We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. -- 2 Corinthians 1:8-11
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. -- 2 Corinthians 5:1-7
|A childhood picture of the author and his brother Robin (left).
In early September of 2014, my girlfriend and I had dinner plans with my brother Robin. He didn't show up though, and it wasn't like him to be late. I also couldn’t reach him on the phone. He was living in an apartment I had not been to yet. So I called my mom to get the address.
I was unsettled. My brother had been suffering from a severe depression for a long time. We drove to his apartment building, and his car was there. We didn't have the apartment number though, and there was no directory at the apartment building. My girlfriend and I called out my brother's name, hoping he would hear us. There was no response. I called my mom again.
A man came out of the apartment building and said he heard us calling Robin's name. He said he had heard that name earlier. He said an ambulance came and someone was carried out of the building on a gurney. He let us into the building and brought us to the landlord's apartment. We knocked on the door, and the landlord answered. I told her I was Robin's brother, that we had plans earlier, and that he never showed up. She looked at me and said, "I'm sorry. Your brother has taken his own life." I broke into loud cries, repeating, "Oh no! Oh no!" Eventually I said, “I have to leave.” On the way down the stairs I realized I was still on the phone with my mother, and all I could say was, "Oh, mom. Oh, mom." I said it over and over, until my mom asked, "Is he alive?" And I painfully replied, "No."
My girlfriend was a strong support both before and after my brother's death. She made sure each week that we had my brother over for dinner. The day after Robin died, my family all met at my house. My girlfriend was there. She grieved with us, and prepared food for us.
It was about a week or two after Robin's suicide that I came to a service at the Portland Church of Christ. I sought out this church because I had studied the Bible here many years ago. I stopped seeking God back then, but started praying once more after learning about both my brother's depression and about my dad’s major health issues.
I continued to attend church, and after a very challenging time, my girlfriend and I separated. Then about six months later there was some more bad news. One of her best friends shot himself and died. It was so hard to see her grieve this way, and so soon after grieving with my family, and suffering through our separation.
|Nicholas (with towel) on the day of his baptism.|
When I came back to the church, I immediately got back into studying the Bible. It was hard, just as it was before. This seemingly impossible challenge was a big part of why I gave up before. I felt I just didn't get things that other people did. I didn't understand how people could come, study the Bible for two weeks, and then they were ready so quickly for baptism. "What's wrong with me?" I often thought. I was so discouraged. Eventually it came down to faith, and I was baptized on October 18, 2015.
After being baptized, things did not get easier. I had made great new friends who were now my spiritual family. I was no longer ignoring God, but seeking him on a daily basis. Having suffered so much though, it did not mean that I would be given a break regarding sin and repentance. And I beat myself up because it was so hard to change, and it often felt like I wasn't changing. I was confused. We are saved by grace through faith, but faith without works is dead! So works are required, but it's not by works, but by grace. In circles my thoughts would go.
And isn't the Holy Spirit supposed to set me free from this stuff? I was so frustrated. I have once or twice prayed and read Scriptures until the sun came up, only to have temptation still be there with no sleep to face the next day. Resist the devil and he will flee? I could not see it. Was God really hearing me? Did he really care? On many occasions I have been furious with God, saying things to him I would say to no human being.
On June 12 of this year I woke up already feeling down. I was struggling to make the decision to go to church that day. Then, not long after getting out of bed I learned that my high school best friend Sam had died two years prior, and also from suicide. Somehow the news had not come to me until then, and I moaned and cried, and I did not go to church that day.
In July, I went to Reach2016, the North American Discipleship Summit in St. Louis. This trip would have been worth it if all I did was hear one lesson, a lesson given by Angela Perry from the Boston Church of Christ.
She opened up with a story that quickly brought me to tears. Her mother had cancer. Her mother beat cancer, but then it came back. Then that cancer took her mom's life. Angela's mom was her favorite human being in the whole world, and now she was gone.
I connected with nearly every turn of her story, and related to her experience on such a deep level. Here is some of what she said:
"My mom's passing also just brought on this crippling new sense of loneliness like I had never felt or experienced before. It all was just so shockingly daunting, and was the scariest, scariest place I had ever hit as a Christian. Everything in my life got disturbed, including my relationship with God. It was hard to pray. It was hard to read. It was hard to worship. I was depleted in every way, physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, I had nothing. And for many days, that turned into weeks, that turned into countless months, I felt a lot of unanswered discontentment and battling confusion that began to merge in with my intense grief..."
She went on to describe her frustration because one of her dreams was to have her mom in her Christian wedding, and now that dream was gone.
She said that when you are broken and wounded and feeling deep emotional turmoil, Satan begins to plant seeds. She has never been more convinced of just how critical it is to get open at the initial thought level when Satan first introduces something to your heart and your mind.
God's power is made perfect in our weakness
“But in and throughout this whole tumultuous storm that I was painfully living," she said, "What I gradually came to see, is that in that storm, God was diligently yet sensitively and tenderly carrying me and showing me a new place he and I were going to journey and go through and embrace together.”
She shared John 11, where Jesus shared compassionate tears alongside Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus. And John 8, where he rescued the woman about to be stoned when she was in her most fragile and defenseless moment.
She also spoke about Naomi in the book of Ruth. Naomi lost her husband and sons. She blamed God for this, and so wanted to change her name to Mara which means bitter. She believed it was God who inflicted her, but her emotional reaction coming from fear and grief did not keep God from lovingly blessing her and mercifully taking care of her.
“I have a savior who cries with me.”
“I have a Lord who will rescue me in my vulnerably disheartened and worse condition.”
“I have a God who is not thrown off or turned off by my emotional responses, or my distrusting confusion, or my hopelessness, or my depressive grieving state, or my questioning, or my irrational head.”
His life changing power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And when God says no to our plans, it's because he has better plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
Walking by faith
The main thing I took away from Angela's lesson was a clearer distinction between walking by faith and walking by sight, and a clearer distinction between trusting in God and trusting in myself. Walking by faith and relying on God means to read God's word and trust it. What does the Bible say about our God? What does the Bible say about how God sees us? Trust it.
When I hear that God loves me so much that he sacrificed his only son for me, but I say “I don't see the evidence that God loves me,” I am walking by sight, not by faith.
If I am frustrated and doubting God's word because I can't understand why he allows me to suffer so much, or I am discouraged because things didn't go the way I wanted them to, or because the way things are going don't make any sense to me, these are red flags that I am leaning on my own understanding. I'm trusting in myself instead of trusting in God.
What does it mean to trust in God? Read the Bible. Hear what God has to say. Don't lean on your own understanding or depend on what you see or feel, but trust in his words.
After Job suffered more than most of us will ever have to suffer, he said in Job 42:3, “You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”