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Posts tagged ‘How Long’

WAITING IN DARKNESS: WE ARE NOT LOST AND NOT ALONE

SOURCE:  John Piper/When The Darkness Will Not Lift

With or without medication there are other things that can be done in the midst of prolonged darkness. And I would love to encourage you in some of these. It will be of great advantage to the struggling Christian to remember that seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life. I don’t mean that we should not try to live above them. I mean that if we do not succeed, we are not lost, and we are not alone, as the fragment of our faith cleaves to Christ.

Consider the experience of David in Psalm 40:1-3:

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.

The king of Israel is in “the pit of destruction” and “the miry bog”—descriptions of his spiritual condition. The song of praise is coming, he says, but it is not now on his lips. It is as if David had fallen into a deep, dark well and plunged into life-threatening mud. There was one other time when David wrote about this kind of experience. He combined the images of mud and flood: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Ps. 69:1-2).

In this pit of mud and destruction there is a sense of helplessness and desperation. Suddenly air, just air, is worth a million dollars. Helplessness, desperation, apparent hopelessness, the breaking point for the overworked businessman, the outer limits of exasperation for the mother of three constantly crying children, the impossible expectations of too many classes in school, the grinding stress of a lingering illness, the imminent attack of a powerful enemy. It is good that we don’t know what the experience was. It makes it easier to see ourselves in the pit with the king. Anything that causes a sense of helplessness and desperation and threatens to ruin life or take it away—that is the king’s pit.

HOW LONG, O LORD, HOW LONG!

Then comes the king’s cry: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.” One of the reasons God loved David so much was that he cried so much. “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps. 6:6). “You have kept count of my toss­ings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56:8). Indeed they are! “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). It is a beautiful thing when a broken man genuinely cries out to God.

Then after the cry you wait. “I waited patiently for the LORD.” This is crucial to know: saints who cry to the Lord for deliverance from pits of darkness must learn to wait patiently for the Lord. There is no statement about how long David waited. I have known saints who walked through eight years of debilitating depression and came out into glorious light. Only God knows how long we must wait. The prophet Micah experienced prolonged and painful waiting. “I sit in darkness . . . until [the Lord] pleads my cause and . . . will bring me out to the light” (Mic. 7:8-9). We can draw no deadlines for God. He hastens or he delays as he sees fit. And his timing is all-loving toward his children. Oh, that we might learn to be patient in the hour of darkness. I don’t mean that we make peace with darkness. We fight for joy. But we fight as those who are saved by grace and held by Christ. We say with Paul Gerhardt that our night will soon—in God’s good timing—turn to day:

Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.

Through waves and clouds and storms,
He gently clears thy way;
Wait thou His time; so shall this night
Soon end in joyous day.

Far, far above thy thought,
His counsel shall appear,
When fully He the work hath wrought,
That caused thy needless fear.

Leave to His sovereign sway
To choose and to command;
So shalt thou, wondering, own that way,
How wise, how strong this hand. 1

THE GROUND OF OUR ASSURANCE WHEN WE CANNOT SEE OUR FAITH2

It is utterly crucial that in our darkness we affirm the wise, strong hand of God to hold us, even when we have no strength to hold him. This is the way Paul thought of his own strivings. He said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). The key thing to see in this verse is that all Paul’s efforts to grasp the fullness of joy in Christ are secured by Christ’s grasp of him. Never forget that your security rests on Christ’s faithfulness first.

Our faith rises and falls. It has degrees. But our secu­rity does not rise and fall. It has no degrees. We must persevere in faith. That’s true. But there are times when our faith is the size of a mustard seed and barely visible. In fact, the darkest experience for the child of God is when his faith sinks out of his own sight. Not out of God’s sight, but his. Yes, it is possible to be so overwhelmed with darkness that you do not know if you are a Christian—and yet still be one.

All the great doctors of the soul have distinguished between faith and its full assurance. The reason for this is that we are saved by the work of God causing us to be born again and bringing us to faith. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We are not saved by producing faith on our own and then making that the basis of our new birth. It is the other way around, which means that God is at the bottom of my faith; and when it disappears for a season from my own view, God may yet be there sustaining its root in the new birth and protecting the seed from destruction. This was crucial in Richard Baxter’s soul care.

Certainty of our faith and sincerity is not necessary to salvation, but the sincerity of faith itself is necessary. He shall be saved that giveth up himself to Christ, though he know not that he is sincere in doing it. Christ knoweth his own grace, when they that have it know not that it is sound.

An abundance are cast down by ignorance of themselves, not knowing the sincerity which God hath given them. Grace is weak in the best of us here; and little and weak grace is not very easily perceived, for it acteth weakly and unconstantly, and it is known but by its acts; and weak grace is always joined with too strong corruption; and all sin in heart and life is contrary to grace, and doth obscure it. . . . And how can any under all these hindrances, yet keep any full assurance of their own sincerity?3

Baxter’s aim here is not to destroy a Christian’s comfort. On the contrary, he wants to help us in the times of our darkness to know that we can be safe in Jesus, even when we have lost sight of our own sincerity. The witness of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16) may be clear or faint. But the reality is unshakable. “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (2 Tim. 2:19). “God is faithful, by whom you were called” (1 Cor. 1:9). “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Baxter’s words are crucial counsel if we are to survive the dark night of the soul. And that night will come for almost every Christian. And when it comes, we must wait for the Lord, cry to him, and know that our own self-indictment, rendered in the darkness, is not as sure as God’s Word spoken in the light.

WHEN A CHILD OF GOD IS PERSUADED THAT HE IS NOT

Christians in the darkness of depression may ask desperately, how can I know that I am truly a child of God? They are not usually asking to be reminded that we are saved by grace through faith. They know that. They are asking how they can know that their faith is real. God must guide us in how we answer, and knowing the person will help us know what to say.4

The first and best thing to say may be, “I love you. And I am not letting you go.” In those words a person may feel God’s keeping presence, which they may not feel in any other way. Or, second, we might say, “Stop looking at your faith, and rivet your attention on Christ. Faith is sustained by looking at Christ, crucified and risen, not by turning from Christ to analyze your faith. Let me help you look to Christ. Let’s read Luke 22 through 24 together.” Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness of our Savior.

Third, we might call attention to the evidences of grace in their life. We might recount our own sense of their authenticity when we were loved by them, and then remind them of their own strong affirmations of the lordship of Christ. Then say, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). This approach is not usually successful in the short run, because a depressed person is prone to discount all good assessments of his own condition; but it can be valuable in the long run, because it stands as an objective hope and act of love over against his own subjective darkness.

Fourth, we might remind the sufferer that his demand for a kind of absolute, mathematical certainty about his right standing with God is asking for too much. None of us lives with that kind of certainty about any relationships in life, and this need not destroy our comfort. As Baxter says, “No wife or child is certain that the husband or father will not murder them; and yet they may live comfortably, and not fear it.”5 In other words, there is a kind of certainty that we live by, and it is enough. It is, in the end, a gift of God.

One can imagine a wife obsessed with fear that her husband will kill her, or that during the night one of her children will kill another one. No amount of arguing may bring her away from the fear of this possibility. Rationally and mathematically it is possible. But millions of people live in complete peace about these things, even though there is no absolute 2 + 2 = 4 kind of certainty. The certainty is rooted in good experience and the God-given stability of nature. It is a sweet assurance—and a gift of God. So we say to our suffering friend, “Don’t demand the kind of certainty about your own relationship to God that you don’t require about the other relationships in your life.”

It follows from this that we should all fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of its pessimism. But we have seen again and again, from our own experience and others’, that absolute statements of hopelessness that we make in the dark are notoriously unreliable. Our dark certainties are not sureties. While we have the light, let us cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.

NOTES:
1 Paul Gerhardt, “Give to the Winds Thy Fears” (1656), trans. John Wesley (1737), http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/i/givetotw.htm.
2 For a biblical and balanced treatment of assurance, see Donald S. Whitney, How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994).
3 Baxter, “The Cure of Melancholy,” 266, 278.
4 For two helpful articles on depression and how to help those who struggle, see Edward T. Welch, “Counseling Those Who Are Depressed” and “Words of Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 18, no. 2 (2000): 5-31, 40-46.
5 Baxter, “The Cure of Melancholy,” 278.

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Piper, J. (2006). When the darkness will not lift: Doing what we can while we wait for god. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

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God’s Silence: What Do I Do With It?

SOURCE: Based on an article from Discipleship Journal/Garrett Deweese

Have you ever gone through a time when it seemed you couldn’t hear God—and couldn’t make yourself heard by Him? Why do these “dark nights of the soul” happen? What can you do about them?

OUR FIRST TERM as missionaries in France was hard, as all first terms are for new missionaries. But we had enjoyed a great furlough, and had been refreshed physically and spiritually, and were eager to return to our adopted home and pick up the vital work we had left. We had packed everything except our last suitcases and were nearing the day when we would board the plane for Paris.

We had everything we needed to return, except our French temporary resident visas. The Lord stepped in and kept our visas from arriving, and we had to cancel our airline reservations. The ensuing days, which turned into weeks and finally into months were filled with frustration as we waited for the French diplomatic courier to make his weekly run, only to be told week after week that our visas were not in that pouch.

Those were days spent waiting, looking for reasons, for answers, for clear guidance from God. The frustration of not being able to do anything to hurry the French Foreign Ministry was coupled with the frustration of trying to find something profitable to fill the time, which still could be dropped at once as soon as we were able to leave.

But as I look back, I’d have to say that in all honesty the most difficult part was not the waiting, but the silence of God while we waited.

Yes, the silence of God.

I’m not sure that I ever acknowledged it in so many words—at least during the day. It was at night that the silence weighed so heavily. I would lie awake at night with questions, thinking about my questions and about lying awake.

But it seemed God was somewhere else. To say He is omnipresent, He is everywhere, sounded hollow: He most certainly was not there —where I could hear, sense, or feel Him.

I think my wife shared much the same feelings I had, but we didn’t talk about it in this way. After all, we were missionaries, therefore spiritual. And how could I, as spiritual leader of the family, admit I wasn’t experiencing the presence of God?

Such an admission would fall on evangelical ears as an open confession of sin. For we all know the doctrine that sins breaks our fellowship with God, but confession restores it. I guess unconsciously I dreaded opening myself to Job’s comforters. Obviously I was in sin, and God was withholding the visas until I got my life straightened out. And as for the “silence of God,” it was really the “stubbornness of Garry,” and if I’d confess, the silence would be broken with words of forgiveness and acceptance.

I did examine my life at that time, and soberly concluded that there was no known unconfessed sin which was responsible for the experience.

EVERY DAY ISN’T SWEETER

At that time I had never heard anyone talk about experiencing the feeling that God was silent. But as I read the Bible—especially the Psalms—I am convinced that it is not uncommon for believers to pass through such experiences.

And I’m equally convinced that many who will read this have experienced the silence of God—or are experiencing it right now. You may not have called it that, but if you’re honest you will identify with what I’m describing.

The Bible is totally honest, but we have created a false standard in our evangelical circles that keeps us from being so. Afraid to admit what we see as a failure, we smile and sing, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” and all the while we’re empty, groping, bewildered.

In the last scene of the last act of King Lear, after death, madness, and the storm have swallowed the noble as well as the evil characters, Shakespeare has a broken but surviving Edgar bring down the final curtain with these words: “The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

We would probably all be healthier mentally if we made it a habit to speak what we feel, not what we think we ought to say, in sad times, in hard times, in times of heartbreaking grief or stomach-wrenching fear, as well as in times of bubbling joy and richly satisfying peace. We’ve fallen out of the habit of truthfulness and are mired in the fear of other Christians’ reactions. Afraid of saying something we ought not to say, we skirt truthful acknowledgement of our deep feelings when we speak what we think we ought to say.

But in Ps. 13—and in a good many others as well—David candidly revealed his deepest feelings. David, the man after God’s own heart, in a piece of poetry inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself, admits his own experience of the silence of God.

BE HONEST WITH FEELINGS

Just here, I think, is where we must begin in understanding, enduring, and surmounting this experience in our own lives. We need to confront and acknowledge our feelings honestly.

Psychologists and counselors tell us that unacknowledged and therefore unresolved feelings lie at the heart of a vast array of behavioral problems, even among Christians. But the scriptural examples teach us to confront honestly how we feel. We see Elijah crushed in self-pity and despair. We hear Jonah lash out in anger at God. Habakkuk expresses impatience, Jeremiah grieves over his city, and Hosea’s heart breaks over his wife’s unfaithfulness.

Acknowledging how we feel, then, is not wrong. It is the place to start.

“But,” you might object, “what if I am bitter, jealous, angry with God?” Those may be unhelpful feelings leading to wrong behavior, but until we’re willing to admit we feel them, we cannot deal with them and we run the risk that suppressing those feelings will do even more damage, possibly resulting in mental and behavioral dysfunctions.

So the first step in dealing with the experience of the silence of God is to acknowledge it. This David does in Ps. 13:1-2

PSALM 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How tong must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I foil.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

The four-time repeated cry, “How long?” shows us the depth of David’s feelings. It seemed God had forgotten—abandoned— him. The experience of God’s presence was far from David’s life. He lay in bed with only his thoughts to wrestle with, and the lack of spiritual victory in his life led David to believe, whether literally or figuratively, that his enemy gloated in his defeat.

This is the experience of God’s silence. Not the self-imposed exile of unconfessed sin. Not simply the feeling of lack of guidance; not even the experience of waiting months or even years before seeing a specific prayer answered. No, this is the feeling that God is totally absent from all areas of your life. Your prayers bounce off the ceiling and fall impotently on the floor. You force yourself to read the Bible, but it is about as meaningful and relevant as a three-month-old issue of Newsweek in the doctor’s waiting room. Christian music seems like insipid platitudes; Christian books like so much pabulum, and Christian fellowship about as helpful as a convention of mannequins.

It feels better during the day, although it seems as though a dusty pall has settled over everything, dulling colors and dimming the sun. At night, wrestling with your thoughts, the silence of God is so real it aches and sleep comes hard. It feels like a vast sorrow with no cause, a deep fear of an unknown threat. And all we can do is cry, “How long?”

C.S. Lewis married late in life, and after just a couple of years his wife Joy died of cancer. Her death plunged Lewis deep into grief, and during those days he kept a brutally honest record of his thoughts and feelings. That journal, published under the title A Grief Observed, records Lewis’s experience of the silence of God:

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence . . .. Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?1

This is the same question reflected in the title of Philip Yancey’s excellent book, Where is God When it Hurts?2 The experience of the silence of God is not unique to us. Others—giants of the faith—have stood here before us. And so the first step to take in dealing with the experience is to acknowledge it.

KEEP ON PRAYING

In verses 3 and 4 we see David making a specific request to God:

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

“Look on me, answer me,” he pleads. In this idiom David asks that God take care of him, and do it in such a way that David can see evidence of that care. David offers two reasons for his request: First, he is so depressed in the silence that he feels sick unto death. Second, David fears his enemy’s exultant claims of victory, the dreaded sound, “I told you so!”

David’s prayer—look on me and answer—is not very specific as prayers go. But in it we can see a second phase of response to the situation. If the first thing we must do to work through the experience of the silence of God is to admit it honestly, the second thing is to keep on praying. Even when it seems futile, even when it seems our prayers hang limp in the stale air around us, never coming close to heaven, even then we must go on, continue to pray. Pray without ceasing, Paul said, not just when you feel like it (1 Thess. 5:17).

We must keep asking God to make Himself real in our experience, to meet us in our need. No need for oratorical excellence in this prayer—anguished honesty is more eloquent. What we need is to feel God Himself really present in our lives, not some sanitized Sunday school-booklet portrait of Him. As Frederick Buechner says in his excellent book Telling the Truth, “It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present . . .. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”3 And so even in the awful silence we must continue to pray.

REASSERT FAITH

The last two verses of the Psalm take us one step further. In these verses David reasserts his faith:

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,

For he has been good to me.

If the first two stanzas of the Psalm are spoken through clenched teeth and salty tears, in this final stanza the shadow of a smile flickers. Silence isn’t yet turned to symphony; the joy of full fellowship with God isn’t yet restored. But in reasserting his faith David finds the strength to get up and face just one more day.

David’s expression of faith rests on two pillars: God’s unfailing love, and David’s past experience of God’s goodness. He knows God’s love is loyal, always faithful. He would nod agreement to Paul’s conclusion that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39).

And he can remember many times in the past when the goodness of God was overwhelmingly real. And so David proclaims his joy in God’s salvation—an expression that I believe refers to the deliverance God will yet bring to David. He knows the silence of God won’t last forever, and so answers his own question of verse one. God will deliver him because He loves him and has been good to him in the past. Based on this faith, David will yet sing to the Lord. Not just now, maybe, but someday. Silence will be turned to song.

LOOK TO A HIDDEN REALITY

Now this might easily be dismissed as a shallow appeal to the power of positive thinking. It might be, that is, if it were not true.

Just because David feels abandoned does not mean God is not really there. Just because he cannot hear God’s voice does not mean he will never hear it again, or that he is not even now speaking, or that help is not already on the way. It may be that concentrating on statements of trust in God’s love and goodness is the power of positive thinking, but it will keep us from surrendering to the power of negative thinking.4

In the last stanza of Ps. 13, then, on the basis of his faith, David asserts that what he feels, real though those feelings are to him, is not really the way things are. And we must say the same. Yes, we must confront and acknowledge our feelings. But then we must lay those feelings alongside reality and see how they measure up. You see, if you have made a faith commitment to God, you have faith in His love and have seen His goodness to you in the past. And so in spite of how you feel, you know God will bring deliverance.

Thinking back on my experience of God’s silence while waiting for those visas, I believe the feelings lasted eight to ten weeks. I went that long living, so it felt, in a vacuum. I came to church, smiled, even preached. But one day my wife and I left the children with some friends and drove up in the mountains to talk and pray. And when we returned, God had spoken. I can’t really say He broke His silence; rather, He broke into my silence. By opening our eyes to certain, particular needs of our own family, God made it quite clear that we should not return to France.

Maybe I had not been ready to hear that word two months earlier. Certainly it brought some disappointments and regrets. We had worked hard learning the language and the culture, and now would not use those skills. We had made plans that now we would never see fulfilled. We had developed relationships that now we could never continue. But in that time, God’s grace and peace were real. He was again there for me. And out of the experience we gained a deeper understanding of God.

Right now are you perhaps feeling the silence of God in your life? You might be in circumstances where you deeply need God, but just can’t seem to feel Him in your life. Perhaps you’ve lost a job, or lost a loved one through death. Perhaps the anguish has been brought on by a total inability to communicate with your spouse or your children. It might be caused by physical pain, or doubts, or unjustified personal attacks. And just when you need God the most, He seems most absent from your life.

Don’t yield to despair. Others have been there before you. You need not let that feeling of abandonment lead you down the wrong path. You could, you see, try one of many ways of covering up for the silence of God in our lives. You could try to mask the silence through a frantic pace at work, or a whirlwind social schedule, as if being active and surrounded by people can fill the void left by the absence of God. You might hide behind overeating, or perhaps overexercising. You could seek escape through drinking or drugs, or the enticing finality of the escape offered in a handful of pills.

But that doesn’t have to be your pathway. Keep praying. Even if you feel it’s doing no good, keep it up. And then in faith reflect on God’s unfailing love and all the ways that His goodness has enriched your life in the past. Have confidence based on that faith that He will bring deliverance to you. Remember, it’s out of God’s absence that God makes Himself present.

Wait patiently in faith for that new, deeper experience of God Himself that will be yours when the silence is broken. David’s pathway led not to despair, but back to joy and song.

Yours can, too.

1. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1961), pp. 4-5.
2. Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977).
3. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), p.43.
4. See Job 23:8-12 for another clear biblica example of a man who, even while agonizing over the silence of God in his experience, still reaffirmed his faith.  Paul puts this idea of “positive thinking” on a doctrinal level in Phil. 4:4-9.

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