Let me tell you one of my favorite stories from Bible college (don’t worry; it’s short): I ran into one of my best friends on campus one day. I said, “Hi,” to this friend, then asked how he was doing. I asked it automatically, not really in hopes of getting information but as a habit. But he did not reply automatically, as almost everyone does. He didn’t say, “Great,” or, “Fine,” or, “Okay.” He said something more honest than that. He said, “I’m not really doing good, but thanks for asking.”
Notice that my friend did not wallow in his “not-goodness”; he didn’t tell me how he wasn’t good and he thanked me for asking to move us to a different subject. But he did admit that he was not good.
Many of us Christians (and non-Christians as well) are not nearly that honest when we are asked about our feelings. Many of us answer that automatic question with an automatic and markedly untrue answer. We are trying to save face, I guess, or not bother people. Maybe we think it is wrong to feel (or admit to feeling) anything other than absolute ecstasy. Whatever the reason, we do this, and I think it is one of our greatest weaknesses. I think it does us one of our greatest disservices.
All that is a roundabout way of saying that I want to be honest in this first post of the New Year. I’d love to say that I’m looking toward 2018 with nothing but optimism, that I see nothing but rainbows and sunbeams in my future and my family’s future and my church’s future and The Church’s future. But I don’t. Rather, as the clock strikes midnight and I go to bed alone (my wife and daughter are visiting family), I have a sense of severe dread. I have an image I can’t get out of my mind, actually. It is this image:
An empty, frozen field. A field which Jude might call “twice dead”. Lifeless, fruitless, barren and void. That’s what all these futures look like to me.
Now that isn’t to say that there is no possibility of life and fruit. I think there are. I am optimistic about the future of The Church and The Faith. I’m just not very optimistic about my ability to participate in or contribute to that life and fruit. You see, there is a future for a field such as the one in my image. In fact, the cold and dark time is probably an essential element of that future, a prerequisite to that future, something preparing the way for that future by putting nutrients back in the soil. But that future is going to require a lot of labor: clearing the land, plowing the furrows, replanting the seed, tending, and ultimately harvesting. Here, at the beginning of the year when my life and ministry resets to some degree, I’m just not sure I have the strength and energy to do that work. I feel tired and drained. I fear I don’t have enough in the tank.
Now I know the Scriptures which address these feelings. I’m sure you do. Some of you are even quoting them for me right now. Thank you for that. The problem though (and this, finally, is the real point of this post), is that just hearing or reading or knowing or even believing those Scriptures and the truths they contain doesn’t seem to change my feelings. I believe intellectually in my future; the Lord has promised it, so I believe it with my mind (quite strongly, in fact). I am having trouble believing emotionally in my future. I am having trouble believing with my heart. I just can’t seem to eliminate my negative feelings as easily as this lady does:
And I was wondering about that last night as I listened to the pastor of the Indonesian church which shares our building preach his (absolutely wonderful and encouraging) New Year’s Eve message. As the pastor talked on Psalm 103 (which, among other things, promises the renewal of strength), I wondered if it was possible to eliminate such negative feelings. I wondered if it was possible for even Christians who firmly believe in the promises of God to eliminate such negative feelings. After all, a good deal of the biblical characters seemed to struggle with such feelings: Elijah wanted to die, Jeremiah wanted to quit, Zechariah came to hate his sheep, etc. Even Jesus wondered how long He would have to put up with people of little faith, wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and cried out, “My God!” at the crucifixion (yes, I know there are alternative interpretations of some of these). I wondered, then, if negative feelings are non-eliminable. I wondered if negative feelings are just inevitable parts of the Faith story.
I wondered that. I don’t have any solid answers about that, but I wondered that. I also wondered if we adults are just like babies in the eyes of God, babies who get cranky when their tired, babies whose crankiness the adult (God) doesn’t take too seriously. But that’s an idea for another time. For now, my purpose is just to wonder. It is to wonder and hope and believe. I’ve not meant this post to be a downer, and I’m certainly not saying I’m giving up (I’m not; as Richard Gere so famously said, “I got nowhere else to go.”). But I am being honestly. My walk with God has included cold, dark, fearful times, and this new year, sadly, is one of those times.