God hears, remembers, knows

Cry for Help

Yesterday’s post about “hollering and whimpering” when at the bottom of the depression barrel triggered further thoughts. And then this morning I read in Exodus

After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned because of their difficult labor, and they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor. So God heard their groaning, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and He took notice. (Exodus 2:23-25 HCSB)

After the great days of Joseph and the favor that the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt, the days of affliction came to them. Not only did the political environment change, but the personal circumstances changed for every Israelite. Moses was gone when he hastily fled from Egypt when he tried to correct a wrong (Exodus 2:11-15).

The joy of Joseph is replaced by the groaning of the burdens. As oppressed people who saw no hope in their circumstances, “they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor.” Whether this was “hollering or whimpering” does not matter. From the anguish of the burdened soul, such differences are meaningless. This is a “cry for help”—forget categories, forget subtle differences. The broken heart does not care, cannot care.

The three fold response by God

God is not indifferent to the people, His people. He “heard” and “remembered” and “took notice.” These three actions by God are critical; they are the turning point for the Israelites—and yet nothing “happened” for them. The burdens continue, the agony does not cease, and God seems to have a deaf ear.

God heard

But the reality of change depends not on their (or our) ability to see change. Rather, the key is that God is already poised to act in behalf of His people. In yesterday’s post I finished with 1 John 5:13-15, “We are confident that God listens to us.” This is something the Israelites will learn. This is something that all God’s people learn. For the Israelites in Egypt, “God heard their groaning.” Their groaning does not reflect our use of muttered sigh to a bad joke, but the extreme cry of the heart that is longing, yet cannot see any solution. The groaning is real, the expression of a heart overwhelmed by experiences. No matter the outward circumstances, God hears our groaning.

God remembered His covenant

This is the critical turning point in the story. God had made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17). It is a one-sided covenant, dependent on God’s fulfillment. God said, “I will …” to Abraham.

I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, … (Genesis 12:2-3)

Further, it is not Abraham who fulfills the covenant, but God Himself. “When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals” (Genesis 15:17 HCSB).

It is this covenant that God remembered, His promises, His commitment, His action, His fulfillment. Thus, while the Israelites groaned, God remembered. And that is the key for God’s delivering action. After their deliverance and as Moses wrote his farewell, Deuteronomy, notice how many times Moses urges the people to imitate God by “remembering.”

God knew

Several translations have “God took notice.” ESV has “and God knew.” This reflects the basic sense of the Hebrew yadah (ידע). Same word used for Adam when he “knew” Eve. An intimacy of knowing, and for God that means he understands, even feels, the agony and misery of His people.

We may be tempted, okay, I am tempted to think that God does not know what I am experiencing. My pain, my hurt is too deep, too personal. Or so I imagine. But no, God knows, He knows everything about me, even my desire to set up a protective cocoon that keeps out anything that might hurt.

But God wants more than that for His hurting, groaning people. He hears, remembers, and knows.

And that is enough!

And it is well with my soul.

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Hollering or whimpering

Did I know what I needed? Not really. I could neither holler nor whimper. Heather Kopp wrote on her blog a couple weeks ago about the blahs she was experiencing. As she wrote about needing help, she related it to Jesus’ question to the blind man in Luke 18:35-43, and specifically v. 41:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Then Heather comments.

In the past I’ve been taught that Jesus asks his question because not everyone who’s sick or disabled wants to be made well. Didn’t you know—maybe you’ve heard this too—that some would rather suffer than take responsibility for their lives?

I used to think that. But these days, I’m more inclined to believe that if a really sick person doesn’t want to get well, that’s a good indication that they’re far too sick to know what they want.

Which isn’t a bad laymen’s definition for active alcoholism, or for that matter, clinical depression.

http://soberboots.com/2013/04/18/holler-for-mercy/

The highlighted portion really struck me. At first her assessment seems too strong, too judgmental, too cruel? But after further reflecting on this and my own experiences with depression, I tend to agree with her. I know that at the very worst of my depression 15 years ago, I was so depressed I really did not know what I wanted. I knew something was wrong, horribly wrong, but that was all. I wanted something different than what I was experiencing, but couldn’t even put that into words.

Heather continues:

All he did was holler bloody murder for the one thing Jesus never denied a single person or ever will.

Mercy.

I couldn’t holler (yep, grew up on a farm and knew the meaning of that word!), not when I was depressed. At best I could mumble something close to desperation, nothing more, and sometimes less. But the reality is that Jesus was listening, is listening.

So, whether it is a holler at the top of your lungs, or a gasp of the breath, speak to Jesus. Even if it doesn’t make sense. How many prayers really make sense when they express the inner turmoil, hurt, desperation of the heart?

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (1 John 5:13-15 NAS)

Even when I could not articulate it well, that was my confidence. This is my confidence today.

In all honesty…

This is becoming a big topic in the blogosphere: honesty. In all honesty, it is within the Christian blogosphere. Honesty is viewed as positive, the goal, the ideal, the standard for relationships. And especially relationships within the Church.

Can we be that honest? Perhaps not as much as we think, desire, demand… I watched “The Interpreter” last week (this is not an evaluation of the movie itself). One line from the movie stands out. The woman interpreter says to the Secret Service officer:

Let me be honest with you. I don’t know whether I can be honest with you.

At first glance, we might laugh and claim that the person has no clue about honesty. And she is the Interpreter? But in all honesty… that quote is far more significant than initially thought.

In all honesty before God…

When we claim to be honest, are we being honest, or have we set limits on honesty? Before God, one of our challenges is to realize that God sees us, knows us perfectly. Honesty before God strips us of any sense of mystery and hiddenness. Sure, we might join Adam and Eve and run to hide behind the bushes. But in all honesty, that only works short term. Honesty about ourselves before God shows us as we are: broken, overwhelmed, alienated, scared, marred, scarred, humbled. Do I want to be honest like this?

We see that as the end before God. But God sees this as the beginning. Until and unless we are that honest before God we will never see God’s new work of love, mercy, forgiveness, restoration, peace. Our partial honesty is replaced by the true honesty of Jesus Christ. Denial, fear, frustration, condemnation give way to repentance, security, joy, and acceptance of God’s work.

This is a huge hurdle for people to overcome, for me to overcome. By nature we like to live in partial honesty before God, and we live partially as the the new person in Christ. We turn to that which is comfortable, even if we are not being honest with God. That is why Paul urges us:

Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–20 HCSB)

I like the fact that in our worship services, immediately after the invocation, we have the opportunity to become honest before God. We call it “Confession and Absolution.” In confessing our sins, we have time to review in all honesty our lives privately, and then corporately. We confess those sins to God. Then we hear God’s declaration: “I forgive you your sins for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

That means not only are the sins forgiven, the conscience cleansed, the shame taken away, but also that true honesty sets the stage before God. We worship in all honesty our God. Jesus told the woman by the well (John 4), “You will worship me in spirit and in truth.” Honesty before God brings that to completion.

And as a corporate body, for at least a moment we have been honest, united by our sin and condemnation, but even more united in the forgiveness of sins.

In all honesty before others…

We would like to think that if we are honest before God, then being honest before others is easier. But in most, if not all, cases, it is not true. Our honesty before others is tinged by many factors. Is that person’s love, forgiveness, and honesty the same as God’s? Not really.

As I am a sinner (chief of sinners!), so the other person is also a sinner, even while being Christian. In Lutheran terms we use the phrase simul iustis et peccator, “at the same time saint and sinner.” Until we  reach heaven, we will always live in this tension, with ourselves and with others.

The result? We tend to be guarded. Perhaps someone has hurt us, broken our trust, rejected us. Perhaps we struggle with suspicion, of everyone, at least a little. And so in all honesty we can only be somewhat honest before others.

In the church relationships such tensions can be stifling of true fellowship. In all honesty, I guard my thoughts, my past, my hopes, my fears… I want to be honest—to a point.

Reconciliation is key again. Even as we have been reconciled to God, so we are reconciled to one another. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians focused on what it means to be “in Christ” (37x in various forms). That standing “in Christ” involves the vertical (before God) and the horizontal (before humans).

For Paul the greatest barrier between humans was represented in the separation between Jew and Gentile. The hostility, enmity, however you want to describe it, prevented any crossing of the boundaries. Yet, in all honesty Paul wrote:

He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it.

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:16, 18-19 HCSB)

James extended the need for honesty, connecting healing, prayer, and confession of sins to one another—honesty before others. He wrote:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. (James 5:16 HCSB)

In all honesty… further reflection

The call to honesty on Christian blogs is good. But unless we examine what is behind it, and the implications of what it means to be honest before God, we will always fail. We will not be honest, only honest enough…

In all honesty

Devotional Reading: HCSB

Until now, my examination of the HCSB has involved selected texts, which I compared to the Hebrew OT and Greek NT. In many ways, the HCSB is better than NIV and ESV. Also, I evaluated HCSB as an oral translation to be used in worship services. While it is adequate there were a few passages that did not read well orally.

Note: I will use a term or terms that refer to an emotional response to reading that may seem out of place in Bible reading. However, I think there is an emotional component of reading the Bible, especially devotional reading. Thus, I use words like “feel,” “comfortable,” etc.

Devotional Reading

My examination of HCSB takes a different turn beginning January 1, 2013. I will begin using it as my daily devotional reading, reading through the Bible in one year. I have waited a few months since my last review of HCSB because I didn’t want this to be only a comparison with the original language texts. Rather, I wanted to “feel” the translation as I gained a broader understanding of the entirety of the translation.

HCSB Ultrathin Bible, Black/Gray Duotone Simulated Leather
HCSB Ultrathin Bible, Black/Gray Duotone Simulated Leather

Over the years I have used other translations this way. Perhaps the longest was NAS, which I used every day from 1978 to 2005. I memorized many passages in NAS in that same time frame. Thus, today, if I refer to a Bible verse, it will most likely come out as NAS.

During that same time, I used NIV from 1986-1999 devotionally as well. Primarily I did that because I was serving congregations that used the NIV. Overall, it served well, but of course, it didn’t feel the same as NAS. <smile>

When the ESV came out in 2001 I tried it devotionally but never for a full year. The awkwardness of the phrasing was at times jarring to my reading sense and caused me to revert to NAS. Some of those initial problems were corrected in the 2007 revision. I have read it for a few months at a time, but never felt “comfortable” as a daily Bible.

The past five months I have been using GW translation as the daily reading Bible. In some ways it was the hardest transition to make. I had served as pastor of three different congregations which were test congregations from 1987-2005 for the predecessor of GW. The dramatic changes from 1992-1995 caused me to rethink whether the congregation at that time would use GW. Basically from 1995-2011 I had occasionally looked at GW, but never considered it as a daily reading Bible. But this time I found that it was better as an oral translation than any other. But even devotionally it has proven to be a good choice.

So begins the journey…

I will be using the one-year reading plan that is included in the GW translation Bibles. Ironic, GW includes a yearly and 100 day overview reading plans. For the Old Testament, that means an average of three chapters/day, for the New Testament it varies from three chapters/day to one chapter/day.

So, HCSB comes on the devotional scene!

tenderhearted in turmoil

I’m not going to comment directly on the events of the last 24 hours—much has been written, some very good, and some unhelpful at best. I don’t have a direct connection with anyone from the events yesterday. But in a way, I have much in common with them. Today I look at myself, my heart, my vulnerability. I have no answers apart from my Savior— everything else fails.

Shock, numb, angered, frustrated, and yes, even fearful. That may surprise some; after all, can Christians be fearful? Life is fragile; yesterday’s event could have involved my son or daughter-in-law, or grandkids.

As I experience all this, I find that my heart is tender—to all that can happen and does happen. My heart goes out to all the families who lost loved ones. As the hours have passed, I realize that my primary sense is one of tenderheartedness. My heart is tender right now; I’m emotional—for them. The media may drift off after a few days to another topic, but that won’t happen for these people. We will hear stories of heroism (like Victoria, the teacher who protected many children, but died in the process) and give thanks—and still grieve.

My heart also is tender for the care-givers. That part has really only begun. They need strength, encouragement, support, an outlet. Well done to all who came alongside the hurting. God’s blessings to them as they continue.

While we as a group of people grieve for all who suffer because of this, I also realize that grief is personal. And yet, there is a shared-ness of grief that is critical. In Psalm 34:18 we read:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

God is not indifferent to those who are crushed in spirit. It may not seem like it for some right now. But I cling to what my God has said and demonstrated.

In Isaiah 53:4 we read:

He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering and carried our sorrows,

God is not indifferent to suffering, to our suffering, to our sorrows, our pains, our heartaches. His Servant, His Son, Jesus, shared in that suffering and sorrows. He even took them upon himself. In the process He truly understands the burdens, the heartache, the agony. And thus, Jesus is the premier person who is tenderhearted.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, this is where I come to being tenderhearted at this moment. And I realize I have to also guard my heart, guard what I say, guard what I think. This does not mean I am indifferent, rather the opposite. I know what I have experienced in the past and how that shapes me, how that has brought me to brokenness, failure, disappointment, despair. But I know the God who was there when it seemed like I was alone, abandoned, in agony.

My tenderheartedness is entirely through God’s grace. Today I need that most of all. Maybe you do as well? Tomorrow I will hear God’s Word spoken to me, I receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who in tenderheartedness died that I might live. I pray in response to that kind of God, who loves, who is tenderhearted, who surrounds me with love when I most desperately need it. There is my hope, my strength, and my life.

Words of hope in the midst of…

For my devotional reading this morning, I once again was refreshed with Psalm 34:18

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

“Crushed in spirit”— (דַּכְּאֵי־ר֥וּחַ). What a description of our lives! That word “crushed” is the same word used in Isaiah 53:10 when describing the Suffering Servant’s work: “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him…” In other words, the Suffering Servant (Jesus) knows exactly what it is like to be crushed in spirit. He was—for us.

So, the LORD (יְ֭הוָה Yahweh) is near to the brokenhearted, for the purpose of saving them. And He identifies with them perfectly. He identifies with me, perfectly. And yet, in my weakness I fail to remember that truth. I seem to think God has moved away from me. The truth is that He is near to me, a brokenhearted sinner.

This verse seems particularly important for those of us who struggle with depression. But it is much broader than even that (perhaps a good Lenten theme sometime in the future). Under the Law, we are all crushed in spirit. Only Yahweh (LORD) can save us (Gospel). And thank God He does!

Have you hugged your porcupine today?

Odd title, huh? Actually it is appropriate for today’s blog: the two sides of living with depression. One side involves the person who is depressed, the other side involves the people who live with the person who is depressed. And the porcupine imagery catches some of the tension and difficulty in living on either side of depression.

English: Photograph of two North American porc...
Hugged a porcupine lately?

One who struggles with depression is acutely aware of pain, suffering, woundedness, etc. When some one close wants to help, through words, or hugs, or just listening, the quills of the porcupine make it painful even for the helper. Often unknowingly the one helping may trigger some reaction (see Depression and Triggers) in the depressed person. It may bring back memories (see Depression and Memory) that cause further pain. The quills are getting sharper.

At the same time, for the depressed person, the quills pointing inward feel much larger, much sharper, and much more focused on the areas of pain. Thus, the helper is reaching out and getting stuck with quills, and may withdraw. Meanwhile, the depressed person is hurting more, and tends to withdraw. It is a catch-22, the depressed person needs more companionship in the best sense of that word, yet the encounter can be painful and self-defeating.

It doesn’t take long for the porcupine effect to close doors rather than open them. Thus, for the depressed person every event becomes intensified. Rejection is more acute, a sense of abandonment lurks behind every relationship. Not a winning combination.

For the person who is depressed, it really comes down to having a few people who will faithfully walk with you, not pressuring, not demanding, but to be there for you. In the darkest days, God was drawing me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. In the flesh, I was blessed with my wife, our son and daughter-in-law, and three elders and their wives. They stuck by me in the very worst of times. I marvel at their patience, their willingness to “put up with me.” And they did so for several years. Always supportive, always listening, always loving.

As I look back, I can see how difficult I was to live with. In the worst days they needed to direct me to do things, every day things that we most often take for granted. If someone has not been down that dark road of depression, it might seem silly to need help with simple tasks. My close circle of family and friends never once gave that impression. They demonstrated Christian fellowship in the best way possible.

Another aspect of companionship is to realize that I as the depressed person wanted to be around some people, but not necessarily participating in their discussion. It sounds odd, but for me I wanted to be a wall flower, listening and seeing others respond, but I didn’t want to speak or interact. It was almost as if I had to learn how to interact with people all over. And I didn’t trust myself on what or how I said things.

I have found that dialog was hard for me. In the slide down and coming out the other side of the depression valley (for me a 4-5 year process for the actual diagnosed depression), I sometimes would speak, but not appropriately. I don’t mean vulgar or filthy talk, but it was if I couldn’t see how my remarks affected others. Even now when the depression battle rages, I have to be careful on what I say; when I forget about that, it can have negative repercussions. Of course, that plunges me further into the recrimination of despair.

There were always two questions people would ask me: 1. Are you okay? 2.What can I do to help? I couldn’t tell whether I was okay, because I had been out of kilter for so many years. And I didn’t know enough about myself to ask for help, or even what kind of help I needed or wanted. The questions showed concern, but as a depressed person I wasn’t capable of providing even an intelligible response. That made me feel bad for a long time. As years have passed, I realize that neither I nor the other person knew what to say… And I am okay with not really answering. Those who care also can accept the lack of answers. Their love and presence spoke more than their questions, and more than any answer I could give.

For me the ultimate place to be with people and yet not be part of it was in worship. The liturgical worship service provides the environment to welcome, embrace, and lead people who are hurting. Confession: I was good at internally… I could beat myself up quite well, thank you. But confession before God exposed the shallowness of my beating myself up. It wasn’t only words and attitude towards others, but towards God that I needed to hear, to face, to confess—most often in my heart, the words not actually forming on my lips. But it was confession nevertheless. I could never tire of hearing that my sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake.

For me some Sundays I couldn’t sing the hymn of praise (“This is the feast…”). But inwardly I liked being around people who could. The creeds brought me reassurance that not even this congregation was my world; they drew me into the “cloud of witnesses” throughout the ages. The Lord’s Supper likewise reaffirmed the eternity of this reality, being in God’s presence, receiving His gifts. Once again the body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The beauty of family, close friends, and worship comes together to bring about God’s work of pulling a person through even the deepest valleys.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7)

Ten times “comfort” is used in the passage. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And now God has given me the grace and comfort to embrace other porcupines… Been there, done that, and yes, porcupines can be loved. And God wins!