Sunday, August 17, 2014

God Meets us in our Deepest Pain

"He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from who men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not."
Isaiah 53:3

The recent death of Robin Williams touched my heart deeply because he was able to touch our human hearts at a deep level with both laughter and tears. He always presented himself as a kind and decent person in interviews that he granted in the midst of the crazy Hollywood culture. The death of someone so well known triggers grief in each of us even though we didn't have a personal relationship with him and that is OK. Because his death was classified as suicide, the grief is more complicated, leaving us with all sorts of questions and all sorts of judgments.

As saddened as I was by his death, I was more impacted by the responses of believers who blogged expressing thoughts and opinions. Some of the blog posts were full of compassion and hope as was Ann Voskamp's. Her blog gave me a lot to think about, brought up parts of my own story I hadn't thought about in a while. She talked about things I too had experienced within the church and I was sad that she had experienced those, too. It was a good sadness because it reminded me of how to respond in a godly way to hurting people.

Others bloggers, like Matt Walsh, wrote posts about William's death that made me cringe and grieved my heart. Ironically, it is because he reminded me of the same things Ann had. The difference was that Ann pointed out those things from her personal experience and she imparted hope and a challenge to love as Jesus loves. Matt wrote from a critical perspective that sounded judgmental and shaming, which didn't offer hope and my fear is that it will silence those who are hurting and don't want to be judged.

I became deeply acquainted with depression after the birth of my third child. The pregnancy was tough because a man broke into our home in the middle of the night. I woke up with him touching my night clothes. Even though my husband woke up and the man ran, it did trigger PTSD which kept me from sleeping through the rest of the pregnancy. If I did fall asleep, I would awaken my two preschoolers and my husband by screaming when I was dreaming or having flashbacks of traumas I previously experienced. During the day, when one of my little ones approached me from behind, I would screamed in terror instead of turning and sweeping them up playfully in my arms. We sold that home and moved right before the baby was born. I was excited and thought the move would solve everything. But the fear I felt wasn't a fear of a certain place, it was a fear of being unsafe in my own skin.

After the baby was born, my husband was studying at the college and I walked into our home and put the kids to bed after church one night and I sat down and started crying and couldn't stop. I was confused and kept telling myself I had everything I wanted--a relationship with God, a great husband, three beautiful children, a new home, and yet somehow I couldn't shake the dark feeling of dread and fear I lived with for several years.

I visited the church library at one point and found a book called Happiness is a Choice.  A few things  helped a little, but try as hard as I could, I couldn't resolve the darkness I experienced and felt even more ashamed because I even failed at choosing happiness. After another pregnancy, I told two doctors and one corrected nutritional deficiencies and one corrected a minor thyroid problem which helped a lot. I also began to run, boosting my brain chemistry and felt hopeful. God also put some key people in my life that listened to me and encouraged me as a mom, a believer, and gave me the gifts of friendship and fellowship centered around God.

After the birth of another child and two moves across the country, I went through another season of pain and darkness I thought would never end. No amount of trying to choose happiness worked. I tried to silence dark thoughts and I functioned, but I hurt down to the deepest parts of my soul. In addition to the depression I was experiencing broken relationships, two things I thought Christians weren't supposed to have. I struggled with an eating disorder in which I bounced back and forth from anorexia to obesity and back again and the thoughts were as dark as the self-loathing was deep. I believed my family would be better off without me and construed plans that would lessen their pain. One wise friend I confided in told me honestly he didn't know how to help me, but believed God wanted to help me through counseling. After a couple of years of wrestling with the shame attached to going to counseling, I did seek it. I began to find some relief and hope in the office of Christian counselors. Sadly, I heard many negative comments about believers who sought counseling from Christian leaders. I even had one person shove a Bible in my face and tell me if I spent more time in it I wouldn't have depression or an eating disorder. I was reading, praying, and attending church. I was hurting and wondering why this God thing seemed to work for everyone but me. I hated the fact that as I woke up day after day, pleading God to either heal me or take me home. I hated that I could love another and care about them so deeply, while the loathing of myself was destroying my heart.

I want to make it clear that even though I had some bad experiences during the dark time, I did have some people in my life who were believers who spent hours encouraging me in the work I was doing with counselors. Some may have wanted me to get done quicker, but others were patient and understood depressed wounded people are suffering and their minds move slowly. I didn't choose to be happy anymore, but I did choose to quit trying to please the critics and allowed the healing process to be what it was--slow steps and tiny victories overshadowed by slips and grief. I chose therapists that understood I believed Jesus was the healer and I chose to dive in and work hard, because I knew for me it was a matter of life or death.

The counseling office was the first place I shared the hurts of the past that drove my disorder as well as the hurts I was presently experiencing. I expected to hear the Christian admonition to forgive, but what I experienced was compassion and having someone enter the trenches and cry with me, get angry over the sin perpetrated against me, and then rejoice with me as I began to move forward. I had the gift of someone who listened to the words I needed to say to get well and someone who made it safe to cry tears I needed to cry.

I also learned the difference in being self-centered and self-aware so I can take care of myself and love others in healthier ways. I learned to confront in godly ways so I didn't live as a human doormat. I learned to forgive from my heart, acknowledging events, pain, and grief rather than living in denial and stuffing pain.

I was encouraged to spend time in the Word especially Psalms so I could learn to express emotions and thoughts to God in the way the man after God's own heart did. I filled journals with letters I wrote to God, processing traumatic events and painful emotions as well as the goodness of God. I also chose to spend a time studying the names and characteristics of God and found that some of those names were ascribed to Him by hurting people just like me. I began to explore in minute detail the gospels and gained glimpses of how Jesus talked to people and how He treated them. He never shamed broken people, but He confronted harshly those who thought they weren't. I learned that He experienced and expressed all the same emotions I felt, but stuffed. I came to realize that unbelief isn't just not believing what the Word says about God, it is also not believing what God says about me.

During the time of counseling I wasn't shamed for my concerns, but taught to cast my cares upon God by naming them to Him rather than pretending they didn't exist. I learned that the person who told me tears were a sign of weakness was wrong and herself deceived. I learned that I could face the past and that God was big enough to heal it and to hear my questions, thoughts, and emotions about it. I learned all emotions are God-given and serve as a good indicator that I am alive. I learned to read the messages the emotions tell me and to manage them. I found a courage in the midst of my fear that I didn't know I had.

I've said all of that to say, I am deeply saddened when someone takes their own life. I understand first hand  the desire to end the dark feelings of hopelessness, despair, and shame. I understand the desire to end the pain I believed would never end. I feel sad that people have written things in the Christian community that is so judgmental. I believe God is the author of life, but also believe there is a huge difference in being sad for a few days or grieving for a season and in suffering clinical depression that is debilitating and clouds one's perceptions and decisions making processes in the same way drugs or alcohol can. I believe it is only by the grace of God that I didn't take my life. I know some have sought every kind of help possible and didn't make it. Rather than judging them I will simply acknowledge that I don't know why. I refuse to judge the validity of another's salvation, another's strength or lack there of, or another's character at a time like this.

I want you to know I found great joy and purpose in doing the work I did to overcome depression and trauma. While, I will never be like someone who hasn't had those experiences, I have found in facing the pain of those experiences I have had the joy of seeing God intricately involved in my journey and experienced first hand His comfort. I have experienced His strength in my weakest moments. I have experienced the truth of His Word taking form in my heart through the wrestling I've done with God.

Most importantly, as I read through the Gospels I realized Jesus experienced every emotion I have felt, even sorrowing unto the point of feeling He would die from it. He was abused, lied about, misunderstood, falsely accused, hated, rejected, and yet He loved and He obeyed God by taking on my sin. I began to find solace in the truth that the Savior I had embraced so long ago was a traumatized Savior, a man troubled deeply by sorrow. The scene of Him in the garden shows He understood the struggle, the sorrow, the aloneness, and even the despair. The scene also taught me to hang on to God knowing that what looks bad is often the vehicle through which His goodness, grace, and mercy are delivered. As I came out of that dark season, I began to grasp the truth that my story as painful and ugly as it was at times is a beautiful story of redemption, restoration, and healing. Out of the ashes, He has given me a ministry of comforting other women who have been deeply wounded and I can say today, that the joy in watching precious ladies find Jesus in their pain is overwhelming and the privilege of seeing them leave our groups as women no longer defined by their pain and their pasts is indescribably rewarding.

I learned so many beautiful and powerful things about Christ from my dark season. I have come out of it finding profound joy. I think of the cross and what that must have looked like to the world. It grew dark, the ground shook, the Savior died, and the flock scattered. It looked like the end. But what they could not see at the time was that during the darkness, human sin was overcome by God's righteousness. Hatred was defeated by God's love, The Deceiver was silenced by the Truth. Death was overcome and the light shone through the darkness erasing every nook and cranny. I fear the  tendency we have as a church to judge those who take their own lives or who struggle will emotional pain will keep us from being transparent, compassionate, and loving. I fear it will keep us from being the hands and feet and voice of Jesus to those in pain. I fear it will leave us stuck in our miserable pride rather than foster humility.

I know when I find myself judging another I am experiencing fear, struggling with insecurity, avoiding pain, am uncomfortable with something or someone, or am trying to fit God into a box so He and His ways make sense and feels comfortable and safe to me. But to be honest, I want a God who is bigger than comfortable. I want a God who is bigger than my perception of safe. I want a God who refuses to be boxed in by my simple human mind. I hope we, as believers, use Williams' death to do some soul searching and heart correcting so we love as He loves. Maybe compassion and a willingness to understand the mind of someone in so much pain can teach us to love in tangible real ways and to speak God's hope into a heart filled with despair. Shame only causes their pain to be intensified and then buried deeper where it festers.

Thank you, Robin, for making me laugh and making me cry and making me think. Thank you for talking so transparently about your struggles. Your death and its circumstances deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion...its the least we can do for one who has impacted us in such profound ways.

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!