In the past two months I got stuck twice: in my writing/speaking life and in my personal life. This is nothing new, and neither is my finding that writing problems resolve more easily than personal problems. But what is new is how I’m dealing with the stuck-ness: first, notecards. I’ve found that when I’m overwhelmed—with ideas, with emotions—simply transferring those thoughts to some notecards helps me organize in writing, and helps me cope in life.
In September, notecards helped me complete my presentations for the women’s conference I spoke at, and this month, notecards are helping me articulate some personal problems I can’t seem to straighten out on my own, or even in prayer right now. While I’ve decided to seek Christian counseling for these personal problems (read more in my next post), writing my overwhelming thoughts on notecards has facilitated a small emotional release when I don’t have a listening ear at my disposal.
If you’re stuck either on the writing front, or overwhelmed in your personal life, maybe you can try what I’ve tried.
On the Writing Front
In the months leading up to the Iowa Missouri Women’s Retreat, I struggled to write my presentations: a sermon and a writing workshop. Every time I opened my laptop to work on them, I typed more and more words as my ideas spiraled wildly…without ever reaching conclusion. There was so much I wanted to say…but I would only have so much time at the conference. I had to be selective and concise in my talking points.
(Last year at a different women’s retreat I had four talks to develop my ideas…and it was considerably easier to prepare for that conference because I had so much talking time.)
Finally, after trying to write out my sermon both verbatim and in bullet point form too many times without success, I got out some notecards and started jotting down my points shorthand—one thought per card. Over several days, as more ideas came to me, I jotted them down, too, and slipped them into the deck where they seemed to fit.
This simple process of writing on notecards, as opposed to writing on paper or typing on a laptop, freed me up to introduce any and all ideas that came to me in my writing process, because I knew it would be easy to discard the extraneous ones later. (Though some of my ideas were total rabbit trails, jotting them down somewhere was valuable because it kept me fluid in my writing process, kept me moving, when I just wanted to stop.)
As the cards accumulated, I began to find the shape of my talk, and I also figured out what didn’t fit. In the end, I returned to my laptop and typed out my speech, a mix of bullet points and fully developed paragraphs (I’m still finding my way as a speaker), but now it came easier because I had an outline: my notecards.
When it came time to present, I knew my delivery wasn’t perfect, but I felt that my presentation was valuable to my audience, because my writing/preparation process had allowed me to zero in on my best, most pertinent ideas, and discard those of lesser importance.
After I presented my sermon and writing workshop, women came up to me to thank me for my talk/writing tips, some saying my message/material was exactly what they needed to hear. Still other women said they had read my book and it was great and would I sign it? It was a heady experience being treated as such a religious authority …especially because I know what they don’t: since the events of the book ended (really, since I’ve become a mom), I’ve been a mess of pent-up ideas and emotions, so much so that I have decided I need some professional help to sort them all out.
On the Personal Front
Until my first counseling session, I’m using notecards, and other small releases, to help me cope. For those moments when I can’t find quiet, space, time, energy, or listening ears to process, I can find fifteen seconds and a pen. I can write one phrase, or one sentence, and tuck it into a discussion box that I plan to take to the counselor. I can put that negative thought or problem away from me, from brain to pen to paper, until I have true time and place to process. And then, I can quickly pray:
God, here is the mess the best I can describe it in these few seconds. I desperately don’t know how to fix it, but eventually I know I need to deal with it. Please hold this for me—keep me safe from it, keep my kids safe from it—until I have the proper time and space and listening ears to process it.
I do believe God honors these prayers—and these pleas for help—found on this writer-mom’s humble notecards.
In my next post I will further explain my reasons for seeking counseling, and perhaps give an update of how the first session went. Until then, please send me a message or a comment if you’ve had a good (or bad) experience with counseling or, on a lighter note, notecards (or some other writing strategy).
What should I say at this stage of life? This question has pained me lately as I prepare to speak at my third women’s retreat. Last week, with the deadline edging closer and closer, I panicked. I felt a sense of oppression settle over me. I don’t know what to say about this stage of my life to inspire others.
I’ve had my basic framework for the talk for awhile, but it’s the guts I’ve been struggling with. Here’s the framework: I will talk about sharing our stories for God’s glory at three levels: with God, in a small group, and in public. These are ideas I’ve developed before in former talks and this post. I believe God wants us to examine our stories to experience His working and to share His work in our lives. But after the events I shared in Ending the Pain, my motherhood story began. And oh, I am having trouble telling this story for God’s glory.
Now, if you look at my beautiful kids and beautiful life and wonder how can this be, I would just ask you to research the personality type Melancholy, and have a little compassion. Melancholy people, though perhaps not “depressed” or suicidal, have their own emotional battles to fight every day. Right now, with two small kids, no family nearby, and an imminent job change/move to we-don’t-know-where, I’m fighting lots of emotional battles. (Praise God, I’m nowhere near where I used to be emotionally, though!)
Anyway, the more I trolled my recent notebooks for inspiring mom stories, the more discouraged I became. There have been bright moments—yes. But by and large, when I search my memory and my recent writings (unpublished), I feel sad. Lonely. Still a little angry about certain aspects of my motherhood story that are too raw to share right now…except with family and close friends.
When I visited my parents in Minnesota recently, they witnessed my momming in midstream; they noted my struggles; got their hands dirty as grandparents; and gently observed some “areas for improvement.” And it was healing to be seen, to be soothed, by my own mom and dad, stepmom and stepdad as well. (We haven’t spent nearly enough time together since the kids were born). I also received a healing prayer session from a friend whom I’ve prayed for many times. That trip was a great start to some self-reflecting and praying that I really must do regarding my mom story…at some point. But now? Do I have to make sense of my mom story now, in time for the women’s retreat?
Would you believe I was actually hoping to do just that, in order to find “new material” for my latest talk? I was hoping to read through all my personal writings in the last three years since kids, examine all my negative feelings, pray a whole bunch over all of that, and come up with a tidy bow to put on the story.
What?! As I reflected on this, I realized I was contradicting the very process of healing I believe in: a process that took me years and years before I was able to bring Ending the Pain to its satisfying, inspirational conclusion.
My mom story is not done. I don’t have to share itwith this audience right now, I finally realized yesterday, while heaving a big sigh of relief. As Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 5:7). And that’s when my oppression ended.
Who put this idea in my head, anyway? Certainly not God. Oh, friends, Satan is at work. And he especially attacks and tries to distract when we are trying to do something for God—such as speaking about Him to a large group. We are not to be surprised by the fiery trials that come from Satan when we give our lives to God; it’s part of the Christian walk (1 Pet. 4:12).
And here’s a little lesson in life for everyone, not just writers and public speakers: God is not the author of confusion. So if we are choosing to do something that brings darkness, oppression, heaviness—we have to question whether the idea really comes from God. I believe my recent speaking anxiety was a ploy of the devil to distract me from doing the work God planned in advance for me to do (Eph. 2:10).
At some point, when I am further removed from this stage of life, I need to come back, read those early mom writings, pray over them, pray with friends, and share the lessons I learn with anyone else who wants to read them. But right now, I neither have the time nor the emotional capacity to do that job: so I will concentrate on the job that God has given me right now: raising my kids and inspiring a group of women this September with the gleaming story God’s already given me. God has more work for me to do, but it doesn’t all have to get done today.
Thank you, God, for clearing my head about this, and for rebuking the devil, so I can do the work you’ve prepared for me to do at this moment. Help me take life one step at a time and not get sidetracked with tasks whose time have not yet come.
We memoirists might look like gluttons for punishment, because writing about real life hurts, and no one makes us write but ourselves. But for many of us, writing about real life is just an extension of our “Perfect Melancholy” personalities; we write about our lives because we have to do something with all that self-analysis happening in our heads.
I’ve been reading Personality Plus by Florence Littauer, and the author’s description of my Melancholy personality hits home more than other personality tests or training I’ve taken. Other tests labeled my personality in less negative terms— Analyzer or Empathizer, for instance. But Melancholy cuts right to the chase. It describes me to an M.
The evidence is overwhelming—I am introspective, moody, artistic, and depression prone—and the personality test was indisputable. I am Melancholy through and through. True to Littauer’s description, I have been saddened by a small thing to which other personalities wouldn’t give a thought (the label of my personality); and more introspection is the result. I want another personality. I don’t want to have to work so hard to be happy. I don’t want to be Melancholy.
People who study personalities have long observed that artists and writers are commonly Melancholies, as opposed to Sanguines, Cholerics, or Phlegmatics, and this could be good or bad, depending on where you stand.
If you’re the one consuming the art, Perfect Melancholy is great: its existence enriches our culture by providing life-enriching and thought-provoking art.
If you’re the one providing the art, or struggling with “genius” tendencies (Littauer’s word, not mine) that you have trouble harnessing, Perfect Melancholy can be excruciating. Littauer notes that while Melancholies have the highest potential for achievement, they also experience the “highest highs and the lowest lows.” To my Melancholy-colored glasses, this data forces me into a dilemma that’s definitely false, but that seems so real: Would I rather be a “genius” (in writing), or be happy?
The Misery of Memoir
For much of my life, pursuing my art meant misery. All I could write about was my life; and my life, for a good chunk, was sad. Why didn’t I pick another topic, a happier topic, to write about? I go back to the personalities. Melancholy couldn’t get its mind off itself. I was trying to process hard things in my life, and as a writer, I naturally processed through writing.
Because it didn’t yet feel safe to talk about some of those sad things, I especially needed writing as an outlet. I had a strange relationship with writing, though. On the one hand, I felt like I needed to write to survive. On the other hand, what came out of my pen felt like it might kill me.
For almost ten years I would waffle on writing my story—I mean writing it for an audience as opposed to venting in journals. Typically here’s how it would go: I get the desire to write, I pull out old journals for inspiration, I spend a few hours working with the material, and I end up in a pool of tears because it hurts so much, followed by a crumpled heap in my husband’s arms because I am not ready to confront all the emotions these memories bring up. Then, I stuff the emotions, the memories, and my writing aspirations for another few months or years, only to repeat the process again and again.
Melancholies Can Write Happy Endings Too
This blog has borne witness to some of the healing process that finally got me writing again…and writing not only with sadness, but with gladness. God gave my story a happy ending. He not only redirected some of my worst circumstances, but he redirected my mind.
Now, even when more bad circumstances arise—which they inevitably do from time to time—I don’t have to give in to Melancholy. I don’t have to collapse in despair because “that’s just the way things are, and that’s just the way I am.”
God’s Word gives me a more accurate measure of how things really are, and how I really am. You might say he gives me a better personality test, or the ultimate Truth meter:
Though outwardly I am wasting away, yet inwardly I am being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16).
The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in me (Rom. 8:18).
If I wait on the Lord, he will strengthen me (Ps. 27:14); Isa. 40:31).
I can learn to be content in whatever state I’m in, knowing that God will supply all my needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:11, 19).
He will keep me in perfect peace if my mind is fixed on him (Isa. 26:3).
I can remember that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).
And I can be confident that, even when progress seems slow, he who began a good work in me will keep working on me until Jesus comes back (Phil. 1:6).
Yes, this world is sad and often hard to navigate—especially, I think, for us over-analytical Melancholies. But this world is not the end, it is temporary and passing away, and that is life-giving knowledge I can cling to.
Yes, I am sinful and fallible and moody and depression prone. But Jesus didn’t come to this world to suffer and die to leave me that way. He came to pull me out of the pits, physical and mental; to retrain my mind on him; and to change me, from glory glory to glory, as I behold him.
And so the story continues. Many mornings I wake feeling unhappy by default. My Melancholy personality (and Satan) doesn’t want me to be happy. But as I make the choice, day by day, to seek God’s face, he gives me strength for what’s in front of me. So I keep praying through it, keep writing through it, and keep moving forward, little by little. A lot of my days end better than they start, because throughout the day I exercise my faith and allow God to smooth out the bumps. These are small rewards, little happy endings, that point me on to the day when Jesus comes to take me home, and give me my ultimate happy ending.
Most people agree that “Honesty is the best policy.” But as a writer and ministry leader who has made honesty her central message and MO, I wonder if it’s possible to sometimes be “too honest.” Not a few times as I’ve posted unflattering, embarrassing, content, I’ve wondered: am I hurting my influence by being so raw and real? After people read this, will they still look up to me?
I’ve found that honesty, at the level I go, can be hard to find in Christian writers, teachers, and leaders. Many I’ve observed in this group like to use honest illustrations and anecdotes…of other people’s struggles. Or, if the stories are first-person, they tend to remain on a safe, surface level. I once read an article by a Christian who used the analogy of scrubbing her floor to illustrate the filthiness in her heart. But she made no mention of what, exactly, was in her heart. “Scrubbing my dirty floor made me think of how God has to scrub my heart clean of sin. I thought, how much better if I kept it clean daily, instead of letting it all pile up?”
Illustrations of the gospel like this one don’t resonate with me. It’s not that they’re bad or untrue, it’s just that they’re so general, so vague so b-o-o-o-o-ring. Worst of all, illustrations like these are generally unhelpful when it comes to making real changes to behavior.
At the risk of assuming other humans think like I do, I would submit that humans long for authenticity. Especially when we’re talking about faith. If our sources of inspiration don’t hit close to home, addressing real issues we battle daily, they will be perceived as impotent, laughable, and even painful (because they minimize our struggles)—and they will be quickly abandoned.
That’s why I chose to be vulnerable in the memoir I wrote about discovering my new life in Christ.
It’s why I choose to be vulnerable almost every time I post on this blog.
I believe people are hungry for other people to relate to them—to say “I’ve been there, too. Look how screwed up I used to be, and how I still struggle sometimes. And yet, look what God was able to do with that mess!” I believe messages like this bring hope.
But what if I’m wrong? What if messages like this do the opposite? What if brutal honesty breeds distrust in God and disaffection for his “honest, messed-up followers?”
When leaders decide to be honest, this is a very real risk we take—the risk of our followers unsubscribing because we are not perfect.
I am willing to take this risk, not only for the reasons I listed above, but because a genuine Christian faith should not hinge on the words and deeds of any human being. (In other words, no one’s faith should hinge on me.) It should hinge on the person and words of Christ.
When Leaders Disappoint
A few years ago I was deeply disappointed when I learned that one of my spiritual heroes, Leo Schreven, committed suicide. Honestly, I felt betrayed and somewhat deceived by this man who previously appeared to “have it all together.” But I was able to weather this bad news by clinging to the truth that God is not, and never will be, totally represented by those claiming to be his followers. When we see good in Christians, that is from God. But when we see bad, that is from the enemy. We can’t lay every quality at Christ’s doorstep, because not every quality is from him.
One quality I do believe is of God is the quality of honestly engaging our struggles as we seek His healing. I think I would have still respected my deceased spiritual hero if, in life, he had openly admitted his struggles. Perhaps I would have respected him even more for choosing bravery, rather than bravado—even though his brave sharing would have painted him as a fallible, sinful, wounded human being.
I have to add something here, to be fair. A family member of Leo Schreven’s contacted me after reading my blog post about Leo’s suicide, to tell me that my “hero” had struggled with psychological problems the public knew nothing about. This family member wanted me to have a fair, truthful view of Leo. The truth included mental illness, and as a former sufferer of mental illness, I empathized with that. I understood that I had put Leo on a pedestal. I also understood that his mental state may have precluded him from the type of honesty to which I am calling spiritual leaders.
Given the state of Leo’s mental health, it’s actually amazing that he enjoyed the long and successful career as evangelist and motivational speaker that he did. I have had similar thoughts, of course, about the late Robin Williams. Leo and Robin show us that there are exceptions to the standard of honesty I am putting forth. The exception applies to those who are not able to help themselves, or not able to let God help them, because of mental illness, or a genuine medical problem. Maybe they keep up the façade for the public for awhile, but in the end, we find out they are not the leaders we wished them to be. But then again, no one in whom we place our trust is immune to struggles, and to sin.
The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we know every person, Christian or non, ministry leader or not, has a mix of good and bad.
No matter what we know to be true about our leaders, hopefully we can sift the good from the bad, and remember and respect them for their good qualities. Hopefully we can go on learning from them, no matter what their lives reveal. Sometimes we may observe the right course, other times the non-example. As long as we are looking up to human beings, we should expect both. And if we are the ones being looked up to, we must trust Christ to be the one shining example our audiences need; we must be okay with being imperfect representations of him.
That said, I believe that we in positions of trust—ministry leaders, Christian writers, etc.—should do our best to represent Christ, and this includes being honest about how God is working in our lives and transforming our sinful patterns. We should also be honest about “wilderness” times, times when we struggle with our faith…but we should do it wisely.
Guidelines for Christian Leaders
Here are two guidelines I’ve found helpful in my own writing and ministry that can help Christian leaders determine when, where, and how much to share.
1) First, we should consider timing. You can read various sins and struggles of mine on this blog that occurred at various stages in my life. I blog about problems long past and problems of last week.
The safer type of post is the one about problems past. These problems are ones I have likely had victory over. They are problems that have yielded personal lessons I can use to teach others. These types of posts, and this type of sharing, should be an absolute “yes” for all ministry leaders. Why wouldn’t we use our stories of redemption as teaching tools? What better examples of the gospel could we present than the ones that have played out in our own lives?
The murky area is problems of the present. How much should Christian leaders share about present problems? Here, we have to be wise about audience.
2) Audience is the second consideration. Consider who will be reading or hearing your message. If you are a preacher and it is your job to inspire hope, then it may not be the best time to insert a struggle that you do not have victory over, or at least cannot yet talk about in a positive way.
Sure, there are times when you are on the upside of a struggle—you can see the end in sight, and you are pressing through for victory. That might be material for an inspiring message, and if you are comfortable exposing that yet-unresolved pain, go ahead.
But other times, pain and sin is too raw to project to a large, or public, audience. That’s when you need a small, confidential audience. I’m talking a few trusted friends or advisors who can help talk and pray you through your problems. When you have worked through those problems, then they may become appropriate large-group material. But don’t rush it. Getting outside voices mixed up in your current personal problems could hurt the healing process, and you need to get healthy first so you can go back to being your motivational self.
One caveat for leaders working through personal problems: if your challenge handicaps your ability to do ministry, whether because the emotions involved take too much energy, or because a sin you are fighting “disqualifies” you to be a role model at the time, then it’s probably the right time to step out of ministry, at least for awhile. In the case of Leo Schreven, I would have much preferred hearing the news that he had stepped out of leadership for awhile to tackle some personal problems to hearing that he had committed suicide. We are ultimately the most helpful to others when we get the help we need, first.
On This Blog, What You See Is What You Get
To apply my guidelines to myself, I routinely post about my current struggles, but many times I have chosen to remain silent until I have prayed over them and exposed them to Scripture and the wisdom and counsel of a few trusted others. By the time I post on an issue, I want it to be, if not totally resolved, at least on the path to resolution. I want others to look up to me, yes, but I am happy to admit that sometimes the best example I can give is: “Look, I’m broken here, but I’m looking to Christ. And if you feel the same way, you need to do the same.”
By posting my struggles, past or present, I risk losing my readers’ respect, but I also keep myself accountable to Christ for resolution. I put a problem out there (such as my sleep-deprived, desperate, witchy state), and I say, “Okay, this is the mess this sinful world, or sinful me, has created today. But now, how am I going to find Christ in the middle of it?” My mission is to find out how Christ will come through for me, and then to share my victory with my readers.
Indeed, if “Superwoman Christian” is the role model you want, look somewhere else. Because on this blog you’ll just encounter a broken girl trying to depend on Christ, and trying to work out her faith, in all things big and little. After all, as so many examples in the Bible show (Kind David and the 51st Psalm come right to mind), a Christian leader worth listening to is not someone who claims to be above sins and struggles, but someone who fully admits their weaknesses; has learned how to let Christ lead in the hard times; and can discern which, of all their life experiences, will be helpful for lifting others up.
For a long time I waited to have the type of “Damascus Road” conversion that the Apostle Paul had. I wanted a cataclysmic experience to bring me to God, once and for all. Maybe I should have been careful what I wished for!
As I wrote in part 4, I was about to start my second year of teaching when my mom—who already had cancer—was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, and my little brother went into foster care. Because my hands were tied with one-hundred adolescents, one-thousand miles away, I fell to my knees and pleaded for God to do something. And he did.
Oh, but he didn’t change my outward situation–or my mom’s, or my brother’s–at least not at first. First, he changed me—from the inside out.
My Damascus Road Year
I believe that God is always growing those who seek him. While we don’t always sense our growth, sometimes we experience “growth spurts.” That year was my first spiritual growth spurt. With God’s leading, and with a little help from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I was forming all kinds of good habits in my life.
By far the most important habit I formed that year was the habit of daily prayer and Bible study.
Next, I began memorizing Scripture so that, when negative thoughts came, I could re-set my mind on God’s promises. Without even having to think about it, I started pondering Scripture throughout the day and conversing with God. In turn, he responded to me by bringing certain Bible verses to mind that I had memorized.
Again, without my having to work at it, the words that I spoke, in conversation and in prayer, started to change. Rather than counting my losses, I started counting my blessings. My journaling naturally took a more thankful tone, too, as I wrote about how I was experiencing “happy days” like never before.
After allowing God’s words to take root in me for several months, I was generally not depressed anymore. When sad days came, I fought them off by reciting Scripture and reading the Word.
And that is the key to rebirth: we cannot changes ourselves, but God’s “living and active” Word must change us (Heb. 4:12-13). If there is one thing we can do, we can avail ourselves of the Word and prayer.
More Spiritual Fruit
Not only were my devotional habits changing, but so were many other aspects of my life. During this time, I heard a pivotal sermon all about monitoring what we put into our minds and bodies. The speaker, evangelist Leo Schreven, raised tough questions for Christians, such as: Why do we listen to, read, and watch the same kinds of materials that the “world” listens to, reads, and watches?
As Schreven pointed out, so much of mainstream media and entertainment is opposed to Christian principles, such as the many pop, country, or rock songs crooning of infidelity. What about TV shows and movies fraught with violence? He pointed out that there is so much “trash” around us, yet we Christians sift through it as if through a dumpster, always hoping to find something halfway decent—instead of doing the sensible thing and avoiding the trash altogether.
Input, Output: By Beholding, We Become Changed
As a recovering depressive, this point hit me hard. I was beginning to realize that a large part of my depression came down to my thought patterns—and many of my post-adolescent thought patterns were determined by the music I listened to, the books I read, and the things I watched.
There was a reason I often felt cranky after watching secular movies or reading secular books: They were not uplifting. Even cute, seemingly harmless chick flicks left me desiring a more glamorous life, a more “storybook” marriage, a prettier figure, and a more successful career. In other words, they were leading me to desire almost everything but a relationship with the Lord.
Moreover, I realized with horror that when I listened to music with depressing or even suicidal lyrics (the band Evanescence came immediately to mind), I was cooperating with Satan by meditating on self-destructive thoughts.
Now I was beginning to understand why my older brother had tossed out his entire CD collection after his own rebirth experience. I realized these seemingly “harmless” hobbies are really insidious tools of the devil to speak lies to us.
So I threw out my CD collection, too—the bad part of it. For a time I stopped reading novels and switched completely to the Bible and self-help books (this was an odd and confusing thing for an English major to do). I also separated myself from certain friends (sadly, self-professed “Christians”) who habitually exposed me to R-rated movies. I knew these changes were all necessary to cleanse and fortify my sinful, depression-prone mind.
The other conviction I felt was a need to reach out to my friends, many of whom called themselves Christians, but who, like me, did not live like it. Why, if we were “Christians,” did we never come together to talk about Christ? The only times we got together, we watched secular movies and did other non-Christ-centered things. I made it a goal to start a young adult Bible study for these beloved friends.
All of these changes were happening in me while Mom was in the mental hospital, my little brother in foster care, and myself tied up with teaching, 1,000 miles away from them. Later that fall, Mom was mentally stable and discharged from the hospital, and by November, she had my little brother back. The remaining unknown was Mom’s cancer.
Meanwhile, I marveled at how God was sustaining me. I believe God carried me on high that year, helping me soar above situations that could have otherwise devastated me.
The One Who Sustains
The truth is, no matter if we think we are sustaining our lives, God is the one who sustains. We couldn’t even breathe without him. We may think we’re the ones moving our lives forward—but we can do nothing of ourselves. The Apostle Paul wrote, “[God] himself gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “It is God who works in you to will and to act of his good purpose” (Acts 17:25; Phil. 2:13). Jesus Christ, while he lived on this earth in human flesh, even said, “Of myself I can do nothing.”
On the Other Side of Hardship
Ever heard this saying?
Sometimes you have to be knocked flat on your back to look up.
I believe that God uses trials to get our attention. I’m not saying he causes bad things to happen, but he uses bad things to make us stop and realize how powerless we are. Without facing trials, we tend to get haughty, thinking we don’t need God. It is when we are knocked flat on our backs that we have to face the truth: we can do nothing without God.
After God has broken us, he can use us: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now I obey your word” (Ps. 119:67). While most of us would never ask for hardships, sometimes they are the best things that can happen to us. The Apostle Paul recognized this. Knowing that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness,” Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9). But what if we don’t have this attitude?
A Mature Faith
Please note: It is not natural to “boast about weaknesses,” or to thank God for hardship. It is only a mature person who can recognize the blessing in trials, and only a mature faith that can observe: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
When hardships come, we will either experience godly sorrow, or worldly sorrow. One type of sorrow sees hardship as an opportunity to lean on God and grow, and the other sees it as a life-ender; that was me in parts 1, 2, and 3.
So what am I to make of those years when I tried to pray but did not feel God’s presence? Looking to James, I think the answer has something to do with developing perseverance. James says, “[T]he testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything….” (James 1:2-4).
Sometimes we are not ready to receive the things of God. “The carnal [or worldly] mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rom. 8:7). I would substitute the word “immature” for “carnal.” My immature mind was not ready to submit to God—plus, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
Why do some of us have to go through more pain than others to “get it”? I don’t know. I just know that, on the other side of pain, there can be great joy. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
As the writer of Hebrews said, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (12:10-12).
This is how we know we have matured spiritually: when we can thank God for our trials.
After we have experienced a rebirth, how do we share our experience with others? Read part 6 to find out what worked (and what didn’t) for me.
Mobs form for all kinds of purposes and on all kinds of platforms—a group of “Twerds” (Twilight Nerds) standing in line to see the new release of the movie, some gamers getting together to join a virtual world, a group of Christians gathering to worship—but the two things they all have in common are leaders and followers. So, I’ll put two questions to you:
Are you a leader or a follower?
As a teacher and church officer, I’ve observed that most people are followers—and even though I’ve always preferred to see myself as a leader, I’m undoubtedly a follower of certain things/people/movements, too. In my next post I will talk more about leadership, but let’s camp on the follower aspect for now, since everyone can claim to be a follower of something. To get to my second question:
Who (or What) is it that you follow?
To my (at times) chagrin, I often find myself scoffing at popular movements that create mob followings: the Twilight series, Duck Dynasty, Facebook, iphones and whatever else everyone seems to be doing. I’ve gotten into this bad habit of automatically rejecting certain things just because they’re popular, because, I figure, “If everyone’s doing it, it must be wrong.” I think this approach stems equally from my being as Christian (you know, “The path to hell is wide” and all that), as well as from my desire to be a leader (if I want to lead others, I can’t be just like them).
But is that the right attitude to have? After all, as a self-professed Christian, I have to admit I have a lot of fellow “Christ followers” sitting in the same boat. And obviously I don’t think I’m wrong.
A better approach as a Christian and prospective leader, I’ve decided, is not to automatically reject something because “everyone is doing it.” Rather, I must go back to my source of truth and test whatever is being followed, to see if it is noble, worthy, true, and worthwhile (Phil. 4:4). Isaiah says, “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (8:20).
I’m not going to get onto my anti-technology platform (especially since I just got my first iphone) or my anti-Twilight platform, or my anti-whatever-else platform right now, except to say it saddens me to see so many people (and I’ll pick on Christians especially), flinging away their self-control, their dignity, their morals, to “follow” people, things, or movements that counter their so-called “convictions” or, at the very least, add little benefit to their lives. I know fellow believers who will wait for hours in line to see a midnight opening of a movie, but who can’t get out of bed to go to church. I know fellow believers who will whoop and yell at sporting events and listen with rapture at concerts, but who will barely look up from their iphones (sorry, that slipped in) during a sermon. I ask you: Who or what is it that you follow—truly follow?
Feel free to follow who or what you want, but please, call it what it is. Jesus said you can’t have two masters. You will love one and hate the other. He also said He’d rather a person be hot or cold than lukewarm.
Who do you follow?
I’d like to think I’m in the Jesus camp—that the one thing that would excite me enough to stand in line for hours, to go hungry for hours, to wake up ravenous (metaphorically speaking), is God and God’s word. I’d like to picture myself as one of the disciples sitting on the hillside at Jesus’ feet, unable to wait for his next “new release”—the next words He wants to speak to me. Right now I know I’m not always there. But that’s my desire: to be a “Jerd” (Jesus Nerd). That’s one mob I definitely approve of.
So, who or what are you waiting in line for? And does the person/thing/group at the front of the line confirm you are who you say you are?
Lest I sound too high and mighty for my britches here, in Part 2, I talk about some of my personal challenges in trying to be a Christian leader.
I think sometimes when a person has a conversion experience, all the old habits become suspect. And if not suspect, they remind you of old times when you lived in darkness. Is it okay to do this? A person wonders. I wondered this about my writing.
Writing—and I mean that personal writing I had done for over a decade with glorious abandon as ink, and often tears, flew across the page—used to bring such relief to me. But sometimes, now, it brought guilt. Maybe I hadn’t realized it before, but I was writing to wallow. Writing in the wrong.
That describes some of my writing history. But not all of it. My reasons were not always wrong, I have to believe. At first, they were just survival reasons, like at age fourteen, when I couldn’t talk to anyone. Or at age nineteen, when the ink substituted for blood. But after that I healed a little. And healed a little more each year, until, in my early twenties, writing was part wallowing, part revenge. By the time I had my conversion in 2010, around age twenty-six, I didn’t know exactly what my writing was. All I knew was that it felt uncomfortable now, didn’t seem to fit the new me, and the thought occurred to me: what if I’m sinning?
For a time I had tried to just forget about it, but early in 2012, I felt the old urge creeping up again. Despite the newly instituted seminar papers and thesis writing for a master’s degree, now it was starting to flow out into magazine articles and opinion pieces for the church newsletter and, of course, as always, my journal. I’m on journal number twenty-five since 1998.
But none of it was enough. None of these outlets was fully satisfying my urge. . . .
Nearing thirty, a realization was starting to sink in: I didn’t have forever to get a PhD, or to have kids, or to finally publish that book I’d always wanted to publish, much less do all three! What was I to make of these conflicting messages, and the confusion in my own heart?
I was definitely willing to consider that God had planted this recurring dream in me, like a seed that wanted to grow, but I still didn’t know what to do with it. So, God wanted me to write. But what?
As the summer wore on, I desperately wanted to apply to an MFA program [I am choosing not to reveal which one unless I get in!]. But I still felt I needed permission, somehow. I needed some validation that this was what I was supposed to do. I needed to know that writing could be different than it was before, because I was different.
And then, I met Paul Coneff.
To make a long story short, Paul came to my church to facilitate a week of prayer in March, around the time I was feeling desperate [about my career plans]. In five nights, he unfolded a message he calls The Hidden Half of the Gospel, or the message that Christ died not only for our sin—to give us a “happy ever after” in eternity—but that he also died for our suffering—to give us a happy life while on earth. An indispensible part of the message revolves around individuals finding their true, God-intended identities—restoring the identities that Satan strives to pervert, often through traumatic childhood experiences like mine.
Using a plethora of scriptures, Paul unfolded the story of the Suffering Messiah; Jesus had to suffer, die, and rise for our sins to free us. Because he was “tempted in all points like as we are, yet was without sin,” he is able to help us when we are being tempted. Because he has suffered like us—he was mentally, verbally, physically abused, plus he suffered depression and struggled to surrender his will—he can offer us healing for our pain (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:15, 16). Because he was attacked at the very core of his identity, he is able to restore us to our true identities, replacing lies from Satan, the Father of Lies (John 8:44), with his truth.
When I heard this message, I was being attacked with lies. I was hearing messages like I’m trapped; I will never be able to write; I’m not good enough to write; I don’t deserve to get to follow my dreams. I have to be stuck in a graduate program that I hate for five years, and then it will be too late for me.
But when I heard Paul explain how Jesus had died not only for our sins, but our suffering, to restore us to our God-given identities, to enable us to follow and fulfill our God-given dreams, I began to feel hope.
At the end of the week, Paul announced that he would be holding discipleship and prayer training in our church for three men and three women. This three-month-long training would prepare participants to embrace their God-given identities, enabling them to become disciples who could, through personally testifying to God’s restoration, lead others to Christ.
This sounded hopeful to me. At least, I thought, How could it hurt?
After I began discipleship training with Paul, he mentioned he was writing a book. He said it with a grimace. The writing was coming hard; he was no writer. But he had to get this book done. As a prolific public speaker, he needed a resource to offer listeners.
At hearing this, I felt another glimmer of hope. But I waited, taking this home with me, too. Now it was June, and I was struggling more than ever over my future, my graduate school plans, my teaching plans, my parenthood plans. I couldn’t find peace. Where was there room for the desires of my heart? More importantly, were those desires even valid?
Later in June when I received prayer for the first time—in this ministry, a prerequisite to discipling others is receiving prayer and healing in one’s own life, first—the prayer time revealed that I had not fully surrendered my will. Paul sent me home with a sample prayer and scriptures to pray day after day to further unfold this issue.
And so, in June, July, and August, I prayed. I cried. I read my Bible with fresh eyes. And like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I learned to pray “Lord, not my will, but yours.” I didn’t know exactly where all this praying, crying, and reading was leading, but I did know that, slowly, layers of remaining hurt were melting off. And within months, I had not only experienced peace to the point of deciding, conclusively, that I wanted kids, but also that I could trust God to make clear my career path in his good time.
By receiving Jesus’ victory over his carnal will, in July I was able lay my burdens at the cross, trusting God to work on my behalf, while I, meanwhile, composed my master’s thesis. Later that month, I had an article accepted by Insight Magazine—a piece I’d sent in over two years ago and had all but kissed goodbye. Because the article was embarrassingly autobiographical (it was actually a Guideposts reject from high school, chronicling my first suicide attempt), I kept it from most friends and family. But since I had five review copies, and since Paul deals with this type of thing all the time and was, moreover, still grimacing over the writing of his book, I figured, What the heck. I would give him one.
The day after he received the article, he called me, excited, saying, “This was really great; this really flowed. I want my book to flow like this.” Would I consider helping him write his book, which tells the stories of other wounded, yet healing, adolescents-turned-adults like myself?
The rest is history. As you read this, The Hidden Half of the Gospel: How His Suffering Can Heal Yours, should be going to press, to be published sometime in 2013. And it’s not about me.
Well, it is a little bit. Paul actually asked me to share part of my testimony in one of the chapters. I was a bit leery at first, wondering the same old question: Would I be writing this for the wrong reasons? But the more time I spent in prayer, both on my own and with our small group, the more peace I found about my career plans, my family plans, and my writing.
A few months ago I picked up one of those Bible verse cards with my name and my name’s meaning on it. This one says “Lindsey—Peaceful Isle,” and it has Psalm 37:4 printed below: “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” This verse, among others I’ve studied recently, has led me to believe that the more I surrender my will to God, the more I actually can “listen to my heart.”
Anyway, after finding the card, I set it on my desk at home, where I was writing my master’s thesis, and then Paul’s book, for most of the summer. As the weeks went by, as I continued to look at that card and ponder its message, I could only marvel at what God had done for me. Several years ago I had not been a “peaceful isle.” I had been a suicidal basket case with control and intimacy issues. But as I continued to delight myself in the Lord, he was slowly giving me the desires of my heart: chief most being the published book that would soon bear my name.