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Suffering, Affliction, Regrets — and the Larger Perspective

September 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Continuing through the collection of free used books received, I’ve started reading Richard Baxter’s The Godly Home —  a recent publication with modernized language and introduction by J.I. Packer, covering a portion of Baxter’s Christian Directory from the 17th century.  Even in the current form, it’s not always the easiest to follow, as it describes situations unfamiliar to us, in the Puritan-era writing style (wordiness).  This selection from his larger work includes chapters on marriage, children, family worship, and several other topics — Baxter’s wisdom and guidance to Christian laypeople regarding their daily life and life decisions.  As a guide to those facing such decisions it excels, well describing the hardships to be experienced from a wrong choice, descriptions of the experiences that others have had to “learn the hard way.”

A sampling from the first chapter, Directions About Marriage:

If you should marry one who proves to be ungodly, how exceeding great would the affliction be!  If you loved such persons, your soul would be in continual danger by them; they would be the most powerful instruments in the world to pervert your judgements, to deaden your hearts, to divert you from a holy life, to kill your prayers, to corrupt your lives, and to damn your souls.  If you should have the grace to escape the snare and save yourself, it would be by so much the greater difficulty and suffering since the temptation is greater.  What a heartbreak it would be to converse so nearly with a child of the Devil; it is like living forever in hell.  The daily thoughts of it would be a daily death to you.

Another short sample, a description of an ungodly person:

To habitually prefer things temporal before things spiritual in the predominant acts of heart and life is the certain character of a graceless soul.

Thus is the ideal (Baxter’s “Directions About Marriage”), and when followed to prevent poor life-decisions, all is well.  Yet as I have observed, in the Christian life and experience in this fallen world, those who “get it right” and make wise relationship choices on the front end will experience some other type of suffering and disappointment later in life—perhaps with children, or health, or financial or many other possibilities.

But what about those on the other side, who have already made poor decisions?  Here we must turn to other wise counsel, regarding the sovereignty of God.  Ed Welch in Depression: Looking Up From the Stubborn Darkness (see this previous post), well stated an important point to continually remember:

Although life before a sovereign God assures us that God is in control, accomplishing His good plans even through our poor choices, it is easy to lose sight of this reality.  When we do, we can feel as if an unwise decision has forever doomed us to a path that is second best. … in view of God’s sovereign control, God will accomplish His purposes in our lives even when we make decisions we later regret.

Indeed, when the Bible speaks of “all these things,” or “in all things,” and the trials and tribulations of the Christian life, those trials can include the problems noted above that may come to those who at least have their “relationship-act together”; yet for some the trial does include relationship difficulty, even within marriage.  Here I also recall the great application from past Tabletalk devotionals, in this previous post, and relating to the “day to day” life experienced by Abraham and Sarah, by Isaac and Rebekah, and then Jacob.

Another book I’m reading ties into this in a rather unexpected way:  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien  (a past Kindle deal); this book’s main focus is on Tolkien’s letters as related to his writings of The Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings.  I first read it 15-20 years ago from the library, but through the years since and the maturing process of life, I now notice another aspect brought out: Tolkien’s own personal trials and difficulties in the day to day of life, during the years while he was still (slowly) writing the Lord of the Rings.  The letters reveal a life with its share of great afflictions and trials—along with hope, the times of looking beyond the present life to the glory yet to be revealed.

In a letter from August 31, 1938, he even notes that he had come close to a breakdown:

I am not so much pressed, as oppressed (or depressed).  Further troubles which I need not detail have occurred, and I collapsed (or bent) under them.  I have been unwell, since I saw you—in fact I reached the edge of a breakdown, and was ordered by the doctor to stop short.  I have done nothing for a week or two—being in fact quite unable.

Elsewhere, in writing and providing wisdom to one of his then-young adult sons regarding marriage (from the human side of events), he offered this:

Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.

And to another son during the son’s experiences in World War II:

If you cannot achieve inward peace, and it is given to few to do so (least of all to me) in tribulation, do not forget that the aspiration for it is not a vanity, but a concrete act.

As I’ve seen before, so again: a complete, well-rounded perspective regarding life in this fallen world requires multiple inputs, and truth, love, and encouragement come to us in many different ways, including from reading many different books and even types of books.

Psalm 13, Depression, and Feeling Abandoned

July 10, 2019 1 comment

I’ve been reading through volume 1 of James Montgomery Boice’s commentary on the Psalms (Psalms 1-41, book one of the Psalter), a past free monthly book offer from Logos software, usually two psalms per week.  (The commentary comes from Boice’s exposition of the psalms; for psalms after the 41st, I may return to listening to the original sermons.) This psalms commentary is a great combination of technical information and excellent application.

The commentary on Psalm 13 also ties in with another recently read book—from Christian counselor Ed Welch, another Kindle sale deal: Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness.  (See previous posts of Welch’s books here and also here.)

Some highlights from Welch’s book:  our greatest need is forgiveness; having a purpose statement for our life; and recognizing that perseverance is one of the attributes of God.  Thus, our suffering and the consequent perseverance, is another way in which we are conformed more and more to God’s image.  The sovereignty of God, especially in suffering that comes from, at least in part, our own past choices, also has greater value and importance than the mere “academic” idea of it:

Although life before a sovereign God assures us that God is in control, accomplishing His good plans even through our poor choices, it is easy to lose sight of this reality.  When we do, we can feel as if an unwise decision has forever doomed us to a path that is second best.

Returning to Boice, it is interesting to see how much helpful material can be found within the context of a few pages of commentary on a particular text.  Here Boice addresses several considerations, examining the psalmist David’s feelings and the three parts of the psalm.  One interesting point is the feeling of abandonment described, and Boice (writing in the late 20th century) observed that among Christian authors dealing with the topic of depression, even Martyn Lloyd Jones, they don’t address the issue of feeling abandoned—perhaps because of the deeply ingrained idea that, of course, Christians are never abandoned and should never have such experience.  As Boice observes:

Although this is a common problem, I have not been able to find much helpful literature about it, particularly by Christians. Even D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure does not specifically deal with feelings of abandonment.

Why do you suppose this is? I think it is because we have been taught that Christians are not to experience such things, that we are only to have “life more abundantly” or to “live victoriously.” In the last chapter I quoted the dying French atheist Voltaire, who said, “I am abandoned by God and man.” We are not surprised to hear an unbeliever say that. But if any of us should admit to such feelings, many of our friends would look askance at us, shake their heads, and wonder whether we are Christians. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that the chief reason why you do not talk to other Christians about this or about many other problems?  How good then to find that David does talk about it! David is a giant in Scripture, a person “after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Yet described here is a time when David felt that God had left him entirely. And he doesn’t cover up his feelings.

Following the outline of Psalm 13, the commentary describes several reasons why people feel abandoned:

Prolonged Struggle

We still believe God is there. It is different when the short-term experience becomes a long-term pattern, and we begin to wonder whether God’s silence may endure “forever.”  … Andrew Fuller, another of the earlier commentators, said, “It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting.”

Lack of Apparent Blessing

A second cause of depression, leading to feelings of abandonment, is an extension of the first: a prolonged period in which the blessings of God given in an earlier time seem to have been removed.

Boice lists several areas of such impact in our lives:  family relationships (“the happiness of the early days of a marriage has been replaced by the stress of trying to work out personality conflicts or other difficulties”), as well as in our work, our church life, and in our spiritual life and progress.

Dark Thoughts and Uncontrollable Emotions

The third time David asks, “How long?” he refers to a combination of what we would call dark thoughts and uncontrollable emotions. When we no longer sense that God is blessing us, we tend to ruminate on our failures and get into an emotional funk. And when our emotions take over it is always hard to get back onto a level course. This is because the best means of doing this—calm reflection and a review of past blessings—are being swept away.

You know that God deals with us by grace. But the lack of blessing has continued for so long that you have become morbidly introspective. You have been dredging up past sins and have been wondering, “Is God punishing me for what I did then? I confessed the sin and believed he forgave me. But maybe he is bringing it up again and putting me on hold because of it.”

Often what we learn comes from meditating upon God’s word and its application, from considering new information from multiple sources (such as Christian articles, books, and selections from Bible commentaries), and connecting it all together.  Both of the above resources – James Montgomery Boice’s commentary on the Psalms, and the Ed Welch book, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness, are helpful for study.  The Psalms study includes the lament type Psalms, and Welch teaches through many scripture examples and real-life examples of people applying scripture to their real-life problems.

Shame and Rejection, Interrupted (Ed Welch)

November 2, 2018 Leave a comment

My reading this year has included several Kindle deals, including two in the Christian counseling category, titles from author Ed Welch.  The latter of these, Shame Interrupted:  How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection, is quite interesting and helpful, a book I wish would have been available in my early Christian years.

The term shame includes many different types, and it turns out (not surprisingly) that scripture has a lot to say about this subject, beyond the surface level of the word appearing in various scripture verses.  Welch’s presentation starts in the Old Testament, going in chronological sequence from Genesis 3 through the rest of the Old Testament, the gospels and the New Testament epistles.  As with the first book I read from Welch (Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest), each chapter includes a modern day example of a person and their emotions and situation, along with a look at a particular Bible narrative story.  The first eleven books progress through the Old Testament, followed by several chapters that look at the gospel accounts and then the epistles.  The application/teaching regarding  shame — from the book of Leviticus (the holiness code) and the priestly garments used in the Tabernacle service – I found especially interesting.  The tedious sections in Leviticus convey great truths here, regarding shame and guilt, and the fact that shame is sometimes related to our sin and guilt, but often relates to things done to us and where no sin on our part is involved.  Leviticus presents three types of shame, of being considered “unpresentable”:

  • Unpresentable before God and others
  • Unpresentable because of what we’ve done
  • Unpresentable because of our allegiances and associations

Shame comes in many forms, and is illustrated through God’s dealings with real people in real difficulties, such as the account of God visiting Hagar the outcast (Genesis 16).  A later chapter also looks at the Old Testament concepts of clean and unclean, holy and common.  As Welch observes, clean and unclean were distinguished by anything related to death, idol worship and unclean animals, or violations of God’s order such as sexual sins or skin diseases.

It seems unfair that both perpetrators and victims should be placed in the same category, but God is making a point.  Both our actions and our associations make us unclean … That doesn’t mean the unclean are unwelcome, but it means God must do something for them before they can enter His presence. …. Unclean is not the same as sin.  It can come from our own sin but also from contact with something sinful.  The unclean might be guilty; they always experience shame.

Amidst all the details of the Mosaic cultural context and what made the people of Israel “unclean,” is the general precept with its hard-hitting application; all of this does relate to us and how we feel in our dealings with others in society:  If you are unclean, something is wrong with you.  You don’t fit in. You aren’t like other people.  You just aren’t normal.  You stick out and you are kicked out.

The title is “Shame Interrupted,” and the interrupted part is key – the good news of what God has done for us, the gospel.  God provides the means to bring His banished home, and He makes us holy:

But since holiness is so not-human, it always has an element of the unexpected. You never expected that God himself would, by his representatives, come close to unclean people and touch them.

The Holy One is not human.

The triune God is not human.

Don’t limit God’s character by your expectations of what a decent human king might do.

You expect God to reject; he accepts.

You expect Him to turn away; He turns toward.

The book includes many helpful diagrams, including one that branches ‘shame’ out into two categories:  1) From the sins of others and from our own weaknesses, and 2) From our own sin.  Each of these headings branches out into two sub-categories:  Before God, and Before the world.  Much of the content is focused on the first heading, the sins of others and our own weaknesses.  Here again is the important reminder, what it means to be saved from human opinion, to put our trust and confidence in the Lord, not in what we do or what others think of us.  From the chapter that considers the apostle Paul and his words in Philippians, and the category of shame from our own weaknesses:

Most failure is simply a consequence of being a creature and not the Creator.  We are limited and finite.  We make mistakes.  We can’t even do things as well as our friends and neighbors.  The fact that we don’t compare well to other people is not a sin.  It is a result of limitations we all experience.”

and

Accomplishments are just something else to trust in. If you trust in your accomplishments and the opinions of the world, you might as well trust in excrement.  Even worse, trust in your accomplishments and you become like the thing that holds your trust.  That truly is disgusting.  Human beings were never intended to find their reputations in their accomplishments.

I have enjoyed reading both of the Ed Welch books, especially this one, Shame Interrupted – helpful teaching and great Bible application to an important issue.

Christian Living and ‘Self-Help’ Reading

March 6, 2018 2 comments

Over the last year and a half, my reading journey, and especially in the yearly Challies Reading Challenge, has included several books in the category of Christian living, and specifically the area of counseling and what could be called ‘Christian self-help.’ Beginning with Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic work, Spiritual Depression and a David Murray conference series, additional lectures, articles and books have explained and expanded on the topic: the Christian identity, and proper handling of our emotions and dealing with the trials of life.

Recent books in my Challies’ Reading Challenge include Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker,  Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You (a past free offer from ChristianAudio), and Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Ed Welch.  Some recent helpful online articles include these:
• From TableTalk Magazine February issue, Who Defines Your Joy?
10 types of thinking that undergird depression-anxiety
In defense (somewhat) of self-help

Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You looks to the underlying heart issues behind phone use, including our tendency to distraction, and our need to feel accepted and to be part of the “in” crowd and not left behind. Though the main point has to do with the current technology (smart phones), the broader issue is how we use technology. Technology itself is not bad, and has been around since the early chapters of the Bible. Also, distraction is a tendency of our fallen nature, regardless of time and technology, as seen in the story of Mary and Martha, and Martha’s being distracted with the work of serving. Distraction is a way to avoid quiet and silence, the time needed to think about our soul and eternity, time to spend with God, for deep meditation.

Running Scared also provides good insights, to what is really behind our fears. What we’re afraid of reveals what we hold dear, such as money and what it provides, or fear of man (desire to not be persecuted; to be liked and loved). Such fears show that we are seeking this world and kingdom, not God’s kingdom. Welch points to the root behind many fears, and notes the answer; logical reasoning, or simply not thinking about the fear, does not really work. Instead, we replace the fears by focusing on what is more important—the fear of the Lord:

They [fears and anxieties] topple from their lofty perch and are replaced by what is more important. Whatever is most important is the thing that rules us. …You treat worries by pursuing what is even more important. Fear still reveals our allegiances, this time in a positive way. If we have a mature fear of the Lord, it means that we value and revere Him above all else. That’s how we fight fear with fear.

Regarding the transformation needed, to rely on the God of Rest:

Your task is not to transform into a superficial, sunny optimist. It is to grow to be an optimist by faith…. As for me, I want to watch and endure, not worry. I want to be like the night watchmen who are waiting to see first light. God is the God of suspense, but it is a suspense that teaches us peace. He is the God of surprises, but the surprises are always better than we could have dreamed. I can’t put Him in a box and assume that He should act according to my time schedule and according to my less sophisticated version of what is good. I need the mind of Christ. I can do with nothing less.

Wisdom often mentioned in these books, to continually remember—especially in response to the world’s way of reasoning: the Christian life is not about results, about seeing and achieving (what we think is) the right outcome.  The Christian life is about being faithful to God in the situation He has put each of us in; God is the one who determines the outcome. David Murray’s lectures about the LER (legitimate emotional response) versus SER (sinful emotional response) expand on this as well, explaining the importance of how we respond to disappointing life events.

These books (and articles) are helpful, providing good reminders along with great Bible application (such as from the lives of Bible characters) for dealing with the trials and discouragements of daily life.  My 2018 Challies Reading list includes two more books that should also prove interesting:  Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World, by Bob Kellemen, and Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, by David Powlison, both oft-recommended Reformed Biblical counseling authors.