Search This Blog

Friday, October 4, 2019

Scriptures That Soothe My Soul

    Psalms. Job. Second Corinthians. These are the books of the Bible that I turn to when I’m hurting. During my first depressive episode I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t fight the fog in my head. Couldn’t read for more than a few seconds before losing my train of thought. Couldn’t read God’s Word for understanding or meaning.

    Normally, I’m a left-brained intellectual nerd. So after becoming a Christian, I considered it the most natural thing in the world to want to learn all I could about this new faith. (Giving myself the credit, not realizing how much the Holy Spirit was prompting me and encouraging me and guiding me.) I started reading the Bible from cover to cover even before finding a church to attend. Within a few years, I was frustrated by the lack of depth in most evangelical churches, but I found that depth in God’s Word. I pushed myself to gain knowledge, gain understanding, gain wisdom.

    Maybe even to the point of turning it into an idol.

    At least to the point of legalistically insisting that a good Christian must read, must learn, must grow. Must work hard at it, mustn’t miss a single day’s devotional time.

    Then the depression hit my brain, and everything changed. Unable to focus, feeling guilty for the struggles, going for weeks without reading the Bible due to the physical and mental exhaustion. Until I rediscovered the Psalms. Suddenly I could read again, if only one Psalm at a time. I could feel the authors’ pain and confusion and God’s incomprehensible compassion.

    “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. . . . He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters” (18:6, 16). “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. . . . The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (34:6, 18).

    “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (72:12-14). “In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free” (118:5). “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (145:8-9). “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3).

    Then came Job. The wonder and relief that a righteous man could voice his doubts and question God. The vivid example of how it feels to be surrounded by people who don’t understand some kinds of suffering.

    More recently, after losing any sense of God’s presence for months at a time, feeling a strong connection to Job’s words: “Why do you [God] hide your face and consider me your enemy? Will you torment a windblown leaf? Will you chase after dry chaff?” (13:24-25). “[God] has blocked my way so I cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness” (19:8). “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him” (23:8-9). “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (30:20). That’s how I felt.

    These two books helped me express my doubts and confusion and pain before God. Second Corinthians provided a necessary antidote to the self-focus, a view of the big picture, of how our sufferings fit into God’s greater purposes. A taste of the good and the hope and the strength that is there even in the worst of times. He “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4, italics added). “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:8-9).

    “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9). “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:16-18). “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:10). “‘My [Jesus’] grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ . . . For when I [Paul] am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).

    No denial of the sorrows in this life. In fact, Paul reveals his own difficulties (physical and emotional) more in this book than in any other. And yet he also makes the strongest statements regarding both the benefits to others because of his pain and the triviality of that pain compared to the spiritual blessings of this life and the next. If his suffering is really as intense as he describes it as being, what does that say about the many times greater intensity of the joy and glory that can come through that suffering?

    Thank You, Father, for the richness and variety of Your Word. Thank You that different books and verses minister to me at different times in my life. Whatever my need might be, the Bible provides passages that meet it. During the times when I need to be taught, rebuked, corrected, or trained in righteousness, Your Word is there (2 Timothy 3:16). But it’s also “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) in my times of pain and sorrow, soothing my soul as only You can do.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Intimacy and Honesty

    Exact words from my last post: “Lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.” I assumed that I was stating something that we all just know, even if we don’t practice it.

    Then I happened to hear an interesting podcast. Two Guys on Your Head talking about honesty and happiness. One of their first statements: “It turns out honesty is the best policy despite the fact that people don’t believe it.” So much for my assumption.

    According to the podcast, researchers divided some volunteers into three groups for a study on relationships. They gave each group a different angle to focus on during all of their social interactions over a given length of time. One group was told to be as honest as possible, another to be as kind as possible, and the third to pay more attention to what they were saying as they talked to other people. After practicing their assignments in their everyday lives for the specified number of days, the subjects were asked to rate the closeness and effectiveness of their interactions during that time.

    “Surprisingly,” (the podcaster’s word, not mine) “what they found was people felt like they had better interactions with people and felt closer to the people that they communicated with if they were honest.” Are these two psychologists really surprised to hear this? Or are they just reflecting the surprise most Americans would experience when the results were revealed?

    A fourth group involved in the study was asked to predict what would happen in the same three situations. The majority thought that being honest would be more likely to damage a relationship. They were wrong.

    In the experiment, the subjects reasoned that the kind thing to do is to avoid telling the truth if it might be hurtful or offensive. That makes sense in some situations, like the example the Two Guys gave: if a husband and wife are walking into a restaurant and the wife asks the husband how she looks, kindness wins out over honesty.

    But according to the podcast, most of the time our belief that we’re being kind is really just cowardice. We don’t have the guts to tell people “what you know they need to hear.” Their conclusion is that when we share ourselves with others more freely, especially if it’s done in a positive, rather than a combative or degrading, manner, we’re opening the relationship up to greater intimacy. Ephesians 4:15: Speak the truth in love. It works.

    Some of my best relationships have been with people who don’t agree with me on one or more important subjects. As we’ve discussed our opposing positions and listened to each other and tried to understand each other’s perspective, we’ve developed a deep friendship that I wouldn’t trade for all the “kindness” in the world. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always worth it. Am I the only one who’s experienced this?

    The Two Guys say that the main situation where we avoid telling the truth is when it reflects badly on the speaker or the listener. But as they point out, exposing our weaknesses expresses a willingness to trust the other person. Those great relationships from the previous paragraph also included admitting our uncertainties, our failures, our faults. It’s called vulnerability. It’s biblical. Our culture claims to consider it one of the greatest virtues. What’s happening here?

    An important factor that wasn’t discussed in the podcast is the nonverbal responses that we all pick up on, whether we realize it or not. There’s something about looking into a person’s face as we talk. Their whole expression seems to become warmer and more open when the speaker is being honest. It changes when he or she is holding back. Even if we can’t put a finger on it, I suspect that we instinctively sense when someone is being truthful and when they’re not. And if they’re not, they’ll lose our trust. We might think that we can fool someone by being kind instead of honest, but I’m not sure that it really works that way.

    Many years ago there was a man in my church whose wife had recently left him. They had been living a life of deceit for years, pretending to be happily married, putting on a false front for the rest of the congregation to admire. In reality, he was controlling and manipulating his family to the point of emotional abuse. Initially, the wife thought her husband was being a good Christian spiritual leader and she was being a good Christian submissive wife. But she eventually recognized his behavior as unChristian and unhealthy, and she ended the relationship.

    He remained in our church and Bible study while she moved on. One day, I was talking to him before class. I glanced into his eyes to gauge his response to our conversation. There was nothing there. No human expression. Just a brick wall. He was hiding the truth of who he really was, what he really thought, how he really felt.

    My gut reaction: I can’t trust anything this guy is saying. He might have been oozing kindness in his words, but his eyes betrayed his lack of honesty and destroyed any possibility of friendship or acceptance. This was an extreme case, but I suspect that most of us know when someone is being less than honest even if their words convey kindness. And it widens the distance between us.

    If honesty really is the best policy, if intimacy develops with truth rather than with attempts at deceitful kindness, what happens when a culture strives to protect its members from any words that might be deemed hurtful? Can we engage in honest conversation? Will we build intimacy or only a shallow pretense at friendship? Many colleges are trying to ban offensive speech from the entire campus. Is this really the best way to prevent suffering? Maybe in the short term. But what about the long-term ability to build strong, healthy, lasting relationships based on honesty—the best policy?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Speaking the Truth in Love

    Waking up as my alarm goes off. Hitting the snooze button, my mind drifting lazily around the idea of handling our emotions as Christians. An extension of my interrupted dream. (I know I’m weird, even in my dreaming.) A thought: Express the truth of what you feel, but face the truth of what is real.

    Our God is a God of truth (John 14:6). His desire is for us to become more like Him in this life, until we’re transformed into His likeness in the next (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:2). That means being truthful in all we do, including honestly admitting and expressing our emotions. But it doesn’t stop there. We also need to face the truth, the reality, of how our emotional venting impacts others.

    Our American culture stresses the first half. Express the truth of what you feel. Let it all hang out. If I feel it, then I have a right, even a need, to reveal it. Don’t worry about how it might affect others.

    My dad bought into this proclamation of modern psychology. It would be disastrous to suppress any emotions. It would lead to ulcers, heart attacks, assaults on your mental health. So Dad blew up if he felt like blowing up. He criticized, he ridiculed, he scorned. It made him feel better, at least temporarily, so it must be the right thing to do. Express the truth of what you feel. Where’s the harm in that? (To give him full credit, he also freely demonstrated his tender heart toward our family and toward people everywhere who were hurting.)

    The harm is in the pain it causes others. Dad never faced the truth of what is real—the extreme selfishness of this approach. It cares only for the one doing the expressing. It denies the needs of those who are being wounded. It doesn’t lead to greater maturity for the one spouting off or to greater peace and deeper relationships with the world around him. Should we be surprised that, decades after this philosophy became the accepted approach to life in America, our country is being torn apart by division and violence?

    Evangelically-correct Christians go to the opposite extreme. They recognize the reality: my anger, envy, or criticism hurts those around me. By contrast, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the transformation that God works inside us as we grow in Him. These are the characteristics that heal the hurts of the world, that lead to a lasting peace and healthy relationships with others.

    However, these believers tend to deny the first half of how to handle emotions. There can be no expressing the truth of what you feel. If it doesn’t conform to the fruit of the Spirit, the only way it should come out in our relationships should be in admitting that such feelings are wrong. Anger must be suppressed or confessed as sin, never honestly revealed to others. But lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.

    My little rhyming thought is another way of phrasing the biblical idea of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Speak the truth—express the truth of what you feel. But do it in love—face the truth of what is real. Find the balance. My basic nature leads me to err on both sides. I don’t want to reveal my deepest thoughts and feelings unless I know someone very, very well. I could be rejected or misunderstood. Safer to keep it inside.

    And it’s a challenge to speak the truth about any emotional subject with loving words. If I’m angry, if someone has hurt me, I don’t want to have to stop and think about how to show that in a way that takes their needs into account. This two-sided process is an area where I could see God growing me even as a baby Christian, but it doesn’t come naturally.

    When I was in college and the suicidal depression hit, my emotions went to every extreme in the book. Anger, suspicion, jealousy, self-pity. How could I possibly express the truth of what I was feeling without wounding and alienating everyone around me? And without making a total fool of myself by overreacting to everything? My initial response was to keep it all inside as my evangelically-correct training kicked in. It nearly destroyed me.

    One of my big breakthroughs came when I openly communicated my feelings not to others, but to God. I learned to take it all to Him, pouring out my heart (Psalm 62:8), often through journaling. I could express the truth of how I felt, which was necessary and healthy, while facing the truth of what was real, of the ways I would hurt others if I just blew up every time I felt like I needed to. I also grew in my walk with God because, like the authors of the psalms of lament, facing God with my deepest feelings led to a greater understanding of who He really is.

    When medication relieved the depression, I began to take what I’d learned from expressing myself to God and apply it to the greater challenge of expressing myself to others. I found that I could be more honest with them in ways that didn’t trample on their souls. It still isn’t the most automatic thing for me to do. I’d like to be so mature in my faith that this whole process would unfold without any conscious thought on my part. I’d experience the fruit of the Spirit every waking moment. I’d communicate every emotion in loving and considerate words.

    Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. I’ve come a long way, but I’m still growing. And I thank God that He used a painful and difficult period in my life to teach me better ways to speak the truth in love.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Who is This God?

    Doing a bit of research for my last post. Looking for specific Bible verses to support one of my premises: God, as He reveals Himself in the Old Testament, places a strong emphasis on obedience to His commands in determining when to bless someone.

    Starting with Genesis, looking for the words “God said.” There should be lots of times when God tells someone that He’s rewarding them for their good works. But not initially. At first the emphasis is on His sovereignty. God creates, He speaks, He chooses. It doesn’t say that He creates Adam and Eve because He knows they will love and obey Him. He just does it. And He blesses them right after He creates them, not after they’ve done anything to deserve it (Genesis 1:27-28).

    He gives them instructions, including the command not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with the threat that they will die if they do (Genesis 2:17). No promises connected to doing His will. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God punishes them and curses them (Genesis 3:16-19). No promises regarding future good behavior.

    In the first example of God confirming to someone that those who obey Him will be blessed, He’s not speaking to the upright, but to Cain, who has just murdered his brother Abel: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:7). There seems to be an understanding that obedience leads to blessing, but there’s no record yet of God explicitly stating this to His followers, as I’d expected to find.

    Noah is described as blameless and walking with God (Genesis 6:9). The Lord chooses him to build an ark to preserve a remnant of people and animals to repopulate the earth. But the Bible doesn’t record a single instance of God telling Noah that He’s blessing him for his obedience. He simply commands Noah, and Noah simply obeys.

    (I realize that God probably said a great deal to Noah that’s not recorded in the Bible, which might have included stating that He had chosen him to save mankind because of his upright life. My point here is not to second guess how much the people of the Bible knew, but to point out what God has revealed to those of us who read His Word.)

    Abraham appears in Genesis chapter 11. The Lord comes to him and makes a covenant with him, promising him great blessings. He instructs him to leave Haran and go to Canaan. Abraham goes. Many adventures follow, with Abraham responding to God in faith for the most part. But it’s not until he’s over one hundred years old, humbly preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord, that the Bible records, for the first time, God telling a human being that he will be blessed because of his obedience (Genesis 22:15-18).

    What does all this mean? Maybe it was really important for God to communicate first, beyond any doubt, the side of His character that speaks and it happens, that commands without any promise, that chooses to bless without trying to justify His actions. Maybe He also wanted to provide examples of people who follow Him for who He is, not solely because they expect Him to give them the good life.

    God demonstrates His love for humans as He walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as He preserves Noah and his family from the Flood, as He makes a covenant with Abraham. But we need to hear, we need to see, we need to understand just who this God is who generously and freely loves and gives.

    He is the one with the power to create and to destroy. He is the one with the perfect righteousness and justice to wisely choose when to bless and when to curse. He is the one with the sovereignty to decide who to use to fulfill His purposes in history. This is what I need to know right from the start.

    I need to know that this God has the power and sovereignty to fulfill every promise that He makes in His compassion, and the righteousness to see that justice is done in the end. Only then can I begin to appreciate the enormity of His grace in blessing and saving even one human being. And only then can I truly accept the suffering that life brings my way without anger or bitterness toward Him.

    The next eye opener comes with scanning through the Psalms, many of which contrast God’s blessing for His followers with His judgment on those who pursue evil. But what strikes me this time is just how much His people suffer.

    If God is rewarding them for their obedience, why are they crying out so often in distress? Why are they being oppressed by those evil people that God is supposed to be judging in this life? Why are the wicked flourishing (3:1, 10:2, 11:2, etc.)?

    The answer given is that justice does prevail. But the example given is that suffering makes the authors much more aware of their dependence on God and of His loving faithfulness to them. Which is more important, to have a carefree life, or to be better able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19)? For the psalmists, that knowledge grows during times of suffering.

    What if David had had an easy life based on his commitment to following God? What if he hadn’t been unjustly pursued and persecuted by Saul for all those years (1 Samuel 18-31)? What would the book of Psalms look like if David couldn’t relate to my pain, my suffering, my questioning? I’ll never have the faith and obedience of David. Yet even David could experience and express the spiritual anguish that all of us go through. The comfort I find in the Psalms comes because of the suffering of righteous David.

    Thank You, Father, for Your perfect Word, Your perfect revelation of Yourself over time and through history. Thank You for providing the firm foundation of a knowledge of Your power and Your sovereignty even before revealing Your blessings for those who obey You. Thank You for using David’s hardships to remind him (and us) of his dependence on You and to bless so many people (like me) down through the ages, as he poured out his heart in the Psalms.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Controlling God

    Gotta be honest here. And honestly, I want a God that I can control. Not that I have to be able to tell Him exactly how to run everything. I just want one who will always answer my prayers for relief from suffering if I behave and believe the way He wants me to. (Within reasonable limits, of course—nobody’s perfect.)

    Sounds like a fair exchange to me. He can deny my request if I’m living in rebellion or seriously doubting Him. As God, He has the right to lay down some ground rules like that. Doesn’t the Bible promise me this kind of relationship with God? Doesn’t it say that if I behave properly (Old Testament) and believe properly (New Testament), He’ll remove all the suffering in my life when I ask Him to?

    Moses in the Old Testament: “All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock. . . Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. . . The enemies who rise up against you will be defeated. . . The Lord will send a blessing . . . on everything you put your hand to. . . The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity. . . You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. . . You will always be at the top, never at the bottom” (Deuteronomy 28:2-13). Sounds like a good and easy life to me. And it’s all based on obedience.

    Jesus in the New Testament: “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29). “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34). Believe. Be healed.

    How can this same God, who obviously grants prayers based on obedience and faith, say no to my requests for relief, not just for me, but for others who are suffering? What about all those promises?

    To be honest, it’s not the sense that He’s gone back on His word that bothers me the most. It’s my inability to get what I want, to exercise control.

    I know these passages don’t represent the entire story. Looking at the Bible as a whole, God has the final say in which petitions He grants and which ones He denies. He’s the only one with the wisdom and the compassion and the perspective to always make the right choice. If He was required to grant every request to everyone who was behaving and believing as He desired, that would put us in control, not Him. And some really bad things would happen, since we don’t know it all (as He does) and can’t foresee all the effects of a given action (as He can).

    But I still have this drive for control. Sometimes when I’m praying, I feel like I’m trying to force my will on God. I know it’s right and best for You to heal that suffering child, God. You have to do it. Nothing else makes sense. Can’t You see that? My mind is so filled with the pain and grief of the situation that I can mechanically repeat the words, “Your will be done,” but my heart longs for my will. For God to open His eyes and see the joy that would spill over into many lives if He would just do it my way.

    My favorite line from the movie Puzzle, describing the feeling after finishing a jigsaw puzzle: “In the end, you know you made all the right decisions.” I might have made an occasional mistake, but once the picture is completed, there’s this satisfaction of knowing that I controlled the process every step along the way and reached the desired outcome.

    When I do logic puzzles online, I frequently hit the “check” button. I want to know, right now, that I’m on the right track. No waiting until I’ve filled in all the blanks. Tell me where I stand immediately. Then I can fix the little mistakes before they mushroom into big mistakes. I can control or eliminate that mushrooming process.

    I want a check button for my life. Just before I make the next decision, no matter how trivial, I want to be able to confirm that I’ll be satisfied with the results. Will the wording in that email or text get the response that I’m hoping for? Check! Will that item that I’m about to order online live up to all my expectations? Check! Am I choosing the social event that I’ll enjoy the most when there’s a conflict between two or more of them? Check!

    Where’s my real-life check button? If I could just click on it every time I’m in doubt, it would give me the control to make my world exactly what I want it to be.

    But I don’t have that check button and I won’t make all the right decisions and God doesn’t do everything I want Him to do to relieve suffering. How do I live with this reality? Especially in a culture that gives us an illusion of control. Want to manage your finances, increase your physical fitness, keep tabs on your children 24/7, prevent criminals from breaking into your home or accessing your personal information? There’s an app for that. There’s an app for everything. I can control whatever I want to if I just find the right app.

    I need to step back from this cultural mindset. To remember that technology doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do I. Deep down inside, I believe in a good and loving God. What I really need isn’t more control, but more faith in God and less faith in my ability to run my own life.