When Your Heart Doesn’t Feel Glad

The focus of this blog is joy, gladness and thankfulness. The background is cheerful, the topics are often meant to leave you feeling a little bit better than when you started reading. But the fact is, sometimes life hurts. To be human is to experience pain. I see this everywhere, it seems. The sweet little baby suffering from an incurable, painful immune disease; the vibrant, lively school boy who is now in a rehab hospital recovering from being hit by a car while biking with friends; the young daughter of missionaries suddenly struck with a life-threatening disease that has caused her organs to shut down; the mother with painful joints that refuse to heal; the marriages that are barely hanging by a thread;  the newborn who underwent open heart surgery to repair a congenital defect at just 6 days old – my heart breaks for them. Why is there so much pain? Why are these good people suffering so much?

I find that I am wholly unsatisfied with the answer, “Because we live in a fallen world of sin.” My niece was not born with a heart condition because of sin. My friends did not lose their first child because of sin. Children don’t get hit by cars because the world is fallen. Fathers don’t lose their jobs because people are sinful. Don’t get me wrong – sin does cause pain. Always. But it is nonsense to say that all pain is simply the result of the fall of man. It’s just too simplistic. And it makes it cruel and meaningless. When we give sin in general as the cause of our common pain, we make God out to be unjust and unloving if he allows us to suffer simply because someone else made bad choices. Sin is cause, but it is not the cause.

Why, then, does God allow us to suffer? Even more, why does He sometimes seem to cause our suffering? Years ago in college I took a course on C. S. Lewis. While his Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia are perennial favorites, I often come back to one of his less-beloved works, The Problem of Pain.  I appreciate the way Lewis seems to think of every argument I’m going to raise, and addresses it before I can protest. While the book covers a lot of theological and philosophical ground, I find myself drawn to two specific sections, one on the goodness of God, and one on the problem of human suffering. While Lewis’ discussions on these topics can’t answer the specific why’s of each individual situation, they do provide a framework in which we can begin to answer the questions of our own pain. I want to share with you a selection of excerpts from The Problem of Pain, and offer a few of my own thoughts on them.

(All quotations taken from: Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (2001). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.)

The Goodness of God

“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people would formulate a theology in precisely those terms; but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds.” 

Do we not often find ourselves guilty of such thinking? Don’t we feel that if God loved us more, we would suffer less? The twin lie to this is that God gives greater blessings to those He loves more. I can’t think of anyone God loved more than Jesus Christ, but I also cannot think of anyone who suffered more pain than Christ.

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit…is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes.”

If you have been an artist, or a pet-owner, or a parent, or a spouse, you can begin to understand each of these kinds of love, perhaps even several. But you will never be able to understand what it is to have every one of those kinds of love directed toward the same object. God’s love for us is wholly incomprehensible.

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial menaing to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ [Revelation 4:11] We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. 

It is always good to be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, but how sweet a thought that we were created not just for God’s pleasure but so that He could love us. You and I were made to be loved. How amazing!

“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces…Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.”

God is not Santa, not a fairy-godfather, responsible for meeting our demands. His every action in our lives is enacted with the sole purpose of making us more like Him, more as He created us to be.

Human Pain

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

God doesn’t enjoy our pain, but He is well aware of its effectiveness in getting our attention.

“If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ ” 

This was made clearest to me when my dear friends lost their infant daughter. Though their pain was extensive and excruciating, from the moment they knew she was at risk they had held her with open hands and had kept their hands open once she was taken, fully trusting that God had something to give them and with which to bless them. You can read more about their story here.

“God, who has made us, knows what we are, and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us and take away the plausible source of false happiness. It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.”

“What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”

I have been truly amazed by the wonderful ways I have seen people, especially believers, rise to the occasion and support the suffering. Meals, transportation, listening, mourning with those who mourn, financial provision, childcare, taking over details, helping with daily living – so many go out of their way to ease others’ pain. God works to make us more like Him not only in our own pain, but in the pain of those around us.

“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God…Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” 

Oh, how we need this reminder that we are not home yet, that we have more waiting for us. Our present sufferings are nothing compared with the joy we will receive one day (Romans 8:18). I love what Lewis points out here: that though we have troubles now – real and painful trials – they are not the whole of our experience. God is so merciful to us, every moment of every day. Each flower blooming in spring, each leaf with its own autumn color, every kind word from friend or stranger, each moment of rest…They are like springs of water to our dry, weary souls.

Why Me?

I don’t know what your pain is right now. I don’t know exactly what it is that God wants to say to you or give to you. I have a hard enough time understanding what He is doing in my own trials and sufferings. But I am sure of this, friends, that every trial, every pain is purposed to make you more Christ-like, more obedient, and more sure of God’s love for you. It is not calculated destroy you, or to separate you from your Heavenly Father. Even though He may be allowing or even causing your suffering (for His own perfect and good purposes in you) He is ready and waiting to comfort you, to reassure you of His unwavering love for you. Even in your deepest sorrow or most searing pain, you are not alone or abandoned.

How has God used pain to get your attention? How has He blessed you in your suffering? Feel free to make this a place to share your sorrows and your joys!

 

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Dead or Alive?

Welcome!

I have something important to share with you today. Just keep in mind that I said “important,” not “fun.” You’ve noticed that I’ve been digging into the New Testament book of James lately. Of all the New Testament books, it is the one I find most challenging and practical. I want you know that any time I share a challenge like what I’m about to share, it is something I am working through as well. I’m right there with you, not up on a mountaintop shouting down at you.

Think back to our last talk about James. What did he say made our religion or faith “pure and lasting”? Right,  caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Good job! If you were sitting here with me, I’d give you a big gold star 🙂 Let’s move on now, and see how James cautions us against developing a worthless, lifeless faith.

I love James because He always seems to address the very thing I need to work on. If you are familiar with James, you know that he is big on telling us how our words can affect others. If you’re not familiar with him, check out James 3. In James 1:26 he tells us that neglecting to control what we say can make our faith or religion dead and worthless.  James says that everything we say should be governed by the law of love, meaning it does no harm to anyone. That’s pretty hard, isn’t it? I know that I am becoming much more aware of the effect my words have on other. If we don’t control what we say, our faith is worthless. Trash. Burn it up, and throw it away. Put it out on the curb. That’s not the kind of religion I want. You?

Do you have a problem controlling the words that come out of your mouth? Maybe you are really good about not swearing, but do you gossip? You might not use profanities, but do you yell at your children? You may be really good at biting back snarky comments towards your coworkers, but do you constantly criticize your spouse? Governing our words by the law of love means that we control the content and the tone of what we say – to everyone. We say those things that build others up, not tear them down. Yes, you’ll have to correct your children, you’ll disagree with your spouse. It is inevitable, and it is right. But when you do, before you speak, consider how the words and tone you are choosing will affect your target.

There’s another trap waiting here. Are you, like many of us, really good at controlling what comes out of your mouth, but inside you snarl and nag and belittle? If you are, you have probably realized that you can only keep those things inside for so long. You can keep the harsh thoughts about your boss, the frustrations with your relatives, the self-condemning to yourself for a while, but eventually they are going to burst out, and not necessarily at the object of their wrath. You may find yourself yelling at your kids, when really you’re angry about the person in your office who keeps stealing the credit (and the snacks). How to change this? Two things: First, make sure you have a person or two in your life that you can share some of those real frustrations and disappointments with – before they get to the explosive stage. Second, ask God to change your heart. Ask Him to clear away the angry, critical or judgmental nature you have. This is critical, because eventually, whatever is in our hearts comes out of our mouths.

 

Oh, but you say, “I don’t want religion, I just want to have faith.” Okay, let’s look at that. Growing up in Evangelical circles, a common catchphrase was, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship [with God].” Well, sure, as a Christian, I am convinced that my belief in Jesus allows me to have a relationship with God that people in other religions do not have. But I still am pretty sure I have a religion. I have a set of beliefs in a specific deity and reality that I am devoted to, and I show my devotion through a common set of traditional actions. Sounds like religion to me.

Outside of Christianity, there are also a vast number of people, especially today, that do not want to be part of “religion”. Can’t say that I blame them all that much. Much of the really awful stuff of the past, well, forever, has been at least sponsored and condoned, if not outright instigated by those who claim to be part of “religion”. I don’t want any part of that either. But just as I don’t want to give up being a human because there are so many evil people in history, I’m not going to give up on real religion just because it has been misused in the past.

I think another reason that I like James is that he is blunt. You never have to say to yourself, I wonder what he really means? So today, James tells us that if we have faith that is not coupled with good deeds or loving actions, then our faith is dead and worthless.  Did you get that? Was he in any way vague? I didn’t think so. If you’re feeling like a little extra-credit work here, go read James 2:14-18. Wow. If you need to read it two or three more times, I can understand.

James doesn’t pull any punches. You have to have faith and good deeds, or else you don’t have either. A lot of people don’t like to go there. It’s too sticky of a question, too difficult of a balancing act between salvation by faith or by works. Well, the great news for us is that James isn’t “other people”. And he definitely “goes there”. The way he says it, he doesn’t seem to think that it is a balancing act at all. It’s like having two feet to walk. If you have a left foot, but not a right, you wouldn’t argue that you can walk just fine. You have to have faith and loving actions, or else you are going to be stumbling around.

I happen to live in a town that has a lot of New Age and Buddhist influences. Nearly every street has houses or shops with Buddhist prayer flag garlands hanging on the porch or in a window. We have more yoga classes per capita that anywhere I’ve ever lived. And yet, what many of these people have is “faith” that somehow, someday if they recite enough mantras or positive thoughts or prayers to a universal spirit, things will all work out. That can be pretty unsatisfying when life hits really hard. It’s okay when you’re stressed about work, but when your child dies, or when your husband leaves you, you need a faith, a religion, that is real and alive, not dead and worthless.

So how do we have that living, breathing, active faith? Well, let’s review. In our previous talk about James, we saw that “pure and lasting” religion means caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Today we saw that worthwhile religion means taking control of how we use our words, letting them be ruled by the law of love, which means that our words can do no harm to others. And finally, we saw that living, active faith is characterized by a life of actions that do good for others. It’s like a big circle, the ultimate recycling symbol. Loving Words -> Loving Actions -> Living Faith. And back around.

 

 

Spread a Little Hope, Part 2: Orphans and Widows

Greetings, Reader! We are going to talk today about a specific area in which you can spread hope to the world around you. If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, go check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you… Alright, got it? Good, now we can move on.

So, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot lately. Even if you don’t, stick with me, because I think you will agree with what it has to say here. The specific book I’ve been focused on is the book of James, which is historically accepted as being written by the brother of Jesus. I mention that to point out that he would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, who is recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as having quite a bit to say regarding the right way to treat other people (He was pretty big on caring for “the least” among us). Here’s what James has to say: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles.” Other translators have used the words “undefiled” and “unblemished” instead of “lasting”. Let’s focus in on what the author is saying here. He’s assuming that there are kinds of religion, and a multitude of ways that people express their religion. James makes the unequivocal statement that none of those things matter if they don’t put a high priority on caring for the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I think we can all agree that a lot of religion has historically been defiled and blemished by its adherents. Crusades, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, forced conversions…the list could go on and on.

Why do religious people get caught up in defiling their religion? Because they have lost the focus of what “pure and lasting religion” is really about. It is not about power, it is not about mandating any form of belief or behavior, it is not about earning a better place in heaven. It’s about love. Jesus, that famous brother of James, put it pretty clearly: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. And I can’t think of a single religion or a belief system that would disagree, except for perhaps Utilitarianism, which is not real popular… Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a universal moral imperative. We innately know that it is the right thing. And yet, we often do a pretty abysmal job of following this imperative.

Not that we don’t want to do it. Organizations and movements which at the very least claim to help the “orphan and widow” abound. Many of us are content to let them do the actual work, while we send them some money. Isn’t it nice that we can help out these “poor folks” without ever having to interact with them? (Note the sarcasm.) Our governments are also have a finger in the pie. With this being an election year, we are going to continue hearing a lot of very strong opinions as to how much the government can and should be doing to help the “least of these” in our society. There are some valid reasons to be having that debate, but that’s really not what I’m concerned with. Because the imperative we’re talking about today didn’t say anything about pure and undefiled government (as if!) being characterized by caring for the financially and socially downcast. It was about religion, and religion is about people. James (and Jesus) mean us. I see you there, looking at the person next to you. Cut it out. I mean you. You need to be caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure, it’s not what you were planning on when you got up this morning, but it’s where we’re headed now.

Still with me? Good. Let’s make this practical. So you don’t have an orphanage right down the street from you?No streetchildren wandering in front of the bus stop on your way to work today? Sorry, you’re not off the hook just like that. The fact is, there are orphans and widows in your town, and there are lots of ways to find them. Community services centers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and a whole variety of non-profits in your community can all direct you to those in need.

But even more than just looking for the actual orphans and widows around us, let’s think about what James really meant by calling our attention to those two specific groups of people. In the first century, your position in society was tied to the position of the men in your family. Your father, your husband – they determined where you stood in the eyes of the community. So to be without that father or husband practically meant that you had no place in society. You were totally at the mercy of others. Often, those others didn’t feel very compelled to care for you. They had enough to do to take care of themselves, or so they thought. James said this wasn’t the case. Not only did people have the ability to care for others, they had no choice – he says we “must” care for the orphans and widows.

In our society today, there is a much wider variety of people who are what we might call financially disadvantaged or socially oppressed. Race, geography, education, religion and politics are all contributing factors. All of those factors need to be addressed. But that’s not the imperative we are talking about here. What did James say? He said we much care for the oppressed “in their troubles”. Not in the socio-historical background of their troubles. Not in the generational cycle of their troubles. He said in their troubles. Where they are right now. The care we are to give is immediate, obvious, and effective.

What does this mean for us? It means giving up our free evening and babysitting to give a single parent a night off to have fun or pursue a hobby or work on his or her degree. It means mentoring children who do not have adequate parental involvement. It means sitting and listening to a friend who has just lost her husband for hours even if you have other things that “should” be done.  It means welcoming a refugee or immigrant and making them feel like a part of the community. It means visiting the elderly lady on your block that hardly ever gets out of her house. It means loving and helping those around you without expecting to get anything in return.

Trust me, Reader, in writing this I was just as challenged as you are right now. I know I’m not anywhere near close to perfect. But I’m trying. Because when I come to my last days, I want to have been part of something pure and lasting.

Peace Be With You

Spread a Little Hope, Part 1

Greetings, Reader! Today I’d like to inspire you. The more I see of the world, the more it strikes me that there are so many people living without hope. None of us are immune to pain or disappointment. At times I am overwhelmed by the amount of suffering compared with my ability to ease that suffering. There are so many types of suffering, and we are so constantly bombarded with requests for help in the form of money or volunteer hours, that we quickly begin to feel guilty. So what is a person to do? How are you to do real good, rather than just wishing that you could? As I always say, there is a better way.

Here’s what you need:

  • A compassionate heart
  • A desire to make a difference
  • Time
  • Generosity with whatever resources you have

Here’s what you do:

  • Think through the many types of pain and suffering around you. Focus in on the one or two that really move your heart.
  • Look for established organizations in your community that serve in the areas that you care most about.
  • Make a list of your talents and resources. If you are not very creative, offer up those talents and resources to the organizations you have found, and let them place you where they can best use you. If you are creative, however, you may spend some time thinking of your own ways to meet the needs in your area.
  • If there is no group or organization in your area meeting the needs of the people you would like to help, use your connections and social networks to find others in your community who share the same passions as you, and pool your talents and resources.
  • Get your family involved. Serving others together is an excellent way to strengthen your relationship with your spouse or significant other. Children are very enthusiastic about helping others, and there is no better time to develop a generous and compassionate spirit than childhood.

I hope that you will be inspired to find your own niche where you can do the good that you were made for.  In the future, be looking for ideas on more specific ways to Spread a Little Hope.

Peace Be With You