Anxiety & Depression (introduction to a research paper)

  
 
What is depression like? Well, it’s kind of like drowning. Except you can see everyone else around you breathing…

During my senior year of college I wrote a short summary paper over the topic of “Psychoanalytic Social Theory” and its failure to address our real, deepest need: Christ. I don’t know if you would consider the paper to actually be very short, but I tend to be a little long-winded in the written word; and I feel that this is brief for the immense issue that it attempts to summarize. For me, when I write, it is the greatest avenue of any outlet. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills.”

That, of course, is a bit of an overstatement. However, writing really is a big help for a great many ailments, both in ourselves and in others. It is, perhaps, one of the quintessential ways of making sweet drinks from life’s sour fruit. Writing is readymade for those with some great angst. It’s appropriate for the anxious and the angry. Writing is for the lonely and the depressed and the misunderstood. For the frustrated and the fearful. For the poor in spirit and those who mourn. So, if or when I seem to come across as harsh or critical in my writing, please know that I am “preaching” to myself more than anyone, and these words are an overflow from my heart, from the grace that the Holy Spirit has overwhelmed me with.

This paper was one of the most therapeutic endeavors I have ever embarked upon; as I have suffered from bouts of depression most my life and have been diagnosed by different psychologists as bipolar, as having ADD, OCD, insomnia, and manic-depression… and with a family history of verbal abuse, physical violence, substance abuse, sexual sin, explosive anger, depression, anxiety, and many other dark things. I have had experience with multiple medications and seen numerous psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, therapists, etc. for help with these issues during the course of my life. I’m pleading with God to end these things in me and not pass them on to my children.

I have not seen any doctors for depression related issues for quite some time now, but I’ve had some really, really dark days in my life. And still do. Never any days where I thought seriously about killing myself, but would have welcomed death as an old friend if it came for me. I’ll just be honest and direct here, depression freakin sucks, anxiety can be so debilitating, and it seems to be so unpredictable and uncontrollable in a lot of ways.

Depression is also normal, it can affect anyone, and is as common an illness as the flu. Flu season seems to take place every year, but it can happen all year around. It can affect anyone, at any time. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what age you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.

The flu doesn’t discriminate. It’s universal. It can happen to anyone at anytime. Depression plagues us the same way. For me personally, there have been times when everything is seemingly going great, and then the smallest thing, the faintest thought, turns my entire world into a dark spiraling pit of despair.

When I’m really struggling, my mind can quickly turn anything into the worst thing ever. I will feel the unbearable weight crushing down upon me, and only seem to increase the weight of everything by thinking of more stuff to be depressed about. I will take a compliment and see it as a back-handed, sarcastic cut-down. I will begin to worry about things out of my control, past mistakes, “what ifs,” and things that haven’t even happened yet, but they might… I’ve even been “bipolarish” in my depression, by wanting to either be completely alone or surrounded by as many close friends as possible. I will quickly forget the innumerable blessings our Father has so gracious given me, and focus so intensely on every way I’ve ever been wronged that it brings a whole new meaning to the idea of “tunnel vision.”

I hate this about myself…

Can I talk to you for a moment, just as a (possible) fellow struggler with depression? God’s given each of us a certain amount of vitality and energy to walk in joy throughout life. The thing about depression is that it so often becomes selfish and prideful in the way that we focus so much on ourselves; and it takes up an unbelievable amount of energy to do it. So the energy given to you and me to do life well is used up on trying to find a release, to numb the overwhelming pain, or just take our minds off ourselves for a moment.

King Solomon touches on all this in the extremely wise and weighty book of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25 ESV). “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (5:18 ESV). “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do… Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (9:7,9-10 ESV).

Here’s another thing. It is impossible to truly love or receive love if no one knows who you really are, and you don’t have good friends and family walking through this with you. Because if anyone tries to love you, it will be too easy to deflect them and say that they actually love the version of yourself that you are presenting, not you. It’s hard to accept love when you think that if anyone really knew who you were, if they found out all the dark secrets of your past, your current struggles, and what is hiding in your heart, they’d run away from you faster than Usain Bolt… on steroids.

Let me try to explain some of this a little better. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verse 51, Mary makes this statement during her song of praise, “He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” What happens to the proud, to the depressed, to the neurotic, is we spend the bulk of our day and the bulk of our mental capacity on “what could be if we would have just…” or “what could be if this would just…” So we go, “Oh, if I would have just taken Greek more seriously, I’d be fluent right now… Oh, if I knew then what I know now, how much better of an athlete, student, employee/employer, parent, friend, etc. would I be… Oh, if I would have just chosen that instead of this… Oh, if that relationship had just made it through that rough patch… Oh, if I would have moved there instead of moving here… Oh, if that opportunity would have come instead of this… If I would have avoided this person and gone with that person… If I would have just been there and not here… If a certain person would just do this or that, or not do this or that…”

So when we operate this way, all our energy is spent on “What if… what if… what if…” to the detriment of our present and maybe even almost to the damnation of our future.

There is no future if you’re stuck in the imagination of your heart. There is no joy when we are focused too much on ourselves. There is no future if all your mental vitality is stuck in “what if” land. You’re perpetually never where you really are, always wishing you were more, always wishing you had more, always looking back to a past to fix your present rather than there being any real energy today to have God do something mighty so that tomorrow you’re all that you hoped He could be in you. We will count the days instead of making the days count. It’s an endless crazy cycle. It happens to many of us. It certainly happens to me. I’m not saying I never struggle with this anymore; in none of this am I saying there’s you and then there’s me… We’re perpetually stuck in this imaginary world of “Oh, if I just would have…”

While addressing this issue, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to tell us in his letter to the churches at Philippi, “… do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…” – Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)
So, how about we just do now. Well, today kind of stinks… It’s still the morning and you already want to just go back to bed. I’ve been there. Today is painful and you don’t really like where you are today. Okay, my day hasn’t been perfect either, but that doesn’t get solved by fantasy. Science is not going to develop a time-machine, you’re not going to find a magic lamp in the desert, you’re not going stumble upon a hidden portal somewhere in the depths of the sea… so you’re not going back and changing anything! That’s why the gospel is so important. You’re not going back and changing anything. However, Christ has already, in the cross, redeemed whatever is lurking back there! But you’re not going back. The decisions you have made, you’ve made. The decisions you have not made, you haven’t made. That’s yesterday.

So, please don’t sacrifice today and tomorrow because of fairy tale “what if” land. Please let go of your pride, stop telling yourself that you’re too far gone, your past is just too dark, the pain is too severe, the depression is just too uncontrollable, please let it go and find some close brothers and sisters to walk with through this. And continue to walk with them (Galatians 6:1-5). Press into the Lord and pray for healing and hope like a stubborn, relentless child begging for a toy, and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). God loves to answer our prayers and wants us to come to Him for rest, hope, and help. Please, remember there is always hope to be found and enjoyed in Christ Jesus. We find our grace-motivated strength not in our own willpower but rather in the fact that all of our sin (past, present, and future) all of our struggles, all of our shortcomings, and all of our failures were paid for, in full by Jesus Christ in the cross. We are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:1-10).

“We never keep ourselves to the present moment. We look forward to the future as too slow in coming, as if to hasten its arrival, or we remember the past to hold it up as if it happened too quickly. We are so distracting that we stray into times which are not our own and do not think of the only one that is truly ours.” – Blaise Pascal

Even if you love Jesus Christ though, it is very possible, even probable, that there will be days or seasons where you are like the Psalmist in Psalm 42. There will be dark nights of the soul where your tears and your snot are your only food, where you are in a ball on the floor, and can’t think weekly or monthly, or it would crush you. The thought of having to endure longer than today feels impossible. And I’m talking to those of you who know and love Jesus Christ. If you think that sounds crazy, just read about the lives of Job, Joseph, Moses, David, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul, even the life if Jesus Christ, and pretty much every other person mentioned in Scripture.

Are you not aware that we have an empathetic High Priest in the God-man, Jesus Christ? He experienced loss, hunger, temptation, pain, exhaustion, the death of a good friend (Lazarus), the deep betrayal of a close friend (Judas), rejection, being called a liar, His own family thinking that He was crazy and insane, He was spit upon, whipped, beat, taunted, slapped, mocked, stabbed, jeered, and crucified by the very hands of people He created. Jesus actually sustained their life and held their existence together all the while they nailed Him to a cross and cheerfully called out for His suffering.

Our God experienced deeper abandonment, rejection, pain, loss, and devastation than you could ever begin to even try to describe using every bit of existing vocabulary and every waking moment of the rest of your life. When we compare our pain to God on the cross, it is an embarrassment to us to try to belittle Him so. At the very same moment, it is a rich well of comfort to know our God is not immune to or ignorant of our pain and sorrow. He put on flesh and felt our deepest pains at such an astronomically deeper level so that when we approach our Father in our pain He can say to us, “I know… oh sweet child, I know… This world was never meant to be this way… My little child, I love you. Oh how I look forward to the day you will see Me crack open the skies and so fiercely reverse all this pain that your heart will be so on fire with joy it won’t even remember this present pain because gladness will have flooded your heart to such an extreme you will no longer be capable of feeling any sorrow. Until then, please, come to Me and rest. Rest in the work I have already accomplished for you.”

On the cross, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, He who knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become His righteousness… The Son felt the cosmic weight of sin, rejection, abandonment, and loss of relationship from the Father, whom He had perfectly loved before time and throughout all time up until that point… and He isn’t looking down at you and thinking all the negative thoughts you might be putting in His mouth, rather God is lovingly looking down on your as a son, as a daughter, as a fellow heir who has suffered in pain… pain He came to eradicate someday… and our God is still working in your life to bring about His good work, His great pleasure, His predestined masterpiece.

Oh, that we would stop dwelling on what we do not have today, and think about how much our Father has already mercifully given us. The prophets only had the promise of a future Christ to come… we get to see the world through the lens that He has already come and defeated death for us! Now we await His return to announce the war has been over since before it ever began. Our God ransoms hearts with ferocious passion, zeal, and joy so that you may share in His inheritance… that we may taste that same joy. Don’t settle for less, you have no right to stay trapped in sorrow; for life, and life to the fullest, was purchased for you.

Peter could not be any more clear about all this than he is in his first epistle: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1st Peter 5:5-11 ESV)

The beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not that in trusting Him everything goes just like you want it to go. The beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is we get God regardless of circumstance, and He’ll be enough. He will be enough. God is enough. Feelings and circumstances change, but our great God is faithful and He does not fail to keep His promises. When we doubt God and look to ourselves, this takes us back to enslavement.

Tim Keller expressed these truths well when he said, “Christianity does not provide the reason for each and every experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage, rather than bitterness and despair.”

Also, some of us are trying to use God to get something we want this very day. Well, again, that’s not the good news of the gospel, the good news is you get God. Now is God able to accomplish more than we could ever dream, or think, or imagine? Absolutely, He is! Can He restore and heal marriages? Historically, we’ve seen Him do it hundreds of times. Can He lead you out of financial ruin? Absolutely, He can. Can He heal diseases? Yes! But is that why we go to Him? If that’s why we go to Him, then what we want is not Him, but rather Him to do those things. We want the stuff God could potentially give us, but not Him… That’s idolatry, that’s not love. It’s like having a friend you only call when you need a favor, or having a spouse and not loving them at all or having much to do with them other than when they are able to provide some comfort or do something for you.

A.W. Tozer famously said that whatever comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. Your real god and functional savior is what you most effortlessly think about. When you hear someone mention “God,” what do you think of? What image fills your heart and head when you think about who God is? As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” How can we possibly humbly serve the true God of this universe if we’re so busy with and captivated by thoughts about our own self or how “God” can serve us…

I’ve had to learn that truth hard way… that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” In the end, I’ve only ever found any lasting hope in one thing, well, a Person actually. You may know this Person too. Through everything I’ve gone through, even when I’ve been at what feels like the end of my rope, Jesus Christ has always been there through every dark day and circumstance, with grace that outshines the darkest depths of darkness this fallen world has ever known. His love will not be silent or overcome by anything.

Also, one more thing, as much as I’d like to think there’s a chance I’ll never have another day bogged down by any level of depression, deep spiritual depression is actually a part of the Christian life. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his book, Spiritual Depression, by putting it this way: You cannot isolate the spiritual from the physical for we are body, mind, and spirit. The greatest and the best Christians when they are physically weak are more prone to an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time and there are great illustrations of this in the Scriptures.

A particular sign of hope in knowing you’re not alone in feeling this way and having these struggles comes from the account of Christ’s temptation in Luke 4. Notice Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the desert.” He didn’t do anything to get Himself there. The Holy Spirit led the Lord Himself into the desert for a specific purpose. This should set us on a journey to find out more about how to understand and address our depression. Sometimes we will actually walk away from seasons of deep depression and anxiety with new understanding in life, and be a stronger person because of it.

Lloyd-Jones continues in saying that some of us by our nature, and by the very type of struggles to which we are bent, are more given to this spiritual disease referred to as “spiritual depression” than others. But take heart, we belong to the same company as Jeremiah, Isaiah, as John the Baptist and Paul, Luther and Lewis, and a great many others. That’s a pretty good group of believers to relate to. And while you cannot fully belong to it without being unusually subject to this particular type of trial, it ends well.

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” – Proverbs 12:25

Hope for Today…

IMG_0079.JPG

Disappointment is inevitable… Discouragement is a choice. Many times people think if God has called you to something, He’s promising you success. He might be calling you to fail, maybe even fail multiple times, to prepare you for something else through that failure. I find myself at times wrestling with despair and anxiety, even though I should know better.

Despair is for people who know, beyond any doubt, what the future is going to bring. It is for someone who has an unfortunate fate which cannot be altered no matter the effort. Nobody is in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but also a simple mistake, because nobody actually knows with absolute certainty what their future holds for them. In that sense alone, there is always hope.

While addressing the issue of despair and anxiety, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to tell us in his letter to the churches at Philippi, “… do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…” – Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)

So, how about we just do now, just focus on today. Well, what if today kind of stinks… maybe it’s still the morning and you already want to just go back to bed. I’ve been there. Today might be painful and you don’t really like where you are today. Okay, my day hasn’t been perfect either, but that doesn’t get solved by fantasy. Science is not going to develop a time-machine, you’re not going to find a magic lamp in the desert, you’re not going stumble upon a hidden portal somewhere in the depths of the sea… so you’re not going back and changing anything! That’s why the gospel is so important. You’re not going back and changing anything. Christ has already, in the cross, redeemed whatever is back there! But you’re not going back. The decisions you have made, you’ve made. The decisions you have not made, you haven’t made. That’s yesterday.

So, please don’t sacrifice today and tomorrow because of fairy tale “what if” land. Please let go of your pride, stop telling yourself that you’re too far gone, your past is just too dark, the pain is too severe, the depression is just too uncontrollable, please let it go and find some close brothers and sisters to walk with through this. And continue to walk with them (Galatians 6:1-5). Press into the Lord and pray for healing and hope like a stubborn, relentless child begging for a toy, and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). God loves to answer our prayers and wants us to come to Him for rest, hope, and help. Please, remember there is always hope to be found and enjoyed in Christ Jesus. We find our grace-motivated strength not in our own willpower but rather in the fact that all of our sin (past, present, and future) all of our struggles, all of our shortcomings, and all of our failures were paid for, in full by Jesus Christ in the cross.

“We never keep ourselves to the present moment. We look forward to the future as too slow in coming, as if to hasten its arrival, or we remember the past to hold it up as if it happened too quickly. We are so distracting that we stray into times which are not our own and do not think of the only one that is truly ours.” – Blaise Pascal

Even if you love Jesus Christ though, it is very possible, even probable, that there will be days or seasons where you are like the Psalmist in Psalm 42. There will be dark nights of the soul where your tears and your snot are your only food, where you are in a ball on the floor, and can’t think weekly or monthly, or it would crush you. The thought of having to endure longer than today feels impossible. And I’m talking to those of you who know and love Jesus Christ. If you think that sounds crazy, just read about the lives of Job, Joseph, Moses, David, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul, even the life if Jesus Christ, and pretty much every other person mentioned in Scripture.

Are you not aware that we have an empathetic High Priest in the God-man, Jesus Christ? He experienced loss, hunger, temptation, pain, exhaustion, the death of a good friend (Lazarus), the deep betrayal of a close friend (Judas), rejection, being called a liar, His own family thinking that He was crazy and insane, He was spit upon, whipped, beat, taunted, slapped, mocked, stabbed, jeered, and crucified by the very hands of people He created. Jesus actually sustained their life and held their entire existence together all while they nailed Him to a cross and cheerfully called out for His severe suffering.

Our God experienced deeper abandonment, rejection, pain, loss, and devastation than you could ever begin to even try to describe using every bit of existing vocabulary and every waking moment of the rest of your life. When we compare our pain to God on the cross, it is an embarrassment for us to try to belittle Him so. At the very same moment, it is a rich well of comfort to know that our God is not immune to or ignorant of our pain and sorrow. He put on flesh and felt our deepest pains at such an astronomically deeper level so that when we approach our Father in our pain He can say to us, “I know… oh sweet child, I know… This world was never meant to be this way… I wept over Jerusalem, do you not think I knew of you at that time? My child, I love you. Oh how I look forward to the day you will see Me crack open the skies and so fiercely reverse all this pain that your heart will be so on fire with joy it won’t even remember this present pain because gladness will have flooded your heart to such an extreme you will no longer be capable of feeling any sorrow. How all of heaven longs for that day! The earth groans for it like a mother in labor! Until then, please, come to Me and rest. For now, rest in the work I have already accomplished for you.”

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” – Proverbs 12:25

The secret to contentment, to not falling into despair and losing hope in ‘whatever situation,’ is seeing the Treasure that trumps them all. Jesus Christ is infinite… and that answers our longing for completeness. He is eternal… and that answers our longing for permanence. He is unchangeable… and that answers our longing for stability and security. There is nothing like God. No one and nothing can compare with Him. In Christ, we have hope that will never fail us; we do not have to fall into despair and stay there. Instead, we can come to Him and rest.

Compassion

20130807-172954.jpg

Henri Nouwen explained it well that “Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.”

Our God has displayed ultimate compassion in His Son, Jesus Christ. By putting on flesh, stepping down into darkness, walking this earth, feeling pain, temptation, loss, weakness, abandonment, betrayal, hatred from others, unjust persecution, and wrongful sentencing from the government… witnessing the death of friends, and even experiencing death Himself on the cross and disconnection with the Father, the triune God has shown us He is not immune to pain. Rather, God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it upon Himself. In Jesus Christ’s birth, life, and death He suffered in love, identifying with the abandoned, persecuted, and godforsaken. The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, eloquently observed, “For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.” Might we be moved by His grace and reflect this great love to the world instead of trying to merely subdue it with suffocating law. Because everything that isn’t gospel, is law.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” – John 15:1-17 (ESV)

“For it was fitting that He, for whom and by Whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the Founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in Him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but He helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” – Hebrews 2:10-18 (ESV)

Let Go of False Control

20130610-101645.jpg

“And the LORD said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further. . . . Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to Me.’ I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
– Job 40:1-5; 42:1-6 (ESV)

Have you ever felt like a failure before? Ever felt like all the control you had over everything just seemed to absolutely vanish under the right (or what you might consider the wrong) circumstances? I don’t believe I would need to see a show of hands or list of comments in reply, to know that most honest people will admit to feeling like they have failed at something or some things in their lives before. In the Christian life, we can find ourselves trying to do everything perfectly just to seem like we are doing well to others. We can take a shot at different ministry ideas and see them tank within months; we can commit to reading the Bible through in a year and after six months realize we’ve only made it half way through Genesis; or we can make a promise to God that we will pray more than we have in the past, but realize that we are still only praying when we think we need something, or when stuff goes contrary to our wants.

Feel encouraged yet? Well, probably not. But understand this. The Christian life is not something that we conquer. The Christian life is not hard and difficult. It’s impossible. When we become willing to admit it, we can confess together that on our own accord, we will absolutely fail all day, every day at being the perfect Christian.

The story of Job is one of my favorite stories in all of Scripture. Now the pronunciation of Job rhymes with robe, not rob. Job, the Scriptures say, was a righteous man. He was not perfect though. In case you don’t know the story, here is a short summary. God allowed Satan to tempt Job in every way he wished apart from taking Job’s life. He was stripped of everything, his children, his health, his wealth. His wife was left, but even that wasn’t really much of a gift as she just told him to curse God and die. Job refused to take his wife’s advice in this situation, but eventually he broke and questioned the ways of God, along with scrutinizing God’s reasoning for allowing such circumstances to take place in his life. One of the greatest passages in Scripture is where God responds to Job. (It is too long to really go into depth together here, but I encourage you to take a look at Job, chapters 38 and 39 sometime.)

God rebukes Job for trying to act like he is worthy of anything, and Job responds in a very subtle way. His first response is the first section of our focus text. He admits there that he now considers himself to be of small account (insignificant). God, in His rebuke, also asked Job several questions that were impossible to answer. In fact, if you read God’s response, you can hear some remarks coming from our Creator (Job 38:4-5; 19-21) that are kind of funny to read and well, pretty humiliating to Job. But once Job gives his first little account back to God, round two begins.

In God’s second response to Job, He speaks in the same kind of way, asking questions that He knows Job is unable to answer, and therefore puts him where he belongs, feeling unworthy even to be receiving air. Once God finishes this time, we read Job’s final response, which is the second part of our focus text. This is where Job repents.

Through the trials of Job’s life, God was glorified. The story ends with Job exalting his Creator over all things, realizing that no plan of His can ever be thwarted or altered. This is a good place for us to be as well. It is good for us to acknowledge to God what He has always known. He is in control, we are not. That is why we should “let go of false control.” Though we like to think that we have our plans and schedules all arranged to perfection, we must confess that God’s ways will always trump our own.

It is the fame of God that should be what is most important to us as His people. We cannot live our lives to magnify our own glory. That would be idolatry, for we don’t even have any glory or righteousness apart from God. We have been created by our Father to be His children, His worshipers. And even though we have made other things our god, we want and desire for God to use us for His fame and for His glory. We understand from passages like Isaiah 64:6; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 3:23, 5:15; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:8-9; and Titus 3:3-7 that we couldn’t be any less worthy of this honor and privilege, but by God’s grace He loves us and we will still gather together, lift our hands, and sing to the Lord, declaring affection for and proclaiming the glory, honor, and adoration that He alone deserves. So may we beg God to continue to use us for His glorious fame.

Because I have tried to follow and I have tried to lead; in the end, I have failed at everything. I have been the very culprit I hate in the vain pursuing my own selfish desires, making everything but Christ my king. I couldn’t be any less worthy to spend one day, much less forever with our God.

So, I must lay low to the ground and raise my hands just as I am. I must let go of false control. I should lift my voice and proclaim His worth, for I have nothing to offer. My life is already Christ’s, and it is actually tender mercy that He would use me, even in suffering, for His fame.

I have not seen heaven, I haven’t even seen His face, but I assure you, that I’ve seen and felt His Spirit move. And it is amazing, the evidence of grace displayed all around this world. I’m merely a product of mercy, having accomplished nothing good on my own; rather I am a target and victim of Jesus Christ’s perfect love.

So I must raise my hands in desperation, just as I am. I must let go of false control, for my life belongs to Jesus, for Him to use me for His fame, to joyfully tell others about His great love. I should overflow with joy as I strive to let every breath proclaim glory to God’s great name.

Jesus’ love and mercy cannot be contained, and any of us that experience it will never be the same. So let us all raise our hands, just as we are. We are all equally in need of Him, laid equally bare before the cross. Let us have the faith to let go of this false illusion of control. That we would feel it deeply in our hearts, know it well in our minds, and lift our voices, declaring our lives belong to Christ; that He would use us for His own praiseworthy, deserving, and unending fame.

Rough Days

20130530-090223.jpg

Do you ever have days where you just feel beat down, overwhelmed with this sense of guilt or shame, kind of hollow inside, crushed by the continuous thoughts of “what if” and “if only,” like you don’t measure up to where you think you should be, plagued with this sense that you’ve gone too far, that you’re lost, that hope is but a fleeting fairy tale never to actually be found?

I’ve had these kind of rough days, and I might have some bad days again sometime in the future. What about today though? Are you having a rough day today, feeling anything at all like what I described above? I’d like to remind you of something that I have to constantly remind myself of: Get over yourself.

Your weakness shows your infinite need for Christ. Sometimes we seem to forget the whole gospel, and only listen to the part about how much we lack. The gospel doesn’t end at, “You are a worthless piece of garbage that can’t accomplish anything good on your own, you’re just a good for nothing sinner who can never escape your past, let alone outrun your present….” The gospel message doesn’t end there. It climaxes in the BLOOD SOAKED CROSS OF CHRIST, with Him crying out, “IT IS FINISHED!” And three days later Jesus raises from the dead to defeat death and conquer sin. (And it doesn’t even end there, it just gets better… because someday, everything sad will become untrue.)

Stop dwelling on how weak you are today and think about how great and powerful our God is, always! Your righteousness has nothing to do with your good deeds. Do you not realize that you cannot even rest in your own good deeds? No matter how numerous they may be, no matter how great a deed you have done might be, it will never measure up as any semblance of a righteous standing before a truly Holy God.

To be blunt, and not skirt around the issue, even our good deeds, our very best works, are but dirty rags, filthy garments, bloody cloth, and piles of crap in comparison to the righteousness of Christ that has been imparted to us (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 5:15; Philippians 3:8-9; Titus 3:3-7; among many verses that would substantiate this view). And while it was our sin that needed to be paid for through righteous, innocent blood in order for reconciliation to take place, it was actually the love and obedience of Christ that held Him to the cross. (Similar to there being two wills of God, or reasons that coexist, yet one supersedes another in importance.) We are all far worse than we’ve ever dared to imagine, yet in Christ, we are far more loved than we ever dreamed we could be.

Your righteousness was bought, it was purchased in blood, by Jesus Christ. He went to the cross and suffered the worst beating and loneliness any human has ever experienced all while knowing every stupid thing you would ever do, every bad thought you would ever have. And He did not do it in a begrudging manner, He did it in GLAD SUBMISSION!

The men that mocked God in the flesh to His very face, He created them. The men who spit upon Jesus, He designed their very saliva glands. The men who whipped Jesus and beat Him mercilessly, He gave them sight. The men casting lots over His clothes, Jesus foreknew and was sovereign over the outcome. The men who ripped the beard out of the face of Jesus, He kept their muscles operating. The men and women hurling insults at Christ as He carried the cross, He kept their lungs continually inflating with air. The men who nailed Jesus to the cross, He kept their hearts beating. The very men and women whom Jesus Christ spoke into being, the very people He created, were beating, mocking, and trying to shame Him… and He was sustaining their lives throughout every moment of it.

Do you struggle with believing that Jesus loves you. Not the idea that He loves everyone. But YOU. God loves YOU. Not you ten years from now after you’ve “cleaned yourself up” some, but you today, you right now. He does. Jesus loves you. How can we know this? Because Jesus despised the shame of the cross, and the mocking of His love. He went to the cross for the JOY set before Him in the ransoming of your soul, the fulfillment of your life.

Many of us still wrestle with this amazing truth in monumental ways; we’re still walking in doubt because we just doubt God’s affection for us. Do you know what that really is when we do this? It’s idolatry, because what you’re doing in essence, is looking at the bloody cross of Jesus Christ and going, “That’s just not enough. You’re going to have to show me something bigger than that to convince me You really love me, that You’re really for my joy.” Some of us are still wrestling with all of this because we doubt Christ’s affection for us despite the fact that He went to the cross and died for you. We lose sight of the fact that He went to the cross despite knowing you, despite knowing every single stupid thing you’ve ever done, every single dumb thing you have yet to do, as well as every single horrible thought you’ve ever had or have yet to think. He knew/knows you better than you even know yourself, yet He still went to the cross for the joy set before Him; of buying you back from enslavement to sin, with His own blood.

All the sin, weaknesses, and failures in the life of a believer have already been fully covered by the blood-soaked cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s grace is exponentially and infinitely more powerful than any sin. So we can break the silence, stop drowning in shame and guilt, walk out into the light, and face the things that God is calling us to face.

We should look to the cross at least ten times for every time we begin to dwell on our own sin. Because God will never give you a task to complete without enabling you with the resources to accomplish it. He is the resource. His grace and love have already ransomed you. I’ve heard it said that sanctification is the process of further understanding and living in light of your already received salvation. We must depend on the Father’s love, the Son’s sacrifice, the Spirit’s help. We must always run back to and rest in the Gospel.

Some day, things that look like broken glass to us here, will make sense… as small parts of a beautiful stained glass picture of God’s redemptive work throughout history. So, for today, please, get over yourself. God loves you because of who He is! NOT because of who you are! You are loved.

In Christ there is forgiveness…

“To be 99% known is to still be unknown.”

20130519-215335.jpg

If you have a dark secret you’re constantly hiding, there’s a heart issue there. Can I talk to you just as a fellow dark secret guy? God’s given each of us a certain amount of vitality and energy to walk in joy throughout life. The thing about hiding segments of who we are is that it takes up an unbelievable amount of energy to do it. So the energy given to you to do life well is used up on trying to hide stuff. Here’s another thing. It is impossible to truly love or receive love if no one knows who you really are. Because if anyone tries to love you, it will be too easy to deflect them and say that they actually love the version you are presenting, not you. It’s hard to accept love when you think that if anyone really knew who you were, if they found out all the dark secrets of your past and what is in your heart, they’d run away from you faster than Usain Bolt on steroids.

“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” – Proverbs 28:13

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1st John 1:9

It is absolutely devastating to walk in a perpetual secret. If you are controlled by something, if something just owns you, if you just can’t conquer it, whether that’s an addiction to food, or drugs and alcohol, or pornography, or explosive anger, physical abuse, etc. you have a heart issue. Some people are addicted to laziness. They just can’t help but be lazy. This is also a heart issue. If you can’t seem to forgive this person or that person. Few things are more painful than knowing you should forgive and not being able to figure out how. If you’re constantly depressed or melancholy, if you just have no real affection for God and you feel like you’re always in the desert, these are heart issues.

Whatever controls your heart, will control your behavior. Your functional treasure is whatever sits on the other side of your “if only.” We all constantly forget that sin will take us further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we ever wanted to pay. Many of us never really consider the weight of our sin, or the people it will hurt before we indulged in the fleeting false satisfactions that never deliver the lasting joy they promise.

So let us lay down some rails. Our faith is very personal, but it is not private! If you think any of this describes you, what are you waiting for to address these problems? Do you have a close friend you can go to with these issues? Have you found a group of men and women who come together with similar struggles in hopes of getting to the core issues, getting to the root issues? I’m not saying that if you do confess and join a homegroup or something somewhere, all of the struggle simply goes away. That would be a lie. There are no magic potions or quick 12-step programs to cure all of this for life. This is a part of positioning ourselves under the waterfall of God’s grace in the hopes that He would move. This is pulling weeds while begging God to make it rain. This is us acknowledging our deep need for our Father’s love, realizing that we are far worse than we ever dared to believe, yet in Christ, we are far more loved than we ever imagined we could be.

I know some of you reading this are already in your mind trying to justify why you can’t come clean about a particular dark secret, or you’re just too busy to give up a morning or evening to begin to deal with it. This reminds me of a comedian I heard one time talk about a friend of his who just would never go get his eyes checked despite the fact that he was nearly blind. And his joke was, “How can seeing well not be at the top of your to do list?!” How can having a lonely, broken, fractured part of your heart and soul mended and restored, not be high up on your to do list for 2013?

It won’t be easy and of course it’s going to take a while to feel like you’re making progress, but you’ve got to fight for it. Your relationship with Christ, your spirituality, although immensely personal, was not designed to be private. The more you make your struggles and your victories private, the more you turn sanctification into a crawl. It was not designed to be that way. We were designed to have spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers, spiritual brothers and spiritual sisters, spiritual sons and spiritual daughters. We were designed to live in community; to have men and women above us who speak life and encouragement into us and walk with us, and men and women underneath us whom we can serve, help to guide, and mentor. This dark secret or perpetual struggle you’re dealing with isn’t going to just go away without grace, and biblical fellowship and community. Life doesn’t work well when you go, “I, all by myself am going to fix myself.” That’s not how life works.

“Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.” – Probers 15:32

There is still some danger here though. Like so many of us start with new year’s resolutions, as we go further into 2013, I think many of us are going, “This is what I need to do. This is the step I need to take. This is where I need to go.” Let me speak a word of caution for all of us though: the Lord takes the proud and sets them loose in the imagination of their hearts.

Let me try to explain that a little better. What happens to the proud is they spend the bulk of their day and the bulk of their mental capacity on “what could be if they would have.” So they go, “Oh, if I would have just taken Spanish more seriously, I’d be fluent right now… Oh, if I knew then what I know now, how much better of an athlete/student/employee/etc. would I be… Oh, if I would have just chosen that instead of this… Oh, if that relationship had just made it through that rough patch… Oh, if I would have moved there instead of moving here… Oh, if that opportunity would have come instead of this… If I would have avoided this person and gone with that person… If I would have just been there and not here…”

So when we operate this way, all our energy is spent on “What if… what if… what if…” to the detriment of our present and maybe even almost to the damnation of our future. There is no future if you’re stuck in the imagination of your heart. There is no future if all you’re mental vitality is stuck in “what if” land. You’re perpetually never where you really are, always wishing you were more, always wishing you had more, always looking back to a past to fix your present rather than there being any real energy today to have God do something mighty so that tomorrow you’re all that you hoped He could be in you. It’s an endless crazy cycle. It happens to tons of us. I’m not saying I never struggle with this. We’re perpetually stuck in this imaginary world of “Oh, if I just would have…”

How about we just do, now. Well, today kind of stinks… Today is painful and you don’t really like where you are today. Okay, my day hasn’t been perfect either, but that doesn’t get solved by fantasy. Science is not going to develop a time-machine, you’re not going to find a magic lamp in the desert, you’re not going to find a hidden portal somewhere in the depths of the sea… so you’re not going back and changing anything! That’s why the gospel is so important. You’re not going back and changing anything. Christ has already, in the cross, redeemed whatever is back there! But you’re not going back. The decisions you have made, you’ve made. The decisions you have not made, you haven’t made. That’s yesterday.

So, please don’t sacrifice today and tomorrow because of fairy tale “what if” land. Please let go of your pride, stop telling yourself that you’re too far gone and your past is just too dark, let it go and find some close brothers and sisters to walk with this year. And continue to walk with them. Please, remember there is always hope to be found and enjoyed in Christ Jesus. We find our grace-motivated strength not in our own willpower but rather in the fact that all of our sin (past, present, and future) all of our struggles, all of our shortcomings, and all of our failures were paid for, in full by Jesus Christ in the cross.

Recommended passages:

Deuteronomy 6:1-25
Psalm 63:1-11
Proverbs 9:13-18; 15:31-33; 28:13
Matthew 6:25-34
Luke 8:16-18
John 8:12-38
2nd Timothy 2:1-26
1st John 1:9

Psalm 107

20130518-102244.jpg

Psalm 107

I love this epic Psalm…

“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom He has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in. Let them thank the LORD for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things. Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. So He bowed their hearts down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the LORD for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron. Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He sent out His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. Let them thank the LORD for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of man! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of His deeds in songs of joy! Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, His wondrous works in the deep. For He commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and He brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of man! Let them extol Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the assembly of the elders. He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants. He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there He lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in; they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield. By His blessing they multiply greatly, and He does not let their livestock diminish. When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, evil, and sorrow, He pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but He raises up the needy out of affliction and makes their families like flocks. The upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness shuts its mouth. Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.” – Psalm 107

We do well to seek advice. For that is a very wise thing to do, to seek counsel from others more knowledgeable than us. But there’s something to being at your wits’ end that begs for more than instruction. Psalm 107 illustrates a season in the storm. In particular, there are men in ships doing business on great waters who are literally struck by a tempest. Scripture says, “They reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end” (v. 27). Their response to being completely helpless was to cry out to the Lord. No how-to’s, no catchy quotes, no cute preservers, but just an honest and urgent plea to be delivered from a situation that was more than they could navigate. What did the Lord do on their behalf? He showed them His steadfast love. He calmed the waters, hushed the sea, and brought them to their desired haven.

This is sustaining grace, this is the desired haven: to know God’s steadfast love that saves and keeps us. Real change won’t happen through ‘trying harder,’ but only through encountering the radical grace of God. It takes an experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness.

God is so much bigger, so much greater than our present circumstances. He is always at work, accomplishing His prefect will, even when we can’t see it, can’t feel it. God will always provide; but what He provides will be what is needed, not necessarily what is wanted. For even when He appears far from us, His Spirit is residing in your very heart, working to complete the very work He began in you. God loves us so ferociously; while we wander around like blind retarded sheep, constantly forgetting how loved we are, yet still our Father pursues us and loves us. Our God is so faithful, so beautiful. Why do we keep taking our eyes off Him?! He is so amazing, nothing at all can compare to our great God.

“I see Your face in every sunrise,
The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes.
The world awakens in the light of the day,
I look up to the sky and say:
You’re beautiful!

I see Your power in the moonlit night,
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright.
We are amazed by the light of the stars,
It’s all proclaiming who You are.
You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful.

I see You there hanging on a tree,
You bled, and then You died, and then You rose again for me.
Now You are sitting on Your heavenly throne,
Soon we will be coming home.
You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful!

When we arrive at eternity’s shore,
Where death is just a memory and tears are no more.
We’ll enter in as the wedding bells ring,
Your bride will come together and we’ll sing:
You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful!”

– Phil Wickham