Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

It’s a phrase we hear all the time, even across the pulpit at church. And since our family is definitely going through something with the potential to kill us both emotionally and spiritually, I guess I should be tattooing those words across the middle of my forehead right about now. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t like that phrase at all. I’ve never really said that outright to anyone, but I don't think that's always how it works when it comes to adversity.

I know that sounds like an odd thing to say. I mean, what’s not to like? This simple phrase just seems to be trying to give us a reason to endure. It seems to be telling us that, if we’ll just hang on, we’ll come out of our hard times feeling like Superwoman--like we've scaled our Mount Everest or ran our own personal marathon and hit the finish line with flying colors. But the truth is, adversity is an incredibly complicated thing. Sometimes, rather than making us feel stronger or better or more amazing, it can leave us consumed with a deep sense of bitterness. Or filled thoughts of fear and anxiety. Or perhaps battling feelings of resentment towards God for a trial that we think He should have helped us avoid. In the end, there are all kinds of negative ways trials and challenges can affect us. That’s why I don’t believe that adversity in and of itself necessarily makes us stronger. And when we say that it does, it may cause us to miss what’s going on under the surface when we face some of life’s hardest challenges and afflictions.

I saw a meme the other day on FB that perfectly sums up what I've been going through:

I know the person who wrote that was probably just trying to be funny, but those words hit pretty close to home for us right now. In fact, it’s kind of become a little joke between us as we’ve watched ourselves fight the temptation to become very cynical about our circumstances (i.e. “Things will never change. Nothing ever gets better. Miracles don’t seem to happen to us.”) That’s why we’ve started joking about it . . . so we can fight to remain faithful and not be overtaken by the cynicism. But it would be really easy at this point to get swallowed up by it after 7 months without a job offer for my husband. Sometimes, on really rough days, it’s tempting to use that “dark sense of humor” to help us cope with the anxious thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing on a regular basis.

And as for those “unhealthy coping mechanisms,” well, let’s just say I’ve been all over that one too. The longer this goes on, the more I’ve watched my soul start leaning toward all kinds of different ways to numb or distract myself. The pressure and endurance required during this particular trial has been intense, and on especially hard days, my inner man has desperately wanted some way to escape it—to take a break from all the strain and struggle for a little while. Although chocolate has always been my #1 personal coping mechanism, years ago I had to deal with my sugar addiction, so that one is off the table. But there are still so many different ways that I’m tempted to cope. There’s the desire to escape through movies or TV or time spent on social media. There’s the cynicism I talked about earlier, or the temptation to live in denial, or even the desire for my husband and I to leave the Lord out of it and just take the bull by the horns and figure things out on our own.

I’ll admit that last one has really been a bugger. Talk about an unhealthy coping mechanism. When you’re praying and praying for the Lord to do something and it seems like He’s taking entirely too long, it can be so incredibly tempting to cut the process short and take matters into your own hands.  But years ago, I came across this perspective from one of my favorite Christian authors as he talked about that type of behavior:

We so long for life to be better than it is. . . . We hope that God will be our hero. Of all the people in universe, he could stop the [trials] and arrange for just a little more blessing in our lives. He can spin the earth, change the weather, topple governments, obliterate armies, and resurrect the dead. Is it too much to ask that he intervene in our story? But he often seems aloof, almost indifferent to our plight, so entirely out of our control. Would it be any worse if there were no God? If he didn’t exist, at least we wouldn’t get our hopes up. We could settle once and for all that we really are alone in the universe and get on with surviving as best we may.

Then he makes this profound observation:

This is, in fact, how many professing Christians end up living: as practical agnostics. Perhaps God will come through, perhaps he won’t, so I’ll be hanged if I’ll live as though he had to come through. I’ll hedge my bets, and if he does show up, so much the better. The simple word for this is godlessness.  (John Eldredge and Brent Curtis, The Sacred Romance, p. 69.)

Whoa. That totally blew my mind when I read it. I would never, ever have described myself as godless in any way, shape, or form. But I had to realize that whenever I give in to the desire to bypass the Lord’s will and take control of the situation on my own, that’s exactly what I'm doing. It’s been a pretty sobering thought to contemplate but an important one to remember as I face this particular trial.

On a positive note, I’ve decided that seeing all of this baggage in myself has been a very good thing. I think it’s one of the main reasons the Lord has allowed this adversity in the first place. This trial has made it much easier to notice all the other things I turn to rather than trusting in the Lord. I know some may say a little TV or a social media isn’t that big of a deal. But the truth is, whenever I’m turning to something else to help me cope, I’m not turning to Christ. Period. Yes, it may be something relatively harmless or something that doesn’t affect my church membership, but it’s still not Him. I’m foolishly trying to draw from food or media or other kinds of coping mechanisms what I should really be drawing from Him.

So that’s where my personal focus is right now. I don’t just want to hang on through this experience by numbing myself or distracting myself or choosing to take matters into my own hands. I want more than that. I want to see miracles. I want to be filled by the Lord’s strength and love and ability to patiently endure. I believe that’s the only way I’ll come out of this experience any stronger or better. But if I try to deal with it without Him, I know I'll just end up a hot mess . . . with a ton of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humor.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Long Overdue Update

I know, I haven’t written for a really long time. And I’ll admit that I wanted my first post back to be very different than the one I’m about to write. You see, since early spring we’ve been dealing with my husband’s unemployment. As a result, we decided to sell our home in June and we’ve been house-sitting for the last several months as we’ve been trying to figure out where we belong. All that time, I imagined writing a post where I could finally proclaim that we’d been delivered from our trial . . . that the Lord had come through and saved the day and all was well. You know—like a General Conference talk with a wonderfully happy and feel-good ending.

But the truth is, we’re not there yet.

Here we are 6 months later and we’re still trying to find a job. By the looks of things—meaning simply by the looks of our outward circumstances—our happy ending could still be a long way off. And it would be easy at this point to conclude that the Lord has forsaken us or that He doesn’t answer our prayers or meet the needs of His people when they cry out to Him. But I’ve seen too many tender mercies over the last several months to believe that for even a minute. In fact, I can honestly say He’s been more involved in our family’s lives over the last few months than He ever has been before.

So today, I feel the need to do something that may sound a little odd. I want to praise Him before the big answer comes and before everything is put right and before we reach our happy ending. Why would I do that? Because I’ve learned for myself that I don’t need the Lord to change my circumstances in order to be happy—I just need Him. He alone is enough, no matter what kinds of struggles I’m going through in my everyday life.

President Russell M. Nelson said it beautifully in Conference last week:

“The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives. When the focus of our lives is on God’s plan of salvation and Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening—or not happening—in our lives. . . . As our Savior becomes more and more real to us, and as we plead for His joy to be given to us, our joy will increase.”

Those are incredibly powerful words, but I’ll admit I never lived that way in earlier years. In contrast to what President Nelson said, my joy has always been tied to my circumstances. If things were good, I was good. But if they weren’t, I struggled with feelings of depression, anxiety, or even just frustration and restlessness. Yes, I definitely tried to come to Christ on those bad days, but it was always with the request that He hurry up and change my circumstances so I could get back to being happy: “Just fix this or that, Lord, and everything will be OK.” When He didn’t answer my prayer like I wanted Him to, I was often left feeling abandoned and alone.

I never realized that I was looking at it all wrong. The Lord was trying to get me to see was that He could fill me with more happiness than I could ever imagine . . . right in the middle of even the hardest trials and afflictions. Changing my circumstances wasn’t what I needed . . . I just needed Him. His joy. His light. His love, filling me until there weren’t anymore empty places to fill. It’s one of the greatest miracles possible through the gospel of Jesus Christ and I was missing it. But I'm not missing it anymore.

I love how Elder Nelson tried so passionately in his talk to help us see this. I think one of the most important things he said was that we can only experience this joy if the Savior “become[s] more and more real to us.” Elder Bednar talked about the very same thing ...  about truly knowing Christ and not just knowing about Him. Personally, I believe that’s the key that will literally transform our entire lives. We really are promised that our “afflictions” can be “swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (Alma 31:38), and that our “burdens may be light, through the joy of [the] Son” (Alma 33:23). It’s the very thing our family has tasted over the last 6 months, and the whole experience has set my heart ablaze with overflowing love and adoration for my Savior. I want to shout from the rooftops that, like He did for Lamoni, He has infused more joy and light and love into my soul than I can ever express (Alma 19:6). I love Him with all my heart and I’ll spend the rest of my life telling everyone who will listen. Perhaps the Psalmist put it best when he said that Christ was “anointed ... with the oil of gladness above [His] fellows” (Psalms 45:7). I’m so grateful He’s willing to share it with us. I, for one, will never be the same.

(I had to add some happy pictures from the last 6 months. These were just a few of the many tender mercies that I want to remember: blessing Declan, Breck & Katelyn's graduation, Sunday dinner in Utah (only missing Chase & Kimball), and of course, our little Pudge. Katelyn called that last collage "The Many Faces of Declan." That little guy brings his own brand of joy that makes everything else we're going through seem easy!)