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                  The Anger That Heals

 

            All the passages below are taken from Joni Eareckson Tada’s book, “A Lifetime of Wisdom---Embracing the Way God Heals You,” which was published in 2009.

 

UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND HOSPITAL,

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND,

NOVEMBER 1967

 

The surgery, they tell me, was a success. Something about bone chips, scraped from my hip, pressed like mortar in between the broken cervical vertebrae.

They say the graft---the patch job---is working well, and to celebrate, the doctor unscrewed the bolts in my head.

I'm out of ICU, free from the grip of the tongs, in a private room. Just like I wanted.

But what's changed? Nothing. My fingers ... where are they? My legs? My feet? Nothing moves from my neck down. If death has a taste---maybe something like dust, maybe something like ashes---it's on my tongue right now.

So here I am in my new room, staring at a high ceiling, listening to the drone of hospital sounds and nurses and orderlies padding softly down the corridor. The radiator under the high window makes a popping sound when the heat comes on. And somewhere there is a clock, endlessly ticking.

Today I counted the ceiling tiles. A hundred and forty, including partials. TV? It's too much work to watch from an angle like this. Isn't even worth the effort. I always heard people talk about time dragging. Busy and caught up with life as I was, I hardly knew what they meant.

I do now.

Hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Another season passing. Snow tinking softly against the window pane, piling up on the sill. What's going on? Why am I not getting better?

And who am I talking to? God? A hidden camera in the ceiling? This silence, it's choking me. My chest---so tight. God, You can't do this!

No. No! No tears ... not now. But here they come anyway. I can feel those. Welling up in my eyes, streaking across my face. And my nose running, with no way to blow it. Am I going crazy? How do you know if you're going insane? I've got to keep my mind occupied. I must do something ... think something.

This room ... swathed in white. Everything white. Crown molding, tiles, windows, walls. The doctors in their white lab coats, the nurses in their white uniforms, hose, caps, shoes. A world of white---but not real-world white, like the falling snow outside the window. This is antiseptic white. Sterile white. Laboratory white. Dead white. And here I am, Joni Eareckson, lying naked under a thin white sheet, waiting to be experimented on. I'm in the middle of a white, sterile box, stuck here by the force of gravity, drowning in a white darkness. Can't move. Can't feel. Just breathing and eating. That's it. That's life.

Do other people see themselves this way? Just existing? No ... they don't know it because they have too many things to distract them from the awful emptiness. They're busy doing stuff---holding down jobs, going to college, walking and running around.

But not me. No distractions here. I'm a guinea pig of a different color. Because I have nothing. Do You hear, God? I have nothing to distract me. A big blank white zero! I don't even know if You're there. All I've got is a ceiling. A hundred and forty tiles. A hidden camera. The Eye in the sky.

So what's it all about, God, or Ceiling, or whoever You are? Do You bring people into this world just to breathe, eat, grow old, and die? Do You toss the dice and paralyze people along the way? Or throw in a little cancer ... a little Down syndrome ... or maybe smash someone's brains in an accident? Well?

Tell me.... Why shouldn't I coerce one of my friends to bring me their father's razors or their mother's sleeping pills? Why not have the whole human race put a gun to its head, if we're just here to exist? Breathe in, breathe out. Exist. Is that all? IS THAT ALL?

Are You sadistic? Why do You leave me alive, God? Stop toying with me and just take me. I don't know what death is, but it can't be worse than this.... 0 God, I can't be this way, can't go on this way. How do I stop this long slide into nothingness?

But why should You even listen to me? If You were somewhere near me a few minutes ago---somewhere behind those ceiling tiles---now I have sent You away.

And even You can't see me, can't hear me. Or won't.

 

 

SOME FORTY YEARS LATER,

AGOURA HILLS, CALIFORNIA

 

Joni, Joni.

So afraid. So alone. At the frayed end of her hope. What would I say to her, that lonely, despairing girl if I could be with her in that room, at her bedside?

Something in her knows her words are reckless. She's speaking to God like an Enemy. An Adversary. She wants to lash out and whip Him with her words. One scared little teenager, alone in a hospital room, still reeling from the horror of what her life has become.

She knows she needs God, needs Him like oxygen, yet imagines her words pushing Him even farther away. Should she have spoken like that, spitting those raw words into that antiseptic air, aiming every ounce of her anger and sorrow at a God who seemed to have retreated into an alternate universe, leaving her to suffer?

Yes.

And she is in good company ... within the very pages of Scripture.

 

 

Another Slice of Life

Strange, isn't it, how the Bible itself captures such moments and enshrines them?

I'm reminded of that medical marvel of recent years called an EBT. Electron beam tomography is an ultra-sophisticated CAT scan able to capture images of bodily organs---especially the heart---that are in constant motion. The medical tech people will tell you that the EBT performs a complete, complex cycle of images with every heartbeat, producing them at one twentieth of a second. This allows doctors to look at the human heart, from top to bottom, in ultra-thin horizontal slices of both tissue and time.

That's what the Bible does too: it is "living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

Listen to this slice of a man's heart from the Psalms.

 

You have put me in the lowest pit,

in the darkest depths.

Your wrath lies heavily upon me;

you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. .

You have taken from me my closest friends

and have made me repulsive to them.

I am confined and cannot escape;

my eyes are dim with grief

(Psalm 88:6-7, 8-9)

 

There it is, a membrane-thin cutting of a human soul. Hold it to the light and you can see right through it, like India paper. Who said such words? It's attributed to someone named "Heman the Ezrahite," in Psalm 88. Who was he, and why did his cry in the night find its way into a book that would endure until the end of time and on into eternity?

The writer goes on:

 

Why, 0 LORD, do you reject me

and hide your face from me?

 

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;

I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.

Your wrath has swept over me;

your terrors have destroyed me.

All day long they surround me like a flood;

they have completely engulfed me.

(Psalm 88:14-17)

 

You won't likely see this psalm on a poster populated with summer daisies. This is a raw cry of despair, with serrated edges. And this frightened, lonely man, an anonymous nobody named Heman the Ezrahite, weeps his words to a seemingly unresponsive heaven.

This is no sweet psalm of David, wrapping up with a step-back, heavenly perspective and a fireworks finale of praise. Heman ends his psalm with a sob, a cry trailing into the night.

 

You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;

the darkness is my closest friend.

(v. 18)

 

End of psalm. End of story. Close the book. Fade to black. Darkness is my closest friend.

What do you think? Does that speak well of the Lord? There seems to be no attempt to leave readers with a warm, cozy impression of God-my-refuge. It simply ends, leaving you hanging suspended in the void, isolated in some nameless dungeon of fear, confusion, and

grief.

It's an EBT slice of a soul. And the eternal God, whose eye misses nothing, took this image of Heman the Ezrahite's despair and put it on the screen.

For the ages.

Why did He do that? Because broken-hearted Heman's slice of life may well be just like ours. If God took one twentieth of a second images of our soul and threw them on a monitor, some of those paper-thin instants in time would took very much like the soul sample of this desolate psalmist.

The Joni of long ago, the Joni that was me, imagined that her harsh words against God would push her even farther away from Him which she thought she wanted but really didn't want at all. And of course God knew that.

One of the first places I turned after my accident was to the book of Job. As I lay immobilized in the hospital, my mind swirled with questions. When I learned that my paralysis was permanent, it raised even more questions.

Do you have any concept of how desperate I was to find answers?

Job, I reasoned, had suffered terribly and questioned God again and again. And make no mistake, Job's questions weren't of the polite Wednesday-night-Bible-study variety. They were pointed, sharp, and seemed at times to walk the borderline of blasphemy.

 

Why didn't You let me die at birth? (3:11)

Why didn't You dry up my mother's breasts so that I would starve? (3:12)

Why do You keep wretched people like me alive? (3:20-22)

Do You really expect me to have hope and patience? (6:11)

What do You think I'm made of, anyway? Stone? Metal? (6:12)

If life is so short, does it have to be miserable too? (7:1-10)

Why don't You just back off and stop hurting me for awhile? (7:17, 19)

What did I ever do to You that I became target practice for Your arrows? (7:20)

Why don't You forgive me before I die and it's too late? (7:21)

Why do You always favor the bad guys? (9:24)

Since You've already decided I'm guilty, why should I even try? (9:29)

You're the One who created me, so why are You destroying me? Does that make sense? (10:8)

Why don't You let me meet You somewhere face to face so I can state my case? (23:3-6)

 

Job's friends were aghast. They half expected lightning to fall and fry the suffering man for such impudence. But no lightning fell. In fact, God greatly preferred the honest, gut wrenching cries of Job to the self-righteous prattle of the so-called comforters who mouthed all the old formulas and traditional bromides.

What meant the most to me in my suffering was that God never condemned Job for his doubt and despair. God seemed ready and willing to take on the hardball questions. Ah, but the answers? They weren't quite the ones Job had expected.

Likewise, when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure if it would have sufficed to find "the answers" to all of my questions anyway. Could I have even begun to handle it? It would have been like downloading the entire contents of the Internet onto an old laptop computer. It would have been like pouring million-gallon truths into a Dixie cup. My poor pea-brain wouldn't have been able to process it.

For some odd reason, however, it comforted me to realize that God did not condemn me for plying Him with questions. He wanted me to express the true contents of my heart, to dump out all the jumbled, jagged shards of my soul before Him.

Sometimes we're afraid to talk to God this way---like Job crying out in the night on the ash heap behind his house, like the psalmist treading water in the dark, like a furious teenager welded into bed with a broken neck and bolts in her head. We repress those murky, edgy emotions about our suffering. We choose to be polite, speaking sanitized words, or not speaking at all. We bottle up our troubling questions and unspeakable feelings toward God, hiding behind an orthodox, evangelical glaze as we "give it all over to the Lord."

Except that we don't. It's a lie and a ruse.

And He knows that too.

Why would God rather have our anger, our venom, our rage, our cry of desolation rather than our measured, controlled, even tempered, theologically correct prayer?

It's all about the heart. Over and over again in Scripture you can hear God saying, "Give Me your heart or nothing at all."

God doesn't have time to play games. He wants reality.

In the book of Malachi, God responds to the bored, perfunctory worship of Israel's priests, going through a cynical litany of religious motions. God said, "Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you ... and I will accept no offering from your hands" (Malachi 1:10).

The Lord is saying, "Why even pretend? Don't bother! If you don't really believe in what you're doing, if it doesn't engage you to the very soul, then padlock the temple doors, nail plywood over the windows, and walk away. I would rather that you did!"

In the New Testament, Jesus didn't need an EBT unit to sample the soul tissue of the Pharisees. He told them: "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrite; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain"' (Mark 7:6-7).

In other words, they talked the talk, but it had nothing---nothing whatsoever---to do with the real content of their hearts. When they "prayed," they weren't really speaking to God at all. They were scripted, mouthing all the expected words at all the anticipated times.

And it made Jesus sick.

Contrast that with another slice of soul, late in the gospel of Luke. On the Lord's final approach to Jerusalem, on His way to fulfill the driving mission that brought Him to earth and gave Him human flesh, on His way past Jericho, He heard a scream from the back of the crowd.

No measured tones here. No well-considered, finely modulated words. Just a dry, raspy yell from the back of the crowd. An anguished cry for help.

"Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

And it stopped the Son of God in mid-stride. He had the blind man brought forward. I can picture Him laying a hand on the man's trembling, rounded shoulder and saying, "What do you want me to do for you?" (See Luke 18:35-43.)

 

Front Burner

What do we do when we repress our disappointment and anger before the Lord? All we've done is shove the problem to the back burner. There it simmers. This is real trouble. We can't smell problems burning when they're repressed. And so we naively think "things will work out." But they don't. Hope is aroused, then deferred. It revives, then gets snuffed out again. "Hope deferred makes the heart sick" (Proverbs 13:12).

Then the fire goes out and our hearts become stone cold.

Anger keeps pushing the problem to the front burner. Fiery feelings keep the problem a hot potato, bouncing from hand to hand, propelling us into action and triggering activity. We aren't allowed to wallow in our failures. Hot-hearted rage spurs an immediate and decisive choice and forces us to face our need.

Anger---even the sort of cynical, furious emotions the Joni of 1967 experienced in the shock and revulsion of her circumstances---may not be all that bad. When Ephesians 4:26 says, "In your anger do not sin," it's clear that hostility is not always synonymous with sin. Not all anger is wrong.

Cancer, bankruptcy, divorce, betrayal, or the birth of longed for children with multiple handicaps push people to extremes. And please hear me here: Affliction will either warm you up toward spiritual things or turn you cold. Jesus said in Revelation 3:15- 16: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm---neither hot nor cold---I am about to spit you out of my mouth."

Hate is sometimes closer to love than a temperate, smiling indifference. And lukewarmness is the only road that never gets to God. There's nothing mediocre, tepid, or halfway about feelings of fury.

Strong emotions open the door to asking really hard questions---and I asked so very many of them in the early days of my paralysis. Does life make sense? Is God good? More to the point, our deep emotions reveal the spiritual direction in which we are moving. Are we moving toward the Almighty or away from Him? Anger properly makes Someone the issue of our suffering rather than some thing. And that's moving in the right direction.

The newly paralyzed Joni, for all her seething rage at the God-behind-the-ceiling-tiles, was aiming those emotions at Him. Whether she understood it at the time or not, she was moving toward Him in her despair, venting her disappointment, expressing hurt, and even questioning His goodness. But she wasn't talking about God behind God's back. She was angry enough to engage Him head-on. And then the anger melted into tears, and she was a scared little girl again, calling out to a daddy she couldn't see.

God, I can't ... I can't live like this. If You won't let me die, then please show me how to live.

It wasn't exactly a ringing prayer of faith. But it left the door open for Him to respond. And He would. Because "the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18). Do we really believe that?

The word translated "crushed" in this verse comes from a Hebrew root that means "to burst." It can also be translated "to tear," as in tearing a piece of cloth down the middle. When you are in so much pain, sorrow, or frustration that it feels as though your heart might burst within you, when you feel like your soul has been torn like rotten fabric, God draws close to help. You don't even have to dial 911 or push that little blue On-Star button. He's there with you instantly, ready to hear and respond to your cries of perplexity and anguish.

Sometimes brokenhearted people say harsh things. Sometimes some toxic cynicism or long-repressed anger can spurt out of a lacerated heart. The Lord knows that ... and wants to be close anyway. Sometimes bitter emotions and acid words can ooze from a crushed spirit. The Lord understands that, as well ... and draws near to comfort.

The fact is, gut-wrenching questions honor God. Despair directed at His throne is a way of encountering Him, opening ourselves up to the one and only Someone who can actually do something about our plight. And whether we collide head-on with Him or simply bump up against Him in the dark, we cannot be the same.

We never are when we experience God.

 

Airing Our Complaints

Most of the time, of course, we can manage.

Like jugglers spinning plates on long sticks. And if we get unfairly reprimanded at work or a ticket for speeding, we squeeze in a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend before rushing to spin the next plate. We keep a journal, venting our frustrations on paper. We soak in the tub, sweat on the treadmill, splurge on a new dress, or get away to the mountains for a weekend. Prayer groups and Bible studies help. God won't load us up with more plates than we can handle and, with His enabling, we will be able to keep them spinning.

But sometimes we're hard pressed to believe it.

Something, we assume, has to give.

When pain lumbers through the front door, squats down in the middle of our lives, and makes itself at home day after day, year after year, we can choke. Crack. Erupt in anger.

God is big enough to take on anger like this. He is not flustered.

First, He knows stuff happens. He Himself said, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). Second, He doesn't tiptoe around it, embarrassed and at wit's end to explain our woes. He doesn't cover up the gore and guts of a person's rage, like a Mafia hit man who trashes his blood-stained gloves so he doesn't get nailed.

Remember, God's rage nailed God. He wrote the book on suffering. And He invited people like Job, Jeremiah, and the author of Psalm 88 to be his coauthors. In so doing, He opens the doors for His disappointed, sometimes-angry sons and daughters to air their complaints.

Take your grievances directly to the Lord, which means moving toward the Lord. Go ahead and vent disappointment, express hurt, and even question the goodness of the Almighty. But whatever you do, don't badmouth Him to others. Please don't sow seeds of discord or incite rebellion among friends against God. Don't talk behind His back. Engage Him, head on.

When you think about it, the people you really get angry with are the ones you trust most deeply. To say, "I am mad as a hornet, God, and I don't understand what you are doing one bit!" sounds like the dark side of trust, but it is trust nonetheless.

 

Good Reason to Be Angry,

Speaking of angry servants of God, I've always been fascinated by God's conversation with the prophet Jonah.

After Jonah had gone to some pains (to say the least) to bring a stern word of judgment to the hated Assyrians in Nineveh, he was thoroughly disgusted to see that the message actually hit home. The choir sang "just As I Am," and the whole evil city came forward in repentance---from the king on the throne to the little guy shining sandals on the sidewalk.

It was the most dramatic change of heart ever recorded.

Imagine a Billy Graham crusade in New York City where everyone received Christ. The mayor, the police department, the Yankees, the garbage collectors, the prostitutes, and the editorial board of the New York Times---everyone.

What evangelist wouldn't give anything for a harvest like that?

Well, there was one. And it happened to be the preacher at the Great Nineveh Crusade, Jonah himself.

 

But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, 0 LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life."

The LORD said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"

(Jonah 4:1-4 NASB)

 

Jonah was so angry he wanted to die. As a loyal Israelite, he hated these smug Assyrians in their capital of cruelty. They were the militant Islamic fascists of his day. They had threatened and bullied and afflicted Israel for generations, and there were no more evil, sadistic, blood-thirsty people on the planet. And now they ask for forgiveness and God says, “Yes.”

Just like that.

It infuriated the prophet. He said in essence, "I knew it. Knew it! You asked me to preach to this God-forsaken evil empire and instead of blowing You off, they suddenly get serious about God. And now You're going to let them all off the hook just because You're so merciful and kind. It disgusts me! If this is the way Your world runs, then I want to get off at the next stop."

Maybe Jonah thought his own words were so out of line that God would just incinerate him on the spot. But He didn't. Instead, He reasoned with His servant.

"Do you have good reason to be angry?"

The Almighty God of the universe reasoning with one angry man? Does that make sense? Wouldn't it be like a man taking time to reason with a two-year-old? Or a cat? Or an ant?

God was saying, in effect, "Cool down a minute, Son. Let's talk about this. You're angry, but why should you be?"

Jonah was so upset he didn't even reply. He went out to a high spot on the east of the great city and tried to find a little shade while he watched things unfold. The Bible says God caused a leafy vine to shade the prophet from the scorching heat, and the prophet "was extremely happy about the plant." But then the Lord sent a worm, which attacked the plant overnight so that it withered---leaving Jonah exposed to the sun again.

Again, the prophet was furious with God, and God came back to reason with him just a little bit more.

Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death." Then the LORD said, "You had compas­sion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?" (Jonah 4:9-10 NASB)

 

Instead of rebuking Jonah for his anger, God conversed with him. He dialogued. He gave his servant a little object lesson. Then He said, "That's not just a city, Jonah. There are thousands of people behind those walls. Babies in bassinets. Toddlers playing in front of their houses. Young people who haven't made up their minds about the evil culture they were born into. Not to mention all the animals who have never harmed anyone. And look at that king. Evil as he has been, when he heard the truth, he responded. He humbled him­self. Even the kings of Israel haven't been willing to do that. Do you see him? He's leading his people in a national revival. And you still want to kill them all? Is that reasonable, Jonah?"

That's where the book ended, and since the author was most likely Jonah himself, we can assume that the prophet reflected on this conversation over the months and years of his life, and came around to God's point of view.

As childish and petulant as Jonah's anger at God may seem to us, it was the best thing that could have happened to him because it brought the issues of his heart out into the light of day. Instead of running from God, he began talking to God. And he found that God was not only willing to listen; He was ready to dialogue about the issue at hand.

The Dark Side

There is, however, a dark side to anger, and Jonah came perilously close to the danger zone. The danger wasn't that God would slap him down for arguing. The danger was anger turned inward to the point that the prophet---twice---wanted to end his life.

Uncontrolled anger has incredible potential to destroy. It di­gresses into a black energy that demands immediate release and relief. It despises being vulnerable and helpless. It relishes staying in control. It loathes dependence on God and so gains macabre pleasure in spreading the poison of mistrust. Ironically, this sort of anger---unrighteous anger---turns on us. It is a liar, offering us satisfaction, when in truth, it guts us and leaves us empty.

Who can endure such emptiness?

Unrighteous anger---anger that leads us away from God---sucks the last vestige of hope from our hearts. We stop caring, stop feeling. We commit a silent suicide of the soul, and sullen despair moves in like a terrible damp fog, deadening our heart to the hope that we will ever be rescued, redeemed, and happy again.

God will not stand for this.

He is intolerant of despair.

He will not permit our puny shields of unrighteous anger to stall Him. And so He encroaches, presumes, invades, and infringes. He tears aside the curtains of despondency and throws open locked doors. He hits the light switch in our dark hearts. He pierces our complacency and boldly intrudes into our self-pity, brashly calling it what it is and challenging us to leave it behind.

He does it, occasionally, by heaping on trouble.

I'll never forget when God crashed through my despair.

Somewhere after the first year of lying paralyzed in my hospital bed, somewhere after my bleak prognosis drained every ounce of hope---even anger, righteous and unrighteous---out of me, despair moved in. I refused to get up for physical therapy. I turned my head away when friends came to visit.

Hazel, a black nurse's aide from Mississippi, noticed I was slipping away. She knew I had taken a liking to her. Ambling into my room, she would pull up a chair, and take her cigarette breaks by my bed.

"Wanna tell me about it, girl?" she'd ask, lighting up.

No reply.

She would smile, slowly blowing a stream of smoke in the other direction.

I'd grunt.

     "You feel like bawling," she'd say, "you just tell me." She patted her pocket. "I've got a kerchief here handy."

"Um." I was numb. I didn't want to talk.

I didn't want to eat. Once when Hazel was feeding me dinner, half-chewed food dribbled out of the side of my mouth. "What in the world are you doing?" she shouted. My body reacted with a violent spasm. Hazel slammed down the fork and peas scattered.

Picking up a napkin, she forcefully wiped my mouth, crumpled it, and threw it down on the tray. "You get yourself together, girl. Ain't nothing wrong with you that a good look around this hospital won't cure."

My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I fought back tears.

"Now are you gonna eat this or what?"

Hazel had roused deep feelings of resentment. My eyes narrowed. "Yes," I spat back. The food was tasteless and hard. I chewed mechanically, forcing myself to swallow against a knotted stomach. Not a word was spoken between us. After she left, I struggled harder to contain the tears. I could not allow myself to cry because there would be no one to blow my nose or change my damp pillow.

Suddenly a realization shot across my mind.

I'm feeling something.

Like a hibernating animal waking up, I felt something stir. No more emotional numbness. Instead, a magnetic pull toward hope. In the darkness, I found myself whispering to God, pleading for His mercy and help.

My prayer was short, hardly more than a word or two, but it left the door open for Him to respond. Little did I realize that He would.

In the next few days, I sensed a stronger interest in the Bible. When I lay face down on the Stryker frame, I was able to flip the pages of a Bible with my mouth stick. I didn't know where to turn, but the psalms drew me---and Job.

 And in those two books in the middle of my Bible, I encountered other heartbroken people with hard questions for the Almighty.

The damp fog of my despair did not dissipate overnight, but I knew beyond all doubt I had turned a corner. I was moving in the direction of God. My questions had also created a paradox: In the midst of God's absence, I felt His presence. I found Him after I let go of what I thought He should be or do. My despair ended up being my ally, because through it, He took hold of me.

And I would say this to that Joni of long ago: "Your cry in the dark is better, Joni, than turning your face to the wall and sealing God out. At least you spoke to Him. At least you called out. At least you hurled those emotions of fear mingled with hate toward God Himself. And you drew the very attention of heaven."

Scripture calls every one of us to the throne of grace, but doesn't tell us how to get there. Maybe it doesn't matter. Run, walk, or crawl on your stomach through the muck. Come in your tears, come in your rage, come in your perplexity, come in your anguish of soul. Just come, and mercy awaits you.

So now, "forty years of life in a wheelchair" later, here is the ruby, hard-won. Here is the wisdom I would so love to give my younger self. You're on the right track, Joni. You're facing the right direction. Tell God what's in your heart ... all of it. Then settle back, if only for a moment, in the memory of who He has been to you, and how He has loved you and kept you through all your days.

 

Reasoning with God

When tragedy blindsides you and almost knocks you silly, you are understandably bewildered. You feel confusion and panic. You may feel afraid that more hardship will come on top of it all. In your anger and fear, you may feel like cursing, or retreating into depression and despair. You may feel a thousand things. But at some point, somewhere along the line, if you don't stop feeling and start thinking about how to attend the circumstances in which you find yourself, you will freeze.

Your mind will go into lockdown, and it will be difficult for anyone to break through to you ... even God.

Yes, intense suffering calls for deep emotions. In the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, people weep. We should weep. God weeps. But there is also a time to think. And neither can replace the other.

When you are able to raise your head above the heartache in which you are swimming, the Bible tells you to take the next step. It is full of commands to "think," "ponder," "consider," "weigh," and "judge." Again, remember how God addressed His servant Jonah when the man was smoldering with anger? He said, "Doest thou well to be angry?" (Jonah 4:4 KJV). In other words, "Think about this, son. Are you being reasonable? Is it right for you to respond this way?"

Jesus often turned questions about the meaning of life, death, and suffering back onto the questioner. "What is written in the Law?" He would ask. Expecting an argument, people would blink, sniff back their feelings, flip the pages in their mind, think out loud, and come up with relevant passages. But this didn't end the discussion. Next was the real work. "How do you read it?" He would ask. In other words, "What do you think these Scriptures mean?"

He reasoned with them.

He invited their participation.

He challenged them to think things through.

He encouraged them to let the real truths of Scripture break through the crust of their brittle preconceptions and rigid prejudices.

What you think about God influences your friendship with Him. It affects how much glory you give to Him. The King James translation of Proverbs 23:7 may not he the best rendering we have of those words, but the thought remains true: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he."

Please hear these next words. They have come to me as a ruby, hard-won through the years: Your imagination about God especially in the midst of tragedy---isn't reliable. We must run to the true portrait He gives us in His Word.

If we simply trust our emotions about Him, we re-create Him in our own image ... as I did when I    thought of Him as "The Big Camera Eye in the Ceiling." Deep down I didn't really believe that about God, but the more I let that thought bounce through the despair-twisted corridors of my emotions, the more it became "real" to me.

Our best source of information about who God is---no matter how we might happen to feel about it on any given moment---comes right off the pages of Scripture. We must cling to those truths---digging in our fingernails---as we would cling to a rock in a fast-rushing stream.

If our surging emotions cause us to hold more tightly to His Word (for dear life), then they have swept us in a good direction. [19-38]

 

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