Suffering and Weakness

You’re all ridiculous. I hope you know that. I’ve said it before and I’ve no doubt that I’ll say it again: I don’t write anything worth reading. My random thoughts are not far off from a madman’s ravings, which inevitably implies that all of you are following a lunatic. At least I’ve kept my post count above my follower count for a while. I think that means I’m winning, but honestly I’m too tired to be sure right now. However, I do hope that in my insane ramblings I at least keep good company. Peter and Paul are both rather depressing authors of the New Testament at times (many times). Between the two of them we are exhorted (repeatedly) to rejoice in suffering and weakness (Consider 2 Corinthians 12 or 1 Peter 3 if you need examples [though really the entirety of 1 Peter will do]), two things that are fairly anathema to the American way. We don’t rejoice in suffering and weakness. In fact we don’t even approve of suffering and weakness. According to the American Church at large (much like Job’s friends) if you are suffering then you must be a bad Christian, and weakness simply isn’t tolerated.

Suffering is, apparently according to the Gospel of the US, God’s way of telling you that you are a sucky person, and if you weren’t such a sucky person then he would be giving you many and varied blessings like he does to all the non-sucky church-goers. This, of course, flies in the face of scriptural teaching and 2000 years of Christian tradition, but who cares, we’re Americans!

… … …So, I might be in just a little bit of a mood this morning… slightly… I blame it on the fact that I didn’t get any sleep again last night. After a week’s worth of wonderful rest (yes the alliteration is intentional) I had another night of sleepless torment, temptation, and failure. After I’d finally given up on sleep I turn to scripture to find this waiting for me: boast in your weaknesses! Well… I have plenty of weaknesses to boast in. I’m prideful, arrogant, supremely confident in my own intelligence (which is, admittedly, modest at best), lustful, foolish, insecure, and terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, and I tend to be pretty lonely most of the time as well. I generally console myself that it’s because I’m a smart, deep thinker and most people can’t keep up with me (what a crock… did I mention that I’m arrogant? I think I must be pretty hard to be around at times).

My bad mood aside, honestly looking back over the past few months I think one of the major lessons God has been trying to teach me is to find joy in my weaknesses. Paul was a pretty incredible man, and he certainly had a lot to boast about, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he talks about a thorn in the flesh that God had given him to keep him humble. Some scholars argue that this was some physical deformity (which they inevitably attempt to identify as buggy eyes, bowed legs, albino skin or some such), but others connect this thorn in the flesh with his rant Romans 7:14-25 and conclude that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some issue of sin that presented him a continual and humiliating struggle (of course they also feel the need to identify this, often as a sexual issue, though only Paul’s staunch stand against sexual sins provides any support for this). I tend to side with the latter as I have trouble seeing a physical deformity being of much shame to Paul (given that he had been beaten, stoned, drowned, etc repeatedly I would imagine that he had several deformities). However, for a man of Paul’s stature a struggle with sin (which we already know from Romans 7 he had) would certainly be very humiliating.

We are all weak. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we all suffer from many and varied weaknesses. As I write this my mind is drawn back to Desperate Housewives, which (as I’ve said before) is a surprisingly good and surprisingly uplifting show. There are two couples  (well, one couple and half of a couple) that, in many ways, exemplify what the church should and should not be respectively. First, Tom and Lynette are two imperfect people who accept one another’s imperfections and choose to continue in love regardless. One of my favorite scenes revolves around this couple. There is a portion of the show in which Lynette is tempted to cheat, and when Tom discovers this he confronts the man who is in the process of seducing her. Tom doesn’t threaten the man (well… much), but instead points out this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Have you thought about what’ll happen if she does slip and spend the night with you? It’ll destroy her. She’ll hate herself. And you think I’ll leave, but I won’t. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here and love her as hard as she hates herself, and we’ll get through this, because that’s who we are.” Honestly, Tom and Lynette are a fairly good example of the kind of undying, complete, self-sacrificing, gracious, imperfect love that the church could potentially show to one another. None of us are perfect people. None of us are even good people. However, when we recognize our own weaknesses and lovingly accept the fact that others are just as weak, we can show the grace that God has shown us. Does this make the actions that come out of our weakness good? Of course not, but it does mean that sin causes grace to abound.

The second character is Bre Van DeKamp Hodge. Bre is an excellent example of the faux perfection that the church often exhibits. She has her moments of true goodness and goes though some hard things, but generally she is unwilling to accept any weakness in others, even when that same weakness is all to apparent in herself. She does genuinely try to help people, but she is generally unwilling to show either grace or love, and this is a problem. Where Tom and Lynette forgive easily and often (as we should), Bre rarely forgives anything.

Bre seems to assume, as many of us do, that grace equals a lowering of standards, and this isn’t true. My students often tell me that my standards are too high and that I need to lower them. However, as I tell them, this is not going to happen. However, what will happen is the chance (if they seek it) to try again. To rewrite papers, seek advice, improve their abilities to meet my standards, and all of this I am more than happy to do. Similarly, we cannot expect God to lower his standards. It’s simply not going to happen. However, we can expect him to let us try again, and we should be able to expect that of one another as well.

Practicing the Presence of God

I think I’ve mentioned before that God took six years to teach me how to trust him. For the last two years he’s been teaching me about hope and joy. I’m a slow learner. Honestly, I wish that I wasn’t. I think that a lot of my life would be easier if I were less stubborn, less prideful, and more teachable. At the same time, I am confident that God made me a slow learner for a reason. I can definitely say that I value the lessons that I learn deeply, though I’ve certainly still got a long way to go.

I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, which is an excellent little book. I wrote yesterday about where I’ve been the past few days, and this is true of today as well. I’m pretty much struggling at the moment. Massive doses of rejection will do that to a person. That being said, as I’ve just told a friend of mine, when I put Brother Lawrence’s idea into practice, when I keep my mind focused on God instead of on anything else, then I find that I’m doing really well. I’m upbeat, happy, encouraged and encouraging, and focused on whatever it is that I’m doing.

Whenever I let my focus slip from God to… pretty much anything else right now, then I tumble into a pit of self-pity, rejection, despair, and worthlessness.  It’s not easy, though seeing as how he’s kind of my only bright spot right now it was pretty easy today… respectively speaking. However, I still find myself struggling with questions of why no woman wants me.

I like to figure out which character on a television show I identify with, and I’ve been watching Desperate Housewives recently which, despite being poorly titled, is a show that deals very well with a wide variety of sticky moral and relational issues. The show, unlike some would lead one to believe, doesn’t really present it’s characters as moral or good in any reasonable way. In fact, the vast majority of the characters do very questionable things, but it does present them as real people individually… well, most of them (though not as a real group of people). The individual struggles of each character are definitely real issues. You have the perfectionist who’s legalism destroys her family. The struggling mother trying to keep up with crazy kids, the single mom looking for love, and the cheating wife. Then you have their sex obsessed but caring, hark-working, cheating, and money obsessed husbands/ex-husbands. Again all present real issues that people deal with, but magnified to make them more easily visible. The farther you get into the show, the more real each character becomes. None of the character’s is purely good or purely evil. All of them have high points and low points, just like real people.

Then there’s Ray. Ray is an attractive, but romantically hopeless man who is quite possibly a sociopath. He replaces the medication of Rex (perfectionist’s husband) with potassium pills, which leads to his death, because Ray has convinced himself that he’s in love with the man’s wife. He then goes on to court her, assault her psychotherapist, manipulate her into an engagement, and finally, when she breaks off the engagement, tries to manipulate her into staying with him by attempting suicide. Ray assumes that she’ll save him… she doesn’t. The thing is, I kind of get Ray. He does some terrible things, but he’s also desperate. He’s desperate for someone to love him, and for someone to want him (honestly, a better title for the show might be Desperate People), and I know how that feels. I identify strongly with the backstory that they give to Ray, and that scares me a little bit.

However, I also know myself. I can see the differences between myself and Ray. I think Ray (or worse) is what I might have become if God hadn’t drawn me into a relationship with him. That still scares me a little bit, but not as much as it might. The thing is, like Ray, I don’t understand why I am consistently being rejected. However, unlike Ray, I’m not really sure that I need to. God is drawing me to himself, ever closer, and if this is what that looks like, then it is good. As I just told my friend, the past few days have been good, but rough. Filled with self-doubt and more than a little pain and frustration, but also filled with a longing for God.

Brother Lawrence claims that he found daily joy simply by focusing on God in all things. By always keeping in mind that God was with him, and focusing his thoughts on that God. Even he admitted that this was difficult for him at first, but I think it will get easier with time. If I can keep my focus on God, then I can find everything I need in him, and that’s where I want to be.