Where is the hope?

The last time I went to my Bible study, a woman in my group handed me a book, With Her Last Breath, written by the Director of Caring Ministry at our church, Barbara M. Roberts. The book is about the suicide of Roberts’ niece Kathy and includes images of the 26-page journal that Kathy wrote in the last 36 hours or so of her life. Which each page of the journal, Roberts provides advice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and to those who walk beside them.

Another friend couldn’t bring herself to finish the book because it reminded her too much of a struggling family member. It is hard to read about people who are suicidal, but I wanted to learn how to recognize when someone needs help and how to uplift and support those who have lost all hope as Kathy did.

Hope and despair

Hope and despair are polar opposites so we may think they are mutually exclusive emotions. But as Roberts wrote, hope and despair are often intertwined. We can feel both at the same time. We all experience ups and downs in this life and it can be really hard to hold onto your hope.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40: 31-32

Kathy believed in God but her life on this earth had become so unbearable due to health issues and loneliness that she felt she had no hope – except in the promise of heaven. She believed that killing herself was against God’s will but suicide was the only way she knew to escape her pain and torment. She hoped that God would forgive her.

At the time of her death, Kathy was just a few months older than I am now. She had COPD and was living on disability benefits. She rarely left her apartment. She had lost the one person in her life who was her support system.

In leaving a journal behind, Kathy provided a glimpse into the mind of a suicidal person. She wrote that she couldn’t take it anymore. She was tired of everything being so hard. She felt like she was in a living hell. She had never felt so alone and in the dark. Each day was worse than the one before. It had become hard to just exist. She wished that she could find one good reason to live. She could hardly breathe. She wondered what God wanted of her. She wondered, if God wanted her to live, why her life had been reduced to misery and suffering.

Empathy and understanding

I have not experienced the physical suffering that made Kathy’s life intolerable. But I have been through trying situations that have nearly broken my spirit. I have experienced feelings of despair, anguish, and hopelessness. In my lowest moments, I cried out to God – I begged God – please help me! I can’t take this anymore. And in those dark moments, I even said words to my Maker that I didn’t really mean. I want to die. Thankfully, I knew that God was with me. He lifted my burdens. He pulled me through.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
   the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2

In reading Kathy’s journal, I found myself wondering why she didn’t ask God to help her. I believe that if she had asked, God would have put the right people in her life to ease her loneliness and suffering. But as Roberts wrote, “Sometimes people do not use the way out that God provides but rather choose their own solution.” Kathy didn’t ask God for a way out. She chose her own way out of suffering and knew that she could not ask God to help her commit suicide. It is easy to judge Kathy for the decision she made. But I know from my own experience, when you are really depressed, your thoughts are not the most rational.

Kathy rightly noted that no one else was qualified to judge her. No one else knew what her life, the life she described as a living hell, was doing to her. I can only imagine how hopeless I would have felt in my own struggles if I had not had a social support system, if I had not had people who depended on me, if I had not had reasons to go on.

God redeems our own times of suffering by allowing us to come alongside others in their suffering. This, of course, is based upon the assumption that others are honest about their struggles.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

Helping the hurting

I wrote a bit about my own struggles with despair. I have also struggled to be a good helper of the hurting. A few times in my 32-year marriage, my husband got very depressed and it was really, really hard for me to deal with. He isolated himself. He wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else. I felt ill equipped to help him through it. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I stayed with him and I prayed for him.

Roberts wrote that unlike other obvious injuries, the hurt of a broken heart is hidden. You don’t have to be a skilled healer or gifted counselor to help. Just being available to listen and to walk alongside the person helps the hurting.

It is an amazing gift of God’s grace that the kind of expertise needed for the broken heart comes from those God has placed in our lives whose skill set includes love, availability, listening and just simply being a fellow journeyer willing to travel with us.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

How can you be a supportive fellow journeyer in this thing called life? How can you help others find hope?

  1. Be fully present and attentive.
  2. Listen without interrupting.
  3. Communicate your caring and support.
  4. Take the person’s concerns seriously.
  5. Don’t minimize their suffering.
  6. Don’t be pushy or judgmental.
  7. Keep the person’s confidence but get help, if you are really worried.

Dear Lord, please help those who are struggling right now with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Wrap your loving arms around them. Let them know that they are not alone. Help me to be a light in the darkness. Help me to be available where I am needed, help me to listen, help me to love.

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Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

The siren song of social media

Years ago, I signed up for Facebook to get updates on a nephew who was in the Peace Corps. In the beginning, Facebook seemed like a great way to stay in touch with family and to reconnect with classmates and old friends. But over time, Facebook had an unhealthy, almost addictive hold on me and I would get angry or depressed about things I read. How could something that was so appealing in the beginning turn into something dangerous and destructive?

In Greek mythology, sirens were beautiful half-bird, half-woman creatures who lured passing sailors to their deaths with sweet songs and music. A siren’s song is an enticing and seductive appeal that ultimately leads to destruction.

Siren song describes something that is very appealing and alluring on the surface but ultimately deceptive, dangerous, or destructive.

Facebook is a siren song that appealed to my desire to connect with people. It appealed to my desire to be entertained. It appealed to my desire to receive positive feedback from other people. But below the surface, there was a dark side to it.

When I thought about how hard it was for me to resist checking my Facebook account several times a day, I wondered if there is such a thing as social media addiction. While there is no clinical diagnosis, according to Leslie Walker, “a social networking addict could be considered someone with a compulsion to use social media to excess – constantly checking Facebook status updates,” for example. The compulsive behavior may very well fit a common definition of addiction.

Addiction usually refers to compulsive behavior that leads to negative effects. In most addictions, people feel compelled to do certain activities so often that they become a harmful habit, which then interferes with other important activities such as work or school.

Leslie Walker, What is Social Networking Addiction?

My use of Facebook had become compulsive and it was clear to me that social media was having a negative impact on me.

  • Facebook interfered with face-to-face interactions. My husband didn’t like how much time I was spending glued to my phone. And I understood his reaction because I don’t like it when other people do the same thing.
  • I wasted a lot of hours looking at unimportant posts, which took my attention away from more important, productive, or edifying activities.
  • I had the ridiculous fear of missing out (FOMO) on something interesting if I didn’t check my news feed every day.
  • I cared too much about social approval. Facebook encouraged me to be narcissistic – to be overly concerned with how people reacted to my posts. I became too concerned about the image I presented.
  • My moods and my feelings about other people were negatively impacted. Social media exposed me to a lot of negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. People say things online that they would not say to a person face-to-face.

On the website “MakeUseOf,” Joel Lee asks a couple of important questions about social media. Does it really improve our lives? Or have we become slaves to it? He warns that social media interferes with our dopamine systems. He warns about “social media creep” – an addiction takes a hold of you before you realize it. He recommends doing a social media detox.

The comment about dopamine intrigued me. So I read Simon Parker’s post, Has dopamine got us hooked on tech? It was disturbing to read about how the “feel good” chemicals in our brains are being exploited by social media companies to keep us hooked. I don’t like being manipulated.

This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.


Simon Parkin

When my pastor recommended giving up social media for Lent, he motivated me to take a much needed break from Facebook. I had become a slave to it. It was bringing me down. When Lent is over, I will replace my social media fast with a severely restricted diet. Resisting the siren song of Facebook is liberating!

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Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6574249

A real leap of faith

They say that God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes God speaks in mysterious ways as well. I wish he would speak to me directly and audibly but he speaks to me through scripture, sermons, and songs. I didn’t expect God to speak to me through an Amish romance novel, but he did.

Last year, a friend gave me a bag of books that belonged to her mother, including some Amish love stories. They’re not books I would choose myself, though this particular genre is targeted at Evangelical women over the age of 50. The books sat in my basement for months. When I gave up social media for Lent, I suddenly had more time to read.

One of the Amish books is A Road Unknown by Barbara Cameron. In the book, a twenty-year old named Elizabeth got on a bus and ran away from home. She was the oldest of nine kids and had grown weary of taking care of her younger siblings. With her job and home responsibilities, she didn’t have time for a social life and was afraid she would never date or get married. So she decided to go stay with a friend in Pennsylvania and search for a job.

On her road trip to Pennsylvania, Elizabeth worried about whether she had packed enough food. Then she saw birds pecking at some crumbs and she thought: His eye is on the sparrow. Later in the book, she bought a couple of sparrow figurines to remind herself of God’s love and protection.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

After I read the book, I started thinking about my most recent leap of faith. A couple of years ago, I was so unhappy in my job that I quit even though I didn’t have another job lined up. I considered retiring early. But I found that health insurance is really expensive if you don’t have an employer to subsidize the premiums. I looked for non-profit jobs, hoping that I could find work that is more meaningful. I ended up jumping back into the rat race because it was easier to find a job in the for-profit market.

When I made that leap of faith, the visual that inspired me was a picture of a fish jumping out of a glass bowl, with the caption, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” My leap of faith transported me to a job that is better than the last one. But instead of really taking a risk, I leapt from one fish bowl to another. So it is no surprise that I find myself once again wanting to take a leap. I am constantly thinking about beginning the next stage of my life somewhere else, escaping the suburbs and moving closer to nature.

Several years ago, I did a Bible study based on John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. One night, the disciples were in the boat, tossed about by the wind. Jesus had gone off by himself to pray. Just before dawn, the disciples saw Jesus walking out to them on the water and were afraid, thinking he was a ghost.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:27-31

I am a lot like Peter. I want to trust that God will not let me fall. I take a tentative step then quickly return to the safety of what I know.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Proverbs 19:21

Thankfully, God is patient with me, just as Jesus was patient with Peter. I am thankful that he knows what I need to hear and when I need to hear it. He has a plan for me and his plans will not be thwarted. His purpose will prevail.

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Photo by Photo by fred A on Unsplash

Why would a loving God allow pain and suffering?

I had the opportunity to see Vince Vitale,  co-author of Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, when he visited my church. I first reflected on this challenging question a couple of years ago and was interested in how Vitale’s insights meshed with those of C.S. Lewis and others who have tackled this question.

Skeptical theism

I have a niece who is an atheist. She says that she can’t stand it when people say that bad things happen for a reason. I understand her reaction. The people who say this have good intentions but this ambiguous answer provides little comfort in the face of suffering and grief.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he said that Christianity creates the problem of pain (in an apologetic sense). We Christians believe in an all-powerful God who is both loving and righteous and yet we live in a world where people experience great pain. How can you reconcile the reality of pain, suffering, and senseless tragedy with belief in a loving God who has the power to make life easier for us?

In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothius asks: if evil appears to be pointless, is it? If you can’t conceive of a reason for pain and suffering, does that mean there is no reason for it? Vitale introduced me to the term skeptical theism, “the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.”

Just as a child cannot understand the reasoning of an adult, we as limited human beings cannot understand God’s reasoning. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

What kind of love is this?

Many people reject the Christian God because they question how our God can love people and yet allow them to suffer. How can our God be good if he lets people feel pain? If he is really all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something to prevent suffering? Why should anyone trust a God who lets people suffer?

Vitale asked an interesting question: if it is evil to create a world where pain and suffering exist, then how is it good to bring children into this world? We know that children will experience pain and suffering in their lives but we still choose to have them.

The love of God is analogous to the love of a father for his child. It is the love of the Creator for the created. We are an expression of God’s love and creativity. I believe he loves us more than we can fathom. He forgives us over and over again, even as we reject him. He does not enjoy seeing us in pain but he is present to guide, protect, and comfort those who love him.

Vitale writes, “The loving parent is not the one who never allows suffering in a child’s life. The loving parent is the one who is willing to suffer alongside their children. And in Christianity this is exactly what we find.”

Christians believe that God became human to redeem mankind from our sinfulness. No other religion makes this claim – that God became fully human and experienced human suffering firsthand. Jesus subjected himself to temptation, rejection, ridicule, pain and death. He understands our suffering because he experienced it himself.

The Laws of Nature Versus the Power of God

Death and destruction are part of the natural world. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection weeds out the weak. Forces of nature like floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes, famine and drought cause pain, suffering, death and destruction. So with or without a supernatural creator, we accept the destructiveness of nature. As Groothius writes, if you believe that the natural world is full of evil, then you must have in mind a supernatural ideal as the basis for your belief.

The rejection of the Christian God based on the problem of pain presupposes that God lacks the power to make things right. For those of us who believe that God is omnipotent, we believe that God is capable of suspending the laws of nature to prevent pain. We believe in miracles and that on occasion God changes the course of events. But we don’t expect God to break the laws of nature.

If I did something dangerous like drive my car straight into the path of another vehicle, I believe that God could intervene to prevent an accident. He could instantly change the mass or velocity of the vehicles to lessen the impact. He could make my car fly over the other car and land gently on the other side. But if God interfered with natural laws, they would not be laws. We couldn’t count on nature to behave in predictable, measurable ways. If we expect God to prevent the suffering that nature and free will make inevitable, life, as we know it, would no longer exist.

Vitale challenges us to imagine living in a world where there is no suffering. Everything and everyone would change. You wouldn’t be you. Think about a great person that you admire. If you subtracted out all of the pain and suffering that this person ever experienced, they would not be the person you admire. In a world with no suffering, there would be no heroes. There would be no courage, no compassion, no empathy, no determination -qualities that make people admirable.

The Cost of Free Will

As difficult as it is to understand the cruelty of nature, it is even harder to understand the pain humans inflict on each other. As C.S. Lewis noted, we cause pain when we’re born, we inflict pain on others while we’re living (and suffer on the receiving end), and we often experience pain and suffering in death. Humans have a long record of committing crimes, abuse, and other unspeakable acts against each other. We intentionally hurt each other physically and with words. We can be extremely cruel and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. What’s worse, because we have the ability to reason and to feel, we understand the pain we cause.

God created us as intelligent beings with the free will to choose. That free will came with a risk – the risk that we would choose evil and reject God. The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes the first sin as an act of disobedience to God – the choice to eat fruit God had specifically forbidden. This was a choice to turn away from God and turn to the self. C.S. Lewis said that as soon as we become aware of God as God and self as self, we have the option to make God or the elevated Self the center of our universe.

God’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote that he was given a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from exalting himself, to keep him from becoming conceited about all the amazing things that had been revealed to him. We don’t know what this affliction was but Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul said that he was delighted in his difficulties and hardships (which included being beaten, stoned and imprisoned) because “when I am weak, then I am strong.” He knew that there is purpose in suffering. Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Pain is God’s Megaphone

C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When things are going well, we have a tendency to push God aside and to put ourselves at the center. We live with an “illusion of self-sufficiency.” God reveals what we lack by letting our lives become more difficult. Sometimes our illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered to save our souls.

Sometimes our surrender to God takes pain. Many people call on God when they are at their lowest point, perhaps struggling with loss, a crippling addiction, or a broken relationship. The good news is God is merciful. He has what Lewis called “divine humility.” He is not proud; he does not mind our choosing him as a last resort. His love never fails. He heals hurting souls.

As a Christian, I can see for myself that bad things happen to good people and that the world I live in is often cruel and unjust. As much as I try, I cannot fully explain the reasons for pain and suffering. But I have seen a glimpse of the purpose of pain in my own life and in the lives of others. When we look back through painful experiences, we see that they made us stronger. We see the building of character, the smoothing of our rough edges. We learn humility in our struggles. We see the light in the darkness. And we see the goodness of humanity in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Sometimes it takes the healing hands of time for us to see the big picture. When we’re in the midst of pain and suffering, we see the puzzle but we don’t necessarily see how the pieces fit together. In this life, we see only in part, but someday we will know fully.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

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Vitale’s response to the question of pain and suffering is summarized in an article he wrote on the RZIM website – If God, Why Suffering? 

The Pernicious Lie of the Prosperity/Success Gospel

As I get ready for work in the morning, I often see a Joel Osteen commercial in which he says, when you humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, in due time, he will exalt you (1 Peter 5:6). Joel Osteen is known for preaching the “prosperity gospel” and for that reason alone, I steer clear of him. But while staying in a hotel, I watched a few minutes of his Sunday service and saw how easily Osteen misleads people with what is also known as the “gospel of success.”

In a Huffington Post article, Pastor Rick Henderson called out Osteen and Joyce Meyer for The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel is much like all other religions in that it uses faith, it uses doing good things to leverage material blessings from God. Essentially, use God to get things from God.

Pastor Rick Henderson

Henderson’s article includes a link to a ten-minute video of Pastor John Piper explaining why the prosperity gospel is abominable. To explain why this false teaching is spiritually dangerous, Piper repeats Jesus’s warning about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Jesus also said that you cannot serve both God and money – Luke 16:13).

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:24-25

The Apostle Paul wrote about how destructive it is to chase after wealth because the love of money often leads to temptation. We should be content if our basic needs are met.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

1 Timothy 6:6-9

Piper says that those who believe in the prosperity gospel are confused about the timing of the blessings promised in scripture. The truth is, Christians face trials, persecution, pain, suffering, failure, and poverty in this life. Heaven is our eternal reward for a righteous life.

In the few minutes that I watched Joel Osteen’s sermon, he said that while there is nothing wrong with being a cheerleader for other people, you should be your own cheerleader because you have God-given talents. This sounds innocuous; I credit God for my abilities. But cheerleading the self is not consistent with the real gospel. And it is clear to me that Osteen has a self-serving and not a God-serving reason for pushing the success gospel. In his book, “You Can, You Will,” he offers to teach you how to reach your potential.

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you. The key is to get it out.

Joel Osteen, promoting his book “You Can, You Will” on Facebook

The Truth Project’s lesson guide on anthropology says that some Christians “may have difficulty accepting the idea that ‘self-fulfillment’ and the call to ‘follow your heart’ are inconsistent with a Christian worldview.” Dr. Del Tackett says that “self-actualization” is a “pernicious lie.” He criticized Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs because self-actualization is depicted as the highest human need.

I say that the prosperity/success gospel is a pernicious lie. I think that Pastor Hariton Deligiannides would agree. In writing about Osteen’s cult-like influence, Diligiannides said that Osteen feeds his audience’s egos, scratches their itching ears (telling them what they want to hear), and covers up the true condition of the human heart.

Adam Blosser also calls out Joel Osteen as a false teacher because Jesus made it clear that his followers would be persecuted for their faith. Jesus said, you will be persecuted but you will be rewarded in heaven.

Osteen’s message is built on the power of positive thinking. If we will remove any semblance of negativity from our lives and focus only on things that are positive, then we can live lives that are victorious and successful. The clear problem with this message is that it ignores the reality of Christian persecution and suffering around the world.

Adam Blosser, in Why I call Joel Osteen a false teacher

Peter said that when you humble yourself, in due time, you will be exalted. I don’t know what Osteen has in mind when he quotes Peter’s verse about humility but I do know that my study Bible says Peter wrote to offer encouragement to suffering Christians. When I read about humbling yourself, I have in mind Christ’s humility (Philippians 2:5-11).

Even though Jesus was in his very nature God, while he walked on the Earth as a Son of Man, he did not exalt himself above us. Instead, he made himself nothing. He took on the nature of a servant, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing dirty feet. He was obedient to God, even to death on the cross! And after he lived a life of service and humility, God exalted him to the highest place – at His right hand – and gave him a name above all names.

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Photo of man kneeling by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash