Monday, January 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Fear

As a family we’ve been talking a lot about the story I mentioned in my last post—the one where Christ calmed the storm in Mark chapter 4. And as we’ve been looking deeper into the account, something stuck out to me that sent my mind reeling in a whole new direction. Specifically something Christ said to His disciples, which means it’s something He’s saying to me as well. I’ll share what it is in a minute, but let’s run through the story really quick just to review all the details:

   And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.
   And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.
   And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
   And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
   And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
   And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?
   And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:35-41).

The first thing that jumped out at me is that this wasn’t just another Judean storm. This was as bad as it could get. I have an app where I can look up the account in several different Bible translations, and one (AMP) said the tempest was “of hurricane proportions.” In other words, the storm wasn’t just tossing the boat around a bit and getting the disciples a little wet. Verse 37 says the waves had beat on their ship with such force “that it was now full.” Stop and picture that for just a minute. It’s the dark of night, and the men have reached the point where their vessel is completely filled with water. It’s ready to sink at any moment. I’d say they’re way past the point of a little nervousness and anxiety, and they’ve moved into the realm of all-out terror.

And yet, where was Jesus?

Yep, that’s right. He was in the back of the boat, “asleep on a pillow.” I love it. Even with the mountainous waves and the howling wind and the cries of the terrified men, He remained as calm as a summer day—so calm, in fact, that He was sleeping like a baby. He wasn’t troubled by the danger in the least.

Finally, the disciples couldn’t take it anymore (can we blame them??), and they woke the Lord up in a panic, incredulous that they were about to die and He didn’t even seem to care. But before we get to His response, let’s freeze the story right here and think about how we would react in a similar situation.

Wouldn’t we be scared out of our minds just like the apostles? Sure, we could pretend we’d be all stoic and brave, but put us on that ship in the dead of night and the truth would reveal itself in about 2 seconds. That’s because, just like the disciples, the threat of death scares us. A cancer diagnosis scares us. A financial crisis scares us. Losing someone we love scares us. These kinds of trials are very real, and can be very, very terrifying.

And the weird thing is, it’s not like we have to try to be scared in these situations….it happens so naturally that we hardly even think about it. Suddenly, our heart begins to pound, our mind runs through all kinds of “What if” scenarios, and soon we’re completely overtaken with feelings of stress and anxiety. It appears that fear is sometimes just part of the human experience. What's more, if we happen to be feeling what the disciples were feeling—that Jesus appears to be “asleep” and He isn’t doing anything to help us in our precarious circumstances—well, then, our fear may even rise to higher heights and deeper proportions.

So just like the disciples, we run to Him and try to wake Him up as fervently and loudly as we possibly can. We cry out in prayer again and again, overcome with anxiety over our scary situation and His apparent unwillingness to come to our aid. I think what we’re hoping in these situations is for the Lord to wake up and say something comforting to help us calm down. Something like, “Awww, I know how hard life is right now. I can see why you’re so scared. But don’t worry, it’s OK, I’m here and I’ll help you.” (And I’ll admit that sometimes in the scriptures, He does say exactly that. Like in Isaiah 41:10 for example.)

But that’s not at all what happened in Mark chapter 4. When the Lord woke up and saw them in full-blown panic mode, He didn’t offer any comforting words or sympathetic pats on the shoulder. Instead, He actually rebuked His terrified disciples with the words, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?”

I have to say, this moment in the story totally blows my mind. He asks why they’re so fearful, but seriously....don’t they have a MILLION reasons to be fearful?? Their boat is full of water in the middle of a hurricane! Why in the world would Jesus ask such a question? Isn’t it completely obvious? Don’t they have every right to be freaking out? How can He be so insensitive to the terrifying thing they’re experiencing?

Thankfully, I found some counsel from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland that really helped me understand this account. Here's what he said about Christ’s unique (and what may appear to some as unfeeling or insensitive) response to His terrified men:

Always remember in that biblical story that He was out there on the water also, that He faced the worst of it right along with the newest and youngest and most fearful. Only one who has fought against those ominous waves is justified in telling us—as well as the sea—to “be still.” Only one who has taken the full brunt of such adversity could ever be justified in telling us in such times to “be of good cheer.” Such counsel is not a jaunty pep talk about the power of positive thinking, though positive thinking is much needed in the world. No, Christ knows better than all others that the trials of life can be very deep and we are not shallow people if we struggle with them. But even as the Lord avoids sugary rhetoric, He rebukes faithlessness and He deplores pessimism. He expects us to believe! (October 1999 General Conference)

The thought is actually pretty daunting if you think about it. Yes, the Lord understands our plight when we’re knee deep in a really tough trial, but regardless of our feelings, He lays down an almost mind-boggling expectation. Bottom line: as His disciples, He expects us to trust Him. Period. Even in the most difficult and stressful and frightening of circumstances. No matter how hard or scary or out-of-control things seem to get.

At first glance, it's an expectation that can seem almost impossible to comprehend. Somehow we’re supposed to stand fearless in these types of trials when our initial gut response is to quake and tremble and perhaps even completely lose it?? Yep. Apparently, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying.

I like the way Christian author Oswald Chambers explains it:

When we are afraid, the least we can do is pray to God. But our Lord has a right to expect that those who name His name have an underlying confidence in Him. God expects His children to be so confident in Him that in any crisis they are the ones who are reliable. Yet our trust is only in God up to a certain point, then we turn back to the elementary panic-stricken prayers of those people who do not even know God. We come to our wits’ end, showing that we don’t have even the slightest amount of confidence in Him or in His sovereign control of the world. To us He seems to be asleep, and we can see nothing but giant, breaking waves on the sea ahead of us.
   “…O you of little faith!” What a stinging pain must have shot through the disciples as they surely thought to themselves, “We missed the mark again!” And what a sharp pain will go through us when we suddenly realize that we could have produced complete and utter joy in the heart of Jesus by remaining absolutely confident in Him, in spite of what we were facing. (My Utmost For His Highest).

So this week, I’ve been asking myself over and over and over again: do my feelings of fear actually reveal a lack of trust in the Lord? Does my anxiety show that I “don’t have even the slightest amount of confidence in Him”? Can He take me to my breaking point without seeing me break, or am I turning back to the "panic-stricken prayers of those people who do not even know God"? It's definitely something to think about. (And it's something that I'm sure will bring a Part 2 blog post in the days ahead. This story is just too chock full to just leave it at that.) :)

Friday, January 13, 2017

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger (Part 2)

This blog has been so therapeutic for me lately. It’s been a great way to work through things I’m thinking and feeling as our family goes through this experience. I know I’ve already written on the above-mentioned subject, but some additional ideas came as I sat in the temple today, so I wanted to take a minute to jot them down (maybe more for me than for anyone who will ever read them here).

The image in particular that came to mind was that of an oil press. It’s what the word Gethsemane actually means. The garden where the Lord suffered the atonement was a place that was used to press olives and release their precious oil. In this process, huge stone slabs or wheels were lowered onto olives that had already been crushed, and the weight of the slabs slowly squeezed all the oil out of the pulp.

How symbolic that, in that very same place, Christ felt such immense pressure from the weight of the world’s sins that He truly bled from every pore. To me, the image of an oil press makes His sacrifice that much more profound and meaningful.

Then I started thinking about how adversity in our lives can also feel exactly like an oil press. Like a huge stone slab pressing on us and weighing us down at times almost more than it seems we can bear. Now, I’m definitely thankful to know that, in these moments, the Lord truly can carry our burdens. In fact, He’s promised to do so if we’ll just come to Him in faith (Matt. 11:28-30). The heavy weight of adversity really does have its solution in Him.

But let’s lay aside the burden part for a minute and focus specifically on what comes out of the press when the olives are crushed. It's the oil. It’s as if the weight of the slab reaches right into the heart of the olives and releases what was previously invisible to the naked eye.

So what is it that’s released when we’re under the heavy pressure of adversity in our lives? Some may say it’s in those moments that we truly shine—that we display great courage or faith or patience in some of our most difficult and excruciating moments. And I won’t argue with that. I’ve seen it time and time again. Victory in the midst of tribulation can be incredibly inspiring.

But as I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes what adversity squeezes out of us isn’t inspiring at all. As the pressure of our challenges bears down on us, suddenly it’s our fear or our insecurity or our bottled-up anger that comes oozing out with increasing intensity. Just like the oil press, the weight of our adversity forces things out into the open that we may have been really good at hiding (at least, up until now).

Once I started thinking along these lines, all kinds of examples of this began coming to mind. Christ’s apostles may have vehemently proclaimed their faith in Him, but put them on a boat in the middle of a brutal storm where the waves have completely filled their vessel with water...and suddenly it’s fear—not faith—that comes oozing out to the surface (Mark 4:36-40).

After all the visions he’d seen, I’m sure Lehi was convinced that he believed in the goodness and omnipotence of God. But let his sons’ bows stop working and the hunger pangs begin to plague him...and suddenly the good prophet finds himself murmuring “against the Lord his God” (1 Nephi 16:20).

And what about me? Oh, I can stand up in Fast & Testimony meeting and testify of my faith in Christ with such exuberance that I start thumping the pulpit...but why is it that I feel such anxiety when it looks like we won’t be able to pay our bills? Why is it that I feel so inadequate when the Bishop hands me a new assignment? Why is it that I have food in the fridge and gas in my car and clothing on my back and I still want more, more, MORE??

It’s just that darn oil oozing out from under the weight of my adversity. It makes it so I can’t deny the truth about myself any longer. I have to admit that sometimes I’m terribly impatient. Sometimes I don’t appreciate what I have. Sometimes I struggle to trust the Lord when circumstances in my life get precarious or scary. But I’m learning that’s okay because those oozing character defects are exactly what the Lord has been trying to get me to see all along.

For far too long, I subconsciously hid those character defects behind a mask of active Mormon “busyness.” I read my scriptures, said my prayers, and planned killer FHE lessons. I took cookies to the neighbors, made darling handouts for Relief Society, and watched every hour of General Conference without falling asleep even once. All those outward activities somehow convinced me that I was a really good person. That it was all those other people who were lost. All those other people who needed to repent. Not me. Nope, I believed I’d reached the pinnacle of what it meant to be a good Mormon wife and mother.

But all the Lord had to do was apply a little pressure in the form of adversity...and wham, I couldn’t remain in denial for one moment longer.  I remember first noticing this when I had a house full of crazy little kids. I thought I was doing everything right, but then why couldn't I stop myself from losing my temper? Why did I continue to freak out at these cute little people I adored so much? The answer is simple. All the spilled milk and crayon on the walls and sleepless nights applied enough pressure to bring the oil oozing out of me in about 2 seconds. I’d lose it. I'd yell at them. Or I'd grab the car keys and tell my husband I couldn’t take it anymore and I was running away from home. So much for the pinnacle of perfect Mormon motherhood.

I’ll admit that now I’m really thankful for all that adversity (and the adversity that still continues), because it taught me how fully and deeply I needed the Lord. How much I still need Him. My oil press of adversity (both then and now) has been SO valuable in that it's shown me I am not all that (killer FHE lessons notwithstanding). In fact, like Ammon said, I’m nothing without His grace strengthening me and holding me up from moment to moment (Alma 26:12). So today I’m trying to embrace the pressure of that oil press . . . and to make sure I'm continually analyzing what kind of oil is coming out of me. And when needed, to take it to Him for a little purification. :)

Friday, January 6, 2017

Loving the Lord When It Doesn't Feel Like He Loves You

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately. Maybe because the focus of my scripture study the last few months has been the love of Christ. Especially how Nephi says this love is “desirable to make one happy,” “most sweet, above all [we’ve] ever before tasted,” and “most joyous to the soul” (1 Ne. 8:10, 12, and 11:23). Add to that Paul’s declaration that nothing—“not tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword”—can separate us from this wonderful love (Romans 8:35). The scriptures really do paint a picture of the Lord’s love as the Mount Everest of mortal experience. As the most amazing, life-changing thing our heart will ever experience.

As encouraging as those words may be, I’m in a situation right now that seems to be testing those scriptural promises to the limit. For one thing, Paul says that trials and tribulations can never separate us from the Lord’s sweet love. And I believe him. Really, I do. But I’ll be honest and say that lately my heart has struggled to feel what my head so firmly believes. After more than 9 months of praying and pleading for a job, we still don’t have one. So it’s easy to drift into thoughts of feeling forsaken and abandoned and alone. Like the Lord’s not listening or He just doesn’t care.

The thing is, my head knows without a doubt that those thoughts aren’t true. My head can rehearse scripture after scripture where Christ promises us that He’ll never forsake us and that He’ll always hear the prayers of the faithful (for starters, see Deut. 31:6, Isa. 43:2, & D&C 108:8). But some days, my heart just doesn’t feel particularly loved. I mean, if He really loved me, He’d get our family out of this predicament, right? If He really cared, He’d relieve us of this long, hard struggle. Because He hasn’t, it can be tempting to believe that, unlike Paul’s scripture promises, we’re as separated and distant from the Christ’s tender love as it’s possible to get.

I think we face a difficult choice when we’re mired in some kind of difficult or long-lasting adversity. Will we trust the Lord’s promises in the scriptures and believe He loves us regardless of how we feel and regardless of the circumstances He’s allowing in our lives? Or will we listen to our heart’s pity party and start to believe that Paul and Nephi had it wrong—that trials really do have the power to separate us from His very personal and joy-producing love? When our heart is saying one thing and our head is saying another, it can be hard to know which one to trust.

And yet, we can’t just sit on the fence when it comes to this particular choice. It’s way too important. Christ made it clear that the greatest commandment of all is that we love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37-37). But how do we love Him like that when our circumstances are trying very hard to convince us that He doesn’t care about us in return?

I know there are a lot of ways to answer that question, and I’ll probably blog about many of them at one point or another. But today there’s one idea I just can’t get out of my head. Simply put, life is about being tested and proven to see if we truly love the Lord. So if He continually gives us everything we ask for and blesses us with our every wish and whim and makes sure we avoid every possible kind of adversity, what test of our love is that? Anyone would adore a God that acts like a big, jolly Santa Claus. Anyone would fall in worship before a God who exists solely to help them avoid all illness, loss, rejection, betrayal, or suffering. A God who jumps when they say jump. Who indulges their comfort zone and allows them to sail through life untested and untried.

So rather than indulging us, I believe the Lord sometimes chooses to deny us our heart’s greatest desire. And I believe He does so on purpose. Yes, He could definitely grant us immediate answers to our prayers and make everything work out happily ever after the minute we ask him. We’d never be left out or unemployed or single or infertile or struggling or in need.

But by allowing these kinds of things to happen to us, it could be that He’s trying to get us to consider one very important question:

“What do you love more . . . Me? Or My blessings?”

I know that may sound weird, but isn’t it possible that I can love Him only for what He does for me . . . rather than just for who He is as my Redeemer?? When trials hit, I think it’s a great time to look underneath the hood and see what’s going on deep inside my heart. To see what happens to my love for Christ when He seems distant or cold or unfriendly. Or when I can’t understand what in the world He could possibly be doing in my life. In times like these, am I going to turn away in disillusionment? Or do I really love Him enough just to trust Him? To believe that He knows what He’s doing and in the end, it will all work out for my good (Rom. 8:28)?

It’s the very same way my love is tested in my marriage relationship. For instance, am I only going to love my husband if he’s bringing me roses and rubbing my feet and hanging on my every word night after night? Or will I still love him when he’s so stressed that he hardly even notices that I’m there? Am I a fair-weather wife? Is my love only a response to how well he treats me? Or is it based on a much deeper commitment than just my own need-based emotion?

And can I say the same thing is true for my relationship with Jesus Christ?

Perhaps, in the end, this whole test we’re going through is less about the Lord’s love for me (which the scriptures promise me is constant), and more about whether or not I really love Him.

If that’s the case, it’s a test of love I really don’t want to fail.