Four months ago I received the news that a friend and colleague in ministry from years ago had passed away. I have been thinking about her legacy a lot since that day. The Nazarene Seminary in Costa Rica produced a wonderful tribute to her that can be found on their website.
Dr. Natalia Nikolova was born in Russia and indoctrinated in communism and atheism. But God had a different plan for her life. I had the privilege of meeting her first in Costa Rica, and then we traveled to Ukraine in April 2006 on a missions trip with Ardeo Global. After getting to know her in those two weeks, I asked her to write her testimony. Here, in her own words written a few weeks after that trip, is the amazing tale of God’s faithfulness.
I was born in Ukraine in 1973 in the city of Belgrad in the region of Odessa. My father was a communist leader, and we lived very well-off economically.
Since kindergarten I was taught the communist doctrine. It was instilled in us that the best child in the world was Lenin, and that all of the children of the Soviet Union should be like him. He was very obedient to his parents, he did not say bad words, and he was very well-educated. Therefore, all of the Ukrainian children wanted to be like him. The kindergarten teacher chose certain children who showed the capacity to remember the verses of the communist doctrine and recite them by memory. Of course, the majority of the verses had to do with Lenin. Many years after kindergarten those same verses still rang out in my memory, the same ones that the teacher had me recite in the kindergarten parent-teacher meetings.
In school we also spent much time reading about Lenin, his childhood, the historical context of his time, about his heroism, his revolutionary character, and that we should be indebted to him because our country was the best country in the world: free, where neither rich nor poor existed, where each person could become what he wanted to be. That image of him was projected onto all children, and we knew he was a perfect person. That was Lenin. The obvious result is that he was not only the best child in the world, but also the best teen and the best man in the world. I wanted to be like him. Inside myself there was a sincere desire to be a good person. And I was taught that the only way to become a very good person was to be like Lenin. Therefore, I passed through the different stages of the communist discipleship: named in Russian octyabryata, pioneers, and komsolmolsyu. I even became leader of a communist young people’s organization.
In my family, we viewed God as something based on superstition. In my conscience I always wrestled with what Marx and Engels had said: that religion was the opiate of the masses, that it was designed to dominate people, and that it was for the weak.
In 1989, when I was 16 years old, I finished high school and enrolled in the State University of Medicine in Odessa. In 1993 I married a medical student from Costa Rica. He was studying medicine in Ukraine on a scholarship from his country. It was a bit strange; I was educated in the communist spirit and, as we were engaged, I told him that I loved my country so much and that I was not willing to abandon it. He insisted that we get married, and after 9 months of persisting, I think out of compassion I gave in to the pressure. Ever since I was very little, I had dreamed of having a beautiful home where my future husband and I could live in love and bring up our children in a loving environment. And so, eventually in order to fulfill my dream I had to travel very far away, and I became willing to do so.
That same year my daughter Linda was born. In 1995 I finished my degree at the School of Medicine and I traveled with my daughter to Costa Rica, where my husband had been waiting for me for a year. He had to leave a year earlier because, upon finishing his degree, he had to leave the country immediately so that he would not lose his free airfare that Ukraine had given him. And there was no option anyway because he was from a poor family.
Upon arriving to Costa Rica and spending one month there, I wanted to return to my country, because the person that I thought I had married, a loving and attentive man, had become very prideful and repugnant. He was not prepared to manage large amounts of money nor was he prepared to be viewed as an important person in society, because he was before accustomed to being poor and insignificant. I wanted him to change and be the man he was before, and I complained to him of his coldness and lack of affection, but he simple blamed me and my character and said that I did not pay attention to him.
My family in Ukraine was very opposed to my marriage and my move to another country. They warned me of the risk of failure, but my husband (now ex-husband) had promised me heaven and earth and that he would always be faithful to me and love me as long as I lived. I believed him and not my parents and I risked everything to travel so far away and create a happy home.
As a result, the idea of returning to my homeland appeared very embarrassing to me. So, I tried to fight for my home. However, the situation got worse every day. It got to such a point that while I was pregnant with my second child, Leonardo, I decided to run away from home. I wrote my husband a letter telling him that I could not last in such a hell and that I was giving him a week to think things over. After one week, he promised that he would change, and I returned home. But due to the constant suffering that I lived with in my own home, in no way was I ever happy as I had imagined I would be after getting married in Ukraine; I began to have contractions and I was only seven months along in my pregnancy. It was 1997. Due to the increased risk of infant mortality in premature babies, I traveled from the city where we lived to the capital of Costa Rica and to one of the central hospitals. In order to avoid neonatal hypoxia, I had a Caesarean.
I remember very well when I went to see my son after the C-section. It was a very moving image for me. My little son, only weighing 3 lbs. 13 oz., was connected to the assisted breathing machine and he had various vein catheters with various solutions attached. He was connected to the monitor and was in the critical care unit of the nursery.
I burst out in uncontrollable weeping. I could not take the pain that had overwhelmed my entire being. I felt powerless, unable to help him in any way. My son was gravely ill and, although I am a doctor, I understood that I could do nothing for him. Every mother wants her son to live. I also wanted my son to live. But upon realizing the gravity of the situation, I felt crushed by the pain and the personal sense of powerlessness.
Every day in the morning I arrived at the hospital and spent the entire day until 10pm with my son. And every night I arrived at the house of some friends in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and I cried all night until I could wake up in the morning and rush to the hospital again. I always hurried frantically to my son’s incubator, and I feared I would find it empty and they would tell me that he had died in the night.
One morning I arrived at the hospital and the neonatologist told me that my son had breathed in 5 milliliters of blood into his lungs. That was the worst night of my life; I knew that babies in similar condition often died of massive heart hemorrhages. After arriving at my friends’ house, I told them that my son’s condition was very serious. My friend told me to prepare myself because my child was not going to survive. But his wife, who was a Christian, simply told me, “Ask God to help.”
I had no idea how to ask God to help, and she did not explain to me any further, so my first prayer was very primitive, although sincere: “God, help my son. Do not let him die.” I did not understand what Christ had done for us. To say that I had much faith in God is false. Furthermore, in one moment I said to myself: “If God did not save his own son and he allowed him to die on a cross, how is he going to save my son?”
My son spent 22 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There was a great risk that he would die or at the very least end up deaf, blind, or paralyzed. But my son survived. And I was with him through the entire process. I was a witness of the power of God. By the time he was 2 months old, he was a chubby, beautiful baby, and no one who saw him could have imagined how difficult it had been for him to survive.
After I saw that my son did not just survive, but that he was a perfectly healthy boy, it left me very surprised. I understood that something extraordinary had taken place. I did not know how it all had happened, I could only comprehend that I was seeing a miracle of God. My atheist mind had suffered a 180° turn. I remained so profoundly grateful with this God that had saved my son that I wanted to find him so that I could tell him: “Thank you for what you did.”
My life began to change. I started to distance myself from certain sins: bad words, bad thoughts.
My relationship with my ex-husband changed. Both of us felt guilty because our child, due to our arguing, was born too early and had to suffer. But the change did not last long. Very soon we were arguing as badly as before.
In September 1998 some of my friends gave me a Bible. Seeing that my home situation was nearly unsalvageable, I began to look in the Bible for ways to save a marriage. I told myself: “God saved my son once; perhaps he could do the same with my marriage.” I was not familiar with the Bible, so I looked in the concordance at the back of the book for any verses that mentioned “husband,” “wife,” etc. Through that process, I found a verse—Ephesians 5:23—and I read that God said that the husband should be the head of the wife. Discontent and angry, IclosedtheBible. “That cannotbe,” Itold myself. “There is no one in this world that is going to tell me what to do.” I could not believe this was the will of God, for communism had instilled in us the equality of the sexes. I could not accept that I had to have a husband as head over me.
I did not touch my Bible for the next 3 months. Although I felt very thankful to God and there remained in me a deep desire to search for him, I was not in agreement with that verse. Many times during that period, I thought, “Why would God invent something like that?” But my home situation continued to worsen. And what hurt me most was not the thought of losing my husband; even the idea of marrying again did not scare me. But it hurt me that my kids were not going to live with their father. I understood that some day I could choose another husband if need be, but my children could not choose another dad.
At the end of 3 months I sensed the desire to go back and look for the verse that had caused me such disagreement. And I began to convince my own self: “¿What good is it if I order him around? When he does what I tell him to do, and it ends up well, he says that it was his idea. And when it ends up badly, he blames me.” So, I decided to obey God, and I told my husband that from that day forward, he would be the one who could order me around. Of course, he was very impressed. But for me it was the end of a difficult test. If the test with my son was very hard, this test was not any less difficult for me. My will was being broken in order that it could be submitted to God. Many times I felt inside myself like a volcano that was in discord with God, but I remembered what he had done for my son, and at great cost I submitted to him. For many years I was a very domineering person, and for that reason it was not easy allowing God to dominate me.
The test with my son dealt with my emotional side, while the test of submitting to my husband dealt with my will.
Every now and then God won and every now and then I won. Finally, I grew tired of fighting with God, I grew tired of a life of sin, and I told God: “God, I want to do Your will.” It was April 2000. That was my conversion experience. From that moment on my life began to change more rapidly. I still did not understand God’s plan through his son. But God had much mercy on me in spite of my great ignorance.
During that time, I started to understand that the communist leaders had tried to remove the true God and replace him with communist idols. While before I wanted to make anyone who talked bad about communism disappear, now I comprehended that I was a victim of communism. We were deceived! I felt betrayed. My heart became overwhelmed with so much pain for my people. My poor people! How could we endure so many lies and deceptions?! In 1991 alone, there were 250 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union. How many people went to hell during those 74 years of idolatry?! I could not believe it—all that I had believed was a great farce.
Due to this disillusionment, I was very fearful that I would be deceived again by some sect. I wanted to start going to church, but I wanted to know something about the Bible before choosing a congregation. So, when I found out that the Church of the Nazarene in Ciudad Quesada, where I lived, was offering a course called Old Testament I, it interested me a great deal and I enrolled. It was September of 2002. After that course, they invited me to the Old Testament II course that they were going to teach the following month.
When I arrived to take the class, they explained to me that this class was a part of a program made up of 30 courses spanning 3 years, 10 courses each year. I liked the doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene. I prayed to God and through this process I made the decision to join a congregation. However, the first day my husband followed me to church without me knowing and when I returned home, he told me it was scandalous that I, being a medical doctor, could go where they were playing tambourines. He also said that if I went back he was going to kill the pastor and place a bomb in the church. His entire family was Catholic. But he was more an atheist than a believer.
I spent several months very discouraged, thinking that I could not join a congregation until he became a convert. I saw other brothers and sisters that could go easily to church, but did not, and I wanted so badly to go. I decided that I could not do it because it would have created problems in my home, and I felt that it was not God’s timing. I did not have much faith that I would be able to go to church any time soon, but God had a surprise in store for me. He always surprises me. I received a word from him that I was going to begin going to church very soon. I felt that this word was truly from God. An assurance came to my heart. I began to pray that God would prepare my husband for the news that I was going to give to him.
And God backed up his word. The day came when I told my husband, “I did not know it at first, but a while back I became a convert. God is in first place in my life and you are in second place. So, I am going to church. You can kill the pastor, you can go and put a bomb in the church, but you are not going to kill the faith that I have.” My husband was perplexed and stayed that way. He ended up reacting against all of this, but only after 15 days had passed. He disputed my going to church, but it was already too late. I was already attending church each Sunday and I was not going to give up the position that God had delivered into my hands. For me it was like seeing the impossible, because I never imagined myself going to church, especially with my ex-husband being radically against the evangelical church. Even though he never went to church at all, if I would have gone to a Catholic church, it would not have been a problem for him. But the evangelical church was the church that he most detested. It was a miracle for me. God made possible something that was previously impossible.
For many years I lived a clandestine Christian life: I read the Bible or listened to Christian songs or watched the Christian television station only when my husband was not around. I suffered much verbal abuse; he told me my head was empty and I had turned into a religious fanatic. I never imagined that it would be possible for me to serve God with my husband being an unbeliever. Even though he saw and admitted that there had been a great change in me, he never ended up accepting my faith. God had changed me, but my home life was a wreck. My ex-husband always blamed me. And for many years I accepted that guilt and blame. I told God that I was willing to suffer through the hard treatment and pain that he inflicted on me if it meant that God would change me through it. I did not want to be the same anymore. And the truth is that God fulfilled that request.
Still, my ex-husband continued in his alcoholism and rebellion against God. I could not take such suffering much more. I told God that he needed to change my husband or take him away, but either way I was at the end of my rope. However, God allowed me to endure one year more. I was at a dead end. I wanted a loving spouse, but I instead had an aggressor; he was violent toward both me and our children. Furthermore, I understood that I could not take part in serious ministry for the Lord while my home was stealing all my strength and courage from me. I went through a very serious depression that I managed to conceal in my workplace so that I could survive and not close myself up in my home. The Lord was my only refuge. Finally, a year and a half ago he led me to a crossroads where I could make a decision. After much prayer, I said to my ex-husband, “I cannot take one drop more of your liquor. I am giving you 15 days. Think about it and choose between liquor and your family. I am not pressuring you. Take your time.”
After 8 days my ex-husband threw off his wedding ring in front of our children and said, “I’m getting out of this house. I will keep drinking. No one tells me what to do.” I felt that God himself was liberating me from this monster of a person. Later God revealed to me that my ex-husband wanted to possess me as if he were my owner, annulling every personal decision I might have made. He wanted to make my decisions regarding everything. The Lord truly became my Liberator with regards to this.
Five months after being separated from my husband, I realized why things never went well in my home. All the years since I arrived in Costa Rica, and possibly before, my ex-husband had been unfaithful to me with many other women. As a doctor, I have had to treat many patients that have lived lives of infidelity. They testify that it is a life of hell, living a double life, and they end up coming to a point where even they have no idea whom they love. It is an unhappy life. That was what I went through with my ex-husband.
I believe that was the hardest test of my life. Before getting married, we had talked about that subject—even during our marriage as well. I always held the position that if one day he wanted to look for another woman, that he should just let me know, and we could end our relationship completely in that moment. I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it or get in his way. Each one can choose what he wants. The one thing I asked of him was that he be honest and never deceive me. He swore that he would always be faithful to me and that he loved me so much. So many times I had my doubts, but usually I did not have any proof, so I continued believing his lies.
When I realized all of this, my heart truly broke. I spent a month in agony with unbearable pain. I understood in those moments why some choose to end their lives by committing suicide because of betrayals like this one. In my life I have suffered with 2 terrible betrayals: with communism for 27 years, and with the infidelity of my ex-husband during more than 10 years of my life. But the Lord was faithful in raising me up from these difficult tests. So once again I must testify to his power, and that he lifted up one whose heart had been crushed to pieces. In Him I found genuine truth, holiness, and so much tender and eternal love. He is my King. He is my reason for living. He is the one who gives my path direction and meaning. Thanks to Him I can live a life of love and holiness. May His name be praised! Amen.