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Friday, October 19, 2018

Pour Out Your Hearts

    “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). Many years ago, during my first depressive episode, the middle part of this verse (pour out your hearts to him) became very special to me. I’d lived with tremendous inner turmoil for several months, feeling guilty, considering myself a bad Christian because of the anxiety, despair, anger, lack of energy, hopelessness, and other symptoms that make up clinical depression.

    From what I’d gathered in the five years since receiving Christ, a good Christian, a real Christian, didn’t experience this kind of emotional pain. It went completely against the fruit of the Spirit. If I wasn’t bearing such fruit, something was terribly wrong with me as a believer. The only reasonable response would be guilt and shame. God would be extremely unhappy with me if I didn’t overcome this weakness through confession and prayer (and maybe just trying harder and harder).*

    Then I read the Psalms with new eyes, and God ministered to my needy soul, comforting me through the words of David. “Pour out your hearts to him.” Was I really allowed to do that? Was it really okay to tell Him how much I was hurting, not as a confession of sin, but simply as an expression of my deep pain? He drew me so much nearer to Himself as He reassured me, over and over again, that it was not only okay, but encouraged by many Bible passages.

    In the years since then, I still feel like I run into a wall of denial most of the time when another Christian is going through a difficult experience. I rarely hear an admission of how much it hurts to lose a loved one. I rarely see tears of anguish and grief and sorrow. No. We must be stronger than that. We cannot admit to the “weakness” of actually feeling torn apart by genuine mourning.

    C. S. Lewis initially had his book, A Grief Observed, published under a pseudonym. Would it have been acceptable for one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the twentieth century to reveal the depth of his wounds and doubts? Apparently he and his publisher didn’t think so. I’m not sure much has changed in the decades since then.

    Reading this verse again recently, the first few words jumped out at me: “Trust in him at all times.” I was struck by the idea that we’re supposed to both trust in Him and pour out our hearts to Him. One does not negate the other. Pouring out our hearts in anguish, despair, fear, anger—and honesty—as we wrestle with the sorrows of everyday life is not contradictory to trusting in Him at all times. We’re told to do both. Even in the same verse.

    Meditating on it further the next day, the Lord opened my eyes a little wider. We’re told to both trust in Him and pour out our hearts to Him. Maybe they’re not just compatible with each other, as I’d gathered yesterday; maybe they must go together.

    In human relationships, we don’t open up in complete honesty with someone unless there is great trust. But we don’t know whether we can trust someone until we see how they respond to our honesty. Pouring out our hearts increases with trust and trust increases with pouring out our hearts. They always go together. And in this process, intimacy grows. There can be no intimacy unless there is both trusting and pouring out our hearts. Then the friendship becomes a refuge, a place of safety, as in the last part of the verse.

    The same principle holds in our relationship with God. We will not open up in complete honesty with Him unless there is great trust (faith) in Him. On the other hand, our trust in Him grows as we express our emotions more honestly and openly. As with people, there can be no intimacy with God unless there is both trusting and pouring out our hearts. And when we do both, we experience the truth of the last part of the verse—God is our refuge. We see more clearly how He protects and nourishes us.

    Maybe evangelically-correct Christianity has it backwards. Maybe our hesitation about pouring out all our deepest feelings to God springs from a lack of faith, rather than an abundance of faith. Maybe those who never pour out their hearts to Him, with the mistaken idea that this demonstrates the strength of their faith, are actually unwilling to trust Him with the honest expression of their deepest needs due to the weakness of their faith.

*For a great article combating this point of view, see mentalhealthgracealliance.org/christian-mental-health-and-mental-illness/2018/8/2/6-reasons-why-depression-and-anxiety-is-not-weak-faith-or-sin

Friday, October 5, 2018

Forbidden Fruit

    “Because he himself [Jesus] suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Temptation is a form of suffering. Even Jesus, even God the Son, experienced temptation as suffering. He didn’t just breeze through it like a piece of cake and walk away unscathed. He suffered when He was tempted.

    Temptation is perhaps the only form of suffering that we’re guaranteed to face almost constantly in this life. There are likely to be times when I’m free from any medical conditions. There are likely to be times when my loved ones are healthy and happy. There are likely to be times when I’m financially secure. Those of us in more prosperous countries tend to have reprieves from many forms of suffering for much of our lives. But not temptation. It hangs in there. Day in and day out.

    This is my typical thought process when temptation is gnawing at me:

    That sounds like fun. Maybe I’ll do it again. It won’t hurt anyone.

    No, no, no. It’s wrong. It does cause harm. It’s not God’s best for me or for others. God has a good reason for everything that He forbids.

    But it feels so good. I enjoy it so much. It’s so hard to resist.

    No. God’s gotten me through this before. I can fight it with His strength. Help me, Lord.

    Maybe just a baby step in that direction. I don’t have to go all the way to where I’m actually sinning. Just enjoy the pleasure of getting closer and closer. Then back out.

    This is too hard, God! I want it too much! Why aren’t You helping me more? Why do You make it so attractive and then say no, don’t do that?

    Maybe just another little baby step. . . .

    Generally, if it gets this far, I end up giving in. I’ve suffered through the struggle of wanting to resist and trying to resist, but also wanting the pleasure. The internal wrestling is tearing me apart. Better to give in and end the suffering than to continue to fight.

    One day I recognize a harmful tendency—to reach the point in my mental skirmish where I resent God. He makes the rules. He created me to find pleasure in something that He forbids me from doing. Then He sets that pleasure right in front of my face and dares me to turn away from it.

    Like Eve in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Why did God have to go and make it that way? Couldn’t He have created something bad for us, ugly, and with no power beyond ordinary food—and then forbidden it? This is all His fault. He could have prevented Eve’s suffering, and mine, if He would have designed a slightly different world.

    But recently the truth hit me: God is not my enemy. Why has it taken me so many years to realize this? Can I really be that stupid about such a basic thing after decades of following Him? I guess so.

    God wants only what’s best for me. He gives me His commandments so that I can have the most fulfilling life (Deuteronomy 30:15-16). He sends His Holy Spirit to live in me, to guide and strengthen me (Romans 8:13-14). He never tempts me (James 1:13). Every time I’m tempted He provides a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13). He has made available everything I need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). How can I get so angry with Him when I’m suffering from temptation? He wants to see me succeed in resisting it.

    So how do I do that? If I knew how to do it every time without fail, I could make millions selling the secret. Unfortunately, I don’t. But I’ve learned a couple of things about prayer that have been helpful.

    Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13, RSV). Years ago, in a study of Kay Arthur’s book Lord, Teach Me to Pray in 28 Days, I was given a pattern to follow based on this verse. First, “Lead us not into temptation.” The suggestion was to name a particular sin and pray for God’s protection from temptation in that area. Then, “Deliver us from evil.” Pray that if I am tempted by this sin, He will provide the strength to resist it.

    This strategy was an eye-opener for me. The idea was to present these requests during my regular prayer time each day, rather than waiting until the temptation was overwhelming me. I hadn’t ever thought of that. I never prayed until I was deep into the struggle with temptation, and then it was usually too late.

    God is good. He answered my prayers in a more powerful way than I had thought was possible. Unfortunately, over time, I drifted away from this habit. I’m trying to get back into it again.

    The other prayer that’s helped me is to remember His promise to provide a way out. Sometimes, early in the temptation process I can turn my mind to this promise and ask that I would find that way out. Maybe all I need to do is get up and move to another room in the house. Or call a friend. Or change activities. There will always be a way out.

    I don’t know how to resist temptation every single time, every single day. But this I know: God is on my side. His power to protect me is greater than I can imagine. He’s given me resources for taking advantage of that power. The fruit that I crave is forbidden for a reason. And He can use even my temptations and failures for His good purposes (Romans 8:28).