She told me she wished she could end it all.
My friend on the other end of the line shared the ache of a recent grief that hit her like a Mac truck coming around a bend at 80 miles an hour. I sat listening to her, aware of the depth of pain and the reality of loss. Years ago when I was younger and more inaccurately sure of myself I would have tried to talk her out of her despair. Quoting something pithy I would have tried to assure her that all was well, all would be surely well. In those days I wasn't as comfortable or familiar with grief and unfinished business - difficult circumstances which beg for answers that just don't come. God, in His mercy, has brought me further along and I know now that what someone needs most when they have lost hope is a listening ear from one who cares. My friend just needed to be heard and understood. She needed me to listen and say, "Yes, this stinks." She needed me, not my quick fix or my memorized scripture verse or any other pat answer that attempts to quell pain and stifle emotion.
Just to let you know, she's been that person for me too. When I careened into a bit of a depression, longing to feel God's presence and intimate care, yet feeling nothing at all, she was the one who said to me, "I know you have doubts in this season and you can't feel God though you want to. Just know that I've been there and I know how you feel." That word of hope became a tether for me at a time when I still thought my ability to consistently feel of God's presence indicated His actual care and intimate involvement (or lack of both).
After we sat for a while with her sharing her heart, fears, concerns, challenges, we started talking about struggles and suffering. I'm not going to lay out a comprehensive theology on suffering here, but I was struck by the realization that for the most part, in our current church culture we don't have a place to grieve or a way to honor the process of hurting as a result of loss. If you've got doubts; if your prayers feel like they are hitting the ceiling; if you are struggling with a grief or an old hurt, the very last place you are likely to take it is to church. I wonder when the last time was that you heard a sermon on the common experience of doubt or feeling distant from God.
In the Old Testament the Jews would literally cry out to God about what was burdening them. They used to put on sack cloth and pour ashes over their heads and rip their clothing. Whole villages or tribes would do this when there was loss or a need to repent of a sin. Up until 1950 or so, in America, we wore black for even up to a year to show we were grieving. Not now. Now we put on our makeup and wear a smile and keep the pain private. How about you? Do you let people know you are hurting? Do you bring your deepest cares to God and cast them on Him because He cares for you? When dark times hit, do you turn towards God or do you turn from Him?
In the early years of Christianity and well into the 1500s when St. Ignatius was writing, the concept of a rhythm of relationship with God was well known. It was expected that there would be times of consolation - when God feels near and we are filled with the comfort and joy of sensing His presence and love for us. It was equally expected that anyone who walked with Jesus would experience times of desolation - when God seems to have taken a leave of absence, prayer feels dry, we lack a sense of hope and struggle to do the basic spiritual activities which were previously life-giving. Like waves of the ocean hitting the shore and then flowing back out to sea, our personal sensation of God's presence will ebb and flow throughout our time on earth.
While there can be self-imposed reasons for seasons of desolation (when we are harboring a sin or when we have put other people or attachments ahead of God), these feelings are not always the result of our own wrongdoing. Jesus Himself entered the desert. We are told the Spirit of God led Him there to be tempted. Sometimes we also forget that God prunes even the fruitful branches. We can be going along in ministry and life, seeing great results in our intimacy with God and in the people we are reaching out to in His name. All of a sudden we feel stripped back and exposed. Something happens externally or internally and it feels as though the rug was ripped out from under us. Pruning comes unexpectedly, even though He told us it would be "even the fruitful branches." Why? He tells us that too: that you might bear even more fruit. Fruit isn't just in people reached. Fruit, first and foremost grows in you.
It has been my experience that certain benefits only come through my suffering. I'm not a masochist. Believe me, I like to seek comfort as much as the next guy. As I think back over friendships where I was betrayed, precious family and friends who have died, sins which I have committed or which have been committed against me and the seasons of pain which have followed these experiences, I see a pattern as to what God does with my suffering.
First of all, God has always shown me my need for Him when I have hit a rough patch. It isn't on a sunny day that I think about where my umbrella is hidden in the hall closet. Let the clouds grow grey and I start digging it out and carrying it with me whenever I leave the house. Sometimes, my need for God is like that. I reach for Him with both hands when I've hit the end of myself in tough times. Hardship makes me know my weakness and my deep need for Him. In distress I am stripped down and I draw near to God in new ways. He makes use of challenging times to increase my awareness of what is essential and to help me seek Him more fully. His strength is made perfect in my weakness. I was reminded just this year that I find my strength in the shadow of His wings. It is only when I run to Him for protection and care that I am strong.
God also uses difficulties to draw up dross in my heart. He shows me false beliefs, idols of my heart and areas I need growth. Though I search myself with Him regularly, nothing gets my attention and turns my eyes towards self-examination like a season of pain. God doesn't bring these faults to my attention to make me feel low or to kick me when I'm down. On the contrary, He is always seeking my freedom and growth. When I see myself as He sees me, I am more willing to change. Sometimes it takes a supremely agonizing experience to convince me to shift gears and give up something I was clinging to. Like a woman in labor, the pain I endure as I grow through grief gives birth to new levels of maturity and joy. I sure long for a spiritual epidural, but in the end I'm always grateful for having endured the trial when I witness the outcome on the other side.
Another thing God has done through suffering is to give me a greater capacity for compassion. In a letter to the Corinthians Paul refers to God as "The God of all comfort." He comforts us in our affliction ... so that we can comfort others in the same way. God will provide comfort in due time. He often does not provide it when we wish He would because He wants us to want Him more than we want His comfort. You know those "friends" who come over when you have something to offer them, but seem scarce when you have a need? We call them fair-weather friends. God won't abide with fair-weather followers. He knows we need more than to be allowed to access Him only for His blessings. A real relationship of any kind involves hanging in through hard times because we are committed to one another. God hangs in with us (even when all visible evidence seems to feel otherwise) and we need to hang in with Him.
Real faith hangs on. Jesus said, "What good is it if you love only the lovable? Even the pagans do that." The same goes for faith. What good is a faith that believes only when things are rosy, when we can feel His presence and all situations are going the way we say they ought to go? True faith - blind faith - believes through the darkness. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. When we hold onto God though our senses tell us He is not interested in us anymore and when circumstances have us on our ear, we are exercising true faith. You may feel like your faith has failed you during a dry spell, but the very fact that you are still seeking God, longing for Him and missing a deeper connection bears witness to the depth of your real heart-felt faith.
So, what's a person to do when they are knee-deep in desolation. Let me tell you, I've had long seasons of desolation throughout the years I have walked with Jesus. I have some first-hand experience as to what is wise and unwise and what helps the journey go a bit more smoothly:
Reach Out and Reach Up
Don't keep your feelings of doubt, fear and pain buried. Choose a trusted friend who can bear your burden with you. Talk with someone who knows how to listen without trying to change you. If you are willing, the sooner the better, talk to God about your emotions and all you are thinking. Write a psalm to Him. The psalms are such a gift to us. They reveal that God wants us to share the good, bad and ugly with Him. By including them in scripture, God gave us a model and permission to pour out all manner of thoughts and emotions to Him. We do well when we walk through our fear and doubt with Him instead of trying to resolve it apart from Him. On that same note, don't share what you are going through with people who you know can't handle it. This is a perfect time to exercise the principle of not throwing your pearls before swine.
Don't Change Anything Major
Desolation can make us feel desperate. We want to move, quit our job, get out of Dodge. It's normal to want to flee everything and make big changes when everything around us seems to be imploding or when circumstances show no sign of changing and we feel stuck and blah as a result. If you are going to make a change, run your ideas by some wise counselors. Otherwise, sit tight. Let some time pass. Don't shift from good decisions you made in a season of consolation under the influence of your pain in desolation.
Remember the Good Ol' Days
We all have had great moments of intimacy with God. During times of desolation these can seem hazy at best. In the Old Testament God told the Israelites to set up alters, build Ebenezer stones (places of remembrance) and to tell stories and sing songs about the good things God had done. If you are in a time of desolation, it helps to go back and remember the goodness of God in your life. Recount blessings and remember His good works towards you. When you are in seasons of consolation, write in a journal or find another way to record His goodness. Leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs so that the next time you are in desolation you can remind yourself that God is near, He loves you with the greatest love imaginable and He will see you through.
Get Out of Yourself
It may seem like the most unlikely time to serve someone else when you feel broken, doubtful or angry with God, but if you can be honest with yourself and God about where you are, you still can be of use to others. Desolation makes us turn our eyes inward. We can quickly become self-focused (like when you have a raging headache and nothing else matters or can grab your attention). The pain of desolation causes us to fixate on our own feelings and thoughts. Serving someone else lifts our eyes over and above our own pain, at least for a bit. It is very hard to out-bless God. Often when we reach out to others in a time of our own pain we feel the nearness of God as we do. Don't go into serving others with that ulterior motive. Simply know that you can get your eyes off you and contribute even when your brain is telling you that you have nothing to offer.
If you are in a period of desolation, I would sincerely love to pray for you. I've been there and I feel it with you. Feel free to comment here or connect with me on the Hearts Homeward Facebook Page. If you aren't in desolation, know that many around you may be. Offer a listening ear and a heart that cares and entrust them to God - who never leaves nor forsakes us and has no condemnation for us who are in Him.
I want to thank my friend for her permission to use a part of her story anonymously so that we could bless others who are hurting.