Some Musings on Fear and Pain

Everyone has fear.

I had tons of fear, it leaked out of me. I allowed it to run rampant in my thoughts and actions. My life became a blur of awful. What happens when your life becomes a blur of awful? The lives of everyone around you become blurs of awful. Soon you start making your fears a reality.

You see, fear is typically irrational. You latch onto the idea that something catastrophic will happen and then you let it run your thoughts. From your thoughts come your feelings, and from those feelings are born actions. We act on the irrational.

Some fears are rational: death, losing someone else to death… actually, that’s about it. Death is the only certainty in life, therefore it’s perfectly rational to fear it, for most of us. For Christians, not so much, but that’s another topic.

This fear of death can manifest in both rational and irrational fears. We fear out of self-preservation, which is rational, but most things we fear won’t ultimately kill us. Sure, they may be painful, but pain itself doesn’t kill. There is a fine line between rational and irrational though, and sometimes we take some pretty stupid risks because we don’t categorize correctly. And what may be a rational fear for some, like rock climbing the face of Half Dome if you’re an untrained couch potato with literally no experience, may be completely irrational for someone else, like a trained and experienced rock climber. It would be absurd for that person to refuse to climb what is probably easy for him.

But as I said, most of the circumstances we fear won’t kill us. Most things we fear won’t even come close to killing us. Why do we fear those things?

Why do we fear our feelings? Why do we fear rejection? Or losing material things? Why do we fear taking chances? The words of others? None of these things can kill us.

Ultimately, we fear pain. We are comfort loving creatures and pain is what we seek to avoid the most. Even our fear of death is largely tied to the pain of it. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep, not in some horrible drawn out pain. But pain doesn’t kill us.

Depending on what we do with it, pain can injure us or it can strengthen us. Our goal should be the latter. What we think about pain ultimately determines what we do with it. If we think negatively of it, and begin to fear it, we will act in ways that weaken us. We get hurt and think “I’ll never do that again.” and instead of learning how to work through the pain and become stronger we give in to fear and become weaker for it.

If we think of pain as an opportunity to learn and be strengthened we fear it less. Sure, we hate it when we are in it, but we are less likely to cower the next time it comes or avoid it all together and miss out on some of the best things in life. This applies to both physical and emotional pain, accepting both can be a tremendous step towards growth.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliché, but it’s a true one. However, it’s only true if you let it be. Sometimes we let the things that hurt us damage us and hold us back. We allow the hurt to create fear in us. We fear that we will be hurt again. We then allow this fear to drive our actions and end up getting hurt. Our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often the process of creating this self-fulfilling prophecy is subconscious. No one wants to be locked up in fear. But our brains are cautious creations. Our brains want to keep us from pain, and will do anything to keep us safe, even things which make absolutely no rational sense. This is where anxiety disorders, PTSD, dissociative disorders, and other such trauma illnesses come from. Our brains would rather function in disarray than allow us to get hurt. Ironically, this disarray ends up hurting us more in the long run.

Outside of those particular disorders, which require professional and often spiritual help to overcome, our fears are in our control. We can turn them around. We can use them to our advantage just like any other negative emotion in life. Fight your fears, face them, you might just find yourself stronger the next time they attack.

War

That moment of peace
That calm in the storm
When you think of the release
And the racing thoughts form.

Bombardment out of the air
Twisted wicked in your mind
Seemingly out of nowhere
True thoughts left behind.

Urging you onward
To carry through.
Filling you with the wrong word
“Do what you must do.”

Call upon the angels
Cry out to God above
He’ll rescue you from this painful
Moment with His love.

Doubled down the attack
Dark forces reconvene
Throwing you off track
With thoughts in between
Darkness and light
The wrong and the right
Confusion settles in
Temptation within
Deep the battle rages
Into the night.

“No one will miss you
You’re being dramatic.”
“That is not true.”
In between is static.
The battle is erratic.
“You’re not strong enough
Life’s too rough”
Thoughts are automatic.

“Be still”
You hear
Breaking your will
And killing your fear.
Chaos ensues
Evil hates to lose.
Raging darker deeper
Evil is a sleeper
Who gets worse towards the end
Willing to send
The darkest thoughts ever deeper
Down you descend.

“Be still”
You hear again
“This is not My will”
You feel insane
These voices in your head
The battlefield not red
With blood
Only strewn with broken dreams.

You wake up
Unstable as hell
Tears erupt
Shaking a hallow shell
Of a man who once was standing
Long before he fell.
Finding your Foundation
You rise
Stronger for the next invitation
The demons will devise.

Paul’s Contentment

“…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11b-13

A few months ago a sermon on these verses whacked me over my head.

Contentment eluded me for my entire life. I had spent years familiar with these verses but never finding the meaning. Here was someone (Paul) saying he had learned to be content in every circumstance.

Wait. What? How? How was Paul content when he was low, hungry, and in need? Was he bluffing?

I could understand his contentment in plenty. I was frequently quite settled when things were going well, but when times were hard I freaked out, often disastrously.

What was Paul’s secret?

We often hear that last verse quoted as though it were some kind of good luck charm. But “I can do all things” isn’t pertaining to some feat of strength or passing a test. In context it’s so much more.

The secret to Paul’s contentment was his faith in Christ. Instead of depending on his ever changing circumstances for his peace he depended on the solid foundation of Jesus. Jesus never changes. There is no fluctuation in the love of Christ, unlike the other things we put our faith in.

A lifetime doesn’t seem to be enough to grasp this concept. Even though I tried to be content in Christ as all good Christians should be, I didn’t see my idols. For many years I was plagued by anxiety because this or that wasn’t right in my life. I experienced long periods of want. Instead of trusting God and being content, I allowed these periods to devour me. Anxiety and fear ran my life.

Only recently did I discover that I made idols out of so many things. And everything failed me one way or another. Instead of rightly seeing the things I had and desired to have as gifts from God, I made them into demands. When I didn’t get my demands, I became a poster child of discontent. This discontentment then proceeded to destroy many of those good gifts.

It took losing the most important thing in my life (my biggest idol) to show me the power of my idols. It took months of floundering and grasping for that idol to wake me up. I had depended on something temporal, something delicate. When it broke and went away, it almost broke me.

I was drowning but those verses hit me like a lifebouy. Paul depended on Christ, and Paul made it through excruciating suffering. Not only was I made aware that what I had lost was an idol, but I realized that all of those things which had driven my anxiety were idols as well: financial security, steady employment, well behaved kids, a clean house, sex, intimacy, friendships, my pride, etc. All of these things had failed me at times and because I had depended on them I was always left staggering.

Christ never fails. He never gives up on me. He never stops loving me. Even when I run towards my idols He always pulls me back into the fold. When I lean on Him I am never left staggering. It took going through hell to teach me this, but when I started to grasp it I felt a peace like I never have before.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt or have days of discouragement and discontent. I am still going through this trial. I am still suffering. At times I feel like a train is sitting on my chest. It’s hell. I still want to restore what was lost (it is a good thing in and of itself, when properly esteemed). But I am content. Christ is sovereign, God is working for my good and His glory. I don’t have to flail or kick against His Providence because I know it is perfect.

When I am lonely or struggling with thoughts of suicide (I am ashamed to even admit this) or wasting away in pain I can call on Him and He restores peace to my soul. I can read His word and find comfort in His promises, as well as instruction on how to handle difficult people and circumstances. I can know that no matter what happens to me I am secure in my salvation. I may suffer and even die, but my eternity is secure.

Perhaps “I can do all things” means “I can endure all things”. No matter what God gives or takes away in His Providence, we can be sure that if we (like Paul) rest in Him we will endure. If we call on Him when in trial or despair we can find real comfort. When we obey His law and trust in His word we can handle any circumstance that comes our way.

That is true contentment.

Idols

Idols fall one by one.

Purged by a loving God.

Ripped from my heart

Like a barbed hook.

I see them sitting

On the shelf of my heart

Demanding sacrifice

Wanting my soul

With every look.

I am consumed

Taken

And eaten alive.

Shoveled into the mouths

Of those which cannot speak

Or hear my screams.

Never satisfied

They offer no mercy

Feasting endlessly

On my bones.

I am blind

I see but a few

In darkness they reside

Churned ceaselessly

From my heart inside.

Some grotesque

Some veiled in beauty

Large and small

All with one goal:

To destroy me.

Hour by hour

I require delivery

Safety

A shield

A Savior from the wretched mouths

Of these wicked beasts

Of my own making.

Little gods

Insatiable

Built in my heart

Pernicious

Obstinate

Devouring my time

My thoughts

My energy,

Replacing what is good

With the less than

And the outright evil.

The Trimming of the Vine



“‘Rid me, good Lord, of every diverting thing.’
What prodigal waste it appears to be, to see scattered on the floor the bright green leaves, and the bare stem, bleeding in a hundred places from the sharp steel.
But with a tried and trusted husbandman, there is not a random stroke in it at all; nothing cut away which would not have been loss to keep, and gain to lose.”

-Amy Carmichael, quoted in Sinclair Ferguson’s “Maturity”.

We often get angry with God for taking away the things that we love. But why?Because losing things sucks, whether it be money, people, or health. When we grow attached to things (or people) we often get tangled up in unhealthy affections for them. When they are ripped away we feel disoriented. We feel as though a part of us has been removed.

But God knows exactly what He is doing. As the quote above states, nothing is random. God knows what we need, and when He takes away, it’s for our growth. Like I said in my last post, pain is inevitable. Pain leads to growth, and sometimes the loss of someone or something is the most painful thing we can experience. There is almost an exponential correlation between the amount of pain and the amount of growth potential.

This doesn’t mean that we go seeking pain, or that pain isn’t painful. We shouldn’t deliberately cut things off that God wouldn’t. Nor should we masochisticly relish in our pain. But we should see that our most painful moments and circumstances carry in them the promise of great fruit.

When God takes away He knows that it would have been a loss for us to keep whatever it was He took. He also knows that we will gain from losing it. For perspective, I like to invert the lyric of “When I Survey the Wonderous Cross” to say “My richest loss I count but gain.” Every loss is a gain, even if not immediately perceived.

Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes that it may bear more fruit. – John 15:2

Fruit takes time to grow, and even more time to ripen. It’s easy to grow impatient in our world of instant gratification. We want results now! But to God a thousand years is like a day. His timing almost never matches our desired speed. We must wait for fruit. We must endure the suffering of loss before we see the gain.

We may be tempted to despair when we see the leaves of the vine of our life scattered on the ground. We may have invested decades of our life in something, just to watch it get cut away. But we must remember that the vine isn’t dead. Just because it was trimmed doesn’t mean it is gone. In fact, we are assured the trimming will produce more fruit. In one way, shape, or form, the trimmed branch will regrow into something healthier and more productive.

But again, this takes time. Sometimes the first fruit of a loss is patience. If we can get past the initial pain, we can find a calm place to wait for the next fruit, whatever that may be. God’s trimmings result in multiple fruits.

Be patient, sufferers. It’s worth it.

Pain

A brilliant man once said “Life is pain, highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” He may not have been too far off from the truth. In my thirty-five years of life I have found that pain is one of the few certainties in my existence.

Since I was twelve I have suffered from nearly constant back pain and neck pain, the result of a bike accident. I have had two surgeries, one to remove a benign bone tumor from my knee and one to place a titanium plate on my broken collar bone. Both resulted in nerve damage which is often painful. Wear and tear from hard work has given me various aches from my feet to my hands. Our physical bodies are certainly frail. But what of our minds and souls?

I am no stranger to emotional pain. This is the kind of pain which rots your soul and makes you wish to die. It is tempting to flee this pain in myriad ways, frequently replacing the internal pain with a physical pain. Unfortunately, this is a dreadful payoff.

Death seems like a great escape. After all, I believe there is eternal bliss on the other side. But who am I to tell God when it’s my time? And what of those I would leave behind? What of their emotional pain? As my son put it “You can’t die, who would take care of us?” Escaping my pain is not worth dumping it onto them.

Other temptations are equally fraught with ugly. I could drink myself into a stupor, but that would result in not only a dreadful hangover the next day but it could result in neglecting my loved ones or worse. Same with drugs. Sex? Temporary. And when used incorrectly, also dangerous to others.

So what do I do with my pain?

It would be easy to say I simply pray it all away. After all, that’s what the prosperity preachers say to do. But prayer doesn’t always eliminate pain. In fact sometimes it seems more pain is the answer to prayer. I definitely do pray and cling to the promises of God. But there is more to it than that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that pain never completely goes away. There is always going to be some kind of pain in our lives. Knowing that pain will always be present gives me some consolation. I’m not cursed. I’m not strange. What I deal with is common to all.

But is it my fault? I think this is the most common question people have about pain. “What did I do to bring this upon myself?” I don’t internalize too much. Not all the pain in life is purely your fault. Don’t listen to Job’s friends and assume your pain is the result of some horrible sin you have done (though it might be).

Sometimes pain is the result of the actions of others. We live in a world full of depraved souls, friction is inevitable. People hurt us with words, with actions, and sometimes in ways we don’t fully understand. Often we allow even the innocent actions of others to hurt us. Our thoughts about the actions directly feed our feelings of pain. The best we can do for this pain is to forgive. Vengeance or wrathful responses will only injure us more.

Escape if you have to, then let it go. Or simply seek to understand the motives behind the actions and words of others. If pure, you may need to examine your own pride. Maybe you are being oversensitive, maybe you hate yourself and are projecting that hatred into what others do. Maybe you simply need to tell them it hurts. We all do the best we can with what we know, it’s likely you hurt many people without knowing or intending.

It soothes my pain to know that we are all suffering in this world together. We all hurt each other. We are all equals in this respect. I can respond with anger, or I can respond with compassion. Compassion is much less painful for both parties, at least in the long run.

I refuse to let pain consume me. I refuse to let pain lead me into giving up my faith. I refuse to let pain kill my love for others. Or kill me for that matter. Pain can only grow me.

I choose what I allow pain to do to me.

A Hex on The Stoics

The other day, I was listening to an episode about prayer on Ligonier’s “Renewing Your Mind”. The speaker, R.C. Sproul, mentioned that prayer is a lot like a love letter. He said the even though God already knows about our life, we should be excited to pray and tell God all about it.

This made me wonder, why aren’t more people who claim to love God giving Him love letters in their prayers?

I then realized that many Christians don’t pray at all. Perhaps much of what prevents them from praying is a lack of real joy in their life.

They prefer to be stoics.

People are told so often not to let their emotions control them and dictate their actions that they often assume it’s safer not to have any feelings. They think “Don’t let your emotions rule you” really means stop having emotions at all.

Should emotions rule us and dictate everything we do or say? No, we should certainly apply logic and rational thinking when making decisions. But should emotions have some influence? Perhaps.

I think it’s unbiblical to say we shouldn’t have our emotions influence any of our actions. In the Bible there are numerous examples of people weeping, soaking their beds in tears, and rending their clothing in mourning. In the Gospels we have Jesus flipping tables. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” got angry and showed it. The people of the Bible were very emotional and their actions certainly displayed it.

I think the modern (or not so modern, honestly) tendency to stoicism is very unbiblical. We were created to feel. God Himself has emotions, and strong ones at that. Part of being created in His image is the ability to emote.

Most of Fruits of the Spirit are emotional. For example, what is joy if not happy? What is joy if not exuberant? We should let joy influence us. Especially in our prayers.

There are many out there who say that happiness is not something we should strive for. I think this is hogwash. We should feel nothing but happy knowing that the God of creation loves us, cares about us, provides for us, and even died for our sins. If nothing else, we should strive to be happy about those facts.

That happiness ought to be reflected in our prayers. We should be excited to pray because God is listening. He values and loves the prayers of His saints and wants us to come to Him with our burdens and worship. We should be glad to give Him our love letters of prayer, because his love gives us great joy.

As usual, Sproul was right.

Beside Myself

Introspection is a confusing thing. Like many practices in life it can be good or bad. I was always told not to navel gaze. It can distract us from others and turn us into selfish monsters. But I think it can help us find our faults, work on them, and serve others better.

For me, more often than not my introspection turns me not into a self-pitying puddle instead of a selfish monster . My faults are many, what use am I to the world?

For many years I hated myself for wanting anything. I considered it a major fault that I had desires. Surely, I must have been discontent, I wanted what I did not have. God gave me everything I needed, who was I to tell Him I should have more? But I was wrong. It isn’t discontent to desire. It’s only discontent to envy. That’s a very different animal.

It wasn’t introspection that uncovered this error, I learned by looking outside myself. Introspection festered my guilt. Healing was found in extrospection.

I only found the truth by seeking out what God and others had to say about contentment.

Back in those days, I was my worst critic. I lied to myself and let my lies injure me. In my woundedness I cut myself off from the love of others.

When I turn inward I become a ghost. I spend so much time beating myself up that I forget others. I disappear. Nothing comes out of me because I am pouring everything into myself. I am there but I am definitely not present.

Perhaps a better form of introspection is a form that looks at how I treat others. Does that which comes from me match what is inside me? If what comes out of me is selfish or cruel, is that reflecting what is inside of me?

Before communion we are warned to examine ourselves. We are told to heed Paul’s warning to ensure we are recognizing the body and blood of Christ. We are also sometimes warned to ensure we are in good standing with our neighbors before we commune with Christ Himself. This type of introspection is concerned not just with what is inside of us, but with how we relate to others.

If I am in conflict with others it may be a reflection of my own hard heart. I may not be letting go of a particular sin someone has committed against me. Or I may not be repentant and seeking restoration because I am too prideful or stubborn to accept my fault.

To figure out if we are guilty of a hard heart we must be introspective. This type of introspection is not concerned with “finding myself” and “loving myself”. This type is about learning how to love others and loving Christ. It is a holy type of introspection.

Of course this introspection must be accompanied by an understanding of scripture. Without a knowledge of the laws of God we are unable to know our sins, except for those written on our hearts as Natural Law. We may know not to kill naturally, but without scripture we would not know that anger and insults make us just as guilty as a murderer.

Perhaps we could call this an “extrospective introspection”? We look to scripture and the Holy Spirit to show us the truth of what is in ourselves.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. ” Psalm 139:23-24

Remake

New hat, who dis?

Sometimes life needs a giant reset button. Like that giant “Easy” button from those commercials, large and easy to just slap and make everything flash to a different plane of existence.

But life isn’t like that. Life tends to take the slow route. Nothing ever truly “resets”, it just evolves. Moment by excruciating moment our lives unfold, steadily leading us to an inevitable end. Even at death we are still waiting for that next second.

Frequently we try to hurry things along. We reinvent ourselves, try new things, move to a new place, try on a new look. We seek to break free from the dreary present and the often drearier past. But those things don’t simply topple like dominoes. They hang on. Memory is often our worst enemy, hounding us, reminding us of our failures, our broken dreams, and all the regrets of yesterday.

There is no speeding through this life. God has placed a strict speed limit on the movement of time. We must take it every second by second, allowing our natural evolution to work on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

Sometimes we want the clock to slow. We want to savor the best minutes. Even this is futile. The best we can do is commit them to a foggy memory and hope our brain doesn’t dispose of it. Often this disposal comes at exactly the same time we need those memories to keep us going. Good is replaced by bad. Bitterness drowns out the best parts of our lives.

Why do the pivotal times have to drag on for so long? Changes can happen in a blink. Big ones. But sometimes the change takes so much time we begin to lose all hope. We begin to think it’s all pointless. Just end already, I’m ready to take the next step! We don’t count all those tiny steps and large trips along the way. We want giant steps. Even if a moment can change everything, the most important changes take place almost imperceptibly.

The way to maturity is a long and arduous road. Struggle makes us stronger. Trials and suffering build our character and keep us humble. We cannot rush through, we must endure all the way to the end, bitter or not.

I have never prayed so much. I have never clung to my faith so tightly. My current suffering has grown fruit in me and reminded me that all I truly have in life is a God who loves me and holds me in His hand. Even when others fail, even when I stumble, even when the circumstances seem stacked against me, He has me in mind.

The moments are still excruciating. Pain is constant. There seems to be absolutely no end in sight. He loves me and He knows me. He will hold me forever, no matter how much I may stray. He will save me out of my darkness, in due time. He allows all things, pain and pleasure, to work together for my good and His glory.

And what a glory it is.

Women’s Clothes

Recently I was given a stack of writings which my great-grandfather wrote for my grandma. I love them so much I thought I would share.

This one is entitled Women’s Clothes. This one is not as politically incorrect as the last, though it may be a bit dated as women don’t wear hats as much these days. But I still love the sentiments. Though I have no idea what “paying the rabbits” means, even Google couldn’t help with that one.

Woman With A Hat, 1905, Henri Matisse

“Women’s Clothes”

A certain person stopped by yesterday on her way home from “paying the rabbits.” She was also in search of a hat. She told me about her hunt while Mom was getting coffee. She could not find a thing that suited her type of beauty. She spoke highly of a large “pink” one she had seen, but which she did not think becoming to her age and condition. I agreed with her entirely. (Mentally) For I have very often noticed that when fat, elderly ladies attempt to look “rosebuddish,” the result is always disastrous. It is one man’s opinion that a woman’s hat is the most important part of her costume. And the most important thing about a hat is it’s “age.” I mean that a hat young enough for a teenager will almost always appear “tragic” on a grandmother. A young hat on an elderly woman will make her look either ridiculous or pathetic– depending on how we feel about things. Except with the young , the hat must be “older” than the woman. The contrast will cause her to appear younger. A too young hat will make her seem older than she is. As most of the hats for sale are “young,” a woman who has “settled” finds it hard to find something becoming. But they can at least avoid passionate pinks and sky blues.

While we are on the subject, there are a few more things I’d like to speak of. There is the fallacy of many women that they will appear younger if they wear “young things.” There could be no greater mistake. An older woman dressed in young things looks, not young, but frowsy– if not worse. Over dressing is another. Many very plain women imagine that dressing in lively colors, frills, and decorations will disguise their plainness. It has the opposite effect–it accentuates it. As the hat must be a little older than the woman, so the dress must be a little plainer than the face. A plain woman in a plain dress of the right color will usually pass muster. An overdressed one looks like a square peg in a round hole. After looking over the dress, we are disappointed at the face. We feel let down. We feel that the woman is trying to obtain goods under false pretenses. Dresses are made becoming by their color and cut, not by the price of the material used to make them.

Old men try to appear young, not so much by dressing young, as by trying to “act” young. While playing dances, I have had many opportunities to observe these “young heads on old shoulders.” When I was feeling good, they amused me. When otherwise, they irritated me. I felt that a good kick in the proper place would help–preferably administered by me. But that was pure intolerance. For no man is an ass on purpose.

To fill this blank space, I give my favorite quotation:

“He prayeth best who loveth best

All things, both great and small.

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge