My natural inclination is to believe life will turn out just fine; I lean towards the positive. It’s not that I think every day will be sunshine and daisies (my home is in Michigan, the birthplace of gray skies), it’s just that I believe the sun will come out eventually.
Last month my outlook on life was normal: optimistic. I had reasonably high hopes that my next book will sell well after its July release; I felt positive about the “fruit” of my daily tasks (writing, counseling, etc.); and I mostly believed God would work things for the good.
But when I’m sick, my personality leans toward the negative. It’s not that I’m Eeyore or Puddleglum, but their gloomy forecasts no longer seem farfetched.
These past couple weeks I’ve been sick and my outlook on life turned sour.
I began to doubt that people are interested in learning to hear God (the topic of my book); I questioned whether anything I do contributes anything of value to the world; and I began to worry that God wanted to punish me for some past, forgotten sin.
Bear in mind: nothing external had changed! I didn’t receive negative comments from my publisher. Readership of my blog and one-on-one counseling interaction remained the same. And I didn’t read a Scripture passage that says, “God really dislikes you.”
The world outside remained constant. No new information came my way—not the dinkiest fact—that should convert my beliefs into doubts. And yet my fears festered and flourished.
Sometimes we need to doubt our doubts.
I’m in the middle of another bout with bronchitis (I think I’m losing), so I planned to skip my blog this week. But last Sunday, a TV advertisement for a Christian dating site changed my mind.
I’ve never used an online dating site (I found my wife before Al Gore invented the internet), but I know many believers who found like-minded spouses online. The concept makes sense.
Last Sunday I tuned out the clichéd advertisement for Christian dating, with its images of smiling couples holding hands while strolling on a beach at sunset. But then the ad ended with this tagline:
“Helping good people find good people.”
When I was a teenager, family and friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Now they just ask me when I will grow up). I always wanted to be a missionary.
Immediately after college I began mission work in Europe. But one day, during a “normal” (that is, non-exciting) prayer time, I heard God speak two words: “Not now.” I sensed him say that if I did mission work “now” I would be creating an Ishmael not an Isaac; I would be birthing mission service out of my natural flesh and not out of God’s spiritual promise.
The sense was puzzling (I was serving God in the mission, wasn’t I?), but it was also compelling; so I left the mission field and entered the business world at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I eventually became an executive and owner of a software company.
Twenty-five years later, in another non-exciting prayer time, I sensed God say, “Now is the time.” I asked friends for discernment, and together we agreed that God was calling me away from my job. But none of us knew what God was calling me to.
That was why eight years ago, January 1st, 2008, I woke up with no job, no client calls, no meetings, no paycheck, and no clue about what I should do with my life. When people asked me what I do, I always answered,
“Well I used to be a software exec….”
The angriest emails I’ve ever received were responses to my articles about self-love and self-esteem. And yet . . . yet I remain convinced that the greatest obstacle to hearing God lies in precisely our self-love and self-esteem.
Most of us unconsciously believe that God speaks only to those who are mature and pure.
To cover our inadequacies, we jury-rig our hearts with positive self-talk like, “I’m a good chap” and “I really feel bad about what I did.” Or else we excuse our failures with, “I was deeply wounded as a child” and “If you had a spouse like mine, you’d understand.”
We disguise our shortcomings because our thinking is distorted: we believe God is attracted to the spiritually successful. So we scurry for good feelings about ourselves and we explain away our faults.
The trouble is, positive self-talk forms barriers to hearing God: he loves the broken-hearted.
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
And we want to be somewhere else.
I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.
His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.
One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:
“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)
I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.
And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”
I had a high school friend whose life overflowed with compassion. The rest of us were obsessed with college-prep, extra-curricular activities, and jobs. But he, like a lion, could sniff out a wounded schoolmate from a thousand yards. And like a lamb, he sat with them in their grief.
One day we heard a lecture on handling pain. Most of the class was indifferent—bored even—but my friend listened quietly with fixed attention. My preppy class asked how to deal with a poor score on a college-entry exam; my friend wondered how he could cheer a suicidal sibling.
My friend suffered from cerebral palsy. Everyday his infirmity slapped him in the face, and every night throbbing muscles threatened his sleep.
His walk was awkward, his dialog at times incomprehensible, his body wracked with pain; while his mind remained sharp. But mid-day waiters asked me what “he” wanted for lunch; classmates overlooked him for team sports; and the difficulty of his spastic speech meant few people invited him for an evening dinner. Yet he always sought out others in sorrow.
Oswald Chambers observed that, “Suffering burns up a lot of shallowness in a person.”