The Care and Feeding of the Heart: An Apologetic on Suffering—Part 7
In the realms of the old adage, “You are what you eat”, the bible has a great deal to say about being a disciple of Jesus Christ and our spiritual diet.
Of the many problematic consequences of the secularization of the culture over time, the loss of a biblical spirituality [and our body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16), et al] has led to a society-wide gorging and/or starvation to deal with the “empty spiritual tummy” of our often UN-biblical faith and the concomitant emotional ambivalence that can create such a troubling fixation with all things… foodish—some friendly, most not!
Evidence of all sorts reveals we are spiritually famished and so we are feasting ourselves on a sub-par diet… to death. It’s not only a problem with spiritual junk food [gobbling-up thousands of unbiblical world religions], but anything we can put our hands on! How and what we eat is a very revealing symptom of the nature of our heart’s core beliefs.
Humanity, so hungry for “the bread that comes down from heaven”, that when we knowingly or unwittingly starve ourselves of it we will indiscriminately ingest all sorts of very unsavory, unhealthy, unpalatable things.
[Jesus said] “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…” (John 6:50-71 emphasis added).
Let’s catch up on the feast of the heart we’ve been chewing on, An Apologetic on Suffering.
Thus far—and in order to get the best perspective on how a loving God can allow suffering—we’ve feasted on “God’s four-part story”:
Part 5, Freefalls—any form of the unavoidable suffering, trials of any kind that accompany living in a fallen and horribly broken world [The Fall]
Part 6, Foundations—what humanity is sustained by and cannot live without; what crumbled away under all humanity at the time of The Fall; and what God re-established in The Redemption: The Pillars of Creation, Christ, and Covenant—which, once embraced through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, is a threefold foundation that will never leave or forsake us AND act as the platform for meaning, life, and every relationship of any kind. (Matthew 22:36-40)
PLEASE TAKE CAREFUL NOTE: Each of the parts, steps of the Weeping, Window, and the Way are deeply rooted in—part of the tapestry of—God’s Story of Creation, The Fall, Redemption and the Consummation. Any attempt at experiencing and/or explaining “How can an all-powerful and all-loving God allow suffering?” must be couched in God’s Story first—providing the proper context for the universal reality before any experience of the personal reflection of it. All of humanity’s stories are nothing but sub-plots within God’s Story! And what a blessing that is…
As Soren Kierkegaard said, “What is most personal is most universal”: If we do not know and believe—in the bowels and bone marrow level—God’s UNIVERSAL Story, we will never get close to experiencing it in the most PERSONAL way God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so much desires that we do!
Today, we’re taking the next vital step in “God’s protocol for redemptive suffering”, The Window—which has two parts as well: Part 7, The would-a, could-a, should-a’s; and Part 8, A window into our heart [August 21 Training Table].
[as quoted from my book]
The would-a, could-a, should-a’s
God’s sanctuary of protective care held me. The promises of his creative power and personal presence had placed this firm bedrock foundation beneath me. I had landed. I would fall no further. Sirens wailed in the distance, still muffled and seemingly a long way off.
Slowly, I straightened my back to breathe, clear my head, and check my surroundings. My body ached from immobility, the cold, the stress of the emotions coursing through me. It felt as if I had been straining and ripping apart every muscle in my body. Tears still welled in my eyes as I leaned back, then forward, to place my hands on Dad’s side and shoulder.
By now the pain of everything that had happened—the weeping—had flung the window of my heart open wide. Through that window I could now see previously hidden parts of myself far more clearly than ever before, especially as I considered my relationship with my dad. Certainly in such a time feelings of false guilt would likely arise, and they did. Far more troubling, though, were the blotches of real self-centeredness and sin I saw within my heart.
How many times, how many places, and how many opportunities had God given me to be with Dad over the years? How many times could I have spoken with him from my heart about so many things? Yet I had held myself back in ways that revealed my loyalty to self and man rather than to God…. And my father.
To say I felt some deep regrets would be a huge understatement. I had often guarded my words for fear of revealing too much. I had not wanted to offend him, causing emotional discomfort of any kind or crossing the boundary lines that our family had set in place so long ago.
I had not wanted to break the “secret-keeping” pact that had regulated family interactions for so many years—and not just interactions within our family, but also those of families of the wider culture in which I had grown up and, for that matter, most of the rest of the world.
Unspoken family taboos had ruled my own words and actions long after I had become a new creation in Christ. I had let it happen. Seeing that now hurt me deeply. I had parceled out too sparingly the rich fare of the Gospel—thinking tomorrow would afford me another chance. How much I was like my Dad! And now it was too late…
I could no longer hide behind the pretense and self-righteousness of the pride, control, and anger that separated Dad and me. I had too many times reserved saying something important for “tomorrow”. For Dad and me, there were no tomorrows left. I had said some safe things, but could have said so much more.
Many years earlier I had toured the Orkney Islands of Scotland on my bicycle. The unrelenting roll, crash, and crush of the waves had made an indelible impression on my mind.
As I knelt next to my dad’s body on this dark night, the “would-a, could-a, should-a’s” began to roll in upon me as inexorably as the waves upon those rocks, though now the waves pounded against the walls of my own heart, threatening to crush it. Wave after wave of regret and guilt, both true and false, pounded down upon me and against the foundation upon which I knelt.
Quietly, remorse transformed into genuine repentance which began to seep out from the deepest part of me. I wept in anguish and in hope—the certain hope of forgiveness that forever pours from the heart of Christ Jesus, broken on Calvary’s cross.
The Waves Roll In
Perhaps I could have . . . been forceful, loving, insistent, or intrusive in offering Dad my help during the past few weeks. He must have experienced the deepest fear, and yet the determination to manage things in his own way. Perhaps much earlier when I had moved back to St. Louis from Aspen, I could have worked harder to create a new or different relationship with Dad. Then, even though the cancer would have come just the same, perhaps Dad might have found it easier to reach out to others. Or to me. Like all of us to some degree, his deep desire to have people really and truly close to him deeply frightened him. He was like me. And I was like him. Dad’s heart had been deeply wounded at various points in his early life, and he was naturally inclined to avoid more vulnerability and potential wounding.
Perhaps if I had… sent him another article, a different book. Perhaps if I had told a different story about someone who had faced a similar situation and had found hope in a relationship with the Savior … Perhaps then suicide would not have seemed so irresistible a choice.
Maybe that would have . . . allowed him to reach out in a different way. If I had not hesitated to interrupt his well-honed routine, if I had asked him to play golf with me or eat lunch with me more often, if I had joined him and Ross [his dog] on their daily walks, maybe then I wouldn’t be kneeling here in the snow now.
Perhaps if I had . . . managed to overcome the secret-keeping that had become such a deeply entrenched expectation in our family, perhaps if I had overcome my fear of offending Dad’s “sense and sensibilities,” perhaps if I would have shared my own volatile emotions, my own stories, the experiences that prevented me from breaking through, then I could have made meaningful, more authentic connections with him.
Maybe I should have . . . taken better advantage of the times when Dad and I visited Mom’s gravesite to place the holiday holly boughs. Maybe I should have used those opportunities to just be with him. Maybe I should have had more patience, through those all-too-brief-moments of awkward silence that inevitably occurred. What deeper, more meaningful things might we have said to one another in that setting?
Maybe… Perhaps… If only… The painful regrets, remorse, and repentance inexorably rolled in…
My heart felt as if it might collapse under the weight of it all—especially in light of the fact it was now too late to retrace my steps, too late to do or say what I could have said or done.
I knew I could never lose the firm foundation of my Lord’s love for me. And yet, at the same time, I felt the weight of condemnation for the (even small or retrospective) part I may have played in this tragedy. The window of my heart had been flung open wide to reveal the truth.
I would certainly have many other chances to tell my story and, much more importantly, to share Christ’s story, the story of redemption—God’s and mine within it.
I certainly would be more bold in the future after living through this tragedy. But not with my Dad. If only I had allowed God’s love to surmount my pride, control, and shame! “Oh, God, forgive me! If only . . . If only . . .”
The Ultimate Futility
No one can change the past. And no one can live there in peace. Even so, Satan tempts us to think we can. If we believe his lie, he uses it to torment us and harden our hearts into a flinty-hard bitterness and near-indelible sense of inferiority and shame.
Clinging to our regrets and guilt, we create a miserable present and a future devoid of hope. I had known this for a long time. And yet, here I knelt, tormented by what might have been. . . . what could have been . . . what should have been.
Adding to the torment I saw, more starkly than ever before, my motives for not doing more to grow beyond the boundaries that kept me from “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) on a more frequent basis, the motives that kept me from loving those around me enough to speak and act more genuinely, more authentically, with them.
—The family-secrets stigma
—The “you-just-don’t-go-there” boundary
—The emotionally uncomfortable issues taboo
—The respect-your-parents’ invisible-sensitivities
—The that-would-set-someone-off no-no
—The that-would-sound-like-some-liberal/communist idea bomb
—The you-outta-be-ashamed-of-yourself threat that, even though it was healed, had festered in my heart for so many years
—And the deepest motivation of all: Favoring the world, the flesh, and/or the devil over God.
Wave upon wave, the deep regrets that revealed the real merit of my faith relentlessly rolled in. How I now hated all of it so much more than before! The pressure of that hatred multiplied inside me until I feared I might explode like some long-over-crusted volcano. I wanted to scream in rage. I wanted to beat the ground, now covered with Christmas snow of all things.
As the Holy Spirit held me close to himself, he helped me weep hot tears—tears of authentic repentance that he himself had worked in my heart. Tears for my dad’s pain and aloneness. I whispered down to Dad and up to God as I owned what I knew and sought to see what I didn’t know before the window was blown open. I had seen my sin for what it was. How well I knew well the passage about “being ashamed of Christ” and he of me as a result (Luke 9:26; Romans 1:18-39). That was the real sin that lay beneath and behind all the regrets, the false guilt, and the “if-onlies”… the would-a, could-a, should-a’s.
In this most sacred place, I had the great blessing and the great sadness of seeing the sin beneath the sin: How easily I could make something other than Christ my sufficiency, my identity, my worth. The pounding had taken me to a necessary level of self-awareness while I rested on the foundation of God’s love for me:
It was not for punishment, but rather the potential for purification that had to reveal my deepest motivations in order to have its way with my heart. I saw what I had done so many times to satisfy the sinful urges to be accepted by other people. I saw how many times I had denied my Savior and Lord. I could see so clearly now the high cost I had paid for favoring a worldly and false peace at any price.
Kneeling there in the snow, I knew.
Oh God, how I knew.
The Pain and Blessing of Looking In
Human hearts so reluctantly embrace the truth of our guilt and our need for forgiveness. The Spirit used this time to reveal my sin in such an overpowering way I could no longer deny it or paper-over its seriousness. It ripped my heart into pieces… but for the goal of peace. I now understood the depth of David’s pain as he pleaded, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping” (Psalm 39:12). God had brought me to a second, blessed cry of the heart.
“Father God,” I prayed, “Please forgive me. Please forgive my silence. Forgive my pride, my will for control, my neediness, and my slavery to the opinions of others. Forgive me for presuming upon your mercies, for just assuming you would always give me another day to muster up my courage, to tell all my story—the story of sin and of your Son’s cross, the full story I never shared with the consistency and courage I could have with Dad. Forgive me for living, not out of your power, but my own. Please forgive my sins of omission and commission. Forgive me especially for the hypocrisy which you abhor, Lord. Please forgive it all. Please, Lord. Before I’m utterly crushed, please.”
As I fell suddenly silent, a response to my cries began to form. Just as before, the words came from within me and yet from outside of me as well. In this place, however, my heart embraced them, grasping the truth as never before. The way was opening before me, as I revisited again and again the sweetest, most delicious words possible at that moment:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
A shivering chill ran throughout my entire body as I took in the truth of my sinful condition and the promise of God’s incredible, forgiving, and unending love.
“Suppressing the truth . . . in wickedness”—I had done that! These words pierced my heart to reveal the dark truth that my fears, shame, control, and pride had prevented me from “speaking the truth in love.” These things had kept me from sharing with my own dad, and with many others too, my own spiritual journey!
As that truth cut through me, threatening to separate sinew from bone, another truth flowed over me as well: “There is now no condemnation!”
Now, nothing—no thing at all, ever—could separate me from the love of God! By means of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, God has taken away all of my sin!
These words, perhaps the most powerful and reassuring promises in the entire Bible, exploded across my mind and heart, blessing me with peace beyond my comprehension. I could almost taste the truth of the Gospel message as it had been summarized by the words of Jack Miller:
“You are more sinful than you could ever imagine; and yet you are more loved than you ever dared hope for!”
There it was the “bookends of the Gospel” so starkly lay within and before me… More real and reassuring than ever before.
The Perfect Answer, Yet Again
“It’s true,” I thought! But now I knew it to be true on an entirely different level than ever before. If it weren’t for this bloody-awful occasion, I would never have imagined how the truth and love of God would unfold for me from within these two pivotal passages (Romans 1:18; 8:1).
My heart had melted as I, though in a fresh, renewed way, thought about my sin and about the promise, in Christ, of no condemnation. I would never have asked that God’s character and promises be made so real and personal to me—especially in this way. Not in this way!
But perhaps I had. Hadn’t I asked the Holy Spirit to help me to know Christ more intimately? Hadn’t I asked to grow closer to him? To move further and further away from my besetting sins? Could this be the all-time, ultimate situation to illustrate the over-used quip, “Ya gotta watch what you pray for”? God had not caused the tragedy, but he was so obviously using it.
And in the garden, on Christmas night, was just the beginning…
I had spoken, written, warned, counseled, and consoled others many times about how God will providentially and powerfully use the circumstances of this broken world to bring people back to himself. First, if they do not already believe and have a faith in Jesus Christ his son; or, second, closer to him if they already did have a relationship with him—and were being conformed to the image of God’s son.
I had meditated often on his promise to reveal and remove idols and other gods hidden in our heart in order to “break and remove our heart of stone and, purely by his mercy, give us a heart of flesh” first in conversion (e.g., Ezekiel 11; 36; John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17) and then in sanctification (e.g., John 17; Romans 6:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:7-18; James 1:1).
I had considered ways in which the Holy Spirit uses difficult circumstances to draw his people toward increasing holiness (Romans 8:13; Philippians 3:10), to make us more wholly devoted to God, and then, ultimately to shape our hearts so that he might use us in ever more powerful ways to achieve his redemptive purposes in a broken world.
[end quote from my book]
Take a Deep Breath… Where We Are…
The fact of the FOUNDATION upon which I rested prior to this stage cannot be over-emphasized, my dear fiends in Christ. It is not mere metaphor or just a helpful word picture to remind and assure you that within all of our suffering there exists regrets, remorse, recollecting of the past [“would-a, could-a, should-a’s”] of many kinds. Each of us knows this to varying degrees.
The true and false guilt that can and does roll over us, crush us, wave after wave… is very real! Why? Because God’s perfection is REAL and humanity’s many imperfections are REAL: There is a standard that we are all accountable for—and will be held to account by either, a) our standing in Christ or, b) our standing in our own selves, ego, pretension, and sin… devoid of Christ.
All humanity in the end is destined to heaven or to hell… And the foretaste and experience of both is the reality each of us experience while we are still living: The Believer has the blessing of God’s Kingdom things in the present time; and the unbeliever lives a hellish life in all sorts of ways we’ve discussed earlier—it’s just that God’s Common Grace shields us from what “hell on earth” could actually consist of!
Devoid of resting on God’s foundation of Creation, Christ, and Covenant, the unavoidable regrets buried and revealed within our many trials will crush us; turn us into hard-hearted, embittered, self-centered, unforgiving, controlling, angry, mentally-disordered, greedy, lying and lustful beasts… I know because this has been, and often is, me… and I see it every day… in “we”.
BUT… While resting on God’s foundation of Creation, Christ, and Covenant we are pressed against the reality of the Gospel in our suffering like no other time!
That’s worth repeating: While resting on God’s foundation of Creation, Christ, and Covenant we are pressed against the reality of the Gospel in our suffering like no other time!
Why? As I said earlier:
“It was not for punishment, but rather the potential for purification that had to reveal my deepest motivations in order to have its way with my heart.”
For those in Christ, resting on the foundation of His person, promises, and redemptive work, punishment is over; it was finished on the cross. Only purification is left—in time and will be reflected in eternity as well.
The Window of the Heart… Flung Open Wide by Suffering
Except for salvation in repentance and coming to faith to begin with, there is no more crucial reality to embrace than God’s heart-sanctifying, holiness-creating, maturing, refining, Christ-conforming offer He has in store for us in our redemptive suffering.
Why does God allow suffering? Because He loves us! Can you say this—and offer your own witness, testimony—from the bottom of your own heart? The act, or potential, exists within you.
By the person and power of the Holy Spirit and the fellowship of The Church, we are given the most blessed yet often very painful occasion [due to teasing sin out of our heart, emotions, and life] to see our heart’s core beliefs, attachments, idols, non-negotiable’s, love’s and hate’s… all the known and unknown secrets, the dank and dark areas hidden and sealed behind locked doors… (Proverbs 4:23).
In times of WEEPING—like no other time in our lives—by means of the WINDOW, we are purified, and the extremes of God’s gospel can be inculcated deep within our heart, emotions, and life lived out.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
NEXT: Part 8, The Window of the Heart… How the Spirit Befriends, Comforts, and Counsels
See you all at the Training Table next week!