Monday, October 22, 2012
COM Ch 14: The Heart of the Matter
Chapter 14: The Heart of the Matter
A few years back, I went to a family reunion at my grandparents’ farm, a great big barn dance. Good food, campfires, lots of people, my wonderful grandparents! Always a fun time. My biological father, Bill, was there with my two half-brothers and half-sister. He’s a musician and, during the barn dances, he plays his guitar for the crowd, singing old country songs.
During one song, he invited my half-brothers to come up with him and sing in the background. I sat there around the campfire holding one of my children and swaying to the music, listening to my half-brothers accompany my dad with “whaa-ooo-whaa-ooo-whaa-ooo.” It was peaceful. It was enjoyable. It was . . . disturbing.
In the middle of rocking my son and toe-tapping to the music, I was hit by an unpleasant thought: I really missed out on a lot in this family. I would never know my dad the way that my half-siblings did. And I was basically just an acquaintance with them. Sure, we share half-blood, but I didn’t grow up with them or even meet them until I was teenager. I was never a part of the childhood memories, the family holidays, the birthday parties, or the sing-alongs. I bet my dad doesn’t even know that I have a pretty good voice myself. (At least, I did until some tone-deafness in one ear. So don’t ask me to sing out loud now.)
I sat there watching them share this bond that I would never have, and suddenly, I felt so distant. I was on the outside, looking in. I was thrilled to be part of that family, yet I wasn’t really part of the family. After my mother and my father divorced, I didn’t see him again (that I could remember) until I was fifteen. Then after that, I would hear from him or see him only once every year or two at my grandparents’ house. And then there was step-dad #1, step-dad #2, and (now) step-dad #3.
In so many ways - with family, with all my dads and their families, with classmates in high school and college, with church friends - I have had that same feeling of being on the outside, looking in. I was accustomed to loss and distance in my life. It seemed like the theme of my life. So maybe that’s why distance from God - why these past years of prolonged silence - just didn’t seem fair. I had it enough with everyone else. Not You, too, Lord? Please, not You, too!
As I’ve contemplated this last Big Stressor during these years of waiting, I realized that it wasn’t waiting for the house that was the most painful part. It was the deafening silence from the Lord that hurt the most. Why did He seem so far off? Why was He silent for so long? What was I not doing good enough that He wouldn’t listen to me? How many years would I have to come to Him with the same request? I had really believed that He would show us the way, but why was He pulling back when I was reaching out for Him more and more? Why did I have to struggle with silence when I was pleading for direction, confusion when I begged for wisdom, and waiting when all I wanted was to know His Will?
I mean, we are supposed to ask, aren’t we? He commands it. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find. . . .” (Luke 11:9) But no matter how much we asked and waited, we weren’t getting any answer or even any sense that He is listening. I felt so tiny. So alone. So . . . invisible.
How long do you hang in there, clinging to whatever tiny scraps of hope you can dig out of the dried-up, rocky soil of faith? I really needed a glimpse of Him, even just a tiny little breeze filled with His presence, to nurture my shriveled-up hope and faith. I could actually feel them dying as time went on. And I could see no end to it. “Lord, please, if You’re there, just send a dragonfly or something across my path right now! Please, I need to know You are there!” But there was never a dragonfly. And I felt hopeless. And I felt helpless, driven to rely on Someone who just wasn’t coming through for me. What more could I do?
I wonder sometimes if it’s wrong to tell God that I don’t like some of the things that He’s allowed in my life, that I’m disappointed in how things are going. Is it okay to cry over a difficult circumstance or a long wait? Because those times are from His hand , too, as much as the good times are. Did that show lack of faith in Him, unwillingness, bitterness, or a stubborn heart?
I mean, of course, whatever He wants is best. But we are made with feelings and emotions and preferences. How do we reconcile the two? How do you mesh deep longings with accepting whatever the Lord wants for you, especially if they are not the same thing? Is it okay to want something or is it better to be a blank slate and never have any real preferences or desires?
For the longest time, I felt like I was doing pretty good with the Lord. I felt mature, wise, and spiritual. I believed that I was about as close as you could get to Him. I mean, I loved the Lord and trusted Him for things. I prayed and read my Bible. I grew in faith and knowledge. I had a deep desire for Him and tried my best to live a good, Christian life. These things were genuine, and my relationship with Him was real and growing.
So I couldn’t really understand why things were turning out this way, why He felt so far away, and why He wouldn’t listen. And I was doing everything I could think of to get Him to engage: serving, praying, Bible reading, confessing sins, seeing if there was any offensive way in me, seeking His Will and watching for it. Anything I could think of to make sure that I pleased Him and that the lines of communication were open between us. And now, I was calling out to Him all the time, and I was hurting. But where was He?
But you know what? I was strong. I could handle it. After all, I was used to doing things on my own. Didn’t need anything from anybody! I’d just suck it up, stick out my chin and say, “Fine, Lord, I’m used to it. You don’t need to do anything for me. I can handle the silence. I’ve been here before, left out and standing alone. If this is the way it’s going to be, then that’s alright with me. Whatever You want, Lord. I’m fine.”
But it wasn’t really alright with me and I wasn’t fine. I didn’t like feeling so out of control and so helpless. My whole life, I had put so much time and effort into making sure that I didn’t lose control and that I wasn’t helpless. I was used to standing on my own two feet, and I liked the security of only having to rely on myself. I was a leader.
And now, here I was after years of trials, floundering and in pain. And even though I was trying so hard to “roll with it” and act like I was fine, I wasn’t. I was just so hurt that God left me dangling out there all alone. And there was nothing I could do about it.
Oh, I could run out ahead of God’s Will if I wanted to, but that wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was to have God show the way. I wanted to go where He wanted us to go. I wanted to see His hand leading us. So why was He being so stubborn? Why couldn’t He give me some inkling that He was there and listening and working on it? Just a dragonfly, really. Was that too much to ask for?
But instead, I got silence that was so loud that it echoed through my entire being. I got complete blackness. No tiny little light, not even a candlelight, to light the way. I wanted something, anything. But I got nothing!
And this is when I was forced to admit to a painful truth: I couldn’t do it! I couldn’t make God answer me. I couldn’t handle things on my own. I couldn’t lead. I could barely even hang in there anymore. I wasn’t in control at all. (And, ooooh, I didn’t like that.) In fact, I could only be in control if I fought Him for it. And standing on my own two feet only left me feeling like I was standing alone. And I just wasn’t strong enough to keep going. Through all the years of trials, I had lost all confidence in myself. And now I was losing confidence in the Lord. So, where do I go from here?
Honestly, I think that there are only two options at a time like that: turn your back on God in anger and harden your heart, or cry out to Him again in your despair. Either give up waiting for Him to show up and walk ahead on your own. Or decide to dig in your heels and let Him know that you are not going anywhere until He shows Himself to you - seeking Scripture for comfort and guidance, and pouring out your pain in prayer. And I know Him too well now to turn my back on Him. And the pain and fear of facing life without Him is more terrifying than the pain and fear of waiting during His silence.
And so I had to do that only thing that I could do - I lamented my woes in prayer again. But this time, it wasn’t really griping. It was something that went much deeper. When I couldn’t do anything but wait and continue writhing in internal pain, I sat down and poured out my heart. And, honestly, this was new to me. I have always been so concerned with “doing it right” that it was new to me to just dump it all out there. (More on this in a bit.)
But I was tired. I was so tired of trying and trying to “pray right” and getting nowhere that I just couldn’t “pray right” anymore. And so I just prayed honestly. And I didn’t realize it at first, but this particular night of prayer would end up being the first (of two) life-changing prayer times. While the kids were downstairs, I was up in my room sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark. And I don’t cry often, but I was crying as I prayed.
“Lord, I don’t really deserve a house anyway. I cannot even keep up with this one. I have failed to bring You glory by not making do with what we have, by not keeping it clean and orderly. Why would You ever bring us one of our own? I’m just such a failure. I’ve let You down so many times! I don’t deserve Your blessings.
Plus, I lose my patience easily at times. I can be prideful and smug. Self-centered. Judgmental. And I selfishly went out and got a Master’s degree. And now I can’t work because I’m staying home with the kids (which I love doing), but so much of our money is going to pay for a loan that I’m not even putting to good use. I’m such a burden to Jason and the family. And now, he has to work so hard just to keep us afloat. And he feels like he’s not a good provider, even though it is my fault that we are hurting. Why should You have to bail me out of that?
And we didn’t even ask for Your guidance years ago when we rented the first house. We assumed it was Your Will because it came so easily, instead of asking You for Your wisdom. I think we are paying the price for that decision. A natural consequence. It’s our fault; You owe us nothing.
And You have been so faithful to give us food and a roof over our heads and healthy kids. I don’t have a right to ask for more. There are so many other people out there with worse problems than just finding a house. And You need to help them more than me. I’m just too selfish!
I’m sorry that I’m not more grateful. I’m sorry that I’m not more brave and bold, that I don’t just get out there and find it myself. But I keep bugging You with this request over and over. How could You even stand listening to me? I can’t stand listening to me anymore. I don’t even know how You can really care about me. I’m really not worth it. I’m so selfish. No wonder You don’t answer me. I don’t deserve it.”
And on and on it went. I was hurting! I didn’t like admitting these painful things. I felt like a fool in life. I felt like a failure. And I felt like I was talking to the ceiling. When would I take the hint and just give it up? Why did I keep pestering Him about this in prayer? He wasn’t listening anyway. Why couldn’t I just do what I had always done, which was just accept it and move on? Water off a duck’s back!
Instead, for some reason, I was driven to wrestle with this in prayer, to hang on until I got an answer from Him, until He showed up. And I hated that! I wanted to give up the wait and move out on my own. I wanted to say to myself, “Well, I tried my best to pray and wait. Now, I guess it’s up to me.” But something wouldn’t let me. I just had to stick with it for some unknown reason. Stubbornness? Denial? Helplessness?
As the words of that prayer bounced off the ceiling and back down to me, in a seemingly one-way conversation, I slowly began to realize that there was something deeper behind those things that I was praying. And it all felt so familiar, so distantly familiar. And painful.
And suddenly, I recognized them: the fear of abandonment, the fear of rejection, the fear of being a burden, the fear of not being worthy, and the fear of not being good enough! They were all there - the fears of yesteryear! Everything that I admitted about myself in that prayer stemmed from one of those fears.
It was a shocking revelation to me . . . I still had those deep fears and insecurities about myself, no matter how confident I looked or acted on the outside. And just as I once had walls to protect myself from getting hurt in relationships, I now had walls between the Lord and me that stemmed from those fears. Well, not just now. My whole spiritual life, I guess. All this time, I had no idea that they were there. But I was beginning to realize that my relationship with Him was not as good or as close as I thought it was, despite all appearances and all my efforts.
One of the first fears that I recognized was that (my whole life and unconsciously) I was afraid of truly needing anything from anybody. I didn’t like being inevitably let down. I didn’t like getting my hopes up and having them crash down around me. It was safer to rely on myself than on anyone else. And it was safer to never hope for much. So I wouldn’t ask for things and I wouldn’t “need” anything that I couldn’t do for myself.
And, unbeknownst to me, this was my pattern for relating to the Lord, too. I think somewhere deep down, I feared that if I needed Him and poured my heart out to Him, He could let me down, too. It wasn’t so much that I feared Him saying “no” to a request. I could handle a “no.” What I really feared was being set aside. I feared having my hope in Him dashed to pieces. I feared leaning on Him, only to have Him pull away and let me fall on my face. I could open up my heart to Him about hurts and needs and fears, and He could just leave me in my pain . . . forgotten. Honestly, what it really came down to was that I feared being abandoned by Him. So I tried to never really need Him. (And funny how He let me feel this exact way, before I could discover that I had this fear deep down.)
Hot on the heels of that fear, I saw another one. As I petitioned Him over and over again about a house, I was forced to do something that I really, really hate: I was forced to be a burden to someone. I would rather settle for “whatever” than become a burden! But asking over and over again - and needing something from Him that I couldn’t provide for myself - meant burdening Him with my “petty” needs and desires.
And I just didn’t feel worth the fuss. (Ah, there’s another one!) Who was I that I should matter to Him? Weren’t there much greater needs out there that He had to meet, a world of people who were hurting and needed Him? Many more worthy people who would glorify Him way more than I ever could?
I was way at the back of the line with my greedy, little requests. Famines. Wars. Earthquakes. Illnesses. The four horses of the Apocalypse are running rampant over the earth, and I was crying about a house? How selfish! Besides, I didn’t do anything special to earn His attention and His time. I just wasn’t good enough (Yep, there’s another!) in any way to earn His blessings or deserve an audience with Him, no matter how hard I tried.
And while I struggled that night with the uncomfortable words that I was praying, I began to realize that just talking to God had always been mentally exhausting to me because I was so concerned with “doing it right.” Say it right or don’t say it at all. It’s gotta be pleasing.
Apparently, I didn’t like being honest with Him, admitting painful things or negative things or doubts or fears. Somewhere deep down, I think I feared that if my prayers weren’t just right - according to some approved formula or done in the right attitude - He would reject them and I would get punished. He would reject me for just not being good or worthy enough! (Ah, rejection! The last of the familiar, old fears!)
In my prayers, I had to demonstrate faith, be grateful, be joyful, be thankful, be humble, never waver, never doubt, be persistent and yet not whine or complain, not be double-minded, not be disrespectful, not sin, not be angry, not be greedy or covetous, not be selfish, and not question the God who knows what He’s doing. And yet, somehow, be honest?
No wonder I was scared of what to say and how to say it. I couldn’t just tell Him what was honestly on my mind. That wouldn’t be pleasing or appropriate. I couldn’t tell Him that I was upset that He didn’t seem to be listening and that I was in pain because He kept me waiting. That wouldn’t show faith! I couldn’t tell Him that I was beginning to doubt everything I ever believed about Him. That wouldn’t be trusting. I couldn’t tell Him that I just couldn’t do it anymore. That would be weakness and failure! And I couldn’t tell Him that I was feeling abandoned and that I didn’t like it. What would that say about what I really thought of Him?
I mean, He is God . . . He had lightning bolts ready! Sure, King David could be unashamedly honest. He was a king! (And an exceptionally emotional kind!) He was in the Bible and he was special. And he was a man after God’s own heart, near and dear to God.
But I was just me. And if my prayers weren’t good enough or pleasing enough, if they sounded disrespectful or untrusting, then . . . ZAP! He wouldn’t bestow His grace or mercy on me. I would earn His wrath instead. And I feared His wrath. So I analyzed all of my responses and prayers to death.
Some people can just sit back for the ride, knowing God is in control and just seem so . . . relaxed. But I was afraid of being too content or too relaxed in the Lord. If my attitude was, Oh, I don’t need to worry about anything. God is in control, then I feared that God would allow something bad to shake up my lackadaisical attitude and make me more alert and involved. As if there is a prerequisite amount of nervous sweating involved in proper prayer to show God that I wasn’t taking Him for granted.
But on the flip-side, if I was too concerned about something - if I tried too hard to control things and sweated too much about it - then something bad might happen to make me realize that I was not in control after all, and that I should’ve been more thankful when things were good.
It’s a double-edged sword. If I’m too content and happy about my situation then something bad might happen to wake me up out of my stupor; but if I’m overly anxious about something, it will happen just because I didn’t have enough “faith” in God to handle it. If I expect the worst, it will happen as a sort of punishment for expecting it, but if I don’t expect it then it will happen because I was foolish enough to not see it coming. Can you see why it’s exhausting? (Told you that I’m a catastrophizer.)
I used to go round and round with this, never really able to be content with my performance in prayer. Always fearful that my response would be the one that led to disaster. I was always walking on eggshells, sure that something bad was just around the corner because my prayers just weren’t worded properly or done in the right attitude. Because I just wasn’t good enough!
You know, I never thought that I was a “glass-half-empty” kind of person. But I guess I am. I always expect heartbreak, disappointment, and pain. Like it’s always right around the corner, behind every blessing. Like every blessing comes with a huge price tag. If we got the house, would He require my firstborn?
I actually would find myself praying, “Lord, I would really like a house, please show us the way. But not if it means that something bad will happen in the long run or to one of my kids. I don’t want it that bad.” It’s like I felt that it was up to me to plan for all contingencies, and so I had to word my requests carefully.
“Lord, if getting a big house means one of them falls down the stairs and dies, then I don’t want it. But if getting a small one means that we are so packed in we can barely breathe then I don’t want that. If praying for a big yard means that we end up in a bad neighborhood then I don’t want that. But if a small one means having no yard for my kids to run in, I don’t want that, either.”
It was exhausting! It really was! I feared wanting too much, wanting too little, and wanting the wrong thing. All of my requests and praises seemed to have some qualifier or clarification attached. I guess I was afraid that if I was praying for something that wasn’t His Will, He would give it to me because I wouldn’t shut up about it. But there would be severe consequences. So it had to be worded very carefully. (Like the Israelites begging for meat. Read Numbers 11 and see what happened to them when they got what they asked for.)
And I never really overly enjoyed anything that He gave me because I felt like it would challenge God to test me. If I smiled too much at my children and thought about how much I loved them, I feared that the Lord would test my faith in Him by taking one of them. But then I feared not enjoying His gifts and blessings because that would look like thanklessness and would be displeasing to Him. So I didn’t know how to really pray or how to express my thanks and joy without feeling like He might test it with trials. Life was exhausting! A tightrope act. And pain was inevitable. No matter how hard I tried, I felt doomed. I lived in fear! (I wish I didn’t see things this way. I’m working on it!)
Sometimes, I find myself just wanting to hunker down in a little bunker and not go to either extreme of too happy or too glum so that I don’t rock the boat. Stoic, immovable! I probably miss out on a lot because of this way of thinking. I’m sure I miss seeing many blessings and really feeling His love because I’m more concerned with what it will “cost” me. You know the old question, “Would you rather get a blessing and then pay dearly for it, or never get a blessing at all?” (Or something like that.) That’s easy - never get a blessing. Just be content with what is, and never want for more! In so many ways, I work so hard to protect myself from pain (and hope). Even from God, I’m beginning to realize!
I mean, He’s been so good to us in so many ways! I had food and shelter. Wasn’t that enough for me? Shouldn’t I just be thankful for that and accept what He gave me, without expecting more or something else? I mean, He knows what’s best. Who am I to complain? At what point am I just whining for more? Parents hate it when kids whine. At what point would He say, “You know, enough! Haven’t I given you enough already?” Does He really want us to come to Him over and over again, like the man who got up in the middle of the night in Luke 11:5-9?
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’
“Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is a friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open to you. . . .”
I mean, come on! This guy just wanted some bread . . . for a friend! And look how the other guy treated him. Oh, yeah! That really makes me want to ask! I used to read it as though this is how God views our asking: “Don’t bother me!” God was the man in bed, and He grudgingly gets up to give us what we want just to shut us up. He doesn’t really want to do it because He’s relaxing comfortably. And I’m just a nuisance.
I didn’t want to be the burdensome, persistent neighbor. I didn’t want to bother Him with my requests when He had better things to do. I didn’t want Him to have to care about me. And I really didn’t want Him to give me things just to shut me up. I’d rather do it myself. (And I probably would have continued to do it myself, which is why the Lord had to allow such self-confidence-crushing trials.)
I seriously couldn’t understand why this passage was written that way. It didn’t sound right to me, but I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe it’s something in the translation? I’ve since heard, though, that the passage actually is more like a contrast between a neighbor’s reluctant giving and the Lord’s generous giving. Especially when you consider verse 13 that distinguishes between the generosity of “evil” humans and our Father in Heaven. But for years, I held it in my head as though it were a comparison, not a contrast. And it didn’t make it any easier to want to go to the Lord with my desires, especially when He’s been so gracious in so many other areas.
Did I have the right to want for anything different than what He gave me? If I asked for more, did it mean that I wasn’t grateful for what I already had and that I didn’t trust His providence and wisdom? But we are told to ask. “Ask and it will be given to you. . .” How do you mesh the two: gratitude and asking?
Maybe this is a first-born, perfectionistic tendency or maybe it’s just a “fallen sinner” tendency, but I felt like I was supposed to be “better” somehow to warrant His time or attention or blessings. Yeah, I know the Bible says that He likes to give good things to His children, but that’s talking about His “special children,” right? The ones who deserve it? I was just me. And if I asked and didn’t receive, what was wrong with me? I tried to ask in faith and not doubt like I was supposed to. Why wasn’t it working?
Why would God want to help me out with this mess I got myself into anyway? I got a Master’s Degree which ate up a lot of our money. And now it was just rotting there, unused. We didn’t pray about the first house we rented to see if it was His Will. Maybe this was just the natural consequence of that. We had four kids before we could afford a house to keep them in. Maybe my father-in-law was right, How the **** do we expect to get a house when we keep having kids? I have failed God in many ways. I wasn’t the light I should be. I was self-centered. I worried too much. I was faithless and weak. I couldn’t even pray right! What did I do that was really worth His attention and His time, that was special? I was just me! How could He love . . . me?
After that night of prayer, as these thoughts and questions swirled around in my head, I began to realize that God wasn’t holding back all this time; I was holding Him back. I just never knew it . . . until now. I wasn’t waiting on Him. He was waiting on me. He was waiting patiently for me to see the fears and the walls that were interfering with a completely honest, utterly transparent, and wholly trusting relationship with Him. He was waiting for me to hear the things that I had been saying (or not saying) to Him before I could hear the things that He wanted to say to me. He was waiting for me to see the mess that I was inside before I could reach out for His healing.
Because no matter how I felt or acted all these years, it didn’t change the fact that I was broken on the inside and that I had walls of fear surrounding my fragile heart. Acting strong didn’t change the fact that deep down I felt insecure and insignificant. Acting confident didn’t change the fact that, at the very heart of it all, I just never believed that Someone would be there, always be there, loving me . . . for me! My acting may have fooled everyone else, including myself. But it never fooled God!