Forgive me; I’m not usually so forward as to write out my thoughts in a direct letter. But the kind of person I have in mind doesn’t always have the capacity to draw encouragement from a generalized post, so I wanted a more straightforward way to convey this story and this hope that I hold for both of us.
These words are offered to brothers and sisters in Christ who are battle-weary and discouraged from facing the same fight over a long period of time.
About two months ago, I went to the emergency room for what turned out to be a panic attack. I had never experienced anything like it, and being told that I had no physically-caused ailment brought shockingly little comfort. The fact that my mind could affect my body in such a crippling way was a foreign and terrifying discovery to me.
I sat still and silent on the cot, waiting between visits by medical personnel, and my unbidden reflection over the long stretch of years showed that my struggle with fear and anxiety was far older than I had thought. I saw how its presence would explain certain vivid episodes from my elementary, middle school, and college years. The advent of motherhood only put it into high gear. One of our children had a frightening health episode as a baby, and since then — though I’ve had no real reason to fear the worst — deep within, wherever the source of our visceral reactions lies, I realize I’ve been constantly afraid that she will die.
I had just begun to identify this underlying belief in the days before the panic attack. The days that followed it were exhausting; often I would wake in the night or go about my work with frigid extremities or a sudden, galloping heart rate. More doctor’s visits followed, for confirmed “actual” health conditions that joined the tumultuous waxing and waning of anxiety. And I became weary: weary of the panic that could flash into being with only a tiny trigger, of calming this body that could bullet off into the hinterlands of adrenaline before I could will it to reason.
One evening, about three weeks after the hospital visit, I laid dinner on the table, excused myself from family movie night, and went for a walk.
It was a beautiful summer’s eve. I strode at a pace only possible without small children, and let my feet and arms carry some of the now-unremarkable burning in my chest. And I thought then how unbearable it would be to be told that this was my fate. Though I had many blessed lulls of normalcy, on the worst days I felt that I was trying to keep my head above water when all my strength was spent. It was like having a stomach sickness and constantly concentrating on not throwing up, like skirting the brink of a pit in a shrinking room, like fighting off a ravenous enemy tooth and nail; all of the stale descriptions applied vividly to me, more than I ever could have dared to imagine.
On some days I noticed I wasn’t breathing normally, and sang hymns through the long hours simply to regulate it. When peace like a river attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows / Roll… Breath and truth: I needed both, and they passed through my hands like manna — never enough for the next three moments, but sufficient for the present one. My God held me — I am sure of it — but my bones were as lead, weighted with an unrelenting temptation to despair. For the first time, though by unmerited grace I did not entertain the thought, I could see why some simply want to make everything end.
This is what I told Him as I walked along. Is this what He would have me do for the rest of my life — was this all? The same struggle, revisited through the years; small steps forward and backward on this loathsome old battlefield, there to live and finally die a listless death?
The sidewalk rolled upward under the beryl sky, and I thought of His saints. Names sprang to mind of believers who had struggled with depression, tragedy, sickness, and fear, but who came to know a great peace, such that their generations envied them or laughed outright. I thought of the promises on which I was banking my all, the verses I had scrawled on the napkin tucked into my Bible.
And then — I thought of Abraham.
Years ago, a friend gave a sermon on Abraham’s journey of faith and fear. I’m afraid I won’t do his outline justice here, but what the message made clear was the pattern of Abraham’s oscillation through the years.
- God called Abram (Gen. 12:1-3)
- Abram displayed faith by moving (Gen. 12:4-9)
- Abram displayed fear in asking Sarai to lie (Gen. 12:10-16)
- God intervened. (Gen. 12:17-20)
- God demonstrated his covenant to Abram (Gen. 15)
- Abraham displayed faith by believing (Gen. 15:6)
- Abraham displayed fear/uncertainty in fathering Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2)
- God intervened. (Gen. 16:7-14)
- God reaffirmed his covenant, gave more details, including circumcision (Gen. 17:1-21)
- Abraham displayed faith by circumcising all his household (Gen. 17:22-27)
- Abraham, in a nearly identical setup to the episode above, displayed fear in asking Sarai to lie (Gen. 20:1-2)
- God intervened. (Gen. 20:3-18)
- God reaffirmed his covenant through birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3)
- Abraham displayed faith by circumcising Isaac in accordance with the above covenant (Gen. 21:4)
- Then — God asked for Isaac. (Gen. 22:1-2)
Abraham knew what it was like to revisit the same battle.
Each chapter of his life brought a valid temptation to become embroiled in fear and distrust, to take matters into his own hands. By every reckoning of human reason, the fourth time around things should have played out the same way, but they didn’t.
And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Gen. 22:7-8)
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Somewhere in the cyclical struggle, Abraham changed.
The change in him was wrought as he lived and triumphed and failed and was brought back to the same daunting boundaries of his faith. It was not for nothing, but instead for a very specific purpose, that this battle was fought multiple times. Abraham learned trust, this man who would come to be called a friend of God.
Friend of repeated trials, I can find no basis for believing that you and I are as hamsters on wheels. We are not doomed to keep running the same futile cycle until He someday plucks us out in blessed relief. I have no love for this roiling clash into which I keep running (especially now, with so much greater force than before), but He who directs all our paths seems intent on teaching me to fight with skill. No matter that I often feel like a weakling who cannot lift her own sword off the ground. Like the witnesses and giants of faith (even those giants had frail beginnings!) gone before us, He is at work in us now.
He is doing all that we would ask Him to do if we were in our right minds. If we could grasp the fullness of eternity at every minute, and we wanted to make the most of our wisp-like lives — that is what is underway.
In our very brokenness, as we persist in seeking Him, we are displaying Him: Christ, whose love is deeper than suffering and deeper even than temporary triumph.
I do not dare write this lightly, for all that you have been through, but write it I must: while we carry “God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful… in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, MSG), making His power clearer where we are worn whisper-thin, He holds us in everlasting arms. All that comes to us is decreed with the surest and tenderest love. Through this repeated conflict, and not in spite of it, He is bringing us to completion (Phil. 1:6).
I see it in the faces of long-suffering friends, this change. The singular strength and patience, the staunch trust even when their voices crack and their pens and brushes waver, the deep cry in worship of a soul that has stood with Him when all else was being swept away… friends by whom I am unworthy to stand. What transformation is being formed in them, even in you and me, that not only displays the kind love of the King but brings them into deeper communion with Him– !
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you’d let me stay. And I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away — like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid.”
“It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan. “But things never happen the same way twice. It has been hard for us all in Narnia before now.”
Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.”
“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”
– Prince Caspian, “The Return of the Lion.”
And so I write to you. In a recent discussion about loving people with addictions, I told Y that I think hope is essential for help, whether a loved one struggles with chronic depression or dependence on a crutch-like substance. Two are better than one because when one falls, the other keeps alive the image that the faltering one cannot see for the moment: that she will rise again, and she is not bound forever to the ties that encircle her. Perhaps this is what real, indefatigable love is, for it always hopes (I Cor. 13:7). When we love in this way, we reflect the solid and unbreakable love of Christ, who came because He was sure that a bedraggled wretch could be made into a Bride of surpassing beauty, made holy by His blood.
He holds that hope for us, alive and unquenchable, and we have the deposit of the Holy Spirit to guarantee it. I am small and inconsequential compared to such great tenderness, but I hold it for you as well.
We are being made into more than what we are presently, and if we let Him have ourselves and the suffering, all the shattered pieces and the pain and the fear of our thousand projected outcomes, in this very life, we will truly see Him work beauty from the ashes still smoldering from fresh fires. We will have peace; though we are pressed, we will not be crushed.
Dear friend, if the sun rises and we find ourselves facing despair on the same battlefield where we drove it back previously, it’s all right. Our foe may be the same, but we are not. By the grace of our Father, this next battle — and however many follow — will be a training ground on which we earn what is beautiful, indispensable, sure and dependable in our very selves. In the existence of these severe mercies is the proof of His love, and the coming fulfillment of our hope.
I know that bearing this in mind doesn’t always make the dread valleys easier to pass, and so we do tread on the prayers of others, not least among them the prayers of our Savior.
But this is the shining reminder we have to hold out to each other in these times: the sovereign love of Christ is the pennant flying high over the whole battlefield, and we are all under it. When the onslaught presses close, don’t believe for a moment that you are the lone and weary soul left; we are all here, each engaged in this “struggle [that isn’t] against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12), and so are the numerous armies with us; He is leading the charge yet, and victory is breaking like a tidal wave to make all our striving much more than a mere means of survival. All of our battles — the second, the fourth, the fortieth — are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Forgive my everlasting analogies. You’re stuck with a lover of stories to cheer you on here, I’m afraid, but I pray that the truth that has kindled these images is what will remain with you.
Look up over this old battlefield, treasured friend. His banner still flies.