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Friday, September 10, 2021

God in my Head

 No secrets

God is watching me. Not just from outside my body, but even from inside my head. He examines everything I do. He captures every word I say and every thought I think. He considers the motivation behind every action I engage in. As David says in Psalm 139, I can’t get away from Him. Anywhere. Ever. Sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?

For several years after my conversion, I didn’t like this truth. I’d always been a private person. Keeping my thoughts to myself. Hiding any ideas that might lead to conflict or condemnation. Feeling safe because absolutely nobody knew all that was going on inside me.

And then I became a Christian.

And then I started reading the Bible.

And then I realized that I had no secrets whatsoever.

God knew it all. Even my darkest thoughts. Before I did anything, He knew what was coming. I didn’t like that idea. I wanted somewhere to hide when I was thinking about evil and sin—and enjoying it. Who was this oppressive God who wouldn’t ever leave me alone? What right did He have to spy on me?


Two Gods

Before I became a Christian, I had this vague general idea of a nice, happy, benevolent god. I didn’t think too much about his character; I just had a good feeling about him. He was out there somewhere, available when I needed to be perked up or comforted, but never forcing his way into my life or thoughts.

When I heard the gospel, though, I was convicted of the truth that God isn’t just a nice guy sitting up in heaven watching over us. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He sees my sin, and He doesn’t like it. He condemns me for it. It took the death of His Son on a cross to atone for my transgressions. Even after I was saved, He still expected me to confess and repent anytime I disobeyed Him. I had a hard time living with the idea that this judgmental God was inside my head every minute of every day.

My pre-conversion, nice-guy God didn’t care how bad I was. Whatever I did was okay with him; we could be friends anyway. Didn’t his attitude demonstrate a greater, truer love than the real God’s? What I couldn’t quite grasp as a baby Christian was this: When the barrier of sin between me and any kind of God is thick and deep and strong, the loving grace that knocks it down is incredibly costly—to Him. The love of my sweet, gentle, easygoing god was trivial compared to that of the biblical God with His overwhelming, unbelievable, sacrificial grace.

A God who could not have fellowship with anyone or anything tainted by sin, but who created an entire universe so that He could experience intimate relationships with His fallen and redeemed creatures. One who freely revealed Himself through His Word to self-centered and rebellious human beings so that we could have the best possible life here and eternal life hereafter. One who cared so deeply that He could know me inside and out, He could live in my head with all its filthy pollution—and still love me, still offer me His comfort and compassion, still lead me through my ugliest days, still promise me an eternity with Him.

It took a while for that message to get through. But now I find comfort in knowing that He knows exactly who I am, that He’s always with me, that He got inside my head and stayed there. Permanently.

What if . . . ?

What would our relationship be like if I could hide from God whenever I knew that He’d be unhappy if He could see what I was doing or thinking? What if I could choose to show Him only my most saintly side? What if I could turn invisible to His eyes the moment my halo threatened to slip? Wouldn’t that be great? But . . .

What if I could only trust Him to love me when I was at my best?

That’s not exactly the kind of love that I long for. At one time, I might have believed that in an ideal world I could hide at will from a righteous God of justice. Sin in secret when I wanted to, turn to God for His love and comfort without any repercussions afterward. Wouldn’t the best God create a world like that?

But what I really crave and what I really need is a God who knows me inside and out, who sees the very worst in me, who stays right there in my head when I’m thinking the blackest thoughts and doing the dirtiest deeds, who passionately hates those thoughts and deeds—but who still loves me dearly, still reaches out to draw me nearer and nearer to Him.

Welcoming Him

It took an encounter with suicidal depression many years ago to begin to change my understanding of this God in my head. I was at my worst. I had lost every trace of the fruit of the Spirit. I was mean and hateful and angry toward others, filled with anxiety over the littlest things, jealous and self-absorbed. No way could God love someone like me. Especially a righteous God who could see all the terrible things going on inside me.

It might have been different if I hadn’t been saved yet. Then I would have had an excuse for being so bad. But I’d been following Him for five years, learning and growing and committing every day to Him. (And, yes, falling and repenting, too.) Now, under the influence of my depressive disorder (undiagnosed at the time), I had to be the worst possible excuse for a Christian that He’d ever seen. No way could He love me anymore.

But He did. He demonstrated that love in one incredible encounter that I won’t attempt to describe here. That was the moment when it began to be okay to have this righteous and holy God inside my head. He had shown me a love that went far beyond anything I’d ever imagined or expected or experienced. For the first time in my new-creation life, I felt like He was at home. And I welcomed Him.

 


Friday, August 20, 2021

Brain Fog

 The fog rolls in

Stress flips the switch on the miniature fog machine in my brain. As my stress level increases, my mind shuts down more and more. I have to occasionally remind myself that this is a normal response to the fight-or-flight hormones that our bodies produce (as I shared in my article “Stressing Out” in Christian Women Online).

But even when my thinking slows down to a crawl I still have responsibilities to fulfill. Writing. Yard work. Housework. Fixing meals. Running errands. I can’t put the brakes on everything that I’m doing just because my brain isn’t functioning as well as I’d like it to. Those errands make me a bit nervous, though.

One day I’m walking out the door, heading to the store to pick up an item for a friend in need, feeling stressed and uncertain. Should I be driving today? Will I be a danger to myself or others if I’m behind the wheel? Saying a prayer as I get on the road, like I often do in this situation: Lord, please keep me alert. Keep me safe.

(Just so you don’t worry about me too much: If I thought driving was a truly serious risk, of course I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I plan my outings for the time of day when traffic is lighter and I’m most alert, and I don’t often travel more than five miles each way. Plus, my very awareness of my weakness compels me to compensate for it by focusing more intentionally on all that’s going on around me.)


The challenges

I turn north onto a major street. After a couple of miles, I notice flashing lights ahead in the southbound lanes. Most of the drivers around me haven’t seen them yet, but I know I need to move over and stop before the emergency vehicles get any closer. A workman with a truck-bed full of traffic cones has just pulled over several yards ahead of me and the cars farther back in the right lane are still going the speed limit. Can I squeeze between the truck and the cars without causing an accident? Somehow I manage to do it.

As the fire engines pass, the workman is setting up traffic cones shutting down our lane. Now I have to merge back into the middle one without knocking him down, timing my movement around all of the traffic that had stopped momentarily. And it’s okay. I maneuver and accelerate safely. I can handle this.

I smile a bit at the idea that God is responding to my prayer. Calming my fears. Showing me that I’m alert enough to do this thing called driving. Which is good, because the challenges aren’t over yet.

After I’ve passed the traffic cones, I move back into the right lane, with the thought that more emergency vehicles could be on their way. And they are. This time, a construction zone is squeezing the southbound traffic down from three lanes to one. Cars are backed up beyond the red light at the coming intersection. And two more fire trucks are heading right for them.

There’s no one in front of me when I stop at the light. A few blocks ahead, the firefighters swerve into the open northbound lanes, then use their technology to turn the traffic light green and lean on their horns to keep the intersection clear.

They’re heading straight for me now. At high speed. Shortly before they reach me, they turn back to the right, then to the left, going south again, presumably finding an open path around the cars and the construction. As the sound of the sirens dies down, I look both ways and continue to the store.

Now I’m laughing out loud. Okay, God, I get the message. You’re keeping my head clear enough to complete this errand. You are with me. I am safe.

But my progress is slow. What with construction zones, emergency vehicles, and too many red lights, I’m feeling a little stressed about getting home before my next slump hits.

The traffic signal ahead turns green as I approach it. Good. One less stop to make.

Then I look to the left and see two bicycle riders in the crosswalk on my side of the intersection, pedaling away in spite of their their red light. I apply my brakes just in time to let them pass in front of me, but without any risk of my being rear-ended. If I hadn’t glanced in their direction as I approached the intersection, we would’ve collided. Another opportunity for God to reassure me that I’m okay to drive and that He’s watching out for me.

The rest of the errand passes smoothly. I find exactly what my friend needs at the store. I get home before my energy plummets.

Remembering

It’s so encouraging to know that God answers my prayers. And that sometimes He goes beyond my expectations and provides more than I’d asked for. It was especially fun this time because I could imagine Him sitting up in heaven smiling and laughing with me as I watched my adventure unfold. He definitely has a sense of humor. I tend to forget that, especially when I’m feeling stressed.

I crash pretty hard later in the day (figuratively, not literally), probably as a result of the morning’s excess adrenaline. As usual, it triggers deep anxiety and obsessively negative thinking. This time, to help myself fight that natural tendency, I can look back, not years or months or even days, but back only a few hours to when God did a simple yet amazing thing in responding to my prayer.

I can marvel about how He demonstrates His love, not just in the big things like preventing me from causing a wreck, but even in the little things like setting up multiple situations to reassure me that I’m okay to drive when I need to. I can thank Him for, and cling to, His precious, overflowing grace. Even when my faulty body chemistry is trying to convince me that life is too tough, that I’m too weak and limited to make it through another day, that I deserve something better than this.

Thank You, Lord, for Your love, Your grace, Your presence, and Your little surprises.

 


Friday, July 30, 2021

Glimpses of Jesus in the Book of Isaiah

The oppressed and the afflicted

I’m a lousy pray-er. I get so distracted by my own suffering that I have a hard time remembering other people’s needs. Especially when my brain cells are acting sluggish, as they have been since this pandemic began. And when I do make an effort to think of the subjects and situations that I could be praying about, I feel overwhelmed. Speechless. Numb.

After struggling with this weakness for months, I finally realize that I might do a better job of it if I make a list of the issues outside of myself that I can be interceding for, then choose only one or two to focus on each day. I look up prayer plans on the internet for suggestions that I might not think of. One that I really like is the category “the oppressed, the afflicted, and the vulnerable.” I add it to my list, making a note to be sure to remember subgroups such as addicts, foster children, and those experiencing homelessness.

Then one day, as I’m reading a passage in Isaiah, I come across verse 53:7 again. Isaiah 53 is one of my very most favorite chapters in the entire Bible. It’s a description of the Messiah, Jesus, and His suffering for our sakes, yet it was written centuries before the actual events. Here I find those words from my prayer list applied to Jesus: “He was oppressed and afflicted.”

Even though I’ve read this verse dozens of times, when I think of Jesus on the cross, when I read in scripture about His trials and crucifixion, I feel sorry for Him and I appreciate His sacrifice, but “oppressed” and “afflicted” aren’t the first words that come to my mind. And yet they’re so powerful. Especially when they’re applied to God.

Our God knows what it means to be oppressed. Anyone who’s oppressed right now should marvel at this verse. God knows how it feels to be afflicted. Anyone who’s afflicted right now can find comfort in that truth. Our God has been there. He’s done that. He’s got the scars to prove it. He can relate to the oppressed and the afflicted on a level that no other god can claim.

My heart goes out to this group so much that I make a special place for them in my prayer plan. God’s heart goes out to them so much that He chose to join them in their suffering. How incredible is that? How could I worship any other god?


No discouragement

Isaiah 42 is another passage describing the Messiah. Verse 4 says, “He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.” Is this the Jesus that I see in my mind’s eye? Not always. Sometimes when I think of Him during His last days on earth, I picture a classic painting showing Him before one of His judges, with His back slumped, His head bleeding, His eyes cast down, His mouth bent in agony. He looks pretty discouraged to me.

I know Jesus genuinely suffered from the humiliation and physical torment of His trials. But according to Isaiah He was never discouraged. Maybe I need to replace this mental image with one where His facial expression and body language reveal His hope and peace and power along with His pain. Even when He’s exhausted from hours of questioning and abuse. Even while He’s standing in the presence of those who He knows will condemn Him to a painful death. Even as He faces the certain prospect of bearing every sin of every human being on the cross.

So often I feel discouraged when I look at the world around me. Our culture is in outright rebellion against God. We’ve been engaged in a battle with a deadly virus for about a year and a half. My country is painfully divided. Even some Christians, who should be exercising discernment and self-control, are publicly venting their anger and frustration instead of patiently loving those who hate them.

Evil seems to be winning far more battles than God does. How could anyone not feel discouraged, especially those who know right from wrong and good from evil? And yet, even at this moment, even when my planet appears to be falling apart, even when hatred and violence seem to be out of control, God is not discouraged.


No faltering

Discouragement can lead to faltering. According to dictionary.com, faltering involves hesitating, wavering, and/or stumbling. If I’m really honest with myself, when I see the evil around me, don’t I sometimes wonder if God is hesitating and wavering or even stumbling as He attempts to rule this unruly world? Would all these bad things be happening if He really knew what He was doing and if He always acted with confidence? Of course, those thoughts are ridiculous. I might not always understand what God is doing but, as Isaiah says, He never falters. He can’t.

Jesus didn’t falter even as He washed the feet of the one who would betray Him. Jesus didn’t falter even as He told Peter, one of His most trusted disciples, that he would soon deny Him. Jesus didn’t falter even as He poured His heart out to His Father in the garden of Gethsemane. He expressed His fears and His pain, but His “not as I will, but as you will” was His unfaltering desire (Matthew 26:39). Jesus didn’t falter as He was arrested, as He stood before multiple judges, as He was mocked and beaten (oppressed and afflicted) by the soldiers, as He carried His cross, as the nails were pounded through His hands, as He bore the sins of the world on His broken body.

And if He wasn’t discouraged and faltering under those circumstances, then I can be sure that He doesn’t falter or become discouraged as He sees my life, and the history of this planet, unfolding day by day.

 


Friday, July 9, 2021

Perfection

Seeking perfection

A recovering perfectionist. That’s what my friend/mentor called me.

I see signs of a desire for perfection, not just in my own heart, but all around me. Complaints when the government fails to fix a problem completely. Impatience when a server forgets one little item on an order or when a clerk hits the wrong key on the cash register. Frustration when a computer is slower than it should be.

Maybe this is our natural human state. Craving perfection. Not being satisfied with anything less. Maybe it springs from our longing for God, who is perfect, and our desire for heaven, where there is perfect peace and joy and love.

But can it ever happen on this fallen planet? It never has. Doesn’t seem likely that it ever will. “To all perfection I see a limit” (Psalm 119:96).


Jesus and human perfection

And yet sometimes the Bible itself makes it sound like perfection is possible on this side of heaven. Jesus prayed toward the end of His life for His followers to “be brought to complete unity” (John 17:23 NIV) or “become perfectly one” (ESV). Has that ever occurred in the history of the church? Was His prayer answered? Could Jesus pray a prayer that wasn’t answered?

I don’t know. On the one hand, some would say that He was only referring to our spiritual unity, which is perfect. On the other hand, can we really be “perfectly one” if there's any kind of division at all?

Then there’s His command in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How could He demand this of us when He knows it’s impossible? Maybe He set the bar as high as He did, not because He expected us to reach it, but so that we’d have no excuse for aiming lower.

What if Jesus had said instead, “Always do the best you can”? I know what I’d do. I’d cling to that favorite sin of mine with the idea that I couldn’t possibly resist or overcome it. I’d say I was living up to His command, then go about my merry way stifling any attempt of the Holy Spirit to get my attention and convict me of my need to change. I have to hear Him say, “Be perfect,” or I’ll make excuses for my faults, rather than doing my part in attempting to correct them.

In the same way, maybe Jesus prayed for complete unity for His people, not with the expectation that we would ever reach it, but as a challenge for us to be continually working for greater oneness.

The results of expecting perfection

God obviously included these verses on perfection in His perfect Word for a reason. But when we fallen humans demand perfection from ourselves and other fallen humans, it always leads to suffering, because we can never achieve it. Sometimes it results in refusing to accept good answers to our problems in search of a perfect and unattainable solution.

A few years ago, I read somewhere online about a newly published memoir. The author wrote about growing up in an American culture that was telling her not to settle for second-best in dating and marriage.

There was a time when many women felt like they needed to be married for the sake of financial security and social status. They were willing to agree to an okay or difficult marriage out of fear of remaining single, and therefore lacking both money and respect. As women became more self-confident and financially independent, the new goal was to avoid the pain of divorce by finding the perfect husband.

Unfortunately, the author never found him. Instead, she entered midlife regretting her earlier choices and expectations. She could look back at some of the men she’d dated and realize that a few of them might have been good enough, if not perfect. She might have had the pleasure of sharing her life with someone special, rather than spending it alone. She wrote her book to encourage younger women to have a more realistic view of the men in their lives.

Expecting perfection can also lead to giving up on finding any answers at all. Becoming cynical and bitter. Turning to drugs and alcohol and other forms of escape. In recent years, the death rate among middle-aged adults has been increasing in the United States. Statistics show that the change is due to larger numbers of “deaths from despair”—alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. Too many people have given up. Is it because they were longing for perfection and couldn’t find it?

Overcoming perfectionism

So how did I become a recovering perfectionist, rather than a frustrated one? The main factor was a plunge into suicidal depression. Clinging to perfectionism would have led to my death. In addition to my severely depressed mood, I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t remember simple things, I was making embarrassing mistakes in front of everyone around me, and I didn’t have the energy to keep up with my responsibilities. I was failing in every area of my life. The disappointment in myself and frustration with my new shortcomings were so intense there were only two ways out—learn to let go or kill myself.

Through other people, through God’s Word, through His Holy Spirit within me, I began to release my unrealistic expectations of myself and others. To accept and even love myself just the way I was, with all my faults and limitations. To appreciate the good (even though imperfect) things—the beauty around me,
my friends and family members, the prosperity of my nation, the freedoms that I enjoyed, and all the other blessings that God had generously provided. It took years to learn and grow like this, but it saved my life.

I lowered my standards to a more reasonable level, where they remain today. Following Jesus’ command, I still aim for perfection—while accepting the fact that I’ll never reach it. By doing so, I’m working for greater improvement in myself, the church, and the world around me than I would if I set the goal any lower.

And I'm learning to be content with the imperfect results. Although I haven't reached perfect contentment, I find joy in seeing the good, no matter how small, that comes from my efforts. And I look forward to the moment when I’ll enter the next life, where I’ll find the perfection that I’ve been yearning for all these years.
 
 
                                          

Friday, July 2, 2021

Another Note

Regarding my Update under A Note to my Readers: Reverting, editing, and republishing didn’t work. I didn’t realize until it was too late that Blogger would still date it 6/28, which is a day or two before I subscribed. I assume that’s why I still didn’t get a notice. Many apologies to any subscribers who have received multiple email notices regarding a new post! Hopefully, this one will solve the problem.

The plan: make it a whole new post (rather than an edit), so that I get the notice that it’s been published today. If this works, I won’t be bothering you anymore. If not, I’ll leave it up to follow.it to straighten it out—which might mean more experimenting and more notes.

Thanks for your prayers and patience as I make this not-so-smooth transition! Please pray that I get it all straightened out before I publish my regular post next Friday.

Ann