My dear friend lost her husband last month. Another friend wrote to me about her dark thoughts and anxiety because of this man’s death. Since then, I have battled my own inexplicable anxiety.
Meanwhile, I have been reading Timothy Keller’s “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.” So this morning I am thinking about our dark emotions and praying I can pull together a few words of comfort from my meditations on Keller.
Our Mysterious Hearts
Keller says when we suffer we can find it difficult to read our Bibles devotionally. I know this is true. When I feel anxious, I can read promises about God’s presence, protection, and love and feel no less anxious. Instead, I feel badly that I must not believe these promises enough to find peace in them.
But Keller’s thoughts help me to attribute this difficulty not to failure on my part, but to the mysterious ways of our hearts.
I heard about someone speaking to a group. He said, “Think about ice. Now think about a warm beach in the sun. Think about rain. Think about pizza.” Then he said, “Now I want you to feel happy. Feel sad. Now feel angry.”
His point was that our mind can move more nimbly and responsively than our heart. We can leap from thought to thought. But we cannot make our emotions respond this way. Our heart moves slowly and does not respond quickly to commands. Fear, sadness, despair, or despondency do not flit away like thoughts of beaches or ice cream.
Boats on the Water
I grew up on boats. I saw how a small, quick-moving boat skims the surface of the water and responds instantly to changes of the rudder. The driver must use a delicate touch because the boat leaps under his hands.
But a large boat does nothing quickly. The pilot must make an adjustment to the wheel and wait patiently while it seems nothing is happening. But deep under the surface the rudder presses against unfathomable pounds of water, and—if the pilot remains patient—it will eventually alter the course of the boat’s enormous mass.
This picture helps me think about the difference between our minds and our hearts. I see a suffering heart is like an enormous boat. It appears impervious to any change of course. But I am encouraged that with patience, we can change its direction.
Keller encourages those of us who are suffering to stop trying to read the Bible with our hearts and to read it with our minds, read it to remind ourselves of the truths about who God is and who we are and where all this is heading.
David does this in Psalm 42. He expresses his grief: “My tears have been my food day and night. . . all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (3, 7). And then he reasons with himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (v. 5).
Keller says we see Paul teaching us to reason with ourselves this way in Philippians. Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. . . . and the God of peace will be with you” (4:8-9).
He says Paul is not talking about high, noble thoughts, but is encouraging his readers to think specifically about God and who he is and who they are in his sight.
I take from this, and I hope you do too, that if we don’t find peace right away—if our hearts refuse to be comforted–we are not unusual, and we are not doing anything wrong. We can be patient with our hearts.
Jesus is gentle with the fragile and bruised: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,” (Matthew 12:20). We can be too.
And we can use our minds to talk to our hearts, telling ourselves the truth. Eventually . . . comfort will come. Eventually, the patient and persistent touch of our mind to the rudder of our heart will turn it’s course. Our hearts will turn from anxiety to peace, from despondency or despair to hope.
A Final Note
If you wrestle despondency, anxiety or despair and find no comfort in God’s promises, I pray you will take from this the encouragement that you are not alone or somehow failing in faith. I pray you will find courage to keep gently pressing with your mind upon your heart. And if your dark feelings come from grief, I pray you will be especially patient with your heart, as grief cannot be hurried.
But I also want to encourage you to ask someone to pray for you.
This morning I sat with God’s promises and they reached my heart, in a way they haven’t in a few weeks. Later, my sister sent me this message: “I prayed these verses for you this morning: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13).”
I was reminded, we can’t do this alone.
- Image from Wikimedia commons. Copyright expired. Public Domain.