There is one thing I’ve come to be certain of. Yes, only one. And that is, God is always at work. I certainly haven’t always believed this, in fact many times I’ve often felt the exact opposite, that storms were suffocating my life because God had forgotten about me. I would cry out to God begging Him to just take away the challenges. I would ask Him, why me, why am I going through this? But I can confidently say now that the thought, “God has forgotten me,” just simply isn’t true. Don’t believe the lie.
I was like most, an ambitious freshman psyching myself up for the start of my first collegiate indoor volleyball season at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I had been on campus for no more than a few weeks, ready to stake my claim on the team and show the coaches that I deserved playing time. Except, not so fast… in a preseason practice, in the middle of two-a-days, I sprained my ankle and was out for the start of non-conference play. Why here? Why now, God? Feeling discouraged, but refusing to be defeated, I did what anyone would do and trained hard to come back as quick and strong as possible. And, I did. I was healthy and back on the court in a few weeks. But as the season went on, it was clear I wasn’t getting the consistent playing time I pridefully thought I deserved. As a result, discouragement settled in, but this time much deeper. Why here? Why now, God?
Flash-forward, to my sophomore year. I earned a starting position in the lineup as a right-side hitter and was performing adequately for everyone else’s standards. Everything seemed to be glorious from the outside, but on the inside I couldn’t shake the frustration associated with each error I made. I would hit a ball out-of-bounds, serve a ball into the net, miss a dig, you name it, and automatically shame and frustration filled me. I was paralyzed by the fear of mistakes and my perfectionist mind assuredly wasn’t going to let me off easy. Why here? Why now, God? This fear plagued my sophomore and junior years.
To add to my junior year struggles, I encountered the peril of comparison. I have an amazingly talented, identical twin sister who played volleyball at Georgia Tech with me. However, she happened to be a bit more skilled than me on the court, and was, rightfully so, getting recognized for her accomplishments. It was extremely hard to swallow, and that comparison stifled any remaining fervor I had left. So, there I was, stealing the joy out of playing volleyball by beating myself up after every mistake I made. Then, I would glance at my All-American twin sister (and best friend) next to me just to beat myself up a little more because I wasn’t as good as her. Why here? Why now, God?
These discouragements, frustrations, comparisons and disappointments compelled me to believe God wasn’t for me anymore. That he’d forgotten about me or, for some reason, wasn’t interested in how I was doing. I cried myself to sleep night after night during my junior year, wondering why God had me here and why he was putting me through all of this now. I was sick and tired of putting my joy in a choke hold, deserting enjoyment to sulk in adversity.
The words of David kept coming to mind, again and again, as I desperately wanted God to just free me of these hardships, emotions and difficult circumstances – “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1). This verse wouldn’t leave my mind. So, I made it my goal to memorize Psalm 23 in order to remind myself daily that God is the shepherd of my life, not me. As I sat at this crossroad, forced to face a trial, not knowing what to do, I found comfort in knowing I could trust God because He does. Valleys are a part of life. They are and forever will be a part of my life.
Although I tend to wonder why God allows me to go through valleys, the fact is they are an essential place where growth thrives. I’ve learned this through Psalm 23, when we journey through the valley, we must always keep in mind that God will make a way. His grace, His leading and His mercy will never fail. David says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4) And as a result of walking through this valley, David claims victory on the other side by stating, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” So, don’t take up residence in the valley, but rather acknowledge that the trials of life are temporary gifts from God that are essential to your growth. He is always at work using your circumstances to mold you into His masterpiece.
To complete my journey, I would like to tell you senior year was struggle-free and that hardships disappeared from my world altogether. But quite honestly, senior year wasn’t a cake walk in the slightest. Fear still reared its head and comparison still tried to threaten my joy. But the peace I now felt while walking with God through the valleys freed me in so many ways. I decided to no longer take up residence in the valley and brood over my adversities, but instead found strength and growth from trusting in God as my shepherd, knowing He is always at work.
Annika Rowland (formerly Annika Van Gunst) played Division I volleyball for Georgia Tech from 2013-2017. In 2018, she exhausted her fifth year of collegiate eligibility playing beach volleyball at Georgia State University. Annika is currently finishing her master’s degree in Business Administration and pursuing a professional beach volleyball career.