Thursday, July 22, 2010

Living in Longing.

Father, I want to know you but my cowardly heart fears to give up its toys. I cannot part with them without inward bleeding and I do not hide from You the terror of the parting. I come trembling but I do come. Please root from my heart all of those things which I have cherished for so long which have become a very part of my living self, that you might enter and dwell there without a rival. Then You will make the place of Your feet glorious. Then shall my heart have no need for the sun to shine in it, for You will be the light of it and there will be no night there. In Jesus’ name.” –AW Tozer; The Pursuit of God

I was recently asked what the major themes God has been teaching me this summer. It took awhile for me to respond and even in doing so I don’t really feel as if it was an adequate response. One of the students at NYU toward the end of the spring semester publically shared a beautiful and frankly written statement on her history and present struggle with depression. She differentiated between many of the more commonly discussed issues in Christian circles (pornography, sexual struggles and the like) and the less talked-about issues like depression, anxiety and social-psychological struggles. She pointed out that these often get swept into a closet of weakness and shame and wanted to counter the hush-hush mentality of it by boldly addressing it in her life. I still don’t really know for what reason such stigmatization persists. But I was and still am incredibly inspired by her candor on the subject and her personal life.

For as far back as I can remember, I have found myself in the throws of depression. There is part of me that really bristles at putting this in writing on a public forum (especially a ministry forum) because of the self and social stigmatization, I suppose, that manifests in self-talk like “you’re in full-time ministry, get it together” and “your sin is much murkier and uglier than others'” or this gem, “you’ll be thought of as weak and you certainly can't be vulnerable to such an audience least you be deemed 'unqualified'” Lies. Such lies. When I am weak, then I am strong. It’s not as if my life has been a constant stream of memories caked in gloom, I certainly have had an overwhelming amount of joy in my life, yet like winter that appears to be long-forgotten on a July afternoon, it always seems to loom in my heart as something that will certainly return if only for a season. I have sought medication for it in the past which I believe is a good thing if that is where you are lead and have been (and continue to be!) in counseling for 2+ years. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me and highly recommend it for everyone. Everyone.

It’s this depression that has lead me to astonishingly dark places of self-loathing, destruction, self-pity, anxiety, hand-crafted idolatry, an extreme lack of boundaries, emotional and relational dependencies and a visceral loneliness that so often feels like death. But God is Light and cannot nor will not abandon us. I have been asking around to find out the secret. The clandestine contentment found in burning away everything else that Paul wrote about in Philippians 4. If I were you I’d ask around too. And by around I mean up.

So this summer

I have been challenged as of the late with the onslaught of such loneliness returning to me with rabid teeth and unyielding claws. My self-talk says: Get it together, you’re at a summer training program, you’re in ministry, you’re supposed to be a mentor and a leader. You can’t falter now, you’ve got to be the strong one, the joyful one, the goofy one. In this fear, I—like all of us when fear seems to paralyze—become remarkably self-absorbed and self-important. Here in Vermont, in the absence of many of the close friendships I have experienced over the last few years, I am confronted with this piercing and humbling question once again: Who do you give the right to tell you who you are? All day, every day I give myself or my perception of others this right. No wonder my identity is so fragile and at the whim of circumstance.

Loneliness in a perfect world

Genesis 1 & 2 epitomize perfection. God is. God creates. God blesses. Earth, sky, sea, light, plants, creatures, man. All created. All in benediction—blessed, called “good” by their Creator. Delighted in as with a newborn baby. It is not until chapter 3 that sin enters the picture and all that is good is unraveled. Yet in chapter 2 God says “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam was alone. He was lonely. There was not yet sin. And he was lonely. What?

Our longing for friendship, for companionship is the one longing that is not a result of sin. After sin enters the picture we see pains of hunger, nakedness, shame, guilt, imperfect sexual longings, the need to clothe for the sake of warmth and protection and so forth. Yet loneliness precedes all of these things in the arena of a perfect world wherein we were created for union and relationship; a union from which our very being perfectly aches. How much more should we ache in this imperfect state? And for Whom? Where or to what do we direct this longing if not the One who created us?

It is this realisation that, for the first time in twenty-four years, makes me feel a sublime sense of comfort and joy smack dab in the middle of my loneliness, knowing that I am not crazy and that my loneliness is perfectly human even in human perfection. Jeeze.

What we do with it

It would be foolish to believe that this realisation is carte blanche for trying to absolve loneliness in anything that feels good or numbs the pain. So goes the building blocks of idolatry for we long to worship something—usually that which instantly gratifies however ultimately does not deliver what it deceivingly promises. It would also be foolish to equate pressing into our loneliness to mean that it is inherently masochistic or some form of morbid asceticism. Rejoice in the midst of suffering not in the suffering itself that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1). I have spent years of my life inflicting pain on myself in order that I might match my physical pain to my inner torment. Aloneness and subsequent actions can be like a gateway drug that rapidly begets death if you do anything but seek companionship in the Man who was, Himself, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53).

In her book Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot shares a story of being taught the wisdom of perseverance through her three-year-old niece. She says:

“Seeing that [my niece] was having difficulty with the sleeves, I asked her f I could help her put her dress on. ‘Oh, never mind,’ she said. ‘Papa usually lets me struggle.’ What kind of a father is that? A wise one. Her father is also a sensitive one, aware of the importance of struggle in the process of growth…if all struggles and sufferings were eliminated, the spirit would no more reach maturity than would the child. The Heavenly Father wants to see us grow up.”

Every moment and with every emotion we have the opportunity to allow Christ to forge our maturity and character into His likeness if we yield to Him. Conversely, should we choose to wrestle against such opportunity and linger in our own sense of selfish autonomy, we will get the natural consequences of our defiance which is a spiraled state of our present misery exacerbated by our unwillingness to yield and fall into His rest.

Jim Elliot writes: “Let not our longings slay the appetite of our living.” Depression, anxiety and loneliness (which seem to all have a monstrous kinship with one another) can be crippling. But every problem is a theological problem and what we do with our longings and fears is no exception. How we execute our actions based on our feelings reveals what we really believe about this One we call Savior. If we believe that no good thing will God withhold from us than we must believe that this present circumstance, this visceral suffering is His best for us; not because He is a tyrant but because His mercy is that severe, His grace that good, and that He cares so much more about our character than our comfort.


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