The God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable: a Pleading

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Gentle Reader,

Does Scripture, and this passage specifically, teach that God actively brings pain into the lives of those He loves?

I’ve been pondering this question all week. It’s easy to point to numerous passages in the Bible and flippantly state that God does bring suffering into the lives of His people. This is to gloss over the issue, however, for many of those passages detail cause-and-effect situations. God told the Israelites not to do ____________. If they did ___________, then ___________ would happen. The Israelites did __________, so ___________ happened.

We’re not talking about the consequences of sin. God is more than clear about the things that will happen in our lives if we depart from His way. This is suffering that we bring entirely upon ourselves. Most thankfully, He is always ready to hear our repentant cries and to help us navigate through the mess!

What about things like cancer? Job loss? Stock market crashes? Houses burning down?

What about those things?

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. – 2 Corinthians 12:8 (NKJV)

Paul’s got this stake hammered into his body, jammed in there by one sent to torment him. We have no idea what this stake was. He could have been sick, he could have been struck with depression, he could have lost a friend. The nature of the pain doesn’t matter when it comes to our understanding of this passage. What does matter is that he was hurting, that he didn’t like it and that he asked God to take the pain away.

Concering: huper (hooper) – in behalf of; over, beyond, more than; more, beyond, over.

Pleaded: parakaleo (parakaleho) – to call to one’s side; call for; summon; address; speak to; exhortation; entreaty; beg; beseech.

Lord: kurios (kooreeos) – He to whom a person or thing belongs; master; owner; title of honor; reverence; God.

Times: kairos (kaheeros) – due measure; opportune or seasonable time.

Depart: aphistemi (afistaymee) – cause to withdraw; remove; go away; desert; fall away; flee from; cease to vex one; to withdraw.

Paul’s mind and emotions are consumed by this pain. I don’t know whether “three times” means “three times” or if the number is representative as in so much of Scripture, but it’s safe to say that this pain was a topic of discussion between Paul and God more than once. The Apostle took what opportunities he could to say, “Oh, Lord, You are my King. Please, please take this thing away from me!”

There is so much comfort in knowing that God listens, isn’t there?

Paul’s perspective in the preceding verse, where he talks about this pain being necessary to keep him from undue pride, must have come after the experience. I don’t know anyone, no matter how long they’ve walked with God, who says, “Oh, yes, I am experiencing _________ so I don’t ______________.” Perspective in cases like this almost always involves hindsight. I find that comforting, too, because it means that Paul was absolutely human.

Paul’s getting beat up. He being knocked about. He’s pleading with God to make it stop. I think that this gives us a starting point in terms of the great Problem of Pain: God alone is the one who can bring the healing, the restoring, the relief, the peace that we so desperately need.

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

  For all posts in the God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable series, go here.

What Depression Means to Me: Neither This Nor That

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Gentle Reader,

Though clinical depression is a distinct physical problem, it is definitely fueled by emotional issues. One of these issues, for me, is a nagging sense of never being able to fit in. Of never feeling comfortable in my surroundings or within my social/family group. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve learned how to be annoying ingratiating (i.e – a stereotypical and severe people pleaser), but it also comes from the fact that, well, I don’t exactly fit in anywhere. Now, I realize that everyone struggles with this to one extent or another, but experience up to this point as often affirmed my place outside the circle.

For example:

1. Politics – “Christian = Republican.”

I have a secret: I’ve never voted straight Republican. Ever. In fact, my politics are so “radical” as to prompt me to support gun control, more funding for libraries and tighter environmental restrictions on manufacturing.

I have another secret: I’ve never voted straight Democratic. Ever. In fact, my politics are so “conservative” as to prompt me to support pro-life legislation, especially in regards to minors.

A third secret: I tend toward a sort of Libertarian philosophy. The less government the better. This doesn’t mean I agree with all the tenants of Libertarianism, but it does mean that I try very hard to vote my conscience based on a Biblical worldview. This is what I believe a responsible Christian citizen of any government must do.

2. Christianity – “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”

This cliche drives me absolutely bonkers. Do I have a relationship with Jesus Christ? Yes, I do. But I most definitely have a religion, which is defined as:

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs…a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects

I’m willing to bet that you have a religion, too.

We Christians, particularly those of us within the Protestant vein, have got to stop being afraid of this word. We’re so jumpy about appearing “Catholic” (the worst possible thing in the world that we could be perceived as, of course) that we distance ourselves from the sacred. We downgrade our interaction with God to something common and ordinary. Prayer becomes nothing more than chatting with Buddy Jesus. Bible study revolves around proving political ideology rather than opening our ears to hear what God has to say.

Isn’t there some sort of midway point between this lax attitude and that of intense formality? Isn’t it possible to know Christ as Best Friend but also as Supreme King? There has to be. Perhaps if we were more willing to explore the part of the definition highlighting “devotional and ritual observances,” we would find it.

(As a side note, I have begun to occasionally make the Sign of the Cross when I pray. Also, if I had the money,  I would want to buy this prayer shawl).

3. Marriage – “Women need love. Men need respect.”

Women and men require love. Men and women require respect.

I would not feel that my husband loved me at all if he didn’t respect my thoughts and feelings. It means a great deal to me that we discuss things, whether its finances, politics, theology or what to have for dinner. Even if he completely disagrees with me, I highly value the fact that he considers it important to ask me what I think. Knowing Chris as I do, I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t feel respected if I didn’t take the time to do little “lovely” things like leave him notes or make him breakfast.

I don’t know much about marriage, but I know that it’s not an either/or.

4. The sexes – “Men are visual, women are emotional/relational.”

I acknowledge that there is a large slice of truth here. However, I’m a visual creature. God did give me eyes, right? I like it when my man dresses up all fine and puts on that cologne I love. This whole visual thing goes farther than just human appearance, though. There are times when we both pause to appreciate the beauty of a sunset or sigh with contentment at the sight of a clean house.

Chris is quite emotional. That doesn’t make him a weakling. In fact, it is my opinion that he’s all the stronger for knowing exactly how he feels and being comfortable enough to express it. He’s like David, the Warrior Poet. This is an area in which I have a lot to learn from my husband.

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m weary of attempting to fit myself into these narrow, predefined boxes. It doesn’t work. If I’m going to be outside the circle, I want to be content with that position. It means…well, I guess it means that I think for myself. Maybe it’s good to be neither this nor that, but to instead be…me.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.

This Post I Don’t Want to Write

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Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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He-man, Hosea, Gomer and Me

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Gentle Reader,

This morning I punch at anxiety, but my jabs are weak. I’m tired of this battle. I’m ready to give up, give in, run away. Whatever it might take to silence the incessant noise of fear. Heman the Ezrahite (you had no idea that He-man was biblical, did you?) and his Psalm 88 are my good friends right now. There’s nothing like a good, fist-shaking lament when you’re feeling edgy.

There’s also nothing like a little knowledge. In Hosea 4:6, God tells the prophet that His people are being destroyed from the lack of it. What an interesting dedication to make to a man who’d had a whole lot of knowledge dropped on him via his marriage to a faithless prostitute named Gomer – he literally had to buy her out of bondage at one point.

The story of Hosea and Gomer is meant to be a portrait of God’s faithfulness toward His wayward people. This is all about knowledge; what you don’t know (or what you refuse to know) can definitely harm you in many ways. Gomer couldn’t or refused to understand that her husband loved her. She eventually left Hosea, convinced that the lies she did comprehend were better than the truth that seemed all too much. I can’t imagine that Hosea was particularly happy about her lack of love and trust. What man would be?

People are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

Hosea and Gomer both draw the reader to a long look in the face of God. He again is telling His people that He longs for them to return to Him, and what will happen if they don’t. He never leaves them in the dark about the consequences of their actions, whether for good or for ill. I ask you, what kind of God is this, the Lord who loves us so unendingly and faithfully? The Savior who suffers? The King who clearly defines the law?

Nobody else in the world is like that. Nobody else will give us chance after chance. Nobody will unceasingly work to draw our attention and affection. In a way, that shames me. God is God! By simple virtue of His existence, I should drop to my knees in awe. But, no, I need some kind of deal. Praise Him that He understands our fallen nature!

The pictures of Heman in his lament, Hosea in his prophecies and Gomer in her running all coalesce within my frantic heart to form a unique mosaic. The fist-shaking, the crying out and the faithlessness are things that God uses to quiet the soul. That may not seem to make sense, but I see in these three people our very real need to have the poison of sin and sorrow extracted from us by any means possible. And God will use any means. He has the ability and the desire to take our worst decisions and turn them around for His glory and our good.

I don’t know why, but that brings some peace to my aching chest. That slows my breathing just a little. I can close my eyes and unclench my fists. Will there be a battle today? Yes. Will I be anxious? Probably. Will I be in this place forever? Certainly not. God is here, through all the cycles of anger, repentance, fear and, finally, hitting the bottom of the pit with a thud. He extends His forever-reaching hand to me, and is ready to pull me out.

That’s the knowledge we need to keep from being destroyed. We need to know that God is utterly holy, which means He’s whole. He’s not like anyone else. He is faithful and true. Forever. He can be trusted and always knows the best way to go. He’ll never lead us up a mountain or down in a valley without holding us close through the obstacle.

Heman, Hosea, Gomer…me.

And you.

My journey to faith. (15)