Tag Archives: grieving

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.

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A Righteous Response to Rape

Desolate: empty, alone, grim.

The Bible chose this word to describe what became of a godly woman when she was sexually abused. Not “overcomer,” not “unshaken,” not even “rejoicing in affliction.” Just desolate. Broken. Used up. Tossed aside. Devoid of feeling, of beauty, of future, of life. The walking dead.

Extreme external reactions are mere reflections of ongoing internal realities.

Tamar hadn’t always been that way. Once upon a time she had been beautiful and regal, strong, well-spoken, and wise. She had walked the palace halls with dignity and grace, confident of her position and secure in her place. She had worn the elegant clothes that fit her station as a pure young woman, an honored daughter of the king. And she had spoken up with self-assured boldness when someone tried to treat her in a manner less dignified than she deserved.

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
2 Samuel 13:7-14

How could she have seen it coming? Amnon was her brother. She had trusted him. Their father had trusted him, too. After all, he was the one who had sent her to take care of Amnon when he claimed to be so ill. She had been there out of compassion for her brother, out of submission to her father.

What could she have done differently? She had behaved as modestly and appropriately as she knew how. She had only gone into his bedroom when he asked because he seemed too weak to get up and eat. Even when he grabbed her and she realized what he intended to do, she had kept her wits about her and tried to reason with him not to do it. She had resisted such demeaning treatment of herself, fighting with all her bodily strength when her mental strength had proved inadequate. But at the end of the day, none of that had been enough. She had failed to stop him, and now she was ruined.

Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.
2 Samuel 13:15-18

Spoiled. Tarnished. Fundamentally altered. Despite her best efforts, completely against her will, her status had been changed. Her body was defiled. Her self was degraded. As a righteous woman, her soul recoiled from the idea of impurity and evil. And yet it had entered her, even if by force. It remained with her, long after the deed was done.

She was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.”
2 Samuel 13:18-19

Torn robes. Ash-smeared face. Loud weeping. Public ranting. Tamar’s external reactions were merely reflections of her internal reality. Her body had been treated as if it were shameful and worthless, and her soul had gotten the message. Marred and broken on the inside, she could hardly go back to the life she had known before and pretend like everything was fine. She couldn’t be silent and spare others the horrific details of what had happened to her. She couldn’t dress her body up or treat it as if it were deserving of honor. And she couldn’t smile and socialize with her family and the others who still belonged to the club of the spotless and good.

What would become of her? Who could love her anymore? How could she live with herself? Where could she ever get rid of her disgrace?

And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.
2 Samuel 13:20

These are the heart-rending questions that any sexually exploited person, Christian or not, is left to grapple with. Simple answers and quick fixes won’t make them go away. Surface remedies only drive the issues deeper underground, stranding abuse survivors alone in their struggle. Tamar needed to be allowed to express her anguish, to lament what she had lost, to enact her body’s debasement, to hide in self-imposed exile, and to wrestle towards true resolution. She and those of us like her need to be listened to, not silenced; protected, not pushed; accepted, not conformed; and loved, not turned away.

What Are We Waiting For?

Most days, the city streets of our former home in South Asia confronted me with a sharp awareness of the curse, a devastating reminder that God’s kingdom has not yet fully come. Naked, malnourished children. Deformed cripples. Emaciated animals. Chaos and filth. Poverty and oppression. The vacant stares of hope-deprived women. The overworked bodies of desperate men. The sight of their suffering revolted me, overwhelmed me, and moved me to compassion, all at the same time.

And then there was the day when I stepped out into those same streets only to encounter an eerie silence, open clean spaces where the squatters and beggars normally overflowed, white straight lines where the trash and stray animals usually cluttered. All traces of mess, misery, and squalor had been swept away overnight, and the road had been prepared for a visiting dignitary. For that one day, the scene looked right. I could walk down the road without a jarring sense of the world being horribly wrong.

But what had become of all those people? Had their wounds been tended, their bodies fed, their families sheltered, their dignity restored? This quick-fix looked really good for a moment, but what difference did it make in the long run?

But you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion… He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. … “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:12-20

When I look back on the world of the Old Testament, I see devastating famines and wars, cruel oppression and slavery, hunger, sickness, homelessness, and death. And I see God’s hope-inspiring promises to come and turn the curse on its head, to bring His kingdom in all its beauty and “rightness.” The pleas of the destitute would be heard and responded to. The plight of the suffering would be noticed and made right.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:18-21

With the coming of Jesus, I see God’s fulfillment of so many of those promises. He didn’t send out a brute squad to clear the rabble off of the streets to prepare a nice, tidy way for the coming King. He walked into the middle of the mess Himself and got busy unraveling the curse, one need at a time. A blind man? Healed. A bereaved mother? Given back her son. A hungry crowd? Fed their dinner. A demonically oppressed man? Delivered. A shamed woman? Protected and honored.

Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
John 15:20

Despite Jesus’ extraordinary work to break the curse in so many areas, He lived a life of hunger, homelessness, and oppression, meeting His end prematurely in a violent, unjust death. His disciples suffered political oppression and physical ailments, relational tensions and poverty just as He did. And He promised all of us who want to follow Him that we can expect plenty more of the same.

The presence of God’s Spirit reverses the curse in our lives, flowing His life into us and bearing His fruit through us.

Today I look around me at the many people I know who are abused or bereaved, sorrowing and suffering, questioning and depressed, and I wonder where that kingdom is now. Was Jesus’ life among us just a blip on the long, unending horizon of human suffering? Was it just a temporary reversal of the curse, applicable only during the short time that the Dignitary was visiting our town? He finished His job and left, going home to His pristine throne room and glorious entourage. Are we on our own again, back to the normal of life in a messed up world?

Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. … Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.
Acts 3:2-7

But just before He left, Jesus promised His followers that He would be with them, that He would send His Spirit to continue His work among them. The presence of His Spirit would reverse the curse in their lives, flowing life into them and bearing fruit through them. And just after receiving that Spirit, a few of them walked the city streets and encountered a crippled beggar. What help did they have to offer? The message of redemption for his soul, but along with that, the power to break the curse on his body.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:35-37

Our streets are still messy, our bodies are still a shambles, our souls are still plagued with sorrow and doubt. But we have more than just hope for the life to come. We have the Spirit of God surging through us, transforming our spirits, renewing our minds, and even intervening in the curse on our physical world. Yes, we are waiting for that grand, all-encompassing day when everything will be made new. But in the meantime, the Spirit of our King is empowering us to face down trial after trial, caring for one need at a time, until His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven.

Blessed?

“And what about you—tell me about your children?” This standard getting-to-know-you line fell flat on its face yesterday as I chatted with a woman sitting next to me at the lunch table. All around us women were enjoying the venue of a pastor’s wives conference to talk about their joys and struggles in family and ministry, but this vivacious woman, ministering in conflict-hardened Belfast, had no children to speak of. Her face fell as she spoke frankly about the deep grief of infertility, about how she has mourned the loss of being the fruitful woman she was created to be. And yet despite this gaping hole in her life, this woman considers herself blessed.

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. … Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Psalm 127:3-5

Listening to her painful musings on living between the curse and the kingdom took me back to a season in my own life when the grim realities of life left me cynical and questioning towards the glorious promises of Scripture. I had always cherished the Psalms that spoke of the blessings that God pours out on those who love Him: long life, success in their work, good reputation, lots of kids, established home, and all that.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD.
Psalm 128:1-4

These happy descriptions fit perfectly with my own picture of what it looked like to be blessed by God. But the further I got into life, the more of a mockery that ideal became. When I looked around me at those who were wholeheartedly pursuing the kingdom of God, so many of their lives were full of anything but safety, security, and prosperity. Their children died of cancer, their husbands lost their jobs, their wives miscarried, their finances diminished, their health declined, their ministries failed. How could I reconcile the picture I witnessed before me with the picture described for me in the Psalms?

Our suffering now is part of our glory then.

I finally reached the point where I stopped reading the Psalms. It hurt too much to read about that fruitful woman, flourishing and happy as she placed yet another infant into the delighted arms of a proud father. My motivation in following God was not all the perks that came with the deal—I loved Him for His own sake—and yet His promises had taught me to expect more. His Word raised my hopes; my experience dashed them. As I wrestled with God over this, I began to suspect that my picture of “blessing” was missing something.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3-10
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.
1 Peter 3:14

I began to search the New Testament for the way it described blessing, but each time I encountered the word it was paired with descriptions of suffering and difficulty. How could failure and frustration, tears and infertility count as blessing? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? And yet Jesus’ teaching was clear. In His coming kingdom, those who have it hard in this life are first in line for the good things of the life to come. And this doesn’t just mean those who have chosen to give things up for God. It covers those who have suffered under poverty, injustice, or any source of sorrow that is “not the way it is supposed to be.” In one of God’s predictably grand reversals, those who endure the effects of the curse now will be proportionately blessed then.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18, 22-23

Does that dry the tears of those who mourn or lessen the pain of those who struggle? Not at all. But it does give hope for what will come in the future and new significance to what we are experiencing now. In a way, our suffering now is part of our glory then. It is a critical part of the birthing process that all of creation is groaning under. We cry out, waiting for our bodies to be redeemed from this wretched curse, assured that they eventually will be, but struggling through the messy process nonetheless.

As I wrapped up my conversation with the woman at the lunch table, we shared in a moment of joyful celebration over the coming kingdom of God and the specific joys that it will bring us. We affirmed to each other how our earthly struggles have heightened our motivation to labor for the coming of that kingdom. And we parted ways, all the more certain of the truth that we are blessed.

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. …
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1, 17

Give Us a Break!

My sister-in law found out last week that the baby girl she is carrying has a significant heart problem. For the next several months, she will constantly face the excruciating question: will the life that she is nourishing within flourish and grow or will it wither and die?

My friend just lost her baby. This isn’t the first time she has gone through this, but it will be the last. Along with her baby, she just lost her uterus, too.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

How do I pray about all this? My heart is crushed with grief for these precious women. They have endured so much loss, so much disappointment, and now my friend’s hopes of bearing a child are dashed forever. How can I call her to hope in God when I myself feel that He has been too severe with her? And yet where else can I turn but to the One who gave birth to the world and everything in it, who holds her children, her body, and her future in His hands?

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:3-6

At times like this He seems so harsh, so distant and uncaring. We feel like helpless peons, tossed about in a cruel world where blossoming infants are suddenly blighted and our ability to bear fruit is abruptly cut off. Did He not call us to be fruitful and multiply? Does He not raise our expectations with talk about blessing His people with children: making them fruitful vines, filling the barren woman’s arms, and all that? And yet another infant has perished under His watchful gaze; another godly woman lies bereft of her fruit-bearing capacity.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. … their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. …
Psalm 90:7-11

Is God angry with us? Is this suffering simply the product of a sinful, cursed world in which life is cut short and the days we do have are filled with sorrow and hardship? If that is all we have to look forward to, then our lives are reduced to a desperate act of survival. If God truly is that aloof and indifferent, then we have no hope at all.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

But life can’t really be that bleak. God can’t really be that unloving. There has to be more to the story than I can see at this moment. So, as Moses did before me, I turn to God and ask Him to show me the big picture. What are our lives really about? What cause do we have to keep hoping, to keep persevering through the pain and pressing on towards the future?

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
Psalm 90:13-16

Give us a break, Lord! We can’t go on like this much longer. Show us some mercy. Apart from you, we will wither and die. We can’t bear another day imprisoned under these steel skies. Break through the dark clouds that swirl around us and let us see your beauty, your goodness, your love. We are your weak, grieving people. Come and comfort us. Reassure us with your smile. Touch us with your tender hand. Give us a reason to be happy again. Show us those wonderful ways that you intervene on behalf of your servants. Give us a sign of your goodness. We want to believe, help us in our unbelief.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days… my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Isaiah 65:17, 19-20, 22-23

Once again, my soul settles on the reality which Moses died believing but never seeing. Two thousand years later, a baby survived some rough birthing circumstances only to later have the breath of life crushed from His lungs. His resurrection is God’s response to the prayers of anguished sufferers past and present. It broke the curse under which we writhe. It relocates our hope to the new creation, where the curse will be finally and fully undone. Our fruitfulness will be restored. Our babies will live. Our God will be with us. Our joy will be full.

Seven years ago today, I watched as a team of blood-spattered doctors raced the clock to rescue the tiny infant from my own failing body. Hours later, I awoke from the anesthesia, wondering if she had joined the four others who had gone before her. My womb was gone, and with it my fruitfulness as a woman. But in God’s incredible kindness, He spared me my Anastasia, my little “resurrection.” Today, I hold her sturdy, growing body and bury my face in her soft, warm skin. She is my living, breathing reminder of the power of His resurrection, a tangible sign of His goodness in the here and now.

Lord, fill the empty arms of those who mourn. Create anew the bodies of those who are at-risk. Restore the fruitfulness of our bodies, our work, our lives.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.
Psalm 90:17

Delivered!

“I think that God is telling me to go back.” My heart sank as I listened to my friend talk about returning to life with her abusive husband. She had endured so much at his hands that the thought of her going back into that situation made me feel sick. Surely it wasn’t God’s voice she was hearing. It must be the voice of her own damaged identity telling her that she wasn’t worth any better, convincing her that God would be more pleased with her if she sacrificed herself to “help” her husband. But despite my stated concerns and strong conviction that she had every biblical right to leave, she remained unshakably certain. This was what God was asking her to do.

God was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her freedom.

I wanted to keep trying to talk her out of it, to claim that God would never send someone back into such a harmful situation, but who was I to say what God was or was not asking of her? Had He not met Hagar running away and told her to go back to her abusive mistress? And yet along with that terrifying directive He had also given her assurances of His ongoing presence and care for her. He was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her good.

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.
Genesis 16:9-11

Hagar believed God. She reached out and took His hand as He led her back to Abraham and Sarah. She submitted to them and served them for at least another fifteen years. She gave birth to the child they had forced on her, and gave him the special name God had given her in advance. Ishmael became her constant reminder that “God hears,” that God was watching over her and she was not alone. But God was not content to leave her in that precarious situation. He was at work to bring about her deliverance in a way she never would have chosen.

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10

The day came when Hagar’s worst nightmare came true. Jealous for her little Isaac to be Abraham’s only delight and heir, Sarah insisted that Abraham divorce Hagar. Never mind Hagar’s rights as a concubine, never mind the fate of a homeless woman and child wandering alone in the desert. Sarah just wanted them gone, erased from her family picture.

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you… Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
Genesis 21:11-14

Abraham was not so quick to reach the same conclusion. He felt trapped between honoring his wife and doing right by her maid, his concubine. But God intervened and nudged him in the direction of going along with his wife’s wishes. He got up early the next morning, packed Hagar up with enough provisions to get her started on her journey, and sent her off with nothing to her name but her son.

Devastated. Where could she go for food and housing? Abraham’s home had not exactly been a paradise for her, but at least there she and her child had steady provision and secure shelter. What would become of her precious child without a father? Maybe theirs had not been an ideal family situation, but at least before Ishmael had the identity and hope of an inheritance as Abraham’s son. To whom did she now belong? Hagar was riddled with fears. She had never made her own decisions. How could a life-long slave suddenly start being the master of her own life? She would not have chosen to walk away like this, but now it had been forced on her.

She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
Genesis 21:14-16

Scorching sun. Empty water bottle. Crying child. Panicking mother. Where was that cool refreshing stream this time? Where was the God who had met her there and promised a great future for her son?

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
Genesis 21:17-20

God was right there, just as He had been all along. He had given her this child and He had every plan to make sure that she was able to keep him. He had brought her safely through the fire of living in an abusive home, and now He had intervened to deliver her from it. She was not leaving as a runaway slave; she had been sent off as a free woman. She was not leaving alone; she had the future security and the current dignity of being the mother of a son, one whom everyone now recognized as the legitimate son of a well-reputed man.

This time when God addressed her, He did so by her own name. He acknowledged her identity as no longer the handmaiden of Sarah, but as Hagar, her own person. This was her independence day, and He was here to share it with her. Through her He would protect and provide for the child. Through her He would raise him up to become a mighty man. And through her He would establish a great nation.

The way God took care of Hagar gave me confidence to support my friend in her decision. I prayerfully held my breath to see what He would do for His trusting, devoted daughter. Many terrifying twists and turns later, she phoned me with the devastating news that her husband was divorcing her. The dreaded day finally came, and I sat praying in the attorney’s office waiting room as she signed the final papers. But my mourning turned to rejoicing as the realization dawned: this was her independence day. God had seen her misery and had intervened on her behalf. He was delivering her from the bonds of an abusive marriage, and He Himself would be her nurturing husband, a wise, tender father to her children. Together we wept and worshiped, mourned the past and celebrated the future. God’s goodness had prevailed. At last, she was free.

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.

Heard.

Shouting. Calling out. Trying to explain. Failing to be heard. There are times when I feel that I am living out one of those vivid nightmares in which I am trapped and calling out to friends and loved ones, but no one hears me. They are so close I can see their faces as they laugh and interact with each other, but nothing I do can get them to notice my desperate plight. Am I invisible to them? Don’t they hear my silent shouts for help? Despairing and worn out from the effort, I am tempted to withdraw into the background and resign myself to being helpless and alone in my misery.

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
Luke 18:35-43

Bartimaeus didn’t quit shouting. Blind, helpless, without an advocate, he sat at the fringe of the crowd calling out. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Who would stop and notice his plight? Who would bring his needs to Jesus? But the people who could have walked with him to healing stopped only to obstruct his efforts. Rebuked. His complaining was disturbing their peace. Silenced. If he kept voicing his needs, they might have to be inconvenienced or get emotionally involved. Despite the callousness of their responses, Bartimaeus refused to quit crying out to Jesus. He clung to the belief that God cared, that His earthly representative would listen and respond. And He did.

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.
Psalm 10:17

Several of you have written me personally about your own experiences of being trapped and alone in the middle of hardship and grief. I have felt honored that you would entrust me with your stories, the deep, unspeakable sorrows that leave you wounded and vulnerable. I feel, though, that your voices need to be heard by more ears than just mine. What you are suffering is real. It needs to be shared with others who feel like they are alone in similar circumstances. It also needs to be heard by those who want to understand but struggle to. With your permission, I have compiled some of your quotes for all of us to hear.

All these years I’ve felt alone in my physical and emotional anguish. I felt judged for questioning the platitudes of Christianese.

You have given words to things I have been feeling for years. Perhaps these few sentences explain why I no longer feel connected to “the church”… It was not “acceptable” to have the negative feelings I felt and so I stopped sharing those feelings with people who should have loved me through. Love did not compel them to acknowledge or share my emotional realities. I want to feel connected, but don’t have any idea where to start so I just wait…

It is just hurtful when the legitimate heart ache I feel is brushed aside as though it is nothing.
 I guess I find myself withdrawing from people mostly because I have been getting lots of cliches, “God’s got a plan,” type thing. True, yes, He does. I find people minimize the entire situation… “It could be worse.” I don’t really feel like going to church anymore… Is church a place of worship–or performance?

… ‘hurt’ with me…to feel the depth of my pain and not dismiss it as if it doesn’t exist or to have had enough of me/it if I don’t bounce back in a time frame that seems ‘reasonable’… A heart that loves deeply hurts deeply. If we can’t ache and suffer honestly with the body then who can we do it with?

The people who have made me feel most cared for in times of difficulty have been the ones who are willing to really listen, to find out how my heart is, not just the facts of the situation. Really walking with someone through a trial takes time, but we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to lean in and hear them, not rush off to the next thing. I think the Holy Spirit will prompt us as to who needs our care and when, if we are sensitive to His leading.

I think this…we have to WANT to show love in this way…a way that is foreign and uncomfortable to some…

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Healing Tears

My guts were spilled all over my friend’s lap. I had just admitted to her the full details of the horrific trial that I was still in the aftershocks of, details so deeply damaging that it had taken me a long time to admit them to myself. I hadn’t meant to say it all to her. My recent experiences with other friends had taught me to be afraid of being so open. Would she avert her eyes and change the subject? Would she try to convince me why it really wasn’t that bad? Would she deny my experience altogether or think of me as a lesser Christian because I continued to be so affected by it? Fear of further wounding made me want to withdraw from our friendship, but I just could not continue to bear this much pain on my own.

She wept.

As the tears spilled silently down her cheeks, all my carefully restrained emotions came bursting out. Up to this point I had walked around as if in a dream, carefully reporting the facts as if they had happened to someone else. I had been incapable of releasing the tidal wave of emotions that were crushing my spirit from within. My friend’s response informed my soul that it was finally safe. Her tears gave me permission to cry.

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 though it.”
John 11:3-4

Jesus comforted His friends in the same way. Mary and Martha’s world had been rocked by the sudden loss of their brother and all the stability, protection, and love that he had provided. Their minds where reeling with the shock; their hearts were broken by the truth. Lazarus was gone, permanently and finally gone. Jesus knew better, but He didn’t say so. He made room for their pain, listening tenderly to their agonized questions and engaging them in their sorrow. He did not repeat the line about God having a good plan, even though it was true. He did not interrupt their grieving process with a quick fix, even though He could.

He wept.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at this feet and said, “Lord, if you had ben here, my brother would not have died.”
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.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:32-36

Sincere, heart-broken tears, flowing down the face of God. The Almighty, weeping. Why? Because those He loved were weeping. Because He is not the kind of friend who stands far off, afraid to be affected by our pain. Because what His friends needed right then was compassion, not answers or solutions. Jesus’ tears communicated His love in a way no words or miracles could. This time, Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus cries for us for when can’t cry for ourselves. His plans for our suffering and His power to overcome it don’t preclude His tears for us in the midst of it. For some reason I have yet to understand, He values the process of our grieving too much to resolve it prematurely. When we weep with those who weep, we enter into their pain the same way God enters into ours. Our tears offer a healing balm, the tangible evidence of God’s compassionate love.

He bore our grief and carried our sorrows. Isaiah 53:4