healed to bring healing to others
I had always known I wanted to be a writer. After reading all those romance novels in church, I decided that I wanted to be a romance novelist. But when my favourite publishing house passed on two novels, I gave up on writing. I could not bear the weight of rejection.
Although the editors wrote back to me asking for other stories, I could only see the refusal. For many long years, I gave up the dream of writing. The thought of another failure paralysed me. I needed God’s healing to be able to walk in my calling.
Over the years, Jesus shored up my bruised heart. He taught me to trust him with my failures. He taught me to persevere and grow resilient. It took almost 20 years before I would write another book. God did not waste those years. I still loved romance, but I was not called to be a romance novelist. My call had matured with my heart.
No failure, no scar, no loss can ever change the fact that we are his beloved
Jesus has a beautiful sense of irony. The publishers who acquired my first novel told me that they loved my fictional retelling of the story of Rahab because they felt it would bring healing to marriages. God used my experience of a broken marriage, and his subsequent restoration of my heart, to speak healing into readers.
All my stories try to capture this indescribable truth: in his love, Jesus has imbued us with an otherworldly worth. No failure, no scar, no loss can ever change the fact that we are his beloved.
Ten books (translated into twelve languages) later, it has become obvious to me that God is not overcome by our weaknesses. It doesn’t matter to him that English is my second language, or that I started writing later in life – or that my life did not go as I had planned.
His perfection covers my imperfection. His strength enfolds my weaknesses. His scars overshadow my scars. The same is true for you. With Jesus, our destiny is secure.