Where is God in suffering, anxiety, and depression?

My good friend and brother-in-ministry Aaron Cho is one of the pastors at Quest Church in Seattle. He preached this weekend from the book of Job on suffering and delivered such a powerful word that I’m leaving it here for you.

Meanwhile, at The District Church this last Sunday, Aaron Graham (our lead pastor) preached on “Overwhelmed: The Fight Against Anxiety and Depression.” Too often our churches don’t know how to address mental illness — but we have to bring it out in the open and disarm it of its power. You can listen to that podcast here.

Overwhelmed

God is good: the comfort of goodness

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Trusting in the Goodness of God.” Part 2; part 1 here.]

Nahum 1:7 says:

The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;

he protects those who take refuge in him.

God is good, and the Bible makes it clear that to those who are turning their backs on him, this goodness is manifested in challenge and in judgment (see yesterday’s piece: “Part 1”). But what the Bible makes even more clear is that God’s goodness means he will be present:

  • to those in need of help who call on him, God is good and he will rescue;
  • to those in trouble who put their trust in him, God is good and will be a place of safety;
  • to those in the midst of trial and difficulty and suffering and struggle who cry out to him, God is good and he will be with them.

We see this in the psalms:

  • Psalm 31:19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
  • Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We see this in the story of Joseph in Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers and thrown into jail for not sleeping with his master’s wife. He trusted in God, and the Bible tells us, “The Lord was with him.” And toward the end of his story, he’s able to look back and say to the same brothers who sold him into slavery, the brothers whom he has forgiven and with whom he has made peace: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

We see this in the story of Paul, the man whose life God turned around. For the sake of the gospel, to share the good news of life in Jesus, Paul endured shipwrecks and beatings, stonings and starvings, trials and tribulations. And in spite of all that, he was able to say, We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

We see this most clearly in the life of Jesus, who is called Emmanuel (which means “God with us”): on paper, a plan to rescue the world by giving up your life doesn’t make sense. And yet, Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Sometimes we can fall into a mindset that says that God is good only when I’m good—in other words, God’s goodness (how good he is) is must always be reflected in the goodness of our lives (how well things are going for us). But if God is good only if things go well for me, what happens when things stop going well for me? What happens when things get difficult? What happens if I suffer? It’s common to wonder if God can be good because of how things are going in your own life:

  • wondering if your kid turned away from you or from God because you didn’t pray hard enough,
  • wondering if your loved one didn’t beat cancer because you didn’t believe hard enough.

And, in some ways, this is understandable because we think God’s goodness must translate itself into God’s goodness to us, God’s blessings on us. We have the mindset that something must be true at all times for us in order to be true at all; we can be a rather self-centered and short-sighted people sometimes!

This understanding of God’s goodness is entirely dependent on good circumstances, and specifically on your good circumstances, rather than any objective truth. And if God is good only if things go well for me, not only is the goodness of God dependent on your circumstances—which may change from day to day—it is, even more than that, dependent on your feelings—which may change from moment to moment! Take a Sunday morning as an example:

  • You didn’t sleep well so you woke up grumpy—God is not good.
  • But your husband or your roommate had a pot of coffee ready and maybe even some breakfast—God is good.
  • But they left a mess in the sink—God is not good.
  • You still got everyone, kids included, out of the house on time—God is good.
  • Delays on the Metro, couldn’t find parking—God is not good.
  • You still managed to get to church on time … ish—God is good.
  • The coffee wasn’t great, you hated that last song, the pastor is wearing that shirt you don’t really like—God is not good.

That’s how quickly our feelings and our circumstances can change, right? And if we’re honest, that can be how quickly our perception of God’s goodness can change. Because of our circumstances, because of how we’re feeling, it can be really hard for us to say, “God is good.”

But that doesn’t make it any less true. There are some things that hold true no matter how we feel and no matter what our circumstances, like gravity and God’s goodness. The message of Nahum—a word about God’s goodness, which afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, which challenges the sinner and offers hope in the same breath—came at a time when the people of Israel, under threat from being wiped out by the Assyrian Empire, would have felt it the least, when their circumstances didn’t lend themselves to supporting that proposition.

And while there is a lot of value in being honest with God with where you’re at and what’s going on—there’s a lot of that in Scripture—there’s also a lot of value—maybe even more value—in speaking truth over your life, whether you feel it or not, whether your circumstances support it or not. And there’s a lot of this in Scripture, too.

Jeremiah 17:7-8 says:

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Our greatest trials, our most challenging moments, our seasons of exile and drought, can be the most difficult times to trust in the goodness of God; and because of that, they are also the most important times to speak truth over your life about the goodness of God, to trust in the goodness of God. And as we trust, they can become the greatest testimonies of the goodness of God, the greatest opportunities for God to demonstrate his goodness, and they will become the greatest reminders to you of the goodness of God, so that whenever you find yourself once again anxious and fearful and uncertain, whenever you feel once again the weight of the world upon your shoulders, whenever you think that you can’t make it, that there’s no way out, that there’s nothing you can do to get yourself out of this situation, you can say to yourself, “God is good.”

There will also be times when, quite honestly, we don’t have the energy to speak the truth over our own lives, where no matter how often or how loud we say something, it doesn’t seem to change anything. This is why God gives us the gift of community; he didn’t create us to live life on our own. This is why we encourage everyone at The District Church to be involved in a small group—and over 400 people in our church are. And I’d encourage you, if you’re not connected with friends who can speak the truth of God’s goodness into your life, please get plugged in to a local church. It’s a first step to building relationships where God’s goodness can be spoken and demonstrated to one another and lived out together.

The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;

he protects those who take refuge in him.

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Dealing with death

A friend’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident on Friday. She was 29. It’s been tough on my friend, obviously; and on other friends of ours who were also close with her sister. It’s been tough in ways that can’t be remedied by a simple word or even a prayer. I mean, it’s not a situation that can be remedied. It just is. And it’s awful.

I believe that God is in it with us—and especially with those who were closest to her. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic. And I believe that she’s with God. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to sit with. And I believe that Jesus won the victory over death, and that, in the words of Mumford & Sons, paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah and John the Apostle, “there will come a day, you’ll see, with no more tears.”

But even so, for now, we mourn.

Suffering

I read these books a few years ago, but they still speak truth–perhaps even more so in light of the earthquake in Haiti and our current economic climate.

… it’s only when you hit bottom and are desperate enough that things start to get better. (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 105)

… we are learning how to suffer well. Not to avoid it but to feel the full force of it. It is important that churches acknowledge suffering and engage it—never, ever presenting the picture that if you follow Jesus, your problems will go away. Following Jesus may bring on problems you never imagined.

Suffering is a place where clichés don’t work and words often fail. … And it is in our suffering together that we find out we are not alone. We find out who really loves us. We find out that with these people around us, we can make it through anything. And that gives us something to celebrate.

Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we all need—hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it. (Bell, Elvis, 170)

La vie est dure. Life is hard. It is hard to be a Christian, but it is too dull to be anything else. (Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus, 43)

The scars we bear

Original post: August 8, 2007. Update: January 17, 2010.

“Scar tissue that I wish you saw …” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Scar Tissue’)

Just below my left knee is a scar from slicing my leg open roller-skating when I was about 12. When I was 14, I managed to explode a small (fortunately almost-empty) canister of gas while throwing a tantrum; as a result, I have a faint scar on my nose that shows how close I came to being blinded. When I was 21, a kid fractured my fibula with a bad tackle while playing soccer; it still aches now and again, and still affects my ankle a little when I run. When I was 24, I jammed my right ring finger playing sports; now, whenever I uncurl my fingers, it clicks. When I was 26, I split my leg open to the bone (and had to get 18 stitches) trying to impress a girl.

I’ve picked up a few scars over the years; we all do. Some of them are physical; some are emotional; some psychological; some spiritual. Living in a fallen world, there’s no way to not get hurt in some way or another. Some of the wounds that we suffer hurt like hell. And sometimes, it can feel as though these wounds will never heal.

Humans are paradoxes: we are both fragile and resilient, made of stuff both frail and indomitable. We do heal, though sometimes it can take a long, long time. Yet though we may heal, we often still bear the scars from these wounds–from the experiences, relationships, events, that cause us to hurt.

Looking forward, I wonder if we’ll bear these scars—these healed-over wounds—on our new bodies, our bodies fitted for eternity. Each scar carries a memory, an association, good and bad: for instance, when my leg got broken playing soccer, Ally looked after me the entire weekend, driving me around and basically nursing me through my grumpy times; when I split my leg open, my new friend Kelly came to the clinic with me and watched the doctor scrub the dirt out of my leg; when Amanda broke my heart, my friends–Matt, Adam, Benjie, and Tim–came around me to help me back on my feet.

Upon noting that Jesus still bore the scars of the nails in his hands and feet after the resurrection, one of my friends posited this hypothesis: maybe we’ll bear the scars that we bore for the sake of the kingdom; and they will be scars that we can be proud of.

Now I’m not glorifying pain, or making light of (by philosophizing about) deep wounds (especially emotional) that we suffer. But I found this definition helpful:

Scar:

  1. a mark left by a healed wound—an area of fibrous tissue that replaces normal skin (or other tissue) after injury. A scar results from the biologic process of wound repair in the skin and other tissues of the body. Thus, scarring is a natural part of the healing process.
  2. a lasting aftereffect of trouble, trauma or suffering.

“There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Rom. 5:3-5, Message)