Category Archives: Depression

What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

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Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.

A Better Dream

“When I try to think about the future, all I can see is an enormous black curtain blocking out everything else.” I could see no way around it. I knew what I was saying did not fit with the biblical hope that I professed, but that dark cloud of despair had settled so thickly over my soul that I could see little else. I didn’t want to be overcome by depression, but it was so much bigger than me, beyond what my simply “choosing joy” could dispel. Where could I go for help? Who could free me from this invisible prison?

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Psalm 42:9-10

The answer was obvious. Every Sunday school child knows the songs about God being able to do anything. But He wasn’t doing it now. He was not delivering me from my troubles, He was not wiping away my tears, He was not lifting me out of my despair. Not yet, at least. Submerged under a shroud of darkness, I waited. But for what?

My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Psalm 42:3-4

The longer I pondered that question, the more I realized that I was waiting for Him. One by one, all my other hopes and dreams had faded and died. The memory of them brought a painful chuckle. Had I really once been so bold and carefree as to pursue such idyllic aspirations? I had taken them for granted at the time, but experience taught me that life doesn’t usually work out the way we imagine it will. As the pathetic Fantine in Les Miserables so poignantly sings, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

The death of our dreams gives rise to the life of our worship.

But the longer I waited in the dark, the more a new dream emerged. Sure I still wanted to be a cheery, engaged mother to my children, a loving, encouraging wife to my husband, a useful, effective servant for the kingdom of God. Those were good goals that were right to pursue, but they were no longer the center of my vision. Losing the ability to fulfill them had whetted my appetite for God.

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Psalm 43:3-4

Stripped of all the other dreams in which I had formerly found significance and delight, I wanted nothing more than to be in God’s presence. I woke each morning desperate to escape into His heavenly throne room and to lose myself in all-consuming worship. I walked through each day clinging to Him with every step. And I fell asleep each night savoring the sweet comfort of being cradled in His arms.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 43:5

This was a dream that nothing in this life could deprive me of. It penetrated the dark barriers that hemmed me in and gave me a palpable hope to cling to. Even if I still could not envision the future, even if the thought of what lay ahead overwhelmed and intimidated me, beyond all that I could anticipate the sweetest of prospects: eternity in God’s presence. It was only a matter of time until my hope would be fulfilled, a matter of when, not if. And in the meantime, as I walked the up-and-down path of this life, there was no reason I couldn’t enjoy His presence along the way. Worship became my highest joy. I discovered that I was participating already in what would be perfect then.

Persevering Hope

“Hope? I have no hope left for anything good in this life.” I had been clinging to it against all odds, but hope had died with the last baby. I was still going through the motions of everyday life, but I had lost all motivation to press forward. Forward towards what? More pain, more disappointment, more death? My faith in God was still intact, much to my relief, but I had quit on hope. It just hurt too much.

… You stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

God gently called me back to hope through His Word. The book of Hebrews was written to people who, like me, had already weathered some pretty intense storms. They had not backed down, they had not quit on their faith, and they had even joyfully accepted their hardships because of their hope in God’s coming kingdom. But having persevered through the first several rounds of suffering, they were losing steam. Life was so hard, the journey was so long, the cost was so high: how could they keep going?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. … But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 10:35-11:1)

Those of us who travel this long, hard road need relevant, regular reminders that our hope is not in vain.

But what cause did I have for hope? My experience with hope was that it inevitably resulted in even greater disappointment. I had kept on sharing my faith with resistant people. I had prayed for my friend with cancer to be healed. I had persevered in hope that God could give life to this last baby, despite the discouraging ultrasounds. But none of it had worked. I still held on to a theoretical hope for the life to come, but that seemed so distant that it made little difference in the way I felt now. What good thing did I dare raise my eyes to in the here and now?

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:2-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This call to hope was not a harsh demand; it was a gentle reminder. It nudged my perspective back up to the truest reality. Jesus walked this path ahead of me, and He made it to the other side. He, along with that great cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, kept putting one foot in front of the other, clinging to hope despite the constant barrage of circumstances that tried to steal it away. That journey was not easy for them—they still bear the scars—but they did eventually get what they had hoped for.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, … but let us encourage one another–all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25

I, like the believers in Hebrews, needed to hear that I was not alone in my struggle. No wonder the author of Hebrews encouraged them to keep getting together so that they could cheer each other on! And we are in that same company. All of us traveling this long, hard road need frequent, tangible reminders that, as much as it might not feel like it in the moment, our hope is not in vain. Our Prize is waiting.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23

Wounding Hands, Healing Hands

It was the first week of a new year, an appropriate time to look back over the events of the past year and anticipate all that would come with the new one. But unless the pattern radically changed, all I had to look forward to was more struggle, more disappointment, more weakness, more pain. Was this what God had in store for the rest of my life?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Psalm 42:7

Worn and weary, I lay suspended in a hammock looking up through the tree branches towards the heavens. I had not yet found resolution to the relational dilemma of a sovereign God who had ordained great suffering for me. But my soul was shattered, too broken to fight anymore. His were the hands that had wounded me. But His were the only hands that could comfort me. Part of me wanted to turn away from Him, to run away from the source of my pain. But the thought of life apart from God’s love brought even more despair than the misery of living within it.

My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. … I am reduced to skin and bones.
For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. … In the course of my life he broke my strength; he cut short my days.
Psalm 102:4-5, 9-10, 23

The only choice I had was to go to Him with my grief, to cling to Him while telling Him how much He had hurt me. Once again, the Psalms gave me permission to voice my complaint and the words to do it. I told Him frankly of the ways that I had been affected by His actions, and I didn’t sugar-coat it with statements of how gracious He had been to spare me from worse.

Tangible experiences of His love became the balm that made my anguish more bearable.

Lightning did not fall from heaven and strike me dead. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded if it did. I didn’t really want to live anymore, not with the prospect of a life filled with nothing but more suffering and pain, stretching out endlessly before me. I knew it wasn’t an option to end my own life, but it would be such a relief if He would end it for me. I fell asleep each night asking Him to do so. I awoke each morning disappointed that He hadn’t.

Through the first few months of that year, like the psalmists, I rose each morning and cried to God for help. I implored Him for the strength to make it through another day, then began by putting one foot in front of the other. I often felt like I was walking on that invisible bridge over an endless chasm from the old Indiana Jones movie. But as I took each step in blind, desperate faith, His strong hands kept my feet from slipping and my soul from falling into infinite despair. I came to the end of each day shocked and grateful to have actually made it that far.

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.
Psalm 42:8

In the midst of the struggle to go on, tangible experiences of His love became the balm that made my anguish more bearable. He did not “beam me up” out of my misery, but He did join me in the middle of it. The compassionate, silent hug of a friend. The gift of those sweet hours of oblivion that came with sleep each night. The poignant beauty of a song. The warmth of the sunlight caressing my face as I stole a few quiet moments in the hammock. All of these were touches of comfort from His hands, reassuring expressions of His true heart towards me.

Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
Job 5:17-18

Counting our Blessings?

Tiff,
We sang “count your blessings” in morning prayers yesterday. There’s a line in there about “does the cross feel like a heavy burden to bear” (something like that) and prescribes counting your blessings. 
So, my question for your blog: what do we do with songs like this? Is there value in reminding people to count blessings? I remember people telling me all kinds of things that would “fix” me (more prayer, more bible study, more service to others, etc.). Some of them helped in small ways. None of them “fixed” me.

I hate to admit this, but the rebel in me wants to stand up after a song like that and read aloud Psalm 89, which begins by “recounting” God’s former blessings and promises and then abruptly jumps track and launches into a long list of all the curses that He has brought on His people. Singing about “counting your curses” might not send everyone away with a pleasant smile on their face, though.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament.

Songs like “Count your Blessings” often seem to downplay the reality and immensity of our troubles, sending the message that if we would just focus on the positive rather than the negative, all our problems would just go away. If only the solution were so simple! Formulaic, moralistic approaches to comfort are more likely to heap additional guilt, isolation, and wounding on a person barely managing to keep their nose above water. They don’t need another sermon; they need a life raft!

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.
Psalm 77:1-2

That being said, I do see a form of “Count your Blessings” in many of the Biblical prayers, Psalm 77 in particular. The psalmist doesn’t jump straight to the blessings, though. First he cries out his distress and troubles to God, refusing to be comforted until they have been properly addressed.

My heart mused and my spirit inquired: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Psalm 77:6-9

As he considers his current misery, he verbalizes to God the horrible doubts that his recent experiences have forced him to consider. These are the disturbing questions that have been simmering under the surface, questions about the character of God and the nature of their relationship. They seem too heretical to put into words, but if he doesn’t ask them his soul will remain in turmoil and their relationship will remain unresolved.

Even as the psalmist hears the questions stated out loud, he recognizes how preposterous they are. God “forgetting” to be merciful? Unfailing love that fails?

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy.
Psalm 77:10-13

The psalmist desperately wants to get beyond despair and back into praise, but he refuses to shortcut the process and shortchange the relationship. So instead he appeals to the history of God’s dealings with His people. He chooses to remember the things God has done in the past, to count the ways He has already proven His love and shown His goodness.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
Psalm 77:19

Memories of God’s incredible rescues and tender mercies come flooding in. In the past when troubles overwhelmed God’s people, He always showed up and delivered them, even when they couldn’t see Him doing it. This time will be no different. Finally, his soul can be a rest again. God has been good to him, and God will once more be good to him.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament. Interestingly, lament rarely manages to sustain itself for too long. Once it has served its purpose, lament fades away and leaves room for gratitude. And at that point, counting our blessings is a helpful life buoy in lifting our spirits back to joy.

When God is Silent

“I know God is there, but right now He feels so far away it is hard to believe He even cares. I try to pray to Him, but it doesn’t change anything. What happened to the God who is supposed to love me and hold my hand through the hard times? It’s hard enough dealing with everything else going wrong in my life right now, but the thing that hurts the most is that He won’t even show up to reassure me that He cares.” I listened to my friend’s gut-wrenching honesty about her struggles with God in the midst of her depression and I remembered times when I had felt the same way. Turning to the Psalms, I discovered that we were not the only ones.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 13:1-2

Miserable. Alone. Disturbing thoughts. Despairing heart. Once upon a time, David had experienced the joy of hearing from God, of seeing His hand at work in his life in powerful ways. Once upon a time he had enjoyed the unchallenged certainty of God’s goodness and love. But all that was such a distant memory, it was hard now to believe it had ever really been true.

Now heaven seemed steely and prohibitive, heaven’s God silent and removed. David kept calling out to Him in distress, begging Him to hear and answer, but nothing happened. Nothing changed. The people around him who didn’t care about God or bother with conforming their lives to His standards seemed perfectly happy, while he was miserable and afflicted at every turn. It would have been easier if God had not raised his expectations with promises of the honor and security of a throne. It was difficult to reconcile those promises with the fact that, instead, he had been living for years as a hunted vagabond, hiding out in caves and having to drool on himself like a madman so his enemies wouldn’t kill him. Where was God now? How could he keep believing in His promises when everything around him seemed to prove them false?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.
Psalm 13:3

David was at the end of his emotional rope. His faith reserves were exhausted and he was on the verge of losing it. If God didn’t turn and respond to him in some way, he wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Past experience of God’s goodness is the life raft that carries us through the present experience of His silence.

But God had already responded to him. He had already met him in tangible ways. He had proven His great love in the past. Miraculous rescues. Intimate encounters. Beautiful prophecies. Worshipful moments. They had all been so real. Did they count for nothing now? David was faced with a difficult choice. Which experience of God would he believe: His former kindness or His current indifference?

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 13:5-6

In an act of desperate faith, David clung to the reality of God’s unfailing love. His situation was still wretched, but he chose to let the past interpret the present. God’s love had never failed him then. He could only hope that it would not fail him now. His story wasn’t over yet. He would wait in hope to see how God would prove His love in the middle of this mess.

When life stinks and God is silent, we are faced with the same choice. Everything around us screams that God doesn’t care, drowning out that still, quiet testimony within our hearts that He does. We want to keep believing, but we need some sign of His love to offset the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t always give us that sign on demand, but He has given us ample proof of His love in the past. Past experience of God’s goodness is the life raft that carries us through the present experience of His silence.

Advent: Waiting in the Dark

It’s dark. I have been up for hours but the sun still shows no sign of rising. If my calendar didn’t inform me that these are the longest nights of the year and my globe didn’t show me that my place on the planet is temporarily tipped far away from the sun, I might begin to despair.

Will the light ever dawn again?

The Israelites found themselves asking a similar question. It had been a long time since they had seen the light of God’s presence among them, and they despaired of it ever returning. Once upon a time they had lived in their own land, victorious over their enemies, successful in their endeavors, and happy in their community. The symbol and source of their blessed life was the temple, the place where they had seen the radiant cloud of God’s Spirit alight among them.

Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD … Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 10:4, 18-19

But all of that was long gone. Wave after wave of calamity had come along, stripping their land, destroying their homes, starving their children, wiping out their elderly, raping their women, and carrying off their survivors in chains. Devastated. Distressed. Their lives were a ruin. Their temple was rubble. It had been violated and desecrated beyond belief, and the light of God’s presence had departed from it. Without that light, they had no hope. Would it ever return?

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again.

God kept sending messages of hope, but their ongoing reality was anything but the radiant dawn that the prophets had foretold. After generations of living as refugees and exiles, they began to hobble back to their homeland. But the wasteland that met their eyes was nothing like the dreamland of their memories. Weak. Discouraged. They began the painstaking process of restoration. Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple. Nehemiah worked on the wall. Ezra re-established the priesthood. But God’s glory-cloud never showed up. They were plodding along by faith, laboring against overwhelming odds to bring back all that had been lost, to restore their lives to what they were supposed to be. Ready. Waiting. Surely any day now the trumpet would sound and the Lord would descend as He had before. Nothing happened.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire … he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver… and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Malachi 3:1-4

Generation after generation came and went, and if anything, things only got worse. Tyrannical local rulers. Oppressive foreign invaders. Corrupt, mafia-run priests. Degrading practices throughout the land. Abominable idols in the temple. Where was the promised Messiah who would clean up all this mess? Where was that righteous King who would establish justice and peace for all time? Many quit on any hope of change, but the faithful persevered in waiting. Deep darkness covered their world, but they strained their eyes watching for the dawn. How long could they go on believing without seeing? The Old Testament closes its final book in a mess, with 600 years of hope unfulfilled and the light of God still missing.

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again. We can barely remember what it was like when we felt happy, connected to our community, and right with the world around us. We slog along, day after day, dutifully doing what we are supposed to do but not seeing any change. We cry out to God in laments and prayers, begging Him to return and restore us, but He isn’t responding.

Will the light ever dawn again?

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
Malachi 4:2

Lamenting Lessons

“I feel so distant from you. My life is a living hell, and I can’t escape it. Miserable. Alone. Overwhelmed. Relentless trials. Ruthless people. I’m not sure I can go on living like this. Disconnected from everyone else. Cut off from you. Why don’t you listen to me? I feel like you don’t care. Don’t you want me to be whole? You are the one in control of my life. You are the one who is ruining it. Darkness is a better friend to me than you are. I don’t understand. I feel like you’ve betrayed our relationship, but I don’t want to quit on us. So I’m telling you how I feel and asking you to answer me.  Yes, I’m complaining, but I‘m complaining to you! I won’t pretend that everything is fine between us, but I want it to be. I’m going to keep telling you about it so that we can work this out. Listen to me!” (my paraphrase of Psalm 88)

O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88

How do we pray to the one who is wounding us? How do we relate to the God who is orchestrating our mess? We can pretend like it’s not really Him. We can focus on His goodness and live in denial over the pain He brings. Or we can get angry and withdraw. We can turn away and refuse to communicate with Him. But neither of these responses will bring reconciliation to our damaged relationship. Neither will bring resolution to the wound festering within our own soul.

We understand the need for conflict resolution within human relationships, but conflict resolution with God is not really that different. It requires honesty, open communication, and dogged perseverance. It takes unswerving commitment to the relationship and a willingness to wrestle back and forth until both parties emerge heard, understood, and re-united.

Laments are conflict-resolution prayers. They are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God or to settle for a polite, distant co-existence with Him. When we read the whole Bible and not just the nice, tidy parts, we run into lengthy sections of messy people screaming out their anguish to God. Unspeakable horrors. Irreverent feelings. Dangerous questions. All the things that would shock the stockings off our Sunday school teachers, brought right into God’s presence and laid out in the form of a complaint before His holy throne. Are we really allowed to be so bold? With all that is on the line, we can’t afford not to be.

Laments are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God.

Thankfully, God not only allows us to lament, He teaches us how to do it. The Psalms and the prophets provide excellent models for how to voice our complaints to God. He even provides the words ahead of time for His people to use in their hour of despair. When Jesus cried out His agonizing question to God on the cross, He was merely borrowing the words that had been provided for Him centuries in advance through the Psalms.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Whether we borrow the words of Scripture or come up with our own words to express the agonized cries of our hearts, we are following in good footsteps. Lament has long been the prayer of the faithful. We could use some lessons in this lost art.

Teach your daughters how to wail: teach one another a lament.
Jeremiah 9:20

When Joy is Wrong

“Stop telling me why I shouldn’t hurt. Since when did that help anyone? Listen to the roar of the pain, the rage, the frustration, the disappointment churning deep within me. Don’t ignore my agony. Acknowledge that it is real. Don’t leave me alone in it. Hurt with me. Don’t mock me with simple solutions. Wrestle with me. Don’t silence me with platitudes. Make space for my lament.”

I know I shouldn’t be, but I have been surprised by the number of wounded individuals who have responded to the raw, unresolved pain of my last post with stories of their own suppressed suffering. I say suppressed because for many of them, well-intentioned Christian “comforters” have compounded their pain, not alleviated it; praise-filled church services have crushed their spirits, not lifted them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I suspect that many Christians are too threatened by the immensity of pain to be able to engage it. It scares them, because if they look it straight in the face, they might lose their joy, might start to question God’s goodness, might even be in danger of losing their faith! So they escape into exciting praise songs, testimonies with happy endings, and repeated reminders to be thankful and joyful all the time. But where does that leave the wounded? Out in the cold. Isolated, hurt, and now with a generous serving of guilt on top.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

The Jewish exiles shared a similar experience. Their homes pillaged and burned, their loved ones raped and murdered, their temple desecrated, their country destroyed, and themselves hauled off as helpless captives, they sat in the prison of a strange, scary place with nothing but the painful memories of all they had lost. Traumatized. Grieving. Broken. Their hands hung limp. Their harps hung unused.

There are times when songs of joy are just wrong, when cries of lament are the truest form of worship.

As if that weren’t enough, their captors came around to taunt them. “Sing us one of your praise choruses! You know, the catchy tunes you used to sing back home.” Worse than another blow to the body, this kind of torment violated their souls. It made a mockery of their pain, requiring them to pretend that nothing had happened and that everything was fine.

The exiles did not give in to the pressure. They refused to join the farce, to surrender the last few shreds of dignity they had left. How could they enact the lie of being joyful when they were anything but? Instead they used their voices to express their agony over the horrors they had endured. They called on God to remember all that had happened to them, and not to forget it until He had made it right. God did not condemn them for refusing to be joyful at that moment. Rather, He recorded their laments for our benefit.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell…
Psalm 137:4-7

There are times when joy is just wrong, when faking praise only further isolates us from God. There are seasons when lament is the truest form of worship, the only honest way we can relate to God. This is not a permanent state, but rather a necessary stage on the road back to joy.

Embedded within the New Testament calls to “be joyful in hope”(Rom. 12:12) and to “rejoice with those who rejoice”(Rom. 12:15) is also a reminder to “mourn with those who mourn”(Rom. 12:15). Whether we find ourselves currently in a season of celebration or in a season of despair, love compels us to acknowledge and share in each other’s emotional realities. Compassionate tears. Shared laughter. Heart-rending cries for mercy. Heart-filled songs of praise. This is the stuff that binds us together as the church, with our weeping, worshipping Savior at the core.