"I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws."
"The pine stays green in winter...wisdom in hardship." Norman Douglas
It seems as if the whole world is frozen stiff. Walking from my car to the house the other night, I felt as if I was in Siberia. The blowing, wet wind whipped icy flakes around, and my face was stinging and ears hot by the time I got inside. Now, with the golden light from my lamp, hot tea steaming, and the warmth of my little apartment, I seem to be safe from the wicked temperatures outside. But they are still there--I am separate from them only by the thin glass of my window.
As I said in my last post, I've been struggling with things in my personal life that can be analogous to winter--darkness, fruitlessness, frozenness. God works in many ways. I went through a period of time where I was terrified that because I was spiritually barren, my heart frozen and God unresponsive, God had effectively abandoned me. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as I have learned.
God has shown me that even when He is hiding His face, He is still working.
We imagine that God working in our lives shows up as spiritual abundance -- renewed zeal, spiritual experiences, a feeling of closeness to God, clarity in our decisions and strength in our faith. Sometimes, this is true. Less appreciated is God's work through silence, through emptiness, through refusal. Through a passionless heart and yet an obedient spirit, through a rebellious spirit and yet a repentant heart. Through prayers sent up to a seemingly iron wall of silence and rejection, prayers that bounce back at you and shake your faith to its core.
Side note: I am beginning to understand that oftentimes, the spiritual state that I am describing is a result of sin. In response to the dark spiritual state I am describing, I decided to look back. As I have sifted through my past, God has graciously illumined shadowy periods of my life where I chose to respond to negative circumstances and painful events in sinful ways. Without going into detail, my Father showed me how in response to His action and plans in my life, I felt deep anger because things didn't go my way. How this anger turned to bitterness, self-righteousness, and outright rebellion. He is showing me how carefully I disguised my rebellion and how tenaciously I have held onto my conviction that God has wronged me in some way by His carefully wrought plans. He has humbled me by showing me how truly broken and sinful I am, how deeply and selfishly I care only about myself, and how little I love Him.
All this in preface. I come to the main point of my post. In the face of God's humbling, my temptation has been to break in despair. If you have never experienced this, you may not understand, but it is an overwhelmingly dark experience when God takes you, shakes you, and compels you to face the full force of your own sinfulness. I am honestly blown away. Coming away shaking from this glimpse into my own darkness, I feel at a loss for what to do. How to change. Where to start untangling the black mass of disgusting wretchedness that I am.
And so I must confess that I've done exactly that--break in despair.
I've allowed myself to spiral, almost out of control, into feelings of defeat, sinfulness, hopelessness, and depression. My half-hearted attempts to "change" sinful attitudes and behaviors have resulted in more failure, compounding my guilt and my feelings of worthlessness and I've fallen back into an effortless defeat with all hope of change fading. Why try, just so I can see myself fail?
It has taken community and the loving people God has surrounded me with to keep me safe and grounded during this winter storm. And to bring a message home to me that I would like to share here with you. The wisdom I have gained is this, and because it is multi-layered, I will list it in the form of steps:
1. Giving up is unacceptable for the Christian. If ever my foot slips and I truly have no energy to rise again, God will lift me up Himself and carry me further. Could He let me spiral on and on and on? Yes, and He would be justified in it. But His grace to me has been constant in lifting me up and on.
2. We are so focused on self-improvement. Some of us are very motivated and disciplined with it. But even a half-hearted attempt to change is wasted effort. We need not more effort, but less. A wise believer told me, simply, that what we need is to stop. Stop trying to fix the unfixable. Stop trying to untangle something knotted beyond all help. Stop trying to cleanse our totally depraved hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Let me decode that--our old flesh is terminally ill. Instead of trying to improve we need to totally, fully, irrevocably give up on ourselves--the old, sinful flesh is a stain that will never be removed and must be burned. That me--that you--is dead, heavy as the guilt of the world, and falling straight into hell where it belongs. As long as we remain in it, its weight is pulling us down with it. We need to save ourselves, and step out of it. Live in the Spirit.
3. With that, of course, we must not mourn the loss of our former, holier selves. That person never existed. What we have been allowed to see is the real us that has been there all along. The truth is, we haven't seen the worst of it. We will have the rest of our lives to deepen our understanding of how totally, wholly depraved we really are.
4. If we shouldn't focus on spiritual self-improvement, what should we do? How to actively step out of the flesh and into the Spirit? Another wise believer shared this truth with me. Instead of looking inside ourselves, analyzing and fixing, we need to look up to God and out to others. Firstly, up at God. His remedy for repentance and greater holiness? Daily focusing on learning to take delight in God. I emphasize learning because it is not natural, and it is a process (which I will try to explore in a later post). Gazing on God's beauty in worshipful praise--through creation, His infallible and life-giving Word, His people--this will quietly work the image of Christ in us because it is not we doing the work. Rather, we are putting ourselves in the position where He can. Psalm 119 seems to me the epitome of this act. The psalmist again and again acknowledges that God does the work--"strengthen me," "correct me," "teach me," "direct me," "fulfill Your promise to me," "give me understanding," etc. David is clear that his part is to "keep Your law" and "meditate on Your wonders." This looking up will inevitably lead to looking out to those around us. The wind may be raging, a blizzard wildly blowing and disorienting us but the only true relief will come when we say "Okay, things may not be going well with me. I may not be happy and I may not have answers but I will focus on blessing the people around me as much as I can." Philippians 2:3b-4 commands "Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." Throughout Scripture, we are commanded and shown the example of this reverse logic--putting others' needs first will somehow meet our own. Denial brings joy. Sacrifice brings abundance.
These realizations may seem simple; so simple you may be tempted to dismiss them as I have many spiritual truths that I am very familiar with. "I know that," I'd think. "Tell me something I don't know." But I would urge you not to dismiss it--not until you have looked at your own life and can confidently assert that you are already living this way, not just knowing it. If I could summarize this lesson in one sentence, it would sound something like this.
Respond to God's humbling with a desire for holiness; pursue holiness by pursuing God rather than implementing a self-improvement plan.
I pray this may be a blessing to someone, somewhere. Let's be like the pine that stays green in winter because it has life inside it. Satan may be able to put out the life of everything around us--even down to our own bodies. But He cannot destroy the eternal life in us that God has placed there. His winters cannot cause our death--and beyond that, the barrenness that we experience, in God's trademark, paradoxical ways, can become the springboard to a decadent fruitfulness. It all hangs on our choice--will we try to do it ourselves, and inevitably sink in despair, or allow Him to do the work and rest our souls in Him?
Carpe Diem!--no matter how frigid it may be. The sun also rises.