Tag Archives: counseling

Secondhand Sighs

I’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing lately. I don’t mean to. Pathetic sounds just sort of escape my lips before I realize it. But I think they are a sound indicator of the state of my heart: burdened.

For me, life is good right now. I have much to rejoice and give thanks over. But for several of the people I love, life is a waking nightmare. The bottom has dropped out of their world and their dreams are dying a slow, painful death. As I walk with them through their dark valleys and listen to their anguished cries, I can’t help but absorb their pain. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it?

Of course these burdens have driven me to perpetual prayer, crying out to God day and night to put right what has been made so wrong. My emotional involvement makes my prayers for others fervent and passionate. But it is also weighing me down to the point where I feel I have little left to offer, and that just doesn’t seem right.

How do I love wholeheartedly without being consumed? How do I immerse myself in other people’s pain without being submerged by it?

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53:3-4

As always, God reminds me that He has walked this path ahead of me, not just as the transcendent God who reigns from heaven, but also as the fleshy mortal who wept here on earth. He knows what it is like to carry other’s burdens and be weighed down by their sorrow. He didn’t dodge the pain or distance Himself from the suffering. And yet somehow He managed not to be completely overcome by it.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
John 11:3-5

When I read John’s account of how Jesus reacted to his friend Lazarus’ death, I am amazed that He got emotionally involved in it at all. Right from the point that He first heard that news of His friend’s illness, He told His disciples that it wouldn’t end in death. What’s more, He could already see the big picture of what was going on, that this was a cosmic play in which God was setting things up to put His glory on display. Jesus understood all this. He could explain all this. And yet when He came face to face with Mary’s grief over the loss of her brother, He burst into tears.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
John 11:33-35

Her pain was His pain, because He loved her. He didn’t stand at a slightly detached distance, maintaining professional control over His feelings and offering wise words of truth. Even though He already new the future outcome, He entered into her current reality. He allowed it to affect Him right down to the core of His Spirit, disturbing His serenity and breaking down His composure. He didn’t preach at her. He wept with her.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 11:40-42

But Jesus didn’t get stuck there. Nor did He try to go it alone. He entered fully into the seeming hopelessness of His friend’s immediate situation, but then He lifted it up into the context of God’s ongoing story. This was not the end. He believed it not only for his own sake, but He clung to it for her sake. He carried her burden to God in prayer, exerting His faith in God’s good purposes for her when her faith was too weak for the task.

And, as He does, God showed up to finish what He had started: in Lazarus, in Mary, and in Jesus. The Father comforted His Son. And in turn, Jesus comforted Mary and healed Lazarus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5

This ripple effect of comfort flows down through history to me. Like Jesus, Paul, and the many others who have gone before, I get to stand in the crossroads between earth and heaven, stretched between the colossal chaos of what is happening in this realm and the cosmic order of what God is orchestrating in the heavenly one.

I am realizing that I cannot bear this burden in isolation, from God or from others. If I try to carry it alone it will crush me. But thanks be to God, He has built His Church out of a community of suffering comforters and of comforted sufferers. As we each go to the Father in desperate, dependent faith on behalf of the other, He will supply the comfort we need to sustain ourselves and support each other.

Second-hand sighs. Second-hand comfort.

These are what hold me together. These are what bind us together.

Cave Time

Ordinarily I think of caves as lonely, dark places, not exactly the kind of place I would associate with comfort. But there have been times in my life when there was nowhere else I would rather be. I remember times of barely holding myself together as I rose to yet another day of a revolving front door, constant interruptions, urgent needs, out-of-control children, dwindling funds, another power outage, physical weakness, and a migraine to boot. Worn and empty, I longed to escape to a place of solitude, of rest, of refuge. And frankly, I wasn’t so sure I ever wanted to come back.

Sometimes God calls us to soldier on through depression; sometimes He gives us a cave. Elijah had demonstrated incredible perseverance through overwhelming circumstances. Now God was calling him aside for some cave-time. Forty days alone in the wilderness. Living on bread from heaven. Wrestling with God in prayer. Journeying to the mountain of God and crawling into a cave. He was here to hide, to sleep, to escape. This cool, dark enclosure provided blessed relief, a time and space apart from the struggles of life. How could he even think about going back?

God came near in the intimacy of a whisper.

God had provided this time and place for Elijah’s healing, but He was not content to leave him here. As the brilliant counselor that He is, He engaged Elijah with a soul-searching question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Was the answer not obvious? The very thought of all he had endured was still overwhelming, but he was finally ready to talk about it. “I have been very zealous for Yahweh God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, … 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 19:10). How could he possibly re-engage the same impossible situations that had put him in this state in the first place? What hope did he have that he would be able to handle the future?

Yahweh said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, for Yahweh is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Yaheweh was not in the fire.
1 Kings 19:11-12

God responded to Elijah’s unspoken questions in a way more powerful than words. He coaxed him back out of the cave with the promise of His presence. He sent along the manifestations of Himself with which Elijah was most familiar: the overpowering wind, the terrorizing earthquake, the all-consuming fire. But none of those were the way He was going to show Himself this time. To His broken, tentative child, He came near in the intimacy of a whisper.

Elijah felt Him come. He crept to the mouth of the cave and repeated his concerns, but this time they had lost their overwhelming force.

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 19:12-13

In the face of God’s very real presence, everything else seemed smaller. All the struggles he had left behind still awaited him, but God would take him by the hand and walk him through them. God’s whisper also directed him to Elisha, a human helper who would walk by his side through the challenges ahead.

Cave-time rarely comes when life is good and the world around us is as it should be. But in the midst of those miserable times, God draws near. He listens and responds to our woes. He soothes our frayed spirits with His tender whisper, reassures our troubled hearts with His intimate presence, and, when He knows we are ready, sends us back out with the promise of His ongoing help.