December 18, 2017

God’s Spiritual Formation “Program”

16-take-up-cross

Jesus left you an example that you should follow in his footsteps, Ain Vares

In the final analysis, there is one thing that enables believers to grow in Christ.

Few are willing to put it that starkly. In fact, there is so much false advertising out there about what actually equips people to change, develop personally, and become mature followers of Jesus, that we have become utterly confused and in some ways unable to talk honestly about it. We have replaced the plain, hard truth with hype and ineffective programs. The church’s teaching about the matter rarely hits the mark. Living in a “can-do” culture that has a technological answer for everything, we seek to apply that mentality and approach to spiritual formation, and guess what? Spiritual technology doesn’t work. It can’t.

We have talked about spiritual practices as “training exercises” which encourage us to live a life “with Jesus,” developing our capacity to receive God’s gifts. While I believe it is essential to take a “train, not try” approach for reasons that have been spelled out in previous posts, even this is not enough to facilitate a genuine growth that will move us toward maturity. No, there is only one thing that will do that. And, surprise! you won’t find it listed on the purpose, vision, or strategy statement of any church out there. You won’t find it incorporated into their program or materials. In fact, in many segments of the church, you won’t hear much about this at all.

If I could summarize this divine opportunity for spiritual formation in one word, I would use the term . . .

carrying-the-crossSuffering. It’s the one thing that will enable you and me to grow. Kudos if your church has a program for that!

I’m serious. However, it is important that I explain what I mean. When I use the word “suffering,” I want you to think more broadly than what we normally mean by that word. Don’t just think: “when something bad happens to me that hurts.” There are other kinds of “suffering.”

The athlete suffers when engaging in her sport. She is facing challenges that require her attention and exertion. The athlete must put herself in situations that test her and stretch her and force her to develop herself and her game in new ways all the time. She does not just suffer when she gets injured or treated unfairly. Her very participation in the sport means participation in “suffering.”

In the same way, a man who starts and runs a small business suffers. So do couples who decide to marry. So do those who raise children. Farmers suffer in order to bring in a harvest each year. Teachers suffer to pass on knowledge and wisdom to their students, and the student suffers in the pursuit of learning. To try and be a friend is to suffer. To seek to do one’s work well is to suffer. A pastor suffers in order to minister to his or her congregation. In fact, engaging in life in any meaningful way requires opening oneself to a variety of tests, risks, and challenges that make demands on us and call forth various responses from us.

I’ve used the word “suffering,” but what we are talking about is the testing that life brings. We are talking about the “school of hard knocks.” We are talking about life experience. Experience may certainly involve failure and pain, but it always involves challenges big and small that stretch us.

The Bible is replete with examples and teachings that verify this. Read the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis. What deepened their faith? What energized their obedience? What brought change and transformation to their lives so that they became for us the fathers and mothers of our faith?

It was the tests of life. They grew through the sufferings and challenges that met them in the course of their daily living, working, marrying, having and not having children, relating to other family members and neighbors, dealing with conflict and winning and losing, facing situations that involved making decisions, taking risks, learning to face their own weaknesses and suffering from the sins of others. The patriarchal narratives are stories of testing, struggle, pain, betrayal, disappointment, opposition, sins and their consequences, grief and loss, unfulfilled hopes, and seemingly impossible situations.

They are also about a God who guides them through all this mess. And the people who learn to trust him.

It is this in-the-midst-of-daily-life suffering by which we grow.

If you’d rather have a more propositional statement of this fact, we might look at Romans 5:1-7 (ESV):

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Between salvation and glory lies suffering and what it produces in our lives.

This text parallels what Paul says in Romans 8, which likewise speaks of “no condemnation” in Christ, the hope of glory, “the sufferings of this present time,” and the work of the Spirit in leading and assuring us of God’s love.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)

What I want you to see that Paul’s entire description of the Christian’s life in this world is wrapped up in one word — suffering — or, in the phrase in 8:17: “we suffer with him.” As we live in this world, at peace with God, availing ourselves of his grace, longing for the fulfillment of our hope, the course of our life is marked mainly by this: “we suffer with him.” As ch. 5 tells us, this suffering ultimately benefits us, for as we suffer with Christ, we grow. Endurance, proven character, and a stronger assurance of God’s promised glory emerge out of the fires of testing.

Does not the natural world teach us this same truth? Organisms in our world must learn to acclimate to changing environments. The world does not always (ever!) accommodate them with a perfect, unchanging, ever-nurturing environment. There are constant challenges and threats to their well being. Life forms that adjust make it. Those that can’t don’t. It is only in the context of the actual natural world, with its “sufferings,” that organisms find ways of growing and flourishing.

Likewise, you and I can pray all we want, fast all we can, and study the Bible all the way through, and these spiritual disciplines will “fill our tanks” with resources. But it is only in the course of leaving our prayer closets, closing our Bibles, and going out the door to face the challenges of the day in real life contexts, among our neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers that we encounter the “hard things” that force us to adapt, change, develop, and grow. At times, when things get extra hard, when we really “suffer” in the way we normally use the word, that may be when we have opportunity to grow the most.

So, if your church advertises a curriculum or program which promises spiritual growth, realize that they can’t deliver.

Only life can.

crossesMarva Dawn is a marvelous writer, whose profound insights grow not only out of her impressive intellect, but from a life of dealing with debilitating disabilities. She is convinced that the entire Bible sets forth a “theology of weakness” that should guide us and our churches as we live in the world. She builds upon Luther’s teaching, with its emphasis on “the theology of the cross.”

In her book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, Dawn analyzes a key verse from 2 Corinthians 12, and suggests that it should be understood like this:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for [your] power is brought to its end in weakness.”

All the more gladly, then, will I boast in my weaknesses that the power of Christ [not mine!] may tabernacle upon me. Therefore, I take delight in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong (2Cor 12:9-10).

She points out that “God has more need of our weakness than of our strength,” for in our weakness, God shows the world that he dwells with “the humble and contrite of heart” and not with those who “have their act together.”

We only learn our weakness when we confront the plain, hard truth that life in this fallen world is difficult and challenging, that it puts obstacles to grace in our way with every step along our journey, and that pain and loss must be experienced, felt, and processed by every human being. If we can do so “with Christ,” in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” then perhaps we shall begin to understand and experience genuine, lasting spiritual growth.

Neither the accumulated wisdom of all the earth and the skies, nor languages, the Church Fathers, and daily reading of the Holy Scriptures, nor immense learning and eloquence make a good theologian or pastor if the cross is not added. Through the cross God purifies, cleanses, strengthens, and perfects the light of His true knowledge, of true faith in Christ, of true understanding of the divine promises, proper prayer, hope, humility, and all the virtues which He has first planted in the heart through the Word.

– David Chytraeus (1531-1600), “A Meditation on the Cross”

Header Art by Ain Vares.

Comments

  1. In the King James:
    But Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

  2. This post is SO spot on. I’ve struggled so long and so often with trying to market, promote, encourage, program for spiritual growth in our church. Most people say they want this, but very few want to make the commitments to follow through on the assignments. Maybe they are not simply lazy, maybe they are on to something. Maybe we should just chill, simplify, enjoy life together, and tough out the tough times.

    It can’t be an accident that the climax of the Biblical message focuses on a Lamb who wins by being defeated. Also, it strikes me that the ideas in this post resonate with the book of Ecclesiastes. Anyone else agree?

    DSY

  3. Robert F says:

    Though I accept evolution as a natural process, I think the analogy is not a good one. Individual organisms do not mutate or adapt, species do. The individual organisms without the necessary survival qualities simply die and get out of the way. And the changes in species that fit the environment are the result of random mutations, not a choice on the part of the species to adapt. For every one beneficial mutation there are hundreds (?) that actually make survival less likely. There is no room for the “weak” in such an comparison; they simply die. That doesn’t seem to leave much hope for many of us, myself included, when transposed to the spiritual life.

    • Good point, Robert. I’ll think about a better metaphor from nature.

      • I think your metaphor holds up. I understand it in the same way I understand all the metaphors to nature that Jesus used in his parables…loosely. As part of creation we do need to look to nature for how to be in this world. Perhaps individual organisms don’t adapt but isn’t that why we’re apart from nature in that we can choose as individuals? Nature “suffers” but does it know that it’s suffering as we do?
        Brave, insightful post, Chap. Mike. In our entertainment-saturated, suffering-avoidance culture this is a message that is rarely heard or understood. But I would say that the ability to deal with suffering as part of life not opposed to life is correlated with the amount of time spent in silence, solitude & contemplation/prayer. One supports the other.

        • Adrienne says:

          FranH ~ interesting thought, “But I would say that the ability to deal with suffering as part of life not opposed to life is correlated with the amount of time spent in silence, solitude & contemplation/prayer. One supports the other.”

          Could you expand a bit?

          • Suffering takes time whether it’s the time spent healing from a tragedy, time spent in mending a relationship, time spent in an athletic discipline. When one understands suffering as part of life, you can & will give it that time. When one sees suffering as opposed to life, you naturally want to get rid of it as fast as possible or avoid it all together. (And when I say life, I mean the fullness of life that God wants us to have.). The ability to see suffering for what it is is aided by the time we spend in silence, solitude & contemplation because in this mode we are not actors but vessels, sacred vessels. In quietude we allow ourselves to see, observe & feel in a way that affects all other actions we might take.

    • What I really should have talked about was ACCLIMATION, not ADAPTATION. Acclimation refers to the way organisms adjust to changing environments over the short term. It does not refer to long-term genetic changes on the species level.

      I have edited the paragraph in question to reflect this.

      • Adrienne says:

        FranH ~ beautiful, wise words. Oh how I wish I had known this a few years ago. Thank you for expanding on your original post.

  4. Adrienne says:

    An Internet standing ovation to you Chaplain Mike. This is the “answer” God led me to in my desperate time of searching and rejecting. The verses you quoted from Romans 5:1-7 are the verses my husband and I learned by experience when he was dying. In fact in the one and only Christmas letter I have ever sent in my life I quoted these verses to encourage friends and family as I gently let them know that he was dying. Up to that point I always thought suffering “wore you down” and surely there is that aspect to it. But these verses showed me that, quite the contrary, suffering is expanding and productive spiritually.

    This is one of, if not the, your best post yet. I am going to start praying that when my pastor decides to retire that you will come to pastor my church. The only incentives I can offer you are Lebanon bologna and Hershey’s Chocolate!!

  5. PastorM says:

    Well, this isn’t going to sell with those who seek “7 (preferably easy) Steps to Spiritual Growth,” and they will still probably flock to places that teach that there are. Yet, as you point out, this really is the “biblical” way, in the proper use of that word.

  6. Very good, very good.

  7. You have been hitting it out of the park with these posts on spiritual formation, Mike, and this last post was like Jim Northrup’s grand-slam home run in game 6 of the 1968 World Series.

    <i<Nevertheless

    You can suffer and nothing particularly good can come of it. I know two men whose sons have committed suicide, one on-line and the other a lapsed friend from my distant past. Both men, as you can imagine, are in unimaginable pain at a time in their lives when they should be reaping the harvest of their life long faithfulness.

    One of them is handling the pain better than the other. Out of sympathy for these men, I won’t go into any more detail than that. Both of them are handling it better than I would. I’d be on a water tower with an M110 picking off passers-by.

    The verse in the apostle where Paul talks about filling up the sufferings of Christ comes to mind. As my parish priest is entirely ineffectual except insomuch as he participates in the priesthood of Christ, so our sufferings in and of themselves don’t appear to me tho have any intrinsic virtue to improve us or unite us to Christ.

    But when they are united to His suffering…

    • Radagast says:

      But Mr. Mule….

      Suffering does give one the opportunity to grow, where as those who are newbies or live in a bubble or in a world where they perceive everything is OK have nothing to challenge them. There are also those who refuse to look deeper….

      Chaplain Mike… next you’ll be telling us your reading Saint John of the Cross, Maximus the Confessor and John Cassion…. good stuff!

  8. +1
    I hope you realize that you pastor many here.

  9. Chaplain Mike:
    If you were a basketball player this post was a three pointer and nothing but net!!

    Great Post, I really needed to hear it.

  10. And, as St. Paul reminds us, we ought to “rejoice in our suffering”.

    This 21st century American has real trouble with that one. Except in those rare moments where I actually seem to get it, for very brief moments (few and far between).

  11. Just a thought, yes and amen to the idea that suffering is the key to formation, but what if that may be nuanced to come to a place where the product of that suffering – humility – serves as the foundation for spiritual formation? The analogy of evolution may not always lead to a desired place, rather despair or a rising up of self to defeat the causes of suffering. But suffering that results in humility and finally submission, and usually inarticulate submission, may he what makes us ultimately open to being conformed to that Imago Dei.

  12. UmiUmiSumi says:

    Thank you Chaplain Mike! Great series before your well-earned time away from the site.

    This was something that I had noticed was lacking from the Evangelical/Protestant world of my upbringing towards the end of my time at church. I think learning about the Catholic tradition, which seems to have a better bead on the whole Suffering thing than most of the Protestant world, and the ironic fact that the doubt, anger, and trial of kind of ‘losing my religion’ when my relationship with my church was falling apart opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of the faith and Christ brought that about.

    My time of spiritual trial definitely isn’t over. I still have so many doubts and issues that haven’t been resolved, and I don’t know if and when they will be, but posts like this one help restore some hope that there is God and good to come of what has been a spiritually dark period for me.

  13. You nailed it. Wonderful post. Thank you. The Church needs more of this sort of teaching!

  14. Dana Ames says:

    Excellent, CM, thank you.

    All your examples from “daily life” are about opportunities for denying oneself – that’s how we “take up our cross”. All those small denials of self can indeed open the door to humility, noted by Bill at 9:57, and larger sufferings also offer those opportunities. Not everyone will walk through the door, as Mule noted. It’s really hard a lot of the time.

    So many people get all wrapped up in the power & sovereignty of God. One thing that has affected me very deeply over the past year or so is apprehending something of the *humility* of God.

    Take care, and have a very fruitful “sabbatical” from the ‘net.

    Dana

  15. I remember reading a biography of Dostoevsky and he said the same thing to an aspiring writer who wanted to emulate Dostoevsky’s impact on the world. One must suffer, that’s the only way to truly grow and mature.

  16. In writing and researching my recent academic paper entitled, “Surprised by Suffering? The Role of Suffering in Sanctification”, I came to the same conclusion regarding the role and necessity of suffering in our lives for spiritual growth and formation.

    I wish I had known of Marva Dawn’s book, but my study and reading led me to examine the importance of the theology of the cross as well. It is our implicit (we all have one) or explicit (we all need one) theology of the cross which shapes and informs our response to the inevitability of suffering in our life. As UmiUmiSumi noted, Catholic theologians step into this discussion while most Protestant ones remain silent, particularly evangelical writers and thinkers.

    I applaud this online discussion and hope it will spark others to engage the topic of suffering in a thoughtful, studious and compassionate manner. One place to start is an exploration of the concept of Christ being made perfect through suffering as described in Hebrews 2:10; 5:8; 7:28.

  17. I am kind of a simple man, I always thought this sort of thing was completely the task of the Holy Spirit?

  18. A writer I respect maintains we change either through prayer or suffering. Based on my prayer life I understand why any change in my life has been facilitated by the latter

  19. Adrienne says:

    “The cross of Christ is the true ground and chief cause of Christian hope.”

    —Leo the Great (400-461)

  20. Robert F says:

    “At times, when things get extra hard, when we really ‘suffer’ in the way we normally use that word, that may be when we have opportunity to grow the most…..” I may be wrong about what I’m about to say, and if I am wrong I’m more than willing to be corrected, but here goes: it seems to me that the entire post, and especially the sentence I quoted, are doing what you, Chaplain Mike, have counseled we should not do to those who are suffering (most recently because of death dealing tornadoes), and that is to offer reasons for their suffering or rationales for why their suffering has some sort of ultimate purpose, some framework within which it all makes sense and is really part of God’s plan and purpose for them. What you counseled in the face of suffering was “silence, tears, prayers, practical support,” and you furthermore stated in strong terms that there is never a good time to offer some ultimate purpose for suffering, not even years after a tragic event. But in this post you seem to be saying that suffering is the way God forms us, and that the “extra hard” suffering (tornadoes?) may be what helps us “grow the most,” i.e., when God is forming us the most. In effect, you’ve offered an explanation for why God either allows or ordains suffering, from lower level suffering of undertaking a discipline like running all the way up to the “extra hard” stuff which I have to assume means what is often labeled as tragic suffering: God allows and/or ordains suffering so that we may have opportunities to grow and/or so that he may form us according to his will. You can be assured that there are many here among your readers who have suffered grievously and traumatically, and that they are being told here that the reason for their suffering was so that they might grow and be formed by God, that the occasions of such suffering constitute “God’s Spiritual Formation ‘Program’.”

    Anyway, that’s what it seems to me you are saying. Am I misunderstanding or not properly analyzing what you’ve written? As I said, I’m very willing to be corrected.

    • Robert, there is a difference between saying that formation only happens in the midst of real life with its “sufferings” — not just the bad things but the constant challenges and tests we face — and giving counsel to a person who is suffering by trying to teach them “the purpose” of their sufferings.

      My purpose in this post is to push back against the contemporary church’s tendency to make spiritual growth something you can get out of a package or by participating in a program. No, it’s about walking with Christ in his sufferings every day, as we deal with the challenging realities of life.

      The purpose is not to give a rationale for why God sends suffering in our lives.

      I hope you can see the difference.

      • Robert F says:

        I must confess that I find it a rather fine distinction; that, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t a real distinction. But to me it seems as much a difference of tone and approach as of substance. I can, however, do nothing but give you the benefit of the doubt and suspend my suspicion; you, after all, are the Chaplain.

        • It’s a subtle nuance that makes a world of difference. What CM is saying gives hope to those who feel like they’re loosing in the everyday grind. There’s a difference between helping people come to cognitive harmony and intellectual grasp of their situation and giving people hope when they despair of the former. One trivializes and insists that rejoicing is the proper and truly spiritual response to pain. The other confesses the brokenness of humanity, weeps with those who weep, and points to Christ where healing may be found. There’s a difference between understanding what God is doing and why, and understanding that we can’t always know that. To tell someone in trial “the Lord is sanctifying you, so be glad!” is akin to “Get you’re act together!” But to say, “Christ can still be your peace” is encouragement and points to a deeper reality in the Gospel.

          • Or better, to say nothing and just sit with that person.

            I had a remarkable experience of that today. I went with one of my nurses to a home that has been difficult. The patient is non-compliant and her son has many struggles, including being HIV-positive and having a history of dealing with illness and other problems. He got very upset about something that was being recommended, went on a rant and cursed us out, and was inconsolable.

            We walked out to the porch and while the nurse was making some phone calls to the doctor to check on what we could do, I sat with the son and just let him talk. Eventually he spent himself, and through tears began expressing his grief and concerns. In the end I felt we had forged a connection and he seemed to think so too.

            The only words I said throughout the entire incident were a few supportive words — “We’re here for you.” “We’ll be happy to work with you on this.” Etc. Perhaps in time it will be appropriate to introduce Jesus into the conversation. For the time being, it was the loving thing to simply “show up and shut up.”

          • Great story! With the “Christ can still be your peace,” I kinda had believers in mind. In your case, I would say you have begun to say that strongly with your actions. I think you are right, introducing Christ at the wrong time can cause more offense than interest. Sometimes we have to show somebody before we can tell them.

        • @Robert F…..

          I may be totally wrong, but it seems to me that you are confusing how to comfort someone ELSE’s suffering, and how to make sense of our OWN suffering. We do need to sit with those around us who are suffering, and simply offer our gift of presence, in addition to what material and practical help can be provided from our own blessings.

          But, when we are dealing with our own suffering, it is easy to try to numb the pain, rail at God, become depressed, lose our faith….or any combination of the above. What I hear CM saying, and what I understand in my own life, is that a HUGE part of being a follower of Christ is learning to share in His suffering. Our rewards are not in this world, although being happy, healthy, and wealthy is a possible life for a Christian….(.albeit an unlikely one.) When life is great, it is so easy to believe that God loves us and all is sunshine and rainbows for those who follow the rules of how to be a perfect Christian!!!!!

          But…

          When life sucks, we either turn toward the Lord and lean on Him, or we become bitter and angry. Look at the life (and death) of Jesus….and of the twelve. Poor, reviled, and nasty deaths for all but one. Following Jesus is not a program to make us healthy, wealthy, and free from strife. All of us suffer, some more than others. It is a chance to join our lives with His and rest in the assurance of His ultimate plan…even when doing so feels so crappy to our human selves. For me, it is only in giving up my illusion of control of my life and trusting my Guide in the blinding storms that I have started…just barely…..to be able to pray “Thy will be done” and believe that His plans are my path to eternity.

          • Robert F says:

            Well, I am experiencing a significant amount of suffering involving myself and others close to me myself; I have been for quite a while and have no reasonable expectation that it will end any time soon (that is, this side of the grave). I have not found suffering to be ennobling or purifying; rather, I have experienced degradation and disappointment at myself for being unable to accept it gracefully and with equanimity. I’m aware of how I’m SUPPOSED to deport myself as a believer in Jesus Christ, but it ain’t happening. If anything, my character has slipped down a couple of notches into a grumbling, resentful slouch, the resentment stemming from the fact that I can neither find the inner resources to deal with things, nor feel any sense of being supported by God. My feelings tell me “You’re in it along, and you always will be,” despite what my understanding tells me, and in fact holds my understanding in derision. So the subject of this post is not merely academic for me.

            Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask for the prayer of anyone of good will who would be willing to pray for me and mine at this time.

            • You have our prayers, Robert. And please forgive me if I added in any way to your pain. That certainly was not my intent.

              You make a good point: “I have not found suffering to be ennobling or purifying.” This is one of the reasons why we must not think that our words are the most important thing when trying to comfort those who are hurting. Our words will not ring true to them, for the kind of suffering you are talking about simply hurts, and usually without any discernible reason behind it.

              Unfortunately, those of us who are talking here are not with you, Robert, or we might better be able to demonstrate the kind of supportive presence you need. I hope you have some people in your life who can and will.

          • Robert F says:

            Thanks, Chap, for the words of encouragement. And I know that your intent is not to add to anyone’s pain; anyway, no one else could possibly add anywhere near as much pain to what I already have as I routinely do myself.

            I’m afraid that I have no personal network of support that I can trust and rely on outside of my wife, my cat, the communion of saints and Jesus Christ; that should be more than enough, I guess. But that’s just exactly the crux of the real suffering: I just can’t seem to believe that that’s enough.

            Thank you for your prayers.

          • Radagast says:

            Robert F.

            Prayers from Pittsburgh….

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Robert F.

            Prayers from Seattle…

          • Marcus Johnson says:

            Robert F.

            Prayers from Michigan…

            Although, I will say, as a fellow cat owner, my cats have much more wisdom than I do.

          • Robert, I am deeply sorry if I contributed to your misery. I was not lecturing but sharing from my own pain. Let’s just say that I had a run of years when a friend’s husband, who was a quadriplegic unable to do anything for himself except breathe, honestly said he felt sorry for ME!

            There are no answers, none that satisfy. Frankly, there have been a few times when being Catholic and NOT wanting to risk eternity without God, have been the ONLY things standing between me and self-inflicted murder.

            So….huge and heartfelt prayers from central Virginia…..

          • Robert F says:

            Pattie,

            I did not take your words amiss, and I’m sorry if I gave you that impression; I appreciate that you offered something out of your own experience, and I appreciate your prayers and good wishes.

            Marcus Johnson,

            Thanks, and yes, cats have scary wisdom.

            To all,

            Thanks for your prayers.

  21. Robert F says:

    That is, “You’re in it alone, and always will be…”

    • Adrienne says:

      RobertF

      ” I’m aware of how I’m SUPPOSED to deport myself as a believer in Jesus Christ, but it ain’t happening. If anything, my character has slipped down a couple of notches into a grumbling, resentful slouch, the resentment stemming from the fact that I can neither find the inner resources to deal with things, nor feel any sense of being supported by God.”

      This describes me RobertF when I went through a terrible, dark time of loss. I felt totally abandoned and betrayed by people and by God. I was ashamed of my own response and even wondered if, for 35 years, I had built my house on sand. Where was all that I had believed, all that I had told others, all the reading and studying. Where was it? Day and night I railed and wept and cried out. What would people think of my “testimony” now? The “strong Christian woman” who worked at the local Christian Bookstore and was always so joyful and encouraging. What happened to her? She fell apart? How could that be?

      That was the beginning of my journey and how grateful I am for that time now. I am a different person. I am broken, weak, even my physical health is gone. And I am thanking God every day. Part of my journey led me here to the IMonk site. It was as if someone threw me a lifeline when I was about to go under. Like I got air when I was gasping for it. I have had to re-examine my theology and I have been set free. No longer do I think I have to be God’s PR person. No longer do I have to be “strong” (whatever I thought that meant). Now, as Paul says, I rejoice and glory in one thing only – the Cross of Jesus Christ. I sense you are on a similar journey. You are being freed RobertF, hang in there and just allow God to take you on your path. It takes time but it is more than worth it.

      I will be praying for you also.

      • Robert F says:

        Adrienne,
        I don’t worry about being God’s PR person to other people; nobody I know thinks of me as an emissary of Christ. But the disappointment in myself, and the horrible fear that, feeling bitter and angry as I do about my suffering I couldn’t possibly have any actual faith, is what absolutely crushes me, making me doubt not only myself but Christ, too. And this has been going on for such a very long time; I’ve been treading water, but I’m starting to sink. And the problems in every corner of my life just keep mushrooming. It would be comic if it wasn’t so scary.

        But there is nothing to do but hang in there. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”

        Thank you for your prayers.

        • Robert,
          I really appreciate what you’ve said, because at least I know there’s one other person in the same boat with me.
          I have not found that suffering generally leads us closer to God. For most people, it leads us closer to despair.
          Then of course, you feel that everyone else around you is truly a fine spiritual person, while your (my) own faith is pathetically weak and contemptible. As you say, “But the disappointment in myself, and the horrible fear that, feeling bitter and angry as I do about my suffering I couldn’t possibly have any actual faith, is what absolutely crushes me, making me doubt not only myself but Christ, too.”
          Now, for almost everyone here, Chaplain M’s message hit it out of the park. So it must be that I’m not understanding the message (or else I really am a disgusting toad.)
          Probably people feeling as you do and I do should not be reading Kurt Vonnegut, at least not exclusively. But he does seem to “speak to my condition.”

          • Robert F says:

            H. Lee,
            I think suffering like anything else in life can end in blessing or in bane. I have to believe that just enduring is enough, and that somehow God is upholding me despite being riddled with doubt and disbelief. Sartre wrote: “Life begins on the other side of despair.” Maybe people like you and me just have to wait it out as we plod through layer after layer of despair until we get to the other side; maybe there is real faith in just waiting it out. I’ll pray that we both will be able to wait it out.

            About Vonnegut: I can never read either Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle without laughing uproariously; the only book that makes me laugh more than those is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. All three novels are a wholesome tonic for the sickening Song of Myself that thanks to Whitman has dominated so much of the American spirit. I will always keep Vonnegut on the nightstand next to my Bible and the Dhammapada: like them, he helps me sleep at night.

  22. Rein Laaneser says:

    Please, mike refere in the illustration author name, honoring copyright lawas. Better even ask permission from author. This is property of Estonian Chrstian Artist, http://www.ainvaresart.com/

    Sincerely

    Rein L.

    • Rein,

      Thank you for writing. We use art under the Creative Commons license, but always like to give credit to the artist. I did not know the source of this art, but thank you for letting me know. I have updated the post to give the information.

      Chaplain Mike

  23. JoanieD says:

    “She points out that ‘God has more need of our weakness than of our strength,’ for in our weakness, God shows the world that he dwells with ‘the humble and contrite of heart’ and not with those who ‘have their act together.’ ”

    That’s great to know! My act is SO not together.