The Perfect Storm
Have you ever felt the smothering isolation of loneliness? It is a paradox; a juxtaposition of the deep ache and yearning for intimacy with an overwhelming sense of distance and disconnection from both God and man. It is debilitating to the very core because it connects with the visceral fear that the innate longing to love and be loved will remain unfulfilled.
Have you ever felt the oppressive weight of hopelessness? Like a massive hand it grinds you into the ground while simultaneously blotting out the sun. Internally, anxiety and full-blown panic are dueling for primacy as your furtive eyes search desperately for the way out of your circumstances to no avail. In those moments the gravity of future decisions invade the present moment, each one presenting innumerable questions to which you have no answer. The deluge of despair that accompanies this lack of certainty injects a crippling paralysis into your spirit, insidiously whispering that because you don’t have the answer today, that there will never be one.
Have you ever felt the slimy, lecherous caress of shame? Its tentacles arise out of the chaotic, swirling tempest of yesterday’s laments and regrets. Its scornful criticisms are born in the illicit union of unappeased expectations and the panoply of “shoulds” that have been placed on your shoulders like an iron yoke. It is that internal voice rife with ravenous hunger that continually demands more than you can give; it is the voice that is never satisfied with who you are and does not hesitate to repeatedly rehearse the litany of your deficiencies.
Loneliness, hopelessness and shame are the perfect storm when they violently collide. The first strips you of any sense of community, the very place where you can turn for refuge in moments of weakness and despair. The latter two usher in a tidal wave of past failures and future uncertainties, wrapping them up neatly with self-comparison to unrealistic standards. The goal of these behemoths is to crush the life out of a weary soul, to consume the last vestiges of hope in the goodness of God, and to extinguish all joy.
Today, I encountered such a storm. It eclipsed the sun and somewhere in the midst of my thrashing around I felt that I should walk away from seminary, from my calling, from my church, from my friends, from everything that I have ever known. In those dark and dejected moments, confusion and fear abounded, swooshing and swooping in and out of my soul like bats from hell. I felt utterly trapped and in that space I understood Jesus’ cry of dereliction, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The questions that erupted from my agonized soul were guttural and laced with frustration: “Why have you brought me here? I hate this place that I am in, but I have come too far with you to return to where I came from. You have wrecked me with a vision of you, and I cannot pretend that I have not seen your glory. I cannot pretend that I have not seen you move in power or been touched intimately by your love. Why can I not see where you are leading? Why have you stripped me bare and raw? Why do I feel so utterly weak and helpless? Have I heard you wrong? Did I make a mistake or a misstep?”
Every Rose Has Its Thorns
It was into this morass of misery that I heard a quote that I had heard a long time ago whispered in the recesses of my mind:
My dear God, I have never thanked You for my thorns. I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns. I have always looked forward to the place where I will be rewarded for my cross, but I have never thought of my cross as a present glory itself. Teach me, O Lord, to glory in my cross. Teach me the value of my thorns. Show me how I have climbed to You through the path of pain. Show me it is through my tears I have seen my rainbows.
These were the words of George Matheson, a blind preacher from Scotland. His words have meant much to me throughout the years, and I could feel them being re-etched onto the very fibers of my being. It is true that I often thank God for my roses yet forget that my thorns have shaped the man that I am. My awe and wonder at the power and love of God are rooted in the fact that He takes our thorns and redeems them so that they bring forth life.
The Blessing of Loneliness
And so, I find myself thanking God for my loneliness because it helps me identify with Jesus Christ on the cross. I thank God for my loneliness because it helps my heart break with compassion and love for those who know its dull ache intimately. I thank God that for brief moments I can experience anguish and sorrow and isolation that chisel and shape my heart in such a way that I want to embrace and invite every lonely soul into the kingdom of God. I thank God for my loneliness because it gives me eyes to see those that others overlook, the people who walk in our midst like shadows, always present yet universally ignored. There is a fate worse than death, and that is to be overlooked… to have ones life not count enough to be invited into fellowship. This ephemeral non-existence was never what God intended, and those with kingdom eyes need to shatter this invisible bondage. I thank God for my loneliness because it forces me to my knees, and on my knees my weakness becomes my weapon as loneliness fuels and focuses my intercession. I thank God for permitting me to be humbled and reminding me how much I need others.
The Blessings of Hopelessness
I find myself thanking God for my hopelessness because it helps me to identify with the disciples as they morosely pondered the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb in which he lay. I thank God that in those moments when all my dreams and ambitions are dashed on the rocks and I am ensnared by fear that there is a new day yet to come. I thank God for my hopelessness because it makes my spirit troubled for those caught in vicious cycles of addiction, oppression, and injustice who cannot see a way out. I thank God for my hopelessness because it brings me to the end of myself where I finally realize that I am not strong enough, smart enough, or anything enough to accomplish what He has called me to… it is by His grace and power alone that I will triumph.
The Blessings of Shame
I find myself thanking God for my shame because it helps me identify with Peter sitting on the rocky beachfront of the sea of Galilee as Jesus pierces his heart with the threefold query, “Do you love me?” I thank God for my shame because it reminds me of who I once was, and I can rejoice that I am that man no longer. I thank God for my shame because every lie it speaks, every crushing expectation, every “should” that it places on my shoulders only drives me to my knees. It is on my knees that my identity is made clear; it is in my darkest hour that I hear the assurance of God declaring that I am His beloved, not because of my perfection but because of the perfection of His love. I thank God for my shame because it is precisely when I think that I am worthless that God reveals once again the price He paid for my life on the cross, eternally establishing my worth. I thank God for my shame because I know the exhaustion that comes from trying to satisfy that internal slave driver…and I can see it in others. Because of my shame I can embrace the weary and heavy laden and declare to them that Jesus loves them and desires to give their souls rest.
It is so easy for me to thank God for my roses, but it is truly through my tears that I behold the rainbows. It is in my thorns that I come to the end of myself and it is there that I encounter the One who has loved me since before the foundation of the world. It is through my thorns that I am embraced by the Lover of my Soul. It is through my thorns that I find my rest and peace in Him. It is through my thorns that I hear the voice of my King, “Be still little one, I am with you and I will not forsake or leave you. This battle is mine to fight. Rest now.”
Thank you God for my thorns.
Have you thanked Him for yours?