This Present Anguish

Being in nature, we are provided with persistent reminders of God’s word and its significance to our lives. Working on the land, there are seasons where the thistles and weeds dominate the landscape if left unattended. Once the weed has flowered and gone to seed, it is said that another 100 years of weeds will be sown on the wind – spreading across the surrounding landscape. To engage in the exhausting work of pulling out weeds by the roots year after year leads to the establishment of a pleasant and productive landscape for all to enjoy. In the bible, weeds are indicative of a problem in a persons’ heart – what lies in the heart often comes out in their speech and behavior and grows to become evident in the person’s character, their public and private life.

Listening deeply to another person’s heart takes some effort, patience and resilience when caring for others. Importantly, it is not acceptable to weigh and judge the words of others but to examine our own hearts by listening to God’s voice. You see, the unresolvable questions and burden of unpleasant experiences, if left unchecked can cause a contagious illness to spread among the hearers. This illness is described as ‘bitterness’ in the bible and is like a weed in the good soil, with the potential to destroy the crop or harvest.

Take a look at the verse in Hebrews, how the context of this verse shows that bitterness may prevent us from living in God’s grace due to unforgiveness, it destroys peace, is a barrier to living a holy life and can corrupt those around us.

Hebrews 12:14, 15 – ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’

For an excellent article on bitterness, I’ve chosen two articles, one from a woman’s perspective and one from a man’s perspective. I like Erin’s concluding sentence, indicating that we cannot dig up the weed of bitterness ourselves. For, it is only God who can cleanse our hearts and revive our communities.

Erin Davis – ‘4 Ways to Spot a Bitter Root’ on the Revive our Hearts: True Woman blog.

https://www.reviveourhearts.com/true-woman/blog/four-ways-to-spot-a-bitter-root/

John Piper – ‘What is a Root of Bitterness?’ on Desiring God, 1 April 1997.

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-a-root-of-bitterness

We see the fruit of bitterness in people’s lives; anger, malice, slander, gossip, grumbling – it steals our joy, stunts the growth of the fruit of the Spirit and can even change us physically over time.

Recently, reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Dostoevsky, spending over 400 pages in the mind of a bitter and tormented man who longs to know God and the love of another; I found this interesting summary of what it is like to live in anguish… (emphasis mine)

“He kept tormenting himself with these questions, even taking a certain delight in it. None of the questions was new or sudden, however; they were all old, sore, long-standing. They had begun torturing him long ago and had worn out his heart. Long, long ago this present anguish had been born in him, had grown, accumulated, and ripened recently and become concentrated, taking the form of a horrible, wild, and fantastic question that tormented his heart and mind, irresistibly demanding resolution… Clearly, he now had not to be anguished, not to suffer passively, by mere reasoning about unresolvable questions, but to do something without fail, at once, quickly. Decide at all costs to do at least something, or… ‘or renounce life altogether!’ he suddenly cried out in frenzy. ‘Accept fate obediently as it is, once and for all, and stifle everything in myself, renouncing any right to act, to live, to love!’ (43)

‘He was pale, his eyes were burning, all his limbs felt exhausted, but he suddenly seemed to breathe more easily. He felt he had just thrown off the horrible burden that had been weighing him down for so long, and his soul suddenly became light and peaceful. ‘Lord! He pleaded, ‘show me my way; I renounce this cursed…. dream of mine!’

In spite of his weakness, he was not even aware of any fatigue in himself. It was as if an abscess in his heart, which had been forming all that month, had suddenly burst. Freedom! Freedom!” (57)

We are all subject to torment and anguish, we are all exposed to unpleasant experiences – though some more than others. It is a consolation that ‘no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’ 1 Corinthians 10:13.

When we consider the character of those who have been a voice for the oppressed and led the way for change throughout history, we are strengthened in our own difficulties, no matter how small they may seem in comparison. For example, the words of Nelson Mandela speak of triumph over evil and sin, his relentless self-examination to root out any bitterness towards his oppressors is the true source of inner freedom. His selfless act to speak out for the justice of many, regardless of the consequences, leads to growth in character and opportunities for a nation’s people to be given the right to act, to live, to love – in freedom.

‘It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.’ – Nelson Mandela

‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ – Nelson Mandela

What can be done to save the harvest as it is so susceptible to weeds, besides guarding our own hearts and bringing our burdens to God each day for his grace, mercy and forgiveness? We can be a gracious and merciful listening presence among others who experience this present anguish and the torment regarding the difficulties of the past. We can speak out as Christ’s love compels us, to challenge evil and oppression, the abuse of power and be a voice for the vulnerable. God’s love is revealed to others when His people come alongside another person in their life’s journey, as we pray for one another, asking God to show us the way.


Nelson Mandela on character, Foreign Correspondent’s Association’s Annual Dinner, Johannesburg, South Africa (21 November 1997). Source: From Nelson Mandela by Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations © 2010 by Nelson R. Mandela and The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky, Penguin, 1993.

Featured Image: Spear thistle (UK)

‘But you were washed’ – Denying the spirit of judge-mentalism

In my former years, I would go outside for a durry, but now I go out to breathe fresh air. For some of us, this statement rings true also for our whole lives. The toxic habits we used to live by may have taken their toll on our health – emotional, mental, physical or spiritual. Some of these old ways become ingrained, in our speech, actions, appearance, even the lines on our face tell a story.

We can judge another person without even speaking to them, we judge by what we see, perceive or hear about them, allowing our own motives and prejudices to guide us. This kind of judgementalism is unjust and is a sign of our humanness. Though broken, humanity still bears the image of the invisible God that is his glorious creation, despite our misgivings concerning one another.

We’ve all gone the wrong way, and we’ve all suffered pain. Who should judge their friend for being a smoker; for being tattooed perhaps at a time when life, love or grief overcame them; for having been admitted to a hospital because their emotional pain was too much to bear alone? When we judge one another for outward appearances or for our experiences during times of stress, suffering and pain, we deny one another an opportunity to be loved. The love of God is the source of all comfort, help and wisdom – it is expressed through one another by His word and Spirit, in our words and deeds.

A spirit of judgementalism has crept into our churches in many forms over many centuries. Are you saved? Are you from this place or that? Are you learned? Are you friends with those people? Are you faithful enough not to despair in times of suffering? What work do you do?  …  (Are you better than me?) Did you pass the test?

This testing of one another reminds us of the disciples jostling for pole position next to Jesus’ side (Luke 22). It is a false gospel that is proclaimed, it is not what Jesus taught his friends. Jesus’ friends also struggled with this spirit of judgementalism time and again. They did not fully understand who Jesus was nor did they understand what the kingdom of God would bring.

Christ-culture. We, as friends of the resurrected Jesus, come to him just as we are, every day. We come to him first, knowing that ‘there is only One who is good’ (Mt 19:17) before we open his whole word and listen for his Spirit which is one of love, unity, fellowship and forgiveness. It is God who teaches us how to love and serve him and one another because he is motivated by love – he is Love.

Turn around from that treacherous road you were travelling upon and believe and understand with your heart, mind and soul that Jesus is Lord of all Creation, our communities and our lives. Live in light of that knowledge, relying on God’s wisdom and the Spirit of gentleness and discernment. Give glory and power and honour to him who is the Just Judge over all things, forever. Amen.

Less-quoted sayings of Jesus: (Recommended reading in context)

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…’ Mark 14:32-34

“Leave her alone… why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6

“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Luke 20: 46-47

“Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” Luke 21:17

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” John 7:24

“…why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Matt 15:3

“Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Matt 16:23

“Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matt 20:14

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” Luke 22:27-28

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Image credit:

A lost sailor photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

Dewdrop reflection photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The Prayer of Helplessness

..”In helplessness alone there would be no value, our situation would be intolerable if Jesus had left us there. But instead He says:

‘With God all things are possible’

All things! This is an audacious statement just as the opposite…

‘Apart from me, you can do nothing.’

Jesus must be saying that there is nothing in heaven or on earth over which God does not have control.

Most of us can believe that God can control us, provided we are willing. Thus, if we are in [a dark] hole because of our own foolishness, misjudgement, or sin, we can concede God’s ability to help.

But there is another type of life situation at which faith often staggers. This is when heartbreak has come to us because of other people’s sins and failures – what might be called ‘second causes’.

The tragedies most difficult to take are those that come through the failures, ignorance, carelessness, or hatred of other human beings. These are the times when men seem to be working havoc with God’s plans.

It is important that we believe that God is adequate even for those situations. Otherwise, the Prayer of Helplessness will fall to the ground.

In order to fly, the bird must have two wings. One wing is the realisation of our human helplessness, the other is the realisation of God’s power. Our faith in God’s ability to handle our particular situation is the connecting link.

..the cross stands as the final symbol that no evil exists that God cannot turn into a blessing. He is the living Alchemist who can take the dregs from the slag-heaps of life – disappointment, frustration, sorrow, disease, death, economic loss, heartache – and transforms the dregs into gold.

This is the hope and promise that I claimed for myself… and that I yearn to pass on to everyone whom life has hemmed in; to the would-be suicide, and to the merely discouraged who do not consider suicide but who also will not consider God.

This means that no sinner is hopeless; no situation irretrievable. No case is past redeeming.

That is why Jesus’ insistence on our helplessness is the most hopeful note in Scripture. That is why every one of us – imperfect as we are – can take heart and thank God for the power of helplessness.”

 

Excerpt from “Beyond Our Selves” by Catherine Marshall, first published 1961 (C) pp. 162 – 167.

Image source (C) 2012 Richard Waring @ blogspot.