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

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She is Home

  
Over 4 years ago, just a couple weeks before I would propose to my wife, I lost one of the dearest people in my life. I had never known life without my Grammy, and for the first week or so after she passed away, it all just felt surreal, like it couldn’t actually be true. She is gone from my life now, but never forgotten. Recent events brought back some vivid memories of my time with her during her last few months with us. I dug out the copy of what I had written for her memorial service, and after re-reading it, I felt that it should be shared with others. I know I’m definitely not the only one who has experienced this feeling of loss and felt the conflict of pain and hope. Maybe these words can help be a reminder to others of what beauty awaits us in the sorrow of death.

Words from Grammy’s Memorial Service

Earlier this year Grammy and I discussed the very concept and message of what I’d like to share with you today and, given these present circumstances, I find it appropriate. I ask you all to think with me about a familiar story, found in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. This parable’s plot and dramatic personae are very simple. There was a father who had two sons. The younger asked for his share of the inheritance, received it, and promptly left for a far country, where he squandered it all on sensual and frivolous pleasure. He returned home penitently and, to his surprise, was received with open arms by his father. This reception alienated and angered the elder brother greatly. The story closes with the father appealing to his eldest son to join in the welcome and forgiveness of his younger brother.

I’m sure many of you have heard this story referred to as the Prodigal Son. However, even Jesus doesn’t call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but begins the story saying, “a man had two sons.” The narrative is as much about the elder brother as the younger, and as much about the father as the sons, if not more so. This parable might be better called the Two Lost Sons, or The Prodigal Father. The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term actually better describes the behavior of the father. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well.

Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, His children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the framework for the metanarrative in which every Christian finds themselves.

It is important to read Jesus’ parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world.

In Jesus’ parable the younger brother goes off into a distant country expecting a better life but is disappointed. He begins to long for home, remembering the food in his father’s house. So do we all. “Home” exercises a powerful influence over human life. Foreign-born Americans spend billions annually to visit the communities in which they were born. Children who never find a place where they feel they belong carry an incapacity for attachment into their adult lives. Many of us have fond memories of times, people, and places where we felt we were truly home. However, if we ever have the opportunity to get back to the places we remember so fondly, we are often times disappointed.

Home, then, is a powerful but elusive concept. The strong feelings that surround it reveal some deep longing within us for a place that absolutely fits and suits us, where we can be, or perhaps find, our true selves. Yet it seems that no real place, or actual friends and family ever truly satisfies these yearnings, though many situations arouse them. The memory of home seems to be powerfully evoked by certain sights, sounds, and even smells. But they can only arouse a desire they can’t fulfill. There is a German word that gets at this concept – the word Sehnsucht. Dictionaries will tell you that there is no simple English synonym. It denotes profound homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones. The writer who spoke most about this “spiritual homesickness” was C.S. Lewis. He described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.”

If you accept this, there seems to be a sense, then, in which we are all like the younger brother. We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are always traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home. Home continues to evade us. Why would “home” be so powerful and yet so elusive for us? The answer can be found as we examine one of the most persistent themes of the Bible. The experience we have been describing is the trace in our souls of this larger story.

In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told there that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay, no disease, no death. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in His presence. There we were to adore and serve His infinite majesty, and to know, enjoy, and reflect His infinite beauty. That was our original home, the true country we were made for. However, Scripture teaches that, as in Jesus’ parable, God was the “father” of that home and we chafed under His authority. We wanted to live without God’s interference, and so we turned away, and became alienated from Him, and lost our home for the same reason the younger brother lost his. The result was exile.

The Bible says that we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings and desires. Though we long for bodies that run and do not grow weary, we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the Heavenly Father from which we have fled. This then is played out again and again in the Scriptures.

It is no coincidence that story after story we hear contains the pattern of exile. The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal sons is about every one of us. According to the Bible, we live in a natural world that is now fallen. We were not made for a world of disease and natural disaster, a world in which everything decays and dies, including ourselves. This world, as it now exists, is not the home we long for. A real, final homecoming would mean a radical change not only in human nature but the very fabric of the material world. We see this radical change ignite when Jesus appears in history and declares that He is bringing in “the kingdom of God.” Finally, at the end of His life, He was crucified outside the gate of the city, a powerful symbol of rejection by the community, of exile. And as He died he said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” a tremendous cry of spiritual abandonment and homelessness. But what exactly does this mean?

Jesus had not come to simply deliver one nation from political oppression, but to save all of us from sin, evil, and death itself. Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, He came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world completely clean of it. He came to bring the human race Home. He came and experienced the exile that we deserved. He was expelled from the presence of the Father, He was thrust into the darkness, the uttermost despair of spiritual alienation – in our place. He took upon Himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could be welcomed into our true home. Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin with His death, He has achieved victory over the forces of disorder, decay, and death that keep this world from being our true home.

Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds out hope for ordinary human life. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. We will not float through the air playing harps, but rather we will eat, drink, embrace, sing, laugh, and dance in the kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine. Jesus will make the world in which we reside our perfect home again. We will come, and the Father will meet us like the younger son and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast. Grammy is at our Father’s table now eating, drinking, laughing. She is sitting amongst brothers and sisters there, with her Savior, with her Lord. She is Home.

Hope for Today…

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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.

Are All Sins Equal?

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Unless you’ve literally been living under a rock or don’t know what smartphones are, then maybe you’re unaware of this, but just about everyone else in America has been watching the media increasingly make light of sin in general… and much of what is seen in any negative light is relative. Innumerable people are idolaters, not to mention those who are sexually immoral, or who commit adultery (homosexuality is outright celebrated), or those who steal and are greedy and get wasted and revile neighbors and swindle others. It happens all the time. Seriously, every single day. And each of these unrepentant sins are the same in the sense of God’s judgment. They all deserve His wrath. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that “such were some of you” (1st Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1-5).

During the Reformation there was a common saying, Semper Reformanda. It was an important slogan at the time, but today it is unfortunately overlooked. In Latin, it simply means “always reforming.” The Reformers may have gotten a lot right about the Bible, but they didn’t go far enough in their theology. (And they knew that.) As Protestants today, we must always go back to the Bible to see where we have wandered from the truth. We often believe something is biblical just because it feels spiritual, because it feels right, we’ve heard other Christians say it, or a major denominational leader believes it to be true. However, we must go back to the Text every time. Our hearts are prone to deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9).

Referring back to the Text corrects the idea that “God helps those who help themselves” (Benjamin Franklin said this, not God). It equips us to discern whether cleanliness is, in fact, next to godliness (I have no idea where that goofy saying comes from, but people say it). And I believe it can help with another common statement I repeatedly hear Christians say: “All sins are equal.”

When confronted about their sin, it’s sadly not too uncommon for some adulterous husband/wife to respond, “All sins are equal, so who are you to rebuke me?! Your problem with pride is as bad as my infidelity.”

I’ve heard people say that greed is as bad as abortion, selfishness is as bad as divorce, and slander is just as bad as murder… But are these claims in line with what the Bible actually says?

All Sins Are NOT Equal

The Bible is clear that all sins are not equal:

In John 19:11, Jesus says to Pilate, “… he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” Jesus is saying that some sins are considered greater.

In Ezekiel 8:6, Ezekiel is told “… But you will see still greater abominations.” This passage declares that some abominations or sinful actions are greater than others.

In Matthew 5:19, Jesus rebukes anyone who “… relaxes one of the least of these commandments…” This verse reveals that some commands are lesser while others are weightier (Matthew 23:23).

In Numbers 15, the Bible contrasts sin done unintentionally and sin done “with a high hand,” meaning sin done willingly while shaking one’s fist at God. Intentional sin is treated as far more offensive than unintentional sin.

Unrepentant sins are worse than repentant sins. For example, someone who struggles with same-sex attraction but fights it because they love Christ more, is very different than someone who gives themselves over to their sin because they love the sin more than they love Christ (1st John 1:8-10).

Clearly, some sins are more offensive to God than others. Some sins are more “high-handed.” Some sins come from a much darker heart than others. Some sins will carry heavier consequences in this life, hurt in a more far-reaching manner, while some sins will hinder your relationship with God more than others.

… But All Sins ARE Equal

But there is good news. When someone says all sins are equal, they are not entirely off base. All sins are equal in the sense that all sins are offensive to God. All sins are equal in that God demands perfection, and any sin makes you imperfect, thus, making you in need of a perfect Savior. The best news is that all sins are equal in that Jesus’ blood is enough to cover all of them. Whether it is abortion, lying, stealing, rape, cursing, adultery, pride, murder, pornography, or gluttony, Christ’s blood is stronger than both the weakest and strongest of sins.

So, How Should We Live?

This idea offers a warning for those who are tempted to wander into darker and darker sins. Stay in the light. Stay away from things that will hurt you. Don’t allow the phrase “all sins are equal” to blind you from the damaging and damning effects of sin. Don’t fall for the trap that suggests you may as well sleep with the coworker you are flirting with since you have already committed adultery in your heart. That is madness! Don’t buy into the lie that you might as well have premarital sex since you are addicted to porn, anyway. Lesser sins have a way of begetting greater ones.

Conversely, don’t be crushed by the lie that your sin is too great for the grace of God to cover. Don’t buy into the lie that you’re ever too far gone, or that God’s love cannot afford you strength to overcome any snare. All sins may be unequal in the degree to which they offend God and harm others, but all sins are equal in their ability to be forgiven. We are not Christians with an asterisk. We are beloved children of God by adoption, and in Christ, He sees us as perfect.

Suicide & Social-media

The potential harm of the viral sharing of “Genie, you’re free.”

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On the evening of Monday, August 11, 2014, as fans around the world began to grieve Robin Williams’ tragic and unexpected death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (better known, as the people behind the Oscars) sent out what may be the iconic social media image of Williams’ death.

More than 322,000 people (and counting) have shared the tweet, which means that, per some analytics sites, as many as 71 million people have probably seen it.

So what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just a sweet, heart-felt sentiment offered in a time of tragedy? Well, no… It actually violates very well-established public health standards for how we should talk about suicide.

Most people who saw and shared the tweet may not have thought for a second that it crossed any kind of line, but even if it doesn’t it comes very close to it. Suicide should never be presented as an option. Because in doing so, no matter how innocently, it is an avenue for potential contagion.

Please, don’t be too quick to roll your eyes, exit this page, and write me off as some kind of paranoid over-reactor. There exists an extremely sad and well-documented phenomenon, known as “copycat suicide,” in which media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way. Somewhat similar to how we see copycat crimes and mass-murders. Adolescents are most at risk of some form of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) have also become particularly attentive to the role the Internet plays in romanticizing notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.

Even Robin Williams told The Guardian during an interview back in 2010 that, “Well, you just try and keep it in perspective; you have to remember the best and the worst. In America, they really do mythologize people when they die.”

The high potential for television/online reports, tweets, photos, videos, blogs, articles, and stories to go viral makes it all the more vital that the coverage of a suicide follow the prevention industry safety recommendations (or at the very least a link and contact info for seeking help).

In the hours since @TheAcademy tweet went viral, some people have become aware that it does not, in fact, follow the established safety recommendations. The image shows the starry sky from Disney’s Aladdin, and the written implication that suicide is somehow a liberating option… this presents suicide in much too celebratory a light.

However, now that just about all media is so social, and anyone can go viral, it’s more difficult to educate influencers on those issues. The ASFP has issued a response to the unsafe reporting of this tragic news. (It is unclear who at the Academy actually sent the tweet, and the Academy has yet to respond to any requests for further comment as far as I know.) In whatever the case though, some advice for organizations and individuals talking about Williams’ death online that would be wise to consider: Be sure to acknowledge that suicide has underlying issues – such as depression… and those issues can be addressed.

The focus of any current media attention should of course be on Robin Williams’ incredible life, and all the good he contributed to this world while he was here. We should enjoy the nostalgic remembrance of all the laughter he gave us over the years through his movies and shows. We should become more aware about the crippling pain that is depression and how to help. If you don’t know what is depression like, well you’re not missing out on anything, because it’s kind of like drowning. Except you can see everyone else around you breathing. We should be careful though, not to celebrate or glorify how he died in any way.

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^ Whether you think I’m way off base with all of this or not, maybe this scene would have been a more responsible tribute to the great man, father, and friend we’ve lost.

Or perhaps instead of Aladdin’s words, we can better remember Robin Williams’ last lines (after the credits) as the Genie from the Aladdin movie: “You have been a fabulous audience! Tell you what, you’re the best audience in the whole world. Take care of yourselves! Good night, Alice! Good night, Agrabah! Adios, amigos!”

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If you are in crisis, call: 1-800-273- 8255 (TALK)

We honestly care about you, take a moment and call: 888-667-5947

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Websites:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Biblical Counseling Suicide Prevention

Christian Suicide Prevention
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Recommended article: Suicide & Mental Health

Hope For Those Who Fall Short

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Hope is birthed out of a knowledge of something greater than ourselves and greater than our present circumstances. To really understand the good news that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must first understand the bad news that is sin. Consider the idea of receiving the good news of deliverance. However, to receive such news must mean you needed to be delivered from something. If you were in prison and you were to be executed in the morning, and your attorney dropped by with the information that the governor had just signed a pardon, this would be very good news, would it not? But think about it for a moment. If you received news that the governor had signed a pardon, but for some reason you did not know that you were on death row, the good news could not be received by you as really that great of news. It would just kind of bounce off, and have a much less impactful affect.

Due to the Fall, even our good deeds, our very best works, are consider but dirty rags, filthy garments, bloody cloth, and piles of crap in comparison to the righteousness of Christ that has been imparted to those who believe in and follow Him (Isaiah 64:6; Luke 18:9-30; Romans 3:10, 5:15, 6:23; Philippians 3:8-9; Titus 3:3-7; among many verses that would substantiate this). I know that language may come off as a little strong, but God says to be holy as He is holy… and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). David even says he was brought forth in iniquity, that in sin did his mother conceive him (he is not referring to her having cheated on her husband, Jesse… Jesse’s girl wasn’t running around on him) and even our good deeds fall short of that impossible standard. With that being understood, we can better understand why we desperately need the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Some passages to consider when questioning how corrupted and depraved we are from birth:

Psalm 51:5
Jeremiah 17:9
John 3:20-21
Romans 3:9-12
Romans 3:23
Romans 8:5-8

1. We have darkened minds.

Romans 8:7
1st Corinthians 2:14
Ephesians 2:3
Ephesians 4:17-18
Colossians 1:21

2. We have darkened hearts.

Romans 1:21
Ephesians 4:18-19

3. We are enslaved to sin.

John 8:34
Titus 3:3

4. We abide under futility.

Ecclesiastes 1:15-18
1st Peter 1:18

5. We are already spiritually dead.

Psalm 51:5
Ephesians 2:1-5
Colossians 2:13

In the beginning, man was created good (Genesis 1:31). Having taken of the forbidden fruit and eaten of it, he committed idolatry and tried to make himself god, he was subjected to the curse of death, pain, and futility. By one man’s transgression, sin and death spread to all men and women (Romans 5) and mankind has been henceforth born into a fragmented existence. No longer does he enjoy fellowship with his Maker or the rest of creation. Man experienced division from His Creator, his spouse, himself, his fellow man, and the creation over which he was to work. This curse spread through men by nature and not merely through an environmental influence, as all were and are born into sin. We are all stillborns, utterly devoid of spiritual good. (This does not mean that man can do no social good, but rather it is a recognition that even our righteous works are as filthy rags in God’s sight. As Romans 14:23 tells us, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.) We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.

Because of the Fall, the whole of creation has been subjected to futility. The entire universe and all it contains has been fractured from its originally created state. I believe that includes DNA, the biochemical and biological makeup of humanity has been affected as well.

Have you ever seen a two year old bite when they don’t get there way? Have you witnessed a toddler become violent when they want a toy that another child has? Ever seen a little kid quickly shove all their candy in their mouth if someone asked for a piece? I don’t see too many adults demonstrating those particular behaviors. Where does that seem to instinctively come from? Would you disagree that some people seem more prone to alcoholism, addiction, violence, anger, depression, etc. And that may not just simply be reactions to their environment or behaviors they’ve seen displayed?

Does that merely excuse any bents anyone may have toward certain sins? No, of course not. Is every sinful action predestined and purposed by God? I am certainly making no such claim. When we sin, regardless of genetics, age, gender, ethnicity, race, culture, society, environment, etc. we are still sinning, and we’re still responsible for our actions. It is too reductionistic though, and ignores much of scientific discovery (which helps serve to reveal God’s created order), that shows humans are more complex than simple action and reaction free-willers. People are not simply stimuli-response organisms. We do not act and perceive the world strictly based on our brain stimuli; just “free will” responding to any and all experiences and environment. How does one explain human personality? Ever meet people with an oddly optimistic disposition, or someone who can’t seem to find a positive thing to say no matter how well their life seems to be going?

How would you explain the differences in what people find beautiful? Are our aesthetic appetites merely reflections of our experiences and environments that we’re able to express once we reach some mystical age of accountability? Are we pre-determined genetic robots, so-to-speak? Do humans simply react to all perceived experiences only according to the way their biochemical make-up has been hard-wired to allow them?

I believe we are born with the proclivity towards certain types of sin; that our hearts are little idol factories. Our environments and experiences help serve to shape and manipulate the way we express our sinful idolatry. The Bible teaches that one has only the choice between God and idolatry. For if one denies God, they are worshipping some created thing(s) of this world; while thinking of said thing as not that big of a deal, their actions demonstrate the belief that they see it as deity. (Because though it is often unknown to an idolater, they’re imagining the attributes of divinity in the things they pursue.) We often think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life. Everyone is building their identity on something and must find some way to justify their existence in order to stave off the universal fear that they have no purpose. In more traditional cultures, the sense of worth and identity comes from fulfilling duties to family and giving service to society, while in our contemporary individualistic culture, people tend to look to work or educational achievements, social status, talents, or love relationships.

“The greatest threat to the church isn’t atheism or materialism, but moralism that celebrates a righteousness which doesn’t come from Christ.” – Paul Tripp

I’m not saying everyone is born pre-programmed to act out specific sins, but we are predisposed to being more likely to sin in certain ways. I’m also not saying both genetic and environmental influences are equal by any means either, just that genetics does indeed serve at least a small part in it all. I believe we all have bents more toward certain types of sin and idolatry and then our society, culture, environment, experiences, and whatnot help serve to shape and grow those.

In college, I actually had a philosophy professor who used to joke that when you look in at the sweet, cute little babies in the baby ward at the hospital, they are just as depraved in their heart as any adult, and if they had the coordination and cognitive ability, some might even try to steal your car keys and leave. Basically that we’re all prone to wander, prone to sin, and as we age, we’re more apt and able to express the depravity that resides in our hearts. But like I said, I’m not making any claim that some individuals are going to grow up and rape, murder, steal, drink excessively, do hardcore drugs, beat women, verbally assault others, etc. and there’s nothing that could ever be done to stop them from doing so. I just believe genetics and one’s biological make-up does play some kind of role or small factor in things.

So in light of the horribly extensive ramifications of sin (which I have not even begun to scratch the surface in explaining the vast personal and cosmic affects in this article), we can better see why the gospel really is such good news. It is the news that God saves. It is the historical narrative of the triune God orchestrating the reconciliation and redemption of a broken creation and fallen creatures, from Satan, sin and its effects to the Father and each other through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of the substitutionary Son by the power of the Spirit for God’s glory and the Church’s joy.

“but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8 (ESV)

Jesus Christ is the gospel. Jesus isn’t part of the story, He is the point of the story; from Genesis to Revelation. The good news is revealed in His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return. If righteousness could be obtained through the law in any way, then Christ died for absolutely nothing. Christ’s crucifixion is the heart of the gospel; His resurrection is the power of the gospel, and His ascension is the glory of the gospel. Christ’s death is a substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice to God for our sins. It satisfies the demands of God’s holy justice and appeases His holy wrath. It also demonstrates His mysterious love and reveals His amazing grace.

Jesus’ claims are particularly unnerving, because if they are true, there is no alternative but to bow the knee to Him. He is the only mediator between God and man. There is no other name by which men must (or can) be saved. At the heart of all sound doctrine is the cross of Jesus Christ and the infinite privilege that redeemed sinners have of glorifying God because of what He has accomplished. Because of this, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

12 Years a Slave

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I don’t normally write film reviews. Never have actually… but this film was just exceptional enough to inspire me to want to write something. As anyone will say, this was not the easiest movie to watch, not in the least bit. However, I’ll begin discussing it by stating that it is one of the best movies of the year and one of the greatest stories ever told on screen.

Again, the movie isn’t easy to watch, and it shouldn’t be; because it’s one man’s immense tragedy, and it’s also the tragedy of countless thousands of other souls beaten down, literally and metaphorically. The film, which is based on a memoir written by Solomon Northup after his 12-year ordeal, begins with a glimpse of the Northup family’s happy life in New York, where he was a musician, craftsman, and a free man. Those beautiful moments with his family are over quickly, as a pair of low-life scam artists pull off the wicked guise of hiring Northup to play for a party out of town, the pair of crooks drug him, kidnap him, and then turn him over to a slave trader (played by Paul Giamatti). Soon after that Northup, along with other would-be slaves stand naked in a grandiose home’s parlor, as customers are invited to inspect the “property for sale” at their leisure.

12 Years a Slave wouldn’t be as effective in its delivery on the big screen if it weren’t perfectly cast (with Chiwetel Elijofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o) performed with searing honesty, smoothly written (by John Ridley, from Northup’s own memoir), and unflinchingly filmed without holding back the disgusting depravity of the era; you’ll want to look away, particularly during a sequence involving Patsey near the end, but you won’t. You will painfully watch and feel your heart being broken for these men and women. It’s a chapter in American history that’s still seen too little screen time, too little honesty, and it will haunt you long afterward.

“I don’t want to survive,” says Solomon Northup early on, refusing to accept his horrific change in circumstances after he has been tricked and sold into slavery. “I want to live!”

Some critics seemed to have gotten too caught up in the character of Samuel Bass having come into the picture abruptly (and even more distracted by Brad Pitt starring in the role), that they seem to neglect taking the time to reflect on all the truth that was spoken during the scenes involving Bass. Truth is truth, no matter who is saying it. The Bible even tells us that God once spoke through a donkey (Numbers 22:22-41)… so we should probably still reflect on the profound truth being uttered by Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass.

One comes away from watching 12 Years a Slave, which ends with Northup restored to happiness and liberty, filled with some joy for his eventual return to his family, but also with a surpassing sorrow for all that he had to endure. It seems simply incredible that any man could endure even one day a slave, much less that the human mind could pass through such an ordeal for 12 years and emerge not only intact but capable of generous, lucid, and occasionally artful prose. Though the film adaptation ends at the same place the book memoir does (with Northup reunited with his family in New York) the film strikes a decidedly different note. When Ejiofor’s Northup, now dressed in a freeman’s clothes as he had been before his ordeal, walks through the door of his home and is greeted by his family dressed in their Sunday best, his face appears similar to what Job’s must have looked like when he was presented with his new, replacement family. The sensation is no longer one of amazement that a man’s mind could survive such an ordeal intact, but the hard realization that in some ways it cannot.

It should be noted that I viewed this movie through the lens of a particular worldview and left the theater deeply moved. In the end, we must cling to the promises of God, and the hope that for those who love God all things really do work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.** Because 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.

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Movie Trailer for 12 Years a Slave.