A Dark Cloud of Realism with A Silver Lining of Hope
It is one thing to write a book-length story of a successful Christian leader who battles daily physical pain, to illustrate through his life and ministry how God redeems pain for our good and for His glory.* It is another thing altogether for me to feel the searing pain of spinal degeneration every day, and to handle it gracefully. Often I do not respond to it with calm acceptance or with grace. Without prompting from others, I regularly mention the discomfort in casual conversations. And in the evening, when the ache peaks, my complaining often erodes the atmosphere of my home.
It is so much easier to write or to speak about physical pain than it is to endure it, and to trust in God’s dark providence.
Oh Lord, forgive my grumbling. Remind me daily of the many blessings You’ve showered on me, of all the reasons I have to be grateful. Grant me the sustaining grace to focus outwardly on others who hurt, whether physically or emotionally, rather than to turn inward and exhibit self-centered tendencies. Despite the prescriptions and frequent injections, I cannot control the pain. But with Your Spirit’s help, I believe it is possible to control my attitude to a far greater extent than I’ve been doing. Keep reminding me that the pain is temporary, that in the new heaven and the new earth, You “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). In the name of Him who “for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Amen.
It is one thing to give my testimony of faith and depression in a church or in a university chapel assembly, or to meet with elders of a local church to discuss ways for leaders to enhance their ministry to persons with mental illness. Yes, it is one thing to describe the symptoms of chronic depression in a blog, and to write about the means of grace I’ve tapped into for sustenance when the darkness won’t lift. I’m told that I can put words to the despair that many people feel, yet cannot articulate.
Yet it is something else entirely for me to keep falling into the abyss of utter darkness of spirit, for me to go days at a time without smiling, to keep wishing I won’t wake up when I lie down to sleep at night, and to devote energies to ministry when it takes almost all the energy I have just to wrestle with a bleak and pessimistic mood, plus the related anxiety. Yes, it is something else entirely when I laugh derisively at myself, mocking myself, saying, “And to think that you write a blog on how faith informs depression. What a joke!“
Every time I’m asked to share my pilgrimage with a group, whether in a formal or informal venue, my depression temporarily worsens. All hell breaks lose in my spirit. Perhaps it is spiritual warfare. Perhaps it is just a fresh, raw awareness of my emotional pain generated by the speaking engagement or writing process. (Or both.) There is an exorbitant price that I pay for trying to serve others who share my depression.
It is so much easier to describe depression than it is to bear its symptoms.
Oh Lord, instill within me the willingness to keep paying that price. To keep explaining why I haven’t yielded to the urge to take my own life. To keep giving people hope that You can still use them even when You don’t shoo away the low-lying dark clouds. To keep reminding them that their greatest area of usefulness to You may stem from their greatest area of pain….even when You choose not to remove it. Help me to stay on the battlefield, weapons ready, despite bearing the wounds and scars of previous skirmishes, despite walking with a limp to the front lines. And put a beaming smile on my face more often, generated by a deeply-embedded inner peace that is supernatural in origin, that testifies to those who know me best that there is, indeed, a God in heaven. In the name of Jesus, who successfully fulfilled His calling despite experiencing the forsakenness of His Heavenly Father (Mark 15:34). Amen.
It is one thing to deliver a passionate, clear, truth-saturated church sermon on handling temptation, such as I did a few months back on Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptations of Christ). To warn my students at Columbia International University to guard their heart rather than to trust it (Proverbs 4:23; Jeremiah 17:5-9). To alert them to Satan’s persistence, how he keeps attacking no matter how many times we successfully repel him (Luke 4:1-13; 1 Peter 5:8). To extol the value of earnest prayer, of memorizing Scripture, and choosing an accountability partner as primary weapons to wield during spiritual warfare (Psalm 62:5-8, 119:11; Proverbs 27: 6, 17).
It is another thing altogether to feel so overwhelmed by the urge to sin that I think there’s no possibility of resistance, that giving in is inevitable. To feel like a human dart board, so full of holes that there can’t be anywhere for the next dart from Satan to land. You’d think that someone who is 70, who has followed and served the Lord since his teens, would be less vulnerable to temptation by now, or would experience a respite from the skirmishes. But no, the older I get the more intense the clashes with the enemy become.
Oh, how much more effortless it is to convey necessary and helpful truths about temptation than it is to face my own spiritual Gettysburg, day in and day out.
Oh Lord, keep reminding me of Your promise in 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” It is not necessary for me to muster the strength to resist the enemy. Winning at warfare is not merely a human endeavor that relies primarily on my teeth-gritting willpower. No, my only responsibility is to cry out to You for enablement to do what I cannot do in my own strength, to claim this promise of Your faithfulness, to desire holiness more than I desire the empty and temporary pleasures of sin. My real battle is between my desire to give in and the choice to plead for Your help and rescue. When I beg for Your immediate intervention, You have yet to fail me. In the name of the One who yielded to You, His Heavenly Father, when, in His humanity, He didn’t want to (Mark 14:32-36).
Closing Thoughts and Action Steps
Here is what I extract from this post for myself.
*Terry, don’t expect on earth what God only promised for heaven. Maintain a realistic perspective, a warfare mindset. To quote a dear friend, Tim Hanley, “The church is not a Love Boat, with God as captain of the ship, supervising a staff that panders to every whim and desire of customers taking the tour. The church is a battle ship.”
*Terry, ask the Holy Spirit for more empathy with others who hurt physically and emotionally. Call and pray for someone over the phone. Mail someone who the Spirit brings to mind a handwritten note of encouragement. Even when you don’t feel like doing it, the massaging effect on his or her heart will be the same. The best way to deal with despondency is to focus on and to serve some other individual who is hurting. Terry, obedience counts even when you don’t feel like doing it.
*Terry, since you know the intensity of spiritual warfare, pray more often for church leaders, missionaries, close friends and family members who face their own daily temptations. Though you are personally powerless to stop the missiles the enemy fires at them, intercession is a way of loving them and fighting alongside them.
*Terry, the physical pain, the depression, and the temptations you experience pack the potential to cultivate Christlikeness within you. As you know, Romans 8:28 asserts, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” But verse 29 always follows verse 28 (check it out!). Romans 8:29 says, “Whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”
Terry, could it be that a prerequisite for reaching the goal of Christlikeness in verse 29 is the experience of “all things” in verse 28?
Is it possible?
Joy in the midst of physical suffering?
A ray of Sonlight penetrating the darkness of despair?
Despite battle fatigue, another flag-raising victory over the enemy?
Easier said than done. But not impossible.
“Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27).
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
*Oh God, I’m Dying, the story of Dr. Mark Smith’s life-altering car accident in 1996, will be released for public sale in November of 2020 by Morgan James Publishers in New York. In April, Dr. Smith and I will receive a huge shipment of books printed early just for us. When those copies arrive, I’ll make the book available to you at a discount.