4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

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The View

I am about to sell my home of 19 years in Juneau, Alaska.  I will no longer own the spectacular view that has been my website’s cover picture ever since I started blogging in March 2014. The Gastineau channel, Mt. Roberts, city of Juneau and the cruise ships that grace the harbor 5 months of the year are not my possessions but the picture window, showcasing a breathtaking scene of  beauty, has been mine. But I sense an encroaching disquiet coming from a desire to own something of beauty that is threatening to steal my gratitude and perspective.

I am moving back to my 600 square ft. cozy rented apartment in Buffalo, NY and happy to do so.  But I’m wistful as I sit in my living room writing this post. As my eyes shift from the computer screen to the scene outside my window the realization that I will no longer have the privilege of feasting my eyes on this particular changing scene of beauty feels surreal.

Years ago I  occasionally dreamed I was washing dishes in another home looking outside its window above the sink. In the dream I was continually asking myself, “How did it happen that I am here and not in Juneau, looking out my picture window? How did I give up such beauty?” Waking up was always a happy relief. “Yay, it is all still MINE.”

Anyone feeling sorry for me yet? I hope not.  In fact, I may have annoyed some of you. “Spoiled Brat” would not be too far off the mark.  Who in this world gets to live in a modest 1964 home with its accompanied price tag and enjoy a multi-million dollar view? Not many middle class folk. Oh yeah, there are many, many desperately under-resourced people of the world who have exquisite views from their ramshackle homes but they are also at risk of devastation brought on by tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes,  earthquakes, floods, malnutrition, disease, exploitation and violence.

A view from a middle class home cannot be separated from social economics. Being economically comfortable allows me the luxury to gush over the view I own.

Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong in being middle class, owning things or lucking out with a fabulous view. Far from it! I want to be genuinely grateful for this undeserved gift of beauty for 19 years and be grateful for my cozy little rented buffalo apartment that I will be moving back to. I should be emotionally on top of this.  I have been schooled as a follower of Jesus for several decades so I believe it when the gospels have Jesus saying something to this effect, “Stop worrying about what you are going to own and what ‘views’ you will enjoy because your life is worth so much more than that stuff and your Heavenly Father knows what you need and how to get you through the good stuff without greed, pride, selfishness, entitlement and hoarding  and the bad stuff without despair and abandonment.” (Matthew 5:19-34 paraphrased by me).

My pseagulesoint of self-criticism is that there is an emotional dysfunction revealed in the words, “mine” and “I need to own it.”  It is not the the-in-your-face greed of those seagulls in ‘Finding Nemo’ who perched on the piling keep calling out, “mine, mine, mine, mine.”  There is something more seductively deceiving and greedy going on here. Something that can bring on a case of “perspective amnesia” in no time.   When I was in the midst of 9 months of treatment for stage 3 breast cancer, my little attic apartment was a sanctuary of peace and hope. View,” shmiew” who cared? Certainly not me. I was not longing for my Juneau home view. I was glad to be getting treatment for a life threatening disease from a major cancer institute only two miles from my apartment while being near my children, grandchildren and a small group of believers who prayed for me and cheered me on, as were the dear friends from Juneau and elsewhere. And less I forget, my husband was with me and I mean, really with me!  I was enjoying a view on love and some heavenly treasures. Matthew 6:19-21 bears quoting: “Do not store for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Six months later and two good post cancer treatment checkups are “ clouding “the view on love and “clearing”  the view from my Juneau home with more magnificence and enticement  than I have ever remembered and even more so now that I am selling it.  The soon “not to be my view” is taunting me with regret, sadness and loss. “Who am I if I don’t own this?”  “What will make me feel special?” “How will out of town guests be drawn to visit if the vacation package does not include this place?” This is stupid thinking.  As I write these thoughts down they get stupider by the second.  (Here is a therapy tip:   When you write down disquieting thoughts their significance is opened up to a debate. The false reasoning is exposed.  You, then make sure you win the debate with more reasonable thoughts).

Here is a useful verse to reflect on: Psalm 39:4 “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”  Happy verse? Probably not. Liberating one? Most definitely. Life being fleeting doesn’t conjure up a fleet of possessions meeting me at my glorious eternal home. So, meanwhile, it will be best to keep a view of love in perspective.  And with a detached gratefulness say goodbye to a view from a home I owned and enjoyed for 19 fleeting years.

 

 

 

Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.

 

It’s not fair

My last post promised theological reflections on the article, “Are you too Good Looking to Get Sick?” This piece bothered me and I suspect that it bothered you as well if you read it.  In summary, a study indicates that the more attractive a person is the higher their good health quotient.  According to the research people considered to be very attractive are statistically shown to have better health, avoiding a host of diseases and disorders.

clothespin-nose-donaWhy does this bother me so much?  Well to put it simply: it just does not seem fair! Before I go any further and find myself accused of hypocrisy, I admit that I want to be considered an attractive 63 year old woman as much as the next woman or man but I don’t want it linked to better health.  Again, it just doesn’t seem fair but then who said life was fair? Right? I mean why do I get cancer and somebody else doesn’t?  Is it because I’m not attractive enough? Why am I being treated with stage 3 breast cancer and the woman sitting next to me has stage 4 (metastatic cancer).  That doesn’t seem fair to her, does it? Who knows? Maybe it’s because I have a small nose and she doesn’t (another positive physical characteristic listed in the article). Wait a minute, I don’t have a small nose.  In fact, when I was 13 years old I tried going to bed with a clothes pin on my nose to stop it from growing any further.  It hurt too much so I didn’t follow through. Maybe if I had followed through I wouldn’t have gotten cancer at 62.  I know that these musings are degenerating into absurdities but some scientific research topics can sometimes be “crazy making”. They can tempt you into believing that it all comes down to whether or not you dodged a bad gene bullet or got more than your share of good genes in the celestial line-up.  As it turns out Life appears not to operate like a functional family full of siblings; each one born into the belief that they have an inherent right to be treated equally.

Theological reflections:

First, the Gospel of Christ actually begins with an understanding that life is not fair. The world is damaged and people are damaged goods; that is why we need a Savior. Everything is out of kilter not “just our face symmetry” (another one of those hallmarks of attractiveness leading to better health). And there is a myriad of ways that that damage is reflected in our DNA, environment, intelligence, upbringing, life choices etc. etc. We are not wired to be perfect.  The Genesis account of our creation assumes our predisposition to mess things up, even though it was not God’s intent in making us that way.

Second, read the Gospels in the New Testament and you quickly meet a Jesus who has a preference for the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, abused and sick.  He says that he “came for the sick, not the well” which it turns out to be all of us in one way or another. Many would disagree with such a grim assessment of human nature but that is how I read the Gospels and the experience of history and the present realities of human affairs.

Third, there is no mention by the gospel writers of Jesus’ physical appearance in spite of the fact that we have had a feast for the eyes for centuries of a beautiful Jesus who is tall, Nordic, symmetrical, with eyes big and blue as the sky. (Thankfully, in recent decades we have had art and media depictions of Jesus with Middle Eastern good looks- not anymore helpful- but at least less racially biased.)   So, why no mention of Jesus’ appearance in the Gospels or the Epistles of the NT? There is a lot of speculation.  I’ll weigh in on this : it is irrelevant and a distraction to the gospel message.  God in Christ has come to be with us, all of us.  And  maybe those in the world who don’t have good health, good looks or good standing and prosperity are better positioned to the kind of humility that brings souls to the fact that they are in desperate need of the Jesus who says,

“I am the bread of life” (the one who wants to feed the emptiness in souls)

“I am the Good Shepherd” who is willing to leave the flock to look for the one lost sheep. The one who is always with us through whatever circumstances we encounter.

“I am the light of the world” whose light exposes the darkness around us and within us and then shines hope and forgiveness, revealing the way back home to Himself.

The Gospel of John is the place in the New Testament that Jesus pronounces the “I am” statements like the three mentioned above. There are others. At different times in my life at least one of the “I am” statements have met a need; each one profound, personal, hopeful and able to penetrate the walls of resistance to His love, healing and grace. Not always but enough over the years to build a relationship of trust that is not dependent on beauty, health, admiration or even fairness.

Comic postscript:  My husband, David, wonders when there is going to be a study on the health of people like himself who think they are good looking but really are not; but then again that would have to be a study that would take in a lot of the world’s male population. Ah, if we women could only have the confidence of boys!

“Darling, it’s better to look good than to feel good”

Sitting in the radiation therapy waiting room, a woman waiting for treatment complained about things people have said to her since her diagnosis. “You don’t look like you are in cancer treatment, you look so good.”  She went on to explain that she did not feel like she was doing well.  She was filled with  anxiety because of a return of breast cancer and two tumors recently found on her lung.  She went on to say, “I have always tried to look my best…..but that certainly doesn’t change what is going on inside of me.”  My heart went out to her.

In an old Saturday night live skit Billy Crystal made the following comment famous, “Darling, it is always better to look good than to feel good.”  So silly and shallow, but funny.  Yet, since 1989 the American Cancer Society has sponsored a free program called, Look Good, Feel Better.  Any cancer patient can sign up for a consult with a cosmetician and receive a free bag of cosmetics suited to skin type.

I am struggling a bit here. Read my post called “The New 60?” to understand why. But actually, I appreciate what the American Cancer Society is doing with this kind of program.  You only need to read a couple of testimonies from women who participated in Look Good, Feel Better to get teary-eyed and grateful for such a thoughtful program. As one woman explained, “I was pale, hairless with dark patches on my face and feeing terribly self-conscious. During the beauty consultation I felt uplifted and normal and more confident to meet the public.”  I found the program a boost to my self-esteem as well.  And I could do it without feeling so vain. After all, I am being treated for cancer. I get a free pass for a lot of things.

If this was my last word on the topic I would have given a nice advert and thumbs up to a good program and left it at that.  But I did a little research on the scientific studies associated with looking good and feeling good and found a study that left me disturbed and prompted theological reflection.  If you are curious about that study read the article, “Are You Too Good Looking to Get Sick?” at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2675563/high-blood-pressure-asthma-research-says-looks-affect-risk-illness.html

If you are curious about my theological reflections read next weeks post.