When Despair Creeps In

weaknessIf I am being completely honest and transparent with you, I’m struggling.  I’m wrestling with the mental affects of chronic pain.  Now, chronic pain can be labeled in different ways and is usually reserved for pain that has no real end in sight.  Hopefully, that is not the definition for me.

I have been dealing with some form of pain in my left shoulder for over a year.  It’s a very life-altering thing that has changed how I do life in significant ways.  I am hopeful that there is an end in sight as I am recovering from surgery performed one month ago tomorrow.  In light of that, I have hope for normalcy.

That being said, I’m still dealing with some significant pain.  I write that not for pity, but with a mind for those who are dealing with pain much more severe than mine and with little hope for relief in the near future.  I know something of the mental anguish that is involved with extensive physical pain.  I understand a little of the twinges of depression that try and creep in.  I feel the despair that lurks around the edge that maybe this will never go away. It’s very real.  It’s very challenging.

Any time we have challenges like this in our lives, it causes one or two things to happen.  One, we get angry.  We give into despair and begin a downward spiral of sadness, anger, rage and self-destruction.  In short, we run away from God.  We don’t understand why He would allow this in our lives.  We can’t get our minds around a loving God who would allow such suffering with no relief in a way no earthly father would, if he could stop it.  Yet, the suffering continues.

A second possible response sees things differently.  Though he hurts the same, he runs in a different direction.  He runs to the God of all comfort in the midst of pain.  He holds onto God’s promise that was made to Paul during his suffering: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul’s reply, appropriately, is, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10)

This second response is the one I am holding onto.  I understand that bad things that happen in my life are not for my punishment (that was taken care of by Christ on the cross).  Instead, as John Piper put it, they are for my purification.  I am made strong through suffering.  I am made more Christlike in tough times, because that is where I learn to rely on His strength rather than my own.  I feel weak.  I know God is strong.  That’s the glory of the Gospel…the glory of the cross.

I work my shoulder everyday.  I go to physical therapy faithfully.  I pray for healing regularly.  I believe it will come.  I am content, though, knowing that in my weakness, He WILL BE strong!

Hold on!

Who’s to Blame?

Ever wonder who’s to blame for all the junk in your life? When you sin, did the Devil make you do it?  When you stumble, is it because your parents didn’t teach you well enough?  Are you overweight because McDonald’s serves those dog-gone fries?  We’re great at assigning blame.  That’s nothing new, of course. Remember our first ancestors?  Adam: “It’s that woman you gave me. She gave me the fruit and I ate it.”  Uh, who ate it, Pal?  Eve: “It’s that blasted serpant’s fault!” (my paraphrase). So, it’s been happening from the beginning and we have continued the tradition right on through today.  

Here’s a thought to consider: What if God is the cause of much of the junk in your life?  Gasp!  “Heresy! Heresy!  This guy’s a heathen!” (or heathern if you’re from the South).  OK, I’m not talking about the sin, just the hard stuff…maybe even much of the stuff you blame the Devil for.

Consider a couple of passages of Scripture (you’ll have to read these on your own) where Job assigns the blame for his calamity squarely at the feet of God Himself:  Job 16:14 and Job 19: 6-12.  

Job is actually right in assuming that God ordained that these bad things to happen to him, but wrong in assuming that they are for his downfall.

Look at it like this: Satan is the agent through which Job’s challenges come, but God is the Sovereign…even when it is bad.

I am reminded again how even the bad that comes, for one who is in the favor of God, is not ultimately bad. As John Piper has said, for the one who has been redeemed by Christ, suffering is not punitive, it is purifying. What great encouragement!

In light of Christ, we can rejoice that “all things work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28),  All things are purifying. Job was purified through his suffering, in the end coming to see God more clearly than he had ever seen Him before…this time looking at God through humbled eyes.

I want to encourage you, when you are walking through the wilderness of despair because things just aren’t working out for you, before you start placing blame everywhere else, consider a couple of steps first:

1. Look in the mirror.  Is there something in you that needs to be dealt with (a character flaw that needs to be cured, a sin that needs to be killed, an attitude that needs to be adjusted)?  If so, lay that down in prayer. Ask Christ to minister to you in these areas.

2. Look to Christ. Is there something that He is wanting to do in your life to make you more like Him?  The refining fire is usually painful.  Did you get that?  It is usually painful.  In other words, what you are going through is not uncommon; you’re not the only one in the world dealing with this, so don’t fall victim to following the pity-party-path.  If you are being refined, it is a blessing!  You are not being left to your own depravity, but the Spirit of God is active in you.  Choose to celebrate this fact in the midst of your pain or discomfort.

3.  Share it.  Walking through refinement alone is sometimes necessary.  However, most of the time you have the opportunity to gain support from those around you, encouragement in the toughest parts, and people to celebrate with when you see the growth.  Often, it takes those on the outside of the “cloud” to point out to you just how much growth is actually occurring in you.  Take advantage of these gifts God has put in your life.

The bottom line is this: God is a good and sovereign God. Deal with this.  Understand that often what appears as evil in our lives is actually the grace of a holy God and the only way you are going to know the difference is by walking closely with Him in prayer.  

The real change in Job happened near the end of the story, when it was just Job and God in conversation.  Then again, that’s when real change always happens.

Reflections

contemplative_eyes

I was looking through some posts on my old blog and came across the one from two years ago (tomorrow) after a good friend of mine died suddenly.  The points I made then as I dealt with the loss seem very appropriate now in processing emotions and stress and considering “legacy”.  I thought I would re-post it here for whatever reason for anyone interested.  On the one hand, it’s uncomfortable exposing your insides, but in the end, it sure is helpful.

For Brad.

The Difficulty of Saying Goodbye to a Friend

October 3, 2007

A friend died last week. We were childhood friends, three days difference in our ages, both with two kids, our parents are best friends, and both thinking we had years ahead of us.

We haven’t seen each other in over twenty years, but kept up with each other through our parents. Strangely, sometimes it’s not until someone is gone that you realize how you wish you had done a better job keeping contact.

That’s the reason for the long delay in posting anything here. Well, partly. I was out of town attending his funeral much of last week, but I think the biggest reason is that I knew what I would have to write…for me, that is. I would have to write about this.

When I first found out about his sudden illness and quick death, I was, of course, shocked, but more than that I was simply hurting for his parents. I made the arrangements to go back home for the service, but didn’t really take the time to process. I knew it would be hard, but I think I kind of compartmentalized it as I am, oh, too good at doing.

Karen wisely decided to come with me (we had not planned on that initially), because I guess she had a hunch I would need her presence. She was right. She doesn’t feel like she did much, but she didn’t have to do anything but be there.

So, the day of visitation came which was the night before the funeral. I stood in line with, literally, the hundreds of others who came to pay their respects. When I finally made it to his parents, standing just before the beautiful, metallic silvery blue casket, it just came out. I couldn’t stop the tears. I managed to get “I love you” out to his dad, but not even that would come out as a clung to his mother. A kiss on the cheek was all I had to give.

Leaving the room, I quickly put it back in it’s little compartment, knowing it was not fully in and knowing it could not stay there. The next morning was the funeral where I was to be a pall bearer.

I sat in the service, listening to all the wonderful things being said about my friend…remembering back on our years together and knowing it was all true. Memories that had been long ago lost, I thought, came flooding back and we were kids again, traveling to Mississippi State games, camping down by the Strong River with our families, water skiing at the reservoir, playing blind-man’s bluff in his sister’s room, breaking out his sister’s window…playing blind-man’s bluff. The emotion rose to the surface again.

Since then, I’ve wondered a lot about “Legacy.” What will mine be? If the nice things are said about me, will they be true? If I die tomorrow, will it be said that mine was “a life well lived”? Will my kids know that I loved them? Really loved them?

Truly, life is, as Scripture says, merely a vapor. It is so fragile and tomorrow…even the next breath…is not promised. What are we doing with them?

I didn’t know the extent to which all of this had affected me until Monday. So much of this has been internalized without my really knowing it. That is, until the stress within became an expression. Strange how that happens. Within a matter of a couple of hours I had blown up at my wife and son and certainly convinced my staff that I’m a maniacal, paranoid freak.

OK, after all of the apologies, I began going through the process of dealing with the stress that was always under the surface following such a difficult week. The thing that I find most ironic is that as much as I have been dealing with leaving a good legacy and appreciating those around me and the time I have with them, the more I end up expressing the exact opposite of how I’m feeling. I love my wife and sons dearly…I appreciate my partners in ministry with which I work. I love the fact that God has blessed me with the opportunity to lead a warm and caring people. Yet over the past few days, the evidence of that has been sparse.

Bottom line…stress kills. It kills us physically by the affects it has on our bodies, but it also kills relationships when left unattended. I have realized that if I want to leave the same kind of legacy that my friend has, I have to manage the stress in my life and prioritize life in such a way that people around me are blessed and God is glorified.

I have been and continue now grieving for the void my friend’s death has left in the lives of his family. I mourn that he has a one year-old and a five year-old that will never really remember or know their father. I hate that, because of our similarities both in stature and attitude, my very presence will be a reminder to his parents of the absence in their own lives. All of this is mentally and emotionally tough. Yet I know that God is God…that His grace is sufficient for all of these concerns and that, because of His mercy, my friend has not been lost. He’s merely changed addresses…and based on that fact, his funeral was a celebration of life ongoing.

But it is still difficult saying goodbye to a friend.

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