We are immersed in an intense, abiding, miraculous, powerful love story. Let that sink in for a moment. In a world where there is heartbreak and disappointment around every corner, isn’t that all we want to know? That there is someone there, loving us, waiting with us, companioning us without needing anything in return. We don’t necessarily need someone to fix our brokenness or give us advice. We need someone to be with us, to assure us when everything is not ok, to (in a simple but often misunderstood word) love us.
One writer put it this way: “John of the Cross says that God is the first contemplative. God’s gaze on us makes us irresistibly attractive to him. So it is not we who first loved God, but God who first loved us. We wake up in the middle of a love story. We did not begin it.” (John Welch)
Yes! We are in the middle of a great love story, but like the air we breathe in which we are usually unaware of the gift of oxygen filling our lungs and fueling our next steps forward, we frequently live unaware of this love story.
The greatest, deepest, most true reality in this world is that we are passionately loved and pursued by God. It is a life altering truth when we are able to take it in and consciously live in the midst of that story. All the storms of life, without denying them, pale in comparison to the reality that we are loved, valued, pursued by one who can love like no other. The God of this universe is crazy about me and He doesn’t stop in His pursuit of me.
The challenge is one of awareness. How much of the time am I living with my heart fixed on this love story? How much of my day do I put the events of my life in the context of the plot of this story?
In the first century, one of the writers of Scripture, Jude, challenged the first followers of Jesus to “keep themselves in the love of God.” (Jude 21) He wrote those words in the midst of a world where “there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.” (Jude 18-19)
There will be those who tell very different stories than the good story in which you are actually immersed. These stories center around competition and comparison, division and deception, selfishness and self-protectiveness. All stories which keep us looking at the circumstances of our lives and wondering why we don’t have enough, but of a God of love reminds us that we have all that we need and there is nothing that can take that away.
Over the last two and half years of my life, I’ve walked through circumstances that could make anyone question what story is being told. After battling two kinds of cancer, several surgeries, 6 different rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, months of hospitalization which included a stay in ICU for heart failure, pneumonia from Legionnaire’s Disease, Graft vs. Host Disease from the transplant, and more (but you get the point), I realize that I had been seeing all these things in the context of a great love story.
By God’s mercy and grace, He gave me the sense that all of what I was experiencing was a part of this love story, the reality that He is drawing me closer to Himself. The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen talks about putting our brokenness under the blessing. When we are living with the awareness that we are God’s beloved, it changes everything:
“For me, this ‘putting of our brokenness under the blessing’ is a precondition for befriending it. Our brokenness is often so frightening to face because we live it under the curse. Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience our pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves … there is always something searching for an explanation of what takes place in our lives and, if we have already yielding to the temptation to self-rejection, then every form of misfortune only deepens it.”
“The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us.”
“And so the great task becomes that of allowing the blessing to touch us in our brokenness. Then our brokenness will gradually come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the Beloved. This explains why true joy can be experienced in the midst of great suffering. It is the joy of being disciplined, purified, and pruned. Just as athletes who experience great pain as they run the race, can at the same time, taste the joy of knowing that they are coming closer to their goal, so also can the Beloved experience suffering as a way to the deeper communion for which they yearn. Here joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved)
So, in the words of Jude, “keep yourself in the love of God.” Reject all the other stories that tell you that your life is cursed or that things aren’t fair or that you aren’t enough. Keep yourself in the love of God as you choose daily to remind yourself that there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. (Romans 8:37-39) In reality, every circumstance of life is place in which we can experience His love in ever deepening ways.
Are you looking for this great love story? Are you noticing the ways the plot is being developed in your life? Keep yourself in the love of God!
Advent is a time of waiting. Traditionally, the weeks before Christmas have been a time of “living into” the story of waiting for God, waiting for Him to appear in human flesh and being born as a baby. The discipline of waiting to celebrate is a significant spiritual practice because it mirrors real life. More often than not, in our lives, we experience loss and grief, and waiting is a part of the reality. We wait for healing. We wait for the right person to come along. We wait through the pain of a miscarriage. We wait. We wait. We wait. The Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, expresses beautifully the discipline of waiting as we pleadingly sing the word “come” over and over. And, the name Emmanuel (translated as “God with us”) perfectly describes the truest, deepest longing of our hearts … to experience God’s presence in our lives no matter the current situation.
When we don’t know how to wait, we are cut off from reaching down deep into our hearts to discover what it is we truly desire. The discipline of waiting in Advent has largely been preempted by starting to celebrate Christmas as soon as possible. Often, Christmas decorations are sold next to decorations for Halloween.
I’m not interested in criticizing the larger culture because we all have choices to make in terms of how we interact with the world around us. I am more interested in the inward look that asks what is going on in my own soul.
We want what we want when we want it. Right? We might try to over-spiritualize things and pretend that we don’t struggle with instant gratification and that we are content moment to moment, but do you ever get angry?
We live in an age of anger. Outrage is all the rage. We react and over-react as we encounter our world rather than stopping, noticing, and responding in love. Again, take an inward look and ask: do I ever get angry?
It might be something as simple as getting angry while driving or as frustrating as yelling at your daughter because she once again left dirty dishes on the counter for someone else to clean. Or, it could be that we are feeling anger as we look at the political climate in our country. Whether seemingly big or small, anger is a clear indicator that we want what we want when we want it!
The poet David Whyte penned these words about anger: “Anger is the deepest form of compassion. For another, for the world, for the self, and for all our ideals. All vulnerable and all possibly about to be hurt.”
Anger and compassion? What Whyte is getting at is that we get angry about what we love. One of the benefits of paying attention to our anger is that we can get insight into what we love, what is important to us.
So, as you feel anger, consider it an invitation to reflection: what is it that I am loving right now? And, is that love out of proportion to the circumstance? Is it out of proportion with other things that I love? For example, I may love a clean kitchen with dishes put away but do I love that more than my daughter?
And, as you experience anger, practice the discipline of waiting. Most often, our anger arises from unmet expectations and a longing for more than our present experience affords. Reflect on these questions: what I am expecting? Could there be more to the story? If I wait, might more be revealed than I am presently seeing?
The decision to wait and reflect when experiencing anger will only become a practice with intention. Let the waiting and reflecting be prayerful. Go to God. Express your anger to Him. He not only can handle it, He can transform it. As we express our anger in prayer, in the presence of the Almighty who is love, we begin to see with His eyes.
Psalm 13:3, “Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”
An early church father, Denys the Areopagite, suggested that it works like this: we “picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are ropes joining it to some rock. We take hold of the rope and pull on it as if we were trying to drag the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock.”
As we go to God in prayer with our anger, waiting and reflecting, our anger can be transformed. We are reminded that what our hearts long for is the one who is pure love. When our loves are impure or incomplete, we can become demanding and angry but when we love what He loves, we become patient and accepting. We are able to accept “what is” in love rather than demand “what isn’t” in anger.
God is and He never changes. When we throw our ropes around Him, we are drawn into a love that can never diminish or be taken away. (Romans 8:31-39)
The message of the Advent and then Christmas season is that God is with us. He companions us and never leaves us or forsakes us. Feeling anger? Are you loving and valuing and treasuring the God who is with you or demanding something more or different? He is enough, actually more than enough, to satisfy the deepest longings of our soul. To stop and wait and reflect and pray can be a huge act of faith in this age of anger.
*Blog post inspired by a sermon delivered by Rev. Jim Clark at Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
In the coming weeks of December, we will likely hear a song with the words: “silent night, holy night.” The pairing of these descriptors for a particular night is no coincidence. It seems that holiness and silence go together beautifully, and yet we often miss the significance. Even more, we can become fearful when we think of those two words.
For many of us, silence means that we are left alone with our thoughts or perhaps silence was used punitively when we were children. Noise and words can distract us from the hurts and unpleasant thoughts we often carry in our hearts. However, on the other hand, silence can actually move us into a place of receiving and experiencing the very presence of love. Noise and words can serve the purpose of “protecting” us but they can also block out the love which can heal and transform our woundedness.
We often want a big show that will show us that God is speaking to us and present in our lives. But, God usually doesn’t present Himself in that way. In the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Kings 19:11-13), we read:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It was in the quiet sound of a “low whisper” or perhaps “silence” (the Hebrew word could mean either) that God spoke. We might think, “why doesn’t God make it more obvious?” God’s presence in our lives is most often in silence because He never wants to force Himself on us. He desires to be gentle and humble in His way. (Matthew 11:28-30) Simply being present with us is the love we crave and we come to perceive that love when we get quiet.
In the recent movie about Fred Rogers, there is a scene in which Mr. Rogers asks a reporter who is interviewing him to simply be quiet for minute. The film doesn’t just represent a minute of silence, there is actually a minute of movie silence and it is powerful. He asks the reporter to call to mind all the ways in which he had been loved. It was transformative experience for this man.
When we are quiet and devote ourselves to periods of reflective silence, we experience the holy or the sacred. Holiness can also be a word which scares us but it simply speaks of that which is transcendent and most real. Love itself is the most holy reality in the universe because God is love.
Brother Thomas, the Canadian monk and artist, wrote: “Once we become aware of the Holy, we part company with words.” Perhaps the inverse is true as well: when we part company with words, we become aware of the holy.
As we learn silence, we learn presence …being present to God’s love in real time. As we are silent and quiet with others, we are giving them presence, or love.
During these weeks of “much noise,” take just a minute each day (or if you are slightly more daring, more than a minute) and simply embrace silence. In the silence, reflect on the ways that God is loving you. Touch on past expressions of love and look ahead to His future for you, but stay as present as possible. How is He loving you right now? Listen for the low whisper.
We spend our lives, indeed most of waking hours, trying to get rid of the emptiness that is part of the human condition. We generally don’t like any sense of emptiness because it makes us feel vulnerable and weak, like we are not in control. We combat those feelings through strategies that we believe will fill … things like approval from others, accumulating material possessions, or achieving our identity in what we do and accomplish.
Most of the time, we are not even aware that we are engaging such strategies. It often just feels like normal life and whatever it takes to quell angst in our lives is embraced. And yet, we have those moments of clarity when the strategies aren’t working, when life gets messy. It is in those times when we become most aware of the emptiness and therefore, our vulnerability. Put simply, we become aware that we are powerless to “make life work.”
And, so, in what way is there a beauty in emptiness?
The beauty is in the fact that when we embrace emptiness and experience vulnerability and weakness, we are never closer to experiencing our divine design. This can feel very counterintuitive because we’ve been led to believe that being in control and strong is achievable. However, we have been created as vulnerable, dependent beings. As we welcome vulnerability, we have the opportunity to move toward deepening dependence upon God and His love for us. There is no other path.
Again, most often, our attempts to be in control operate under the surface of our lives and outside our immediate awareness. So, it is usually painful situations and suffering that bring us to a place of awareness and then we have choices to make.
For the last two years, I’ve been in a fight with cancer. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma which led to a year of chemotherapy, a brief remission, a recurrence of the cancer, and then an unsuccessful stem cell transplant. It was unsuccessful because I had developed Leukemia as a result of all the chemotherapy I’d received. This all led to more chemotherapy and ultimately a stem cell transplant with a donor.
For the first six months of the year, I was in the hospital for three of those months, and I was confronted quite violently with a sense of vulnerability. Because of being isolated in the hospital and separated from my ability to do much of anything, I experience a stripping of those strategies that I’ve often used to fill the emptiness. In particular, as a “doer,” I felt helpless. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t take care of my family. I couldn’t control my body as chemotherapy reduced my energy and took away my immune system. I couldn’t eat for long stretches of time. The list of “I couldn’t” statements could go on.
The emptiness and vulnerability were heavy.
And yet, God in His grace met me there in ways that I’d never experienced. It was in the vulnerability that I actually experienced His presence and love. It wasn’t an emotional experience that made me feel warm but I deep settled sense of peace. It was in the vulnerability that I saw Him provide for our family financially, emotionally, and relationally in ways that I always thought I could control.
Things that I would have said I believe deeply (He provides, He loves, He is present) became my experience. It was in the vulnerability that I found an experience of dependence that was outside my control. I can relate to the following from Pedro Arrupe:
“More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
In it all, I experienced a deep sense that all that was left was love … God’s love for me and my call to love others. As I underwent a stripping of my false self (trying to make life work on my own), I could see my identity in a very different way. Thomas Merton put it like this:
“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”
So, why can we say that there is a beauty in emptiness? Because it is in the vulnerability that we experience so clearly the choice to release self and know love. Jesus, of course, said it so well: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25, NLT)
Giving up our lives is a way of saying that we let go of our strategies and embrace the emptiness. It is one thing to understand this all intellectually. Poet David Whyte wrote: “The only choice we have as we mature is how to inhabit our vulnerability…” So, how do we actually embrace or inhabit our vulnerability rather than fight against it?
In Philippians 2:5-7, the Apostle Paul writes:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant …”
The most studied phrase of these verses is “made Himself nothing.” In the Greek language, the verb is kenao and means to empty oneself. The theological debate over the centuries centered around what He emptied and much consternation surfaced around the idea that Jesus might have emptied Himself of His attributes as God. However, if we understand this idea in context, a robust idea emerges. First, the phrase “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” is the idea that He did not use His attributes as God as something to be used for Himself (“grasped” is literally, “to be used to one’s advantage). And then, second, we understand the idea of emptying as “embracing emptiness” or vulnerability, which is exactly what the second person of the Trinity did in taking on human flesh. There is perhaps nothing more vulnerable than being a baby. He continued to embrace emptiness throughout His life as He experienced temptation, suffered, and went to the cross. So, in the same way we are challenged to embrace emptiness by not using our “power” and strengths to strategize ways to make life work. Jesus modeled this for us.
How do we move into vulnerability? In Colossians 4:2, we are encouraged to “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”
First, we simply engage in prayer. We bring ourselves before God. Second, we watch. In prayer, we watch for the ways that we are tempted to push away vulnerability. We notice when we are trying to fill the emptiness. We ask God to show us the emptiness and to give us the strength to abide with Him. Finally, we give thanks. Gratitude is what keeps us grounded. As we see our emptiness and vulnerability, we thank God for the gifts that are a part of abiding in vulnerability.
What we begin to experience in this kind of prayerful life is that we see everything as a gift … everything is connected to His goodness in our lives. While I wouldn’t wish the difficulties I’ve been experiencing over these last years on my worst enemy (not sure who that would be anyway), I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
The beauty of emptiness … a life of gratitude as we see His gifts in all things and abide with Him in them!
The concept of God existing in an eternal dance has been present in Christian thought since the early centuries. It gives a poetic picture of what is happening in the Trinity. It also gives us an invitation. We are drawn to dance. We want joy … it’s as though we were made for it. In the following selection, C. S. Lewis writes about this beautifully:
“And now, what does it all matter? It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection, if you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?” (C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity)
How can you sit close to the spray today? How will you choose to be infected with joy, power, peace, and eternal life?
Just a couple of quick suggestions … sit quietly and be still, ask God to help you see Him in whatever situation you find yourself, and then sit quietly some more as you contemplate deeply the pattern of His grace you see around you.
As we enter into the season of Advent, I am again reminded that so much of our lives is about waiting. Waiting is not for the faint of heart, but waiting is also not an accident. Waiting is a spiritual exercise that can connect us more deeply with life as God designed it for us. In the perfection of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve waited for knowledge and wisdom from God. The one tree from which they were not to eat was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was pure goodness to wait … to trust that God alone was sufficient for both defining and supplying their need.
As we wait, we have the opportunity to be shaped into people who can receive the true gifts of life and not simply the gifts we’ve been told we should want. The pain of waiting can give way to joy of receiving what we most long for in the depths of our souls. Waiting can feel lonely and disorienting when we are not able to cling to the lesser gifts that have given us comfort over the years. Like a young child “losing” its pacifier, that pain and disorientation is indeed for something better.
What is “the better”? Understanding the distinction between wishing and hoping can give us insight. Henri Nouwen beautifully expresses the difference:
“Waiting is open-ended. Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: ‘I wish that I would have a better job. I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go.’ We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes. For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended. Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair … hope is something very different Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.”
What has God promised? As we scan what God has communicated to humanity throughout history, one thing seems consistent. He promises Himself. He promises His presence. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is the comfort given in Hebrews 13:5 in the face of temptations regarding money and sex. Earlier in the letter to the Hebrews we find this connection between promise and hope stated beautifully:
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (6:19-20)
The imagery of these verses is poetic and profound. First, “hope” is an anchor to the soul. Our souls long for hope. Whether in the midst of difficult times or more smooth seasons, our souls instinctively look for hope. We need something to anchor us and keep us in from wandering. We may indeed become distracted by “wishes” as the world around us tells us that “concrete” things like food or sex or comfort will anchor our souls but the hope described here is substantially different.
This leads to the second insight: our hope is to enter the inner place behind the curtain. The “inner place” is an illusion to the Old Testament “holy of holies” where the presence of God dwelled. Because of Jesus, we are able to be in the holy place and dwell there with God.
Our hope, which anchors our souls, is that we are able to dwell in the very presence of God. Our hope in the midst of whatever storm we are facing is that we can be with God, experiencing Him in our hearts. The place that God dwells is the heart of one who knows Jesus as high priest. We might wish that our circumstances were different (but this will leave us unanchored and floating around) but we can live with hope as He is with us, drawing ourselves to Him, anchoring our hearts to His in a way that circumstances can’t touch.
As our hope is in the deepening experience of His presence, we are able to receive what is rather than wish for what isn’t. Every moment of our lives, whether calm or stormy, offers us the gift of His presence and when we put our hope in this promise, we are anchored and filled with a peace that passes all understanding.
One writer put it this way:
“Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Is it not possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium, to find a deeper and steadier current? The good news is that this deeper current does exist and you actually can find it . . . For me the journey to the source of hope is ultimately a theological journey: up and over the mountain to the sources of hope in the headwaters of the Christian Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change your life in the short range, in the externals. Rather, it is something that will change your innermost way of seeing. From there, inevitably, the externals will rearrange. The journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the center, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.” (Cynthia Bourgeault)
So, how do we do this? How do we begin to reorient our way of seeing what is rather than wishing for what isn’t? Psalm 27:4 gives us an intensely practical, prayerful way of understanding the “how.”
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”
It begins with desire. The prayer of David in this Psalm is singular in focus: to dwell in the Lord’s presence. In the previous verses, David expressed the circumstantial challenges he was facing but his desire to experience the nearness of God was His desire. Want to be anchored in hope? Make Him your focused desire. In prayer, come back, over and over, to this being your desire. The reality is that this is your deepest desire whether you feel it or not. Honestly, when in the midst of trying circumstances, we may not “feel” it at all. This is when we pray this desire as an act of faith – knowing that this is our only hope.
Next, David, shares what it looks like to dwell. He describes being aware and attentive to God’s presence as “gazing” and “meditating.” The word “inquire” could also be translated as “meditate” (as noted in the footnotes of most English versions of the text). In Hebrew poetry, two concepts are often placed back to back in synonymous parallelism. In other words, the concepts of gazing and meditating are two ways of describing the same thing. We dwell with Him when we gaze upon His beauty, the nature of who He is. How do we do that? Through meditation.
When we “fall” in love with someone, we often find ourselves mentally gazing upon them and mulling over in our minds all the attributes of what make that person so incredible. This is a form of meditation. To meditate is to intensely focus our heart upon something.
If we want to have our souls anchored in true hope, we have to learn to focus our hearts upon the beauty of God throughout our day. Then, we are able to see and receive the gifts of His presence. We will begin to see that the world is filled with the fingerprints of His love if only we are trained to see them. Meditating on God’s beauty in the quiet, routinedspaces of our lives can translate into seeing His beauty in the more noisy, random spaces of life.
As you find yourself waiting, try these daily spiritual disciplines:
- Pay and express to God your desire to experience His presence. Journal your prayer. Write a poem about your desire. Simply tell Him what you want. Be creative each day!
- Meditate daily on the beauty of God. One way to meditate is to sit in a quiet space and focus the attention of your heart on an aspect of God’s beauty. First, try to sit for 5-10 minutes and let all thoughts gently fade except for your focus on God’s beauty. As other thoughts come, gently return to focusing on Him. For example, you might choose to meditate on His love. Simply take the phrase like “I am His beloved” or “The Lord is My Shepherd” and let that phrase come back to your awareness over and over. If other thoughts enter, gently let them go and return to your phrase.
One final thought: experiencing our hope as we learn to gaze upon Him can only happen as we learn to slow down. If we live hectic lives, the old program of fixating on “wishes” will just keep running undetected in the background of our lives. As we slow down, our waiting can be infused with hope because we will begin to see His presence in all of life. Then, we will be able to experience the grace that is always present and available.
Over these last few blog posts, we’ve been looking at suffering as an invitation. It may sound strange to link suffering and invitation together but it is something that the Biblical text does over and over again. Because of the pain that comes along with suffering, we generally would say “I’m just fine, thank you” with no need for invitations in sufferings and would rather just get back to “normal” life as soon as possible.
Indeed, this is an overall temptation in all suffering: to just grit our teeth and get through it. Of course, we don’t want to experience pain, loss, and grief so the natural response is to think through how we can muster the strength to just get through it. However, when we just try to get through it, we run the risk of missing the gifts that come in suffering. It is a radical concept but Jesus makes it clear that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) He goes on to say: “whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The concept of “loving” one’s life is to try to preserve it. And, if we try to preserve our life, we ironically will lose it. In other words, we will stay committed to those life-preserving strategies that we believe can keep us from pain. But in trying to protect ourselves from pain, we miss the gift that pain brings. So if we choose to “hate” (or let go of our life) these life-preserving strategies, we will find that our lives become connected to eternal life. And, by “eternal life,” Jesus means that quality and dynamic of life that we experience in God. So, again, the gift of suffering is that we are stripped of that self-protective instinct and ushered into a way of life in which we are stripped down to nothing but love – the love that is God Himself.
Of course, God does not cause suffering but He does use in it our lives to do things that can’t happen any other way. Suffering can be received as an invitation to learn and grow because suffering is a teacher like no other. Suffering will strip us of all illusions of security and power and control, if we let it. And then … we are ready to see. Further, we are ready to receive the love of God in purity and in ways that fill our empty souls. Suffering empties us and when emptied of all else, we are ready to receive the fullness of His love.
Simone Weil makes this observation: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.”
Part of the task of the spiritual journey is to allow these empty spaces to arise and simply exist. From the time we are children, we fill the empty spaces with experiences and things and people we believe will fill them. In addition, we develop self-protective strategies to keep control of what comes in and out of our hearts. Suffering empties us in the most gracious way.
As we continue to look at Jesus in Matthew 4, we see the struggle between receiving the invitations of suffering and the temptation to self-protection. In the first temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to provide for Himself in a time of suffering and decides rather to listen to God as His sustenance. In the second temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to prove that He is loved and decides rather to rest in God’s love. And finally, in the third temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to try to control life and decides rather to participate in God’s life.
When we are suffering, everything feels out of control. In a sneaky way, this is one of the gifts of suffering. We are given a glimpse into the reality that we are not in control of anything. Control is indeed an illusion. However, this is not a vision we usually welcome. We cling tight to the idea that we can control and defend and protect our lives. Even when tragedy strikes, we want answers and control and strategies.
In this third temptation, we read:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)
How is this a temptation? It is a temptation for the same reason that we buy a lottery ticket. We believe, “if I just had more money, then I can control life.” The idea is that if we had all the kingdoms of the world, we could protect ourselves once and for all from anyone or anything that might hurt us. Clearly, we might not be tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, but it might be the promise of more money or accomplishments or power that seduces us. If we fall down and worship ourselves as we seek to control, the temptation has taken hold.
However, Jesus shows us the invitation as He responds:
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Jesus knew that no matter how difficult the trial and season of suffering, His life was about participating in the life of God. We often reduce the concept of worship to singing songs or perhaps the way we live our lives. However, worship is about an orientation of our lives. What we worship is that around which we orient our lives. To orient our lives around God means that we become a participant in His life. More often than not, we think about the ways that God is involved in our lives but what if we began to ask how we are involved in His?
2 Peter 1:3-4 beautifully paints a participation of worship …
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
Notice the word “partake.” The idea is that we participate in the divine nature. And what is “divine nature?” It is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. We are invited to participate in their life. When all the facades are stripped away and we have no ability to control, this invitation becomes so clear and so attractive. As we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to walk into the life of God.
As we notice the choice between trying to maintain control and the invitation to participation, we might also notice elements of anger and desperation. We experience anger because our efforts to achieve and accomplish and produce are falling short. We may feel desperation because those last shreds of self-protective fibers are still trying to hold on and we know we are no longer able. At that moment, the choice is to delve further into anger or to surrender.
The joy of surrender is that we are led into freedom. There is a deep, intense freedom that comes when we choose to immerse ourselves in the life of God. And, what does that look like? It looks like asking God, moment by moment … “what are you up to? What do you see? What are you saying to me right now?” And then we wait …
Henri Nouwen shares:
“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is trusting that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”
How can you practice participation in the Divine Nature today?
Suffering is never something we’d ask for but it comes our way nonetheless. From what we see in Scripture, it is inevitable because we live in a fallen world and it is also the way that the Lord graciously loosens the grip we have on the things of this world. In an amazing display of grace, He uses the inevitable to produce what we find incredibly difficult to choose on our own. Indeed, we frequently find ourselves unaware of idols and sinful patterns that need releasing. Suffering opens our eyes and, if we let it, opens our hands.
Because God never coerces or forces us, in our sufferings we are given the invitation to release. In the account of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, we see first that Jesus receives the invitation to listen to God’s voice rather than take things into His own hands.
Next, Jesus confronts a second temptation: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you.’”
Satan uses Scripture in an attempt to create a sense of entitled expectation. The statement that He will command his angels is a quote from Psalm 91 in which God is described as keeping safe those who are His. However, it is not a license to presume God will come running at our bidding. God is the one who does the commanding. We do not command Him or His angels.
What does this have to do with suffering and the potential temptations therein?
When we are in the midst of suffering, we want to make sense of things. Our flesh often cries out with the question, “What did I do wrong?” Or, “What could I have done differently to prevent what is happening to me?” Or, “What can I do now to fix it?” Reflective questions like these can be helpful in some situations but they can also be used in unhealthy ways to try to alleviate our pain and re-establish our sense of peace and well-being. Essentially, these are “shame” questions. They all assume that if suffering occurs, it is because I did something wrong.
Shame is the internal experience of saying, “There is something wrong with me.” Abuse survivors often feel shame, supposing there is something wrong with them that led to the abuse, when that is the furthest thing from the truth. Children of divorce report feeling that if they had only done something better or been a better child, their parents would still be together. For those who deal with shame, engaging in behaviors that give a sense of control can be soothing because shame can make one feel completely out of control.
When we feel that sense of shame, we look for anything to make us feel better … to make us feel loved and cared for. This often leads to trying to fill ourselves with approval from others as we seek to look good in the eyes of others, perform, or even strive for acceptance. Or perhaps, we isolate and protect ourselves from others so that our sense of shame can’t be reinforced.
In suffering, shame surfaces and so can our sense of what God should or shouldn’t do to affirm us and care for us. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Eve by calling into question God’s goodness. The reasoning was that if God was good then “He wouldn’t keep this beautiful piece of fruit from you.” When we suffer, we can begin to believe that if God loved us He wouldn’t let something bad happen and He certainly wouldn’t deprive us of something. So, if something bad happens, He must not love us. Shame is a weapon that the enemy wields to keep us away from trusting a loving Father.
The temptation for Jesus was to alleviate the pain of suffering through doing something extraordinary that would encourage the crowds to laud Him rather than resting in His belovedness that transcends circumstance. It can be easy to believe we are loved and cared for when the circumstances of life are rosy. Sufferings offers an opportunity to receive His love in the depths of who we are … beyond the vicissitudes of life.
In response to the temptation, in Matthew 4, Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “nothing needs to happen for me to rest in my Father’s love for me.” The invitation here is to rest in the Father’s love as we trust that He doesn’t need to do anything to prove His love for us.
So, the temptation in the midst of suffering is to question God’s love. We may find ourselves tempted to test His love as we ask for signs or pray in ways that suggest His love is not valid unless He removes or transforms the suffering.
The reality is that God allows us to encounter suffering not in spite of His love but precisely because of His love. There are things that cannot happen if we don’t encounter suffering. Namely, experiencing His love and care as actualities rather than theories. Further, as we grow in deepening intimacy with God, we share in His sufferings because of love (Philippians 3:10).
Romans 5:1-5 encourages us in this way:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, wehave 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.
This beautiful passage describes the reality that we rejoice in sufferings because they lead us to living in hope, the hope that we are being transformed into the likeness of God, His glory. And that hope does not lead us to shame (thinking we did something wrong or that God doesn’t love us), but we are lead to resting in God’s love which is already in our hearts. Suffering releases our grip on things that don’t matter so that we can live from our hearts where we rest in His love.
One way to visualize this is to see ourselves out in the water. When we fight and grasp for something to hold, we miss out on the power of the water to hold us. When we release the grasping and allow our bodies to rest, we are able to float on the water. Indeed, the water of God’s love is enough to hold us and we rest in its power to hold us when we cease striving.
So, we don’t test God’s love but we rest in God’s love.
How might God be leading you to rest in His love in the midst of suffering?
As Jesus suffered in the wilderness, He encountered the same temptations that Adam and Eve encountered in the Garden of Eden. These three temptations are representative of the kinds of testing we all experience in the midst of suffering.
For Adam and Eve, they lived in paradise and even there, they experienced a trial. Being commanded to not eat from the tree of knowledge was a trial … a testing and a refining of their trust in God. They experienced a temptation to do just the opposite. But, inside that temptation was embedded an invitation … an opportunity to live out of and be deepened in their relationship with God.
As the people of Israel were leaving Egypt and journeying to the land of promise, we read in Deuteronomy 8:2, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” Of course, God’s desire is that the testing draws out a heart of keeping his commands with trust.
The point is this: in suffering, our hearts are tested and tried with the purpose that temptations become invitations. Jesus faced each temptation and shifted it to an opportunity to entrust Himself to God the Father as the Beloved Son. Our trials have this same intention: to draw out the reality of who we are as the Beloved in Christ.
The first temptation for Jesus was to “turn stones into bread.” Jesus was hungry. He was in need. Satan tempted Jesus by encouraging Him to use His own resources to take care of Himself. This is the temptation to possess. Clearly, using things to give ourselves a sense of security is part of the human condition. We want to know that we have enough, that we will survive. We are tempted to turn to ourselves for the security we desire rather than trusting in a God we cannot see.
Certainly, in Jesus’ weakened condition, this was a real temptation. He could have easily solved the trial He encountered but it would have happened on His terms, through His strength, and independently of the Father.
However, He responded in trust as He quoted from the second part of Deuteronomy 8:3 in saying “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The first part of the verse says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone …” The idea is that God allowed His people to hunger and He provided for them day by day (a very humble place to be) in order to deepen their dependence. Specifically, mankind does not find security (a real need) through physical things but through listening to the voice of God.
So, this first invitation in suffering is the invitation to listen.
But, often, all we want to do is figure a way out through possessing the right knowledge for escape or possessing enough money to escape. When encountering a time of trial, we frequently go to the internet to research escape plans whether it is the best way to find healing or the best way to make a lot of money. Healing and money are not bad things in and of themselves (I’ll take both!), but they are not good when we are setting our hopes there.
Suffering exposes our needs, and the gift is that we begin to see our needs and the ways we are tempted to fill those needs in our own strength and wisdom. Often, we float through life unaware. Suffering brings awareness and also opportunity. And then, if we receive the invitation, we can, like Jesus, move from temptation to trust.
Of course, this can be difficult because we only listen and turn our attention to the Lord when we believe that He is enough … that His voice is that by which I can live in the fullness of life. Do you believe that He is enough? that His voice and leadership in your life what you truly need, even more than a piece of bread?
Perhaps in a defiant sort of way, we can begin to proclaim in the midst of suffering: “My life is not defined by what I have or don’t have but by listening to the Lord.” It is His voice that will fill us and shape us into who we most desire to be.
Going back to Jesus in Matthew 4, we can only wonder if He was thinking about the voice of the Father that He had just heard at His baptism in Matthew 3, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Listening to that is indeed the essence of what makes life full.
How much time do you set aside to listen to God’s voice of love toward you? One of the ways that we can receive this invitation to listen is to intentionally engage in silent prayer in which we let go of all the other voices (“I need” “I want” “I wish”) and simply hear Him say, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
Notice how the Psalmist walks through this in Psalm 73:1-3:
“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Why do we become envious? Because we believe that others have something I need. The Psalmist ponders all that others seem to have, and then we see temptation move to invitation:
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin … When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strengthof my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:16-26)
He is our portion! The first invitation in suffering is to know Him as our portion, or sustenance. We know Him in this way as we listen to His voice and hear Him speak His love. Its one thing to “know” that He loves us and another altogether to “hear” it. Suffering puts us in a place to hear, if we let it.
When we walk through times of suffering, we are usually challenged at deep places in our soul. Questions arise, doubts surface, and loneliness emerges. This, all in addition to the surface pain we may be experiencing.
The primary question that seems to emerge is “why?” When things are pleasant, we don’t usually ask “why,” we just enjoy the circumstance. But pain, with all the unpleasantness, we reason must be happening for a purpose. More often than not, the question of “why” is met with clichés of all sorts and sometimes even a bravado that we will fight and get to the other side.
The reason for suffering? While so much is wrapped in mystery that our finite minds cannot fully comprehend, we do know from the wisdom of Jesus that there are things that cannot happen except through a time of suffering. Indeed, we actually end up asking “why” when we are suffering which is part of the answer of why we suffer. When we are living with questions, we are pushed to consider what really matters. Suffering purifies (if we let it) in ways that nothing else can.
Suffering pushes us to the margins of life, away from “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in the world.” (Thomas Merton) It is at the margins, in the wilderness places, that I can find my true center, God Himself.
In Hebrews 5:8, referring to Jesus, we are told that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” In what sense did Jesus have to learn obedience? If we understand obedience relationally, obedience is not outward action but the inward action of trust and love in which we honor (obey) another person. In Matthew 3, Jesus was baptized and His “belovedness” was affirmed as the Father spoke from heaven.
Next, in Matthew 4, we observe that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not pleasant and it was also not accidental. The text says He was hungry and in Mark 1, the presence of “wild animals” is highlighted. In addition, Mark 1 pushes the idea of being “led” (from Matthew 4) further by saying that He was “cast out” in the wilderness by the Spirit. There was a purpose in Jesus being in this place of suffering and loneliness.
His belovedness was affirmed in Matthew 3, and then His belovedness was tested and strengthened in Matthew 4. It was in the context of hunger, isolation, danger, and weariness that Jesus’ identity and human experience of God the Father was deepened.
Over the last year as I journeyed with cancer, my son asked: “Dad, why is this happening to you?” And, my response was, “why not me?” If God loves me, He will lead me through times of suffering so that our relationship can be purified and deepened and strengthened. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that He caused the suffering or gave me cancer. Indeed, there are so many questions that we cannot answer about suffering but we can know that God does things in us that aren’t accomplished any other way.
In a wilderness place of suffering, we are stripped bare and left with nothing to hang on to. And, then with empty hands, we are able to hold onto God in ways we couldn’t when our hands were on the control panel of our lives.
Often, we are specifically stripped of the notion that God exists so that I can reach a place of self-fulfillment and peace and happiness. When this illusion is gone, we are left with a God who can now fill us with Himself. When we are experiencing emptiness, there is space for His presence in ways not possible before.
In his book on Desert Spirituality, Belden Lane writes:
“I really don’t want a god who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of my self-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
In this way, suffering is an invitation … an invitation to know God in new ways and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
We can try to run from suffering or we can receive it. God won’t force us to enter the school of His love when suffering but He does invite us.
If we choose to run from suffering, we miss the gift of spiritual growth and deepening. When we run from suffering, we usually don’t get very far and end up going in circles. When we run from suffering, we experience confusion and frustration as the dominant realities in our lives.
We receive suffering when we ask:
- How is He speaking His love to me in this time in the wilderness?
- What is the invitation to deeper love and trust in this present circumstance?
Just asking the questions, that often take some time to answer, leads us to a place of freedom because we realize that it is not the wilderness or suffering that defines us but our relationship with God.
Note: in following blog posts, we’ll examine the specific invitations that Jesus experienced in His wilderness time of testing, and we’ll see that those invitations are emblematic of our invitations in times of suffering.