The Hidden Smile of God

I decided earlier today that I needed to blog soon.  I need to write down my thoughts as I deal with them and do battle against my doubts and discouragements.  And I also decided I really needed to tell everyone about the book that I just finished reading.  My dear friend, Heather, told me about this book, The Hidden Smile of God by John Piper.  Actually she came over one afternoon for a visit and handed me the book and told me that I had to read it so I had no choice.

While God was already teaching me through my circumstances what it means to trust him and how I ought to live during times of struggle, John Piper brought these truths out all the more through his skillful summation of the fruit borne of suffering in the lives of three men of God who suffered.  One suffered unjust imprisonment, one suffered mental anguish throughout his life at least in part as a result of a traumatic childhood and one suffered both a grave physical condition and discouragement.  All three of them pressed on in faith through suffering and trials.  They were human like the rest of us and their faith was not unwavering but it was ultimately unshakable because all of them learned what looking to God for their sufficiency in all things meant.

It’s a fantastic book and I think everyone should read it.  Those who suffer in any way should read it as it will encourage them in their present struggle.  Those who may one day suffer should read it because it will give perspective when that unexpected time arises.  And those who know someone who suffers should read it because it will give them a sense of what it really means to suffer and even to despair at times.  I think that covers just about everyone.  It’s an easy to read book.  It’s a book that both humbles and exhorts the reader at the same time.

A few weeks ago I was in the middle of an awful run of these jerks that keep me from falling asleep and greet me in the morning whenever I find myself in that small space between awake and asleep.  The mornings can be rough because sleep is very shallow and the jerks make it even more shallow.  I am actually currently in the middle of another run of it but thankfully I am able to get some sleep eventually which could not be said when this whole thing started after my three weeks of Labyrinthitis.  But the last run of it was probably the worst emotionally speaking.

I have never been a depressed type of person.  I have never struggled with depression.  Anxiety, yes, to some degree.  I have had a few panic attacks (maybe two or three) in the past 15 years, but I’ve never been truly depressed.  I have always been very thankful for this as not everyone in my family could say this.  Depression is pandemic these days so I’m fairly sure there is a certain amount of depression in most every family.  All that to say that when the second big wave of the jerks hit (a wave, I have now figured out seems to last about 10 days and then taper off and give me a 1 1/2 to 2 week break and then it kicks back up again out of the blue), I became very discouraged.  The sleep doctor had prescribed a Tricyclic medication, often prescribed for depression but also prescribed as a long-term sleep aid and treatment for chronic pain, to help me get a full night of sleep which I had started just as the “bad run” was beginning. I had been taking a sleep-aide since the jerks had first started (the day I got over all dizzy feelings) and the sleep doctor told me to continue taking it until the new medication had a chance to kick in, a few weeks.  I already hated that I was having to take a sleep-aide at all.  It’s something that I’ve always avoided as much as possible.

Between taking the old med and starting the new med with all that it entails; side effects like hand tremors, muscle spasms, blurred vision and such and everything I had gone through already, combined with sleep deprivation, I was a disaster.  I never wanted to be on these medications if I could ever avoid it.  I never thought I’d have to be on them at all let alone for sleep.  So add to all of the actual side effects (which I had not been warned about so I was worried that they were new symptoms in this seemingly endless string of circumstances that I’ve been faced with) my distress over being on not one but two sleep medications… and what you end up with is a world class wreck.  Normally I’m not a big crier.  I get weepy now and then but I’m not normally the blubbering type.  Sleep deprivation alone will change that in any sane person I believe and it certainly did to me.

I was beginning to feel really discouraged, and continue to fight discouragement, by the continuation of this nightly affliction.  It’s a terrible thing when you have been told by the doctors, “You don’t want to take this medication for long…” and then, “You need to keep taking it because the alternative is not sleeping…” but everything in you says, “You need to not be taking these for so long or you will be stuck on them…” but then you very much want to go to sleep and you know in what terrible shape you are if you do not take the pill and get some decent sleep.  It’s a conundrum to say the least.  Please continue to pray that God will take these jerks away (as they are the only real hindrance to falling asleep) but also that I will be able to come completely off of the sleep-aide that I have been on since the beginning. (UPDATE:  Last night I took half and fell asleep fine with nary a jerk!  Lots in the morning but those are not as disturbing as the ones that keep me from falling asleep in the first place.)

The jerks themselves have, over time, decreased in severity, meaning that they are generally not usually as massive.  Where they initially often involved my whole body and were fairly violent, they are now usually smaller (usually just my hand or shoulder, my eyebrows or my leg with the occasional full body one) but unfortunately they remain just as persistent during the “bad runs” and therefore just as able to keep me from falling asleep.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I really felt bottomed out emotionally. I felt true despair for the first time ever.  And the fact that I felt despair at all caused even more despair.  I was calling my Mom and sister twice a day for encouragement and to cry on their shoulders over the phone.  They, being the wonderful women that they are, let me do just that.  I know how hard this has to be for them as they are completely unable to help.  If I was merely an emotional wreck, they could at least have something to offer but since the primary cause of my emotional state was the physical suffering I was enduring, there was nothing to really do but say along with me, “This sucks!!”  They were much better than Job’s friends in this way. The night that I felt the worst I was on the verge of jumping on a plane and flying to California.  And for me to even contemplate jumping on a plane is saying something because I HATE flying (okay, so there is another point of anxiety!)  But that was just not an option.  I needed some mothering and some peace and quiet and escape.

I called my dear friend and wise counselor, a wonderful older woman in our congregation named Catherine.  She has had her own set of struggles in life but God is clearly her portion and it shows in her radiant smile, in her loving and tender advice and in her prayers.  She is a Presbyterian through and through but that dear woman has a pentecostal streak in her that I admire.  She prays fearlessly.  She prays boldly.   And she trusts God implicitly with the results.  In short she is wonderful.  So when I called her and she asked me how I was doing, she didn’t flinch when I burst out crying, “Can I come live with you for a few days?!”  She didn’t hesitate for a moment.  She probably would have driven over right then and picked me up if I had let her.  But just her answer of, “Yes, come first thing in the morning… I was praying for you and thinking you should come over…” was enough to help me gather myself together that evening. And by God’s grace I had the first good night sleep I’d had in 10 days.  Almost no jerks.

I love my boys and my Man but the house was a disaster, the boys were terribly normal boys which means they were loud and raucous and my Man was on the brittle edge just having to pick up the slack for me, in so many areas where I could not muster the juice to do it, on top of all of his regular pastoral duties.  I was toast.  He was toast.  But he knew that I needed to get out of the house or the house might just explode with my emotions.  I have never left my whole family for any reason other than to go pop out another family member.  But I needed this and I refused to feel guilty for needing a once in a 12 year break.

So I took my retreat at Catherine’s house.  I arrived in the morning and she welcomed me with opened arms and loved on me to no end.  She let me sit in silence for several hours.  By God’s grace the day was so quiet and the pace was so slow (because I didn’t have to do anything or be anywhere or be anyone to anyone else) it seemed like two or three days just that first day.  She prayed with me, encouraged me, laughed with me and we watched movies and ate yummy foods.  She made a wonderfully warm and cozy bed for me and by God’s grace I slept almost like a baby.  The next day we ran an errand or two and went out to eat.  And talked and talked and talked.  She seems to me to be a perfect mix between my wonderful no-nonsense mother and my sweet Grandma Bailey.  But she’s herself of course, her wonderful Scottish, Presbyterian, Pentacostal, loving, praying, suffering self.  She has shown me the radiance of a life that, though it has involved much hardship and suffering, has been willfully turned over to Christ to be used for His glory in the lives of others.  Her life is devoted to prayer and to caring for struggling women.  I think I may just want to write a book about her.  I stayed a second night and slept for 12 hours straight.

In the course of that weekend of emotional and spiritual healing, The Pastor and I decided to go out on a date.  He dropped the kids off at a friends house and he came over and picked me up, like we were teenagers, for a downtown evening of Indian cuisine (OOh, verry verry memorrable was my meal!)  He was then going to return me to Catherine’s.  On our way back home, feeling encouraged that I was having a good time with him, he began a conversation about what I ought to do to fight the feelings of depression or discouragement.  This quickly began to feel to me like he was wanting to fix me in the only way he thought he could.  My behavior.  It felt like (though was not intended) the idea was that I just needed to put on a happy face even after multiple nights of sleeplessness, caused by these jerks and spasms, and just be as normal as possible.  Please, don’t believe I am going to go forth and blaspheme my good husband’s name.  But there are faults and failures in all of us. Pastors are people too and they struggle with sins towards their families and they fight temptations constantly to be everything to everyone instead of simply leading people to the All in All.  It’s a constant inner battle that they must wage.

Through rough waters I’m so happy to say that my husband has been tearing down the strongholds of sin even through this time, our most difficult time of struggle yet in our marriage.  I am, right now as I type this, experiencing a moment of complete joy and peace in knowing what God is telling us when He says, “in all things you are to be more than conquerers,” and “to take every thought captive.” But that night, we ended up in a pretty heated argument in which I felt hurt and further discouraged mostly because he was discouraged as well but took that in the direction that almost all men will go when something is amiss, “I must fix this!”  They are fixers.  We really like that when there are things they can fix.  But my kind of brokenness wasn’t for him to fix.  It was for Jesus to fix.  Jesus is the healer of our bodies and souls.  Husbands are given to us to love and comfort us and encourage us and make us radiant by washing us in the water of scripture.  I knew he couldn’t fix things so when I unburdened my soul to him, the last thing I was needing or asking was for him to fix me.  I needed him to “love, honor and cherish me, in my weakness to comfort and encourage me and in my strength to cheer me on” as we had said, in our wedding vows 12 years ago, that we would do until we die.

So much was learned and revealed and exposed down to its naked ugly self in that fruitful argument.  We both were able to come to terms with the realities.  I am sick for a time (though I look and feel well when I am getting sleep.)  Something is wrong.  What it is, we are not sure.  Our new family doctor thinks it could be post traumatic stress syndrome (the original stressor being the devastating Labyrinthitis virus).  Regardless of the condition, I don’t need my husband to fix me.  He’s not Jesus or a doctor.  I need him to love me.  I need him to speak loving truth to me.  As the scripture says, the words of the Lord “are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. They nourish us.  They bless us.  They teach us how we ought to respond to suffering.  I needed that given to me faithfully in love and while The Pastor was holding down the fort in the physical realm okay, this compassionate scriptural encouragement was not happening.  And I felt alone in many ways. I felt as if my feelings of discouragement were not valid and were unacceptable.  He did rightfully encourage me to not dwell on the bad and turn myself in circles on the possibilities as to what does the future look like if this affliction does not abate?  But there was not love in it.  He, like I, just wanted it to be better really.  We just wanted things to go back to normal and both of us were trying to get back to that place in our own ways.

We discussed the nature of suffering and how one ought to emotionally and spiritually react to it.  We discussed what it was, from his childhood and just in his own heart, that made it hard for my husband to feel that it was actually a good thing to express emotions of sadness and discouragement, in their time, as long as that place of discouragement doesn’t become a person’s new address.  “Ah yes, meet me at the corner of Despondency Dr. and Crestfallen Ct.  I live right there on the corner in a mountainous pile of dust and ashes!  You can’t miss it.” That was, for a very short while, becoming my tendency.  But I knew that that is not what or who I wanted to be when this challenge was over and done with or even, Lord willing, if it should continue unabated.

And then we came to the whole point of everything, Jesus.  “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” We often think of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf only being that of the time he did on the cross and in hell, experiencing separation from God.  As if that were not enough, He suffered in his daily life.  For his years of ministry he had no home.  He slept on borrowed couches.  This son of God was there when the earth was created, when all things were what they should be.  He heard God say, “It is very good!” about His creation.  He knew Adam and Eve intimately before they made that fatal choice at the one tree they had been instructed not to eat from.  He was there when they were allowed to eat from the tree of Life.  And He was there when the Angel was set as a guard with a flaming sword to keep them from partaking further of that tree once they had sinned.

When he came to earth as a man every thing he saw, all the brokenness of mind, body and spirit… all the pride, perversion and unjustice… All of it caused him suffering and grief as He saw a world separated from its creator and hence from abundant life by the cataclysm of sin.  The one by whom the world was created and life burst forth out of barrenness, The Word, wept when his friend died.  Why would he weep if he knew He would momentarily raise him up?  He wept because He was well acquainted each day with sorrows, the brokenness that sin had wreaked on the world, that it had wrought sickness and death and grief in the lives of his dear friends, and how Unlike the Garden of Eden this world was when He appeared.  The one who was ever in community with the Father and the Spirit wept over the lostness of his City.  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Our savior was a man of emotions.  A man who was familiar with suffering.

While Jesus is a fitting closing to any conversation (well, it was really an argument that turned into a wonderful, life altering conversation) we continued talking about how Jesus can relate to those who suffer because he himself suffered both physically and mentally and emotionally.  The mental anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane has recently humbled me greatly in my tendency to worry and my desire for certain cups to pass from me.  He felt that.  He asked for the cup to be passed from him but, despite the anxiety he felt and the torment He knew He would experience in being separated from God — that was the greatest suffering He experienced, far greater than the physical agony — He drank that cup to its dregs for me.

We began discussing how one who hasn’t really and truly suffered yet might be able to in some fashion learn how it feels to suffer.  I thought for a moment, maybe those self-flagellating monks so many hundreds of years ago, were onto something.  But I think they may have had their reasoning wrong.  Self-inflicted suffering for the sake of suffering does nothing for your understanding and love for Jesus.  And it does nothing for God.  He doesn’t need your bloody back in order to accept you if His son’s precious blood is already covering you.  By His stripes we are healed!  Self-inflicted suffering does no good to God or man though because it’s all about YOU.  But I said to my Man… “Surely there is something scriptural aimed at teaching one how to suffer rightly before God when you yourself are not physically suffering.”  But if there was such a way, how could it do you any good?  How could it be for anyone but yourself?  We seem to always intermingle selfish reasons into anything we do so that self-inflicted suffering can very easily become ironically self-centered.

Today, though I was granted a good week and a half to two weeks of mostly jerk-free sleep, I am once again in the midst of another electrical storm in my brain.  The jerks go on.  I was feeling discouraged today so I once again picked up The Hidden Smile of God, and as I was reading about the life of David Brainerd, a missionary during the time of Jonathan Edwards in the late 1700’s, I came upon a thought.  We are called in scripture to pray and fast.  Fasting has always been a mystery to me.  I tried it once in high school at the behest of a youth leader but I really didn’t know why we were doing it except that it was a spiritual discipline that we should experience at some time in our lives.  I thought of it in the way that I probably thought of a one week missionary trip; good for teaching me what it’s like to be a missionary and a good experience over all but probably something I didn’t want to do forever!  “Okay,” I thought in high school, “fasting.  It’s good, but I don’t think I’ll try it any time again.  Too hungry.  Like food too much.”

But it struck me this evening, even though David Brainerd was one who fasted and prayed regularly in the midst of a life of terrible physical pain, loneliness and often despair, fasting is perhaps that biblically mandated discipline that might help a person understand to some degree what suffering is and how one ought to rightly deal with it.  Jesus did it.  Surely He didn’t do it just for self-flagellation purposes.  He did it in order to drive Himself that much closer to the heart of His Father as He prepared to embark upon his ministry.  He knew that ministry attempts that don’t originate in the heart of The Father of Lights will be useful tools for the Father of Lies.  He went purposely then to pray and fast and do battle with the enemy. Scripture says that Christ grew in wisdom and stature.  I believe that this must have been true even as he went into the wilderness to pray and fast.  He was not only drawing near to the Father and putting Satan on notice, He was preparing Himself, practicing if you will, for His coming experiences of ultimate suffering where turning away from the heart of His Father would grant Satan and death victory over life.

I think fasting might just be practice for what we will most likely endure in true suffering one day, whether it’s the suffering of the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence of an abused child (ourself or someone we love), the loss of the feeling of control of your own body when you suddenly find yourself ill or injured, or the suffering of loneliness or abandonment or any other kind of suffering.  How will you respond when your stomach turns on you in anger because it has not been fed, because it believes you are denying it something absolutely necessary?  Will you give in to temptation and eat or will you come up with other diversions to get your mind off of it or will you obsess about it by looking at food magazines or food blogger’s almost erotic food pictures?  Or will you instead take that gnawing pain and seek Christ and go to scripture for your daily bread?  Will you feed on the one who is the Bread of Life?  Will you set yourself to doing his work?  Can you see how a person who fasted and prayed and sought Christ to be their everything for the time of their fasting might not only be made ready for future suffering outside of their control but also be able to better relate on a fundamental level to those who suffer with circumstances beyond their control where answers and fixes are scarce and there are but two methods of survival, “coping mechanisms” or Christ?

When a person suffers they will inevitably deal with temptation to give in and just be angry and bitter.  They can perpetually seek answers by Googling every possible scenario (ask me how I know this!)  They can punish others with their suffering, never talking about anything else, never knowing what it means to glory in the sufferings of Jesus as opposed to their own, never truly enjoying the company of another because they are so self-focused and obsessed with their many problems.  This is an all too common response. They can go around trying to find someone else who has suffered in exactly the same way or ways, choosing the people who share the most sufferings to be their friends so that they can have someone who might be willing to endure their constant complaints because they too have a list almost as long.  Or they can turn to Christ, the healer of their souls.  They can seek truth and comfort and wisdom in scripture and be filled with it and then spill it out into the lives of others.  They can begin to understand what Christ’s sufferings free us up to do even in the midst of our own trials and tragedies.

Though I falter.  Though I waver.  Though I break down now and then and just wish this all away, ultimately, I thank God for this because He is already working such good in it in me, in our marriage and hopefully eventually in the lives of others as well.  To God alone be the glory!

This hymn was written by William Cowper, the man who fought depression and probably a severe mental illness.  He found himself frequently in the depths of despair.  But then as he wrote in another, one of my very favorite hymns, “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings.  It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings!”

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

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6 Comments

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  1. The hymnwriters from so long ago had such wisdom and deep and profound understanding of God’s mercy and love…I love hearing/singing/reading their words. What a treasure we have in them today.
    You, too, have many words of wisdom. I would pray this suffering out of your life, but at the same time I thank you and the Lord for using what you are experiencing to minister to others. I pray that you will find blessing and relief, Nan, and that there are more moments like the ones you had with your dear friend. That those moments will bring healing, even if just for a time, until full healing comes.
    Marriage is hard when things are good…so when they aren’t good, well, I can only imagine the difficulty that your family is facing. May you all be strengthened by the Lord God Almighty, as you seek out ways to love and help one another over this period of time, leaning on Him all the way.

  2. This is a beautiful tribute to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith. You are a kindred spirit to Edith Hays Mulligan, your great grandmother.

  3. Thanks Mom. What a compliment!

    And thank you Christina for your encouragement!

  4. Many time our life is not the one we signed up for. The beauty of not getting what we expected or anticpated out of our life journey is that we get to learn, if we choose to, the many attributes of God’s character.
    Someone once asked the question, “When was the last time you felt, actually felt, the arms of the Lord around you?” I believe, times like this is when we feel them the most.
    If we believe that God is Good all of the time, we have no choice but to say that our afflictions are for His purpose and for His glory, and for our good. That way of thinking is a very hard place to come to, but when you arrive there…. it is such a sweet place to dwell. It is when we can truly find joy despite our situation, and the peace that passes all understanding.

    When we are in Heaven, I believe that God will show us exactly why we had to endure what we did, and He will show us how He used it for His purpose.

    I pray for you often. May God continue to bless, encourage, strengthen, both the “hot pastor” and you as you look for evidence of HIS grace in the midst of all of this.

    Julie Coney’s last blog post..his last day

  5. Thanks for sharing all these thoughts, Nan! I really do want to read this John Piper book you spoke of. My life has had its share of trials too, but truly, the Lord does bring them for perhaps many mysterious purposes but also to reflect His glory in our lives. Thank you for being a beacon of His light, despite the heartache and battles around and within, and for drawing me to His heart yet again, the place of all sufficiency and ultimate rest. Thank you for your vulnerability and transparency. Authenticity is always so refreshing…at least for me! I am praying for you and your precious family.

  6. Nan,
    Finally took a few moments to read this wonderful post. It is no surprise that I understand wholly what you wrote about. Thank you for sharing your heart and thank Shawn for allowing you to share deep, personal moments from your marriage. These words will help many.

    Heather Davis’s last blog post..Family Identity

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