Troubled dust, but dust that dreams

As he struggled with the exasperating enigma of existence, Scottish agnostic, Richard Holloway, couldn’t escape the feeling that there must be more to life than this world. 

  • “This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”

From dust to glory 

Jesus broke the grip of the curse of dust! “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13).

  • “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of death… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15). For “God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot (decay) in the grave. God raised Jesus from the dead… Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us” (Acts 2:32-34, NLT).

God did this “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25). Yes, “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:8-9). 

Security in an uncertain world

Paul emphatically and unequivocally states that no experience in this life can alter the certainty of God’s love for us.

  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Rest securely and confidently in what God has done for you in Christ! And remind yourself often that, 

  • “When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Steve Cornell

Robin Williams’ most uncomfortable role

It’s tempting to think that Robin Williams could have been lifted out of a state of despondency if only he had been able to read all the Twitter comments praising his amazing career as an actor and comedian. Yet this would not be a safe assumption. And it could lead to unnecessary guilt for those who were closest to him.

Words of affirmation and encouragement that lift the spirits of most people are strangely distant and impotent to those gripped with depression. When lost in despondency, they feel unable to shake an outlook of despair no matter what others say to them. 

Robin Williams was transparent about his battle with depression and his efforts to self-medicate with alcohol. It is sad to see anyone overcome by such despondency. In the end, it appears that the man who could play so many characters so well faced his greatest challenge in the role of Robin Williams. Moving from one role to another with enviable ease and humor, he found his most uncomfortable and vexing role in being himself. 

I have counseled people who feel trapped in deep sadness. They speak of a dark cloud that looms over their minds. It’s not uncommon for those who battle severe depression to give up all hope of living a life of joy and contentment. They describe a life of torment where they feel stuck in a flight pattern they can’t escape.  

And the battle these people face is often compounded by a sense of guilt. They feel that they ought to be stronger and better able to deal with things. They don’t want to be a burden to others. And there are always well-intentioned people eager to remind them of how good they actually have it and of how many people face far worse circumstances.

One important question we must all ask is whether we have room in our lives for normal sadness. Do we now live in cultures that encourage unrealistic expectations of uninterrupted happiness? Are we teaching young people the truth about how tough life can be?

Standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered sadness. Sadness is part of life for all people. 

But some battle sadness at a different level and we must not risk hurting those who struggle with debilitating depression by reducing all discouragement to a matter of choice.

Help for those who struggle

Discouraged people need to hear words of encouragement and maybe even gentle admonishments. Yet some kinds of sadness have physical causes that can’t be cured by simply choosing to cheer up and see things differently.

Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as intense normal sadness. We must come to terms with these distinctions to avoid piling more guilt and sadness to those who struggle with severe depression.

Relatively recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience have provided hope for those who suffer with depression.

I am grateful for the medicines available to assist those who struggle with depression. Those who benefit from medication must never be made to feel embarrassed about needing it. They are no different from those who take medication for deficiencies in other bodily organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made and tragically fallen.

Those who battle prolonged and debilitating depression should consider medicinal aid. Yet medicinal aid must never be understood as the total solution to depression. We are more than bodies with physical needs. All other dimensions of life (spiritual, emotional, psychological and social) must receive thoughtful attention in our battle for health.

In the spiritual dimension, the Psalmist offered a great example of confronting despondency by speaking to himself: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:6). Part of the battle with sadness is learning how to speak truth and encouragement into your life when your mind pulls you toward a darker outlook.

Steve Cornell

See: Spiritual Depression

Tough advice

My father use to say, “You are where you are because that’s where you want to be. If it wasn’t, you’d do something about it.”

This advice might sound a bit simplistic or even reductionistic, but I wonder how many times it’s true.

In a culture where excuses are continually used to justify all kinds of inaction, Dad’s tough advice might be just what is needed. Dad would often add a final line: “So do something about it!”

Think about it

“You are where you are because that’s where you want to be. If it wasn’t, you’d do something about it. So do something about it!”

Perhaps you need to hear or share this tough advice. I realize that there are things we cannot change, but how many things could we change if we dropped our excuses and decided to do something? 

Dad knew a lot about things we cannot change. In his mid-thirties, he came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. This devastated our finances and placed a great deal of challenge on our family. We lost the home my Dad built and struggled through years of setbacks and limited finances. But Dad pressed on working in the trades with his twisted fingers and painful arthritis until he passed away in his late seventies.  

Dad’s advice reminded me of another dear friend (who is now in heaven) whom we called “Dr. B.” She was a tough and tender lady who didn’t want to hear excuses but wanted action. If you shared some difficulties with her, it was not unusual for her to say, “Get with the program, kid!” “God knows, He cares and He is in control! So let’s do something about it!” 

A prayer worth praying

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Dad’s life Scripture

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”” (II Corinthians 12:9).

Steve Cornell

 For a light and humorous side to this advice, see: Stop it!

Discouragement – a “dis” on courage

Discouragement is a “dis” on courage! Have you ever thought about it that way? It’s a loss of courage, confidence or hope. Discouragement includes some degree of fear. 

The word “courage” is part of the word “discourage.” It’s like the word disheartened (a “dis” on heart or a loss of heart). Don’t let life “dis” on your courage or heart! 

Why do our words need prefixes and suffixes?

When we rebelled against God’s good plan for us, our existence required prefixes and suffixes to negate otherwise good words. Dis -courage, dis-obedience, dis -able, dis -agree, dis -advantage… Faith-less, hope-less, etc…

We must come to see sin as something that not only disobeys God’s will but also spoils the good and corrupts worthy virtues. Discouragement assaults and spoils courage.

This is why we need exhortations like the one to “….. stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).

Like Joshua, we need to hear God saying, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Sometimes, (with sensitivity), discouraged people need gentle but firm admonishment about a loss of perspective that leads to a loss of courage.

Discouragement is more than a feeling. It involves a loss of wider life perspective. It narrows life down by discounting things that count. Courage is necessary for life in a fallen world. It helps us see things more honestly and positively. It fortifies us to tackle the work of everyday living.

“Despondency has a way of selectively focusing on certain aspects of life and conveniently overlooking others. Despair is always colorblind; it can only see the dark tints” (David A. Hubbard).

Discouragement wants to blind me to all the encouraging little things in life. I need to be admonished to, ““Stop being unamazed by the strange glory of ordinary things” (Clyde Kilby).

And sometimes I allow discouragement to derail my prayers so that I focus prayer so much on obstacles and challenges that I fail to give thanks for many great little ways God is working.

The way out of the dark tunnel of despair is not always a change of circumstance but a change of perspective. The humble worship of repentance (over my ingratitude) leads me to the worship of gratitude and frees me from the feelings of hopelessness and anxiety that so often accompany discouragement.

It’s easy to be misunderstood when you need to discourage the discouraged. People will sometimes accuse you of causing them more discouragement. But we cannot adequately encourage those who have lost perspective without discouraging them from a frame of mind that binds them to their discouragement. (Read it again).

Sometimes we can’t shake our discouragement because we don’t feel God is caring for us as we believe He should. When we feel down we often lock ourselves more deeply into our feelings with wrong ways of thinking. We bury ourselves more deeply into discouragement by listening to ourselves instead of speaking truth to ourselves. Part of the cure is to begin to think differently based on God’s truth and hope-filled promises (see: Spiritual Depression).

The primary New Testament Greek word translated “encourage” is “parakaleo” and means to call alongside. The word was used in a military context to call for reinforcements. Encouragement (like an encourager) functions as a reinforcement for life — a boost to our courage!

Offering encouragement is a means of giving courage, hope and confidence to others. It’s usually in the form of verbal affirmation, comfort, and exhortation. We need encouragement as part of the cure for discouragement. But sometimes our need is not merely to hear words of positive reinforcement. 

Getting out of the fog of despondency often requires a little loving admonishment. Caring friends will cross this line with love and sensitivity when they sense we need a better perspective. But we must allow people with mature perspective to have this kind of access to us. (For building larger perspective: Counseling the whole person).

Steve Cornell

Confused about God in a world of suffering

What kind of God do we serve? Does he care about how bad things are on the earth?

The way God revealed himself 

God entered our mess through the life of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3,14; Colossians 1:29). When Jesus walked on earth, he suffered in many ways as we do. On one occasion, Jesus wept over the grave of His dear friend (John 11:34-36), even though he knew he would raise him from the dead (John 11:38-44).

Our merciful Lord can empathize with the feelings of our trials and suffering (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16). But does the Lord continue to weep over graves? Should we think of God in these terms?

Early in human history, the compassionate heart of God was revealed when, “the Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6).

If we only think of God in terms of His sovereignty, we might miss His heart. Of course, God would not be worthy of the title if He did not posses ultimate and final authority over all things. This means (among other things) that God is free to act as He chooses in alleviating suffering or restraining evil or lifting the restraints on evil and evil beings. But God’s sovereign authority over every molecule of life should never be thought of in a way that impugns Him for the evil actions of other beings (James 1:13-17). 

Saddened but not Surprised

While God is deeply saddened by evil, suffering and death, He is never surprised, shocked or “caught off guard.” Sometimes God chooses to restrain evil but, on other occasions, He allows evil to violate His moral will and break His heart. The most dramatic example of this occurred “during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).

Jesus was “heard by God because of his reverent submission” yet “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:21). God the Father let His Son go to a brutal death at the hands of wicked creatures — even as Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46

The point we must understand is that it’s not enough to think of God in terms of sovereignty and absolute authority. While we should look to God for guidance and protection in this evil world, we must do so recognizing that God never promised that we will not be affected by evil in this life. Nor does God force His moral will on those who reject it. One day everything will conform to God’s moral will under His judgment. When this day comes, Scripture clearly emphasizes that, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

In our efforts to understand how God relates to the evil actions of humans (or even to His own acts of judgment), we must make some important distinctions concerning God’s will. We must learn to think in terms of God’s sovereign, moral and dispositional will. If we look only at God’s sovereign will, our understanding will be inadequately based on selective parts of His revelation of himself in Scripture.

God has also offered us a window into His heart or His inner most intentions — His dispositional will. 

Looking at God’s heart

II Peter 3:9 reminds us of how “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Obviously this refers to something other than the sovereign will or predetermined plan of God because some people will perish. This tells us that God does not desire that people perish – even though, in His judgment, He must cause some to perish (cf. John 3:16-18,36).

A classic statement making this distinction is found in Ezekiel 33:11 – “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord, `I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’ ” (c.f. Lam. 3:33a).

God made deeply moving pleas for human repentance that offer a window into His heart:

“‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. `Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God, `Therefore, repent and live'” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

We see this emphasis also in the writings of the apostle Paul: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” ( I Timothy 2:3-4).

What others have taught

“All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes, but all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness be vindicated. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it” (R.C. Sproul, Following Christ, pp. 217-18).

“Despite everything it (Scripture) says about the limitless reaches of God’s sovereignty, the Bible insists again and again on God’s unblemished goodness. `The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and kind in all His deeds’ (Ps. 145:17). `His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He’ (Deut. 32:4).” (D.A. Carson).
Wait just a minute!

One might be inclined to ask, “If God is sovereign and He desires that all be saved and none perish, why doesn’t God simply decree what He desires?” An absolutely sovereign God could have decreed a world without the possibility of sin. So why is the world the way it is?

Remember these four truths

First, when God created the earth and gave it to humanity, He declared all He provided to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). 

Secondly, the apostle Paul wrote, “For by one man sin entered the world and death by sin…” (Rom. 5:12).

Thirdly, God has decreed a world without the possibility of sin and suffering – the new heavens and new earth. “Nothing impure will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27;Rev. 21:3-5; II Pet. 3:13). Only those who have confessed with their mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead will enter this perfect world.

Finally, Scripture emphasizes that those who reject God’s provision; those who choose not to believe in Christ come under God’s wrath (John 3:16-18, 36). This reveals the extent of God’s respect for human responsibility (cf. Josh. 24:14-15), but also provides hope for those who are too young or unable to make this kind of decision.

For those of us who are able to respond, Scripture warns against taking the kindness of God lightly.

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:4-6).

Scripture also reminds us that God is willing to judge evil but restrains His wrath so that more people might come to salvation.

“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:22-23).

Wrap up

We ought to recognize with humble gratitude that if God operated this world on a principle of immediate justice, we all would be doomed (Romans 3:10, 23).

We can avoid unnecessary confusion about God and gain strength to hold on to the hope given to us by understanding the various dimensions of God’s will revealed in Scripture.

We certainly don’t want to be like Job’s three friends to whom God said, “I am angry with you … for you have not spoken accurately about me,…” (Job 42:7-8).

Steve Cornell

Trust God at all times

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” ― Corrie ten Boom

This is a great quote from someone who practiced its truth in conditions far worse than most people ever experience. It reminded me of one of my favorite verses of Scripture, Psalm 62:8 – “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”

Although I’ve never faced the kind of evil Corrie ten Boom experienced, I’ve learned that the key to trust at all times is to pour out your hearts to Him when times are dark and difficult.

Psalm 62:8 parallels two NT references:

  • I Peter 5:7 – “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (NLT).
  • Philippians 4:6-7 – “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (NLT).

At the opening of Psalm 62, the Psalmist wrote, “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2). 

Still learning to trust at all times,

Steve Cornell

Room for sadness

 

Do we have room in our lives for normal sadness? Do we have unrealistic expectations of gregariousness? Are we too quick to identify normal sadness as a biologically based depressive disorder?

These are questions explored in the helpful book, “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness Into Depressive Disorder,” by Alan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakelfield. The authors suggest that standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered sadness.

Out of concern over what they view as “over-expansive psychiatric definitions of disorder,” they offer helpful insight for distinguishing “sadness due to internal dysfunction” from “sadness that is a biologically designed response to external events.” The chapters exploring the anatomy of normal sadness and the failure of social sciences to distinguish this kind of sadness from depressive disorder should be required reading for all medical and psychiatric professionals — as well as all counselors.

I do not believe a doctor should prescribe medicines for moods or behaviors without confidence that those receiving them are pursuing some form of counseling in a support system of caring people (see: Caring for the whole person).

For further help addressing the emotional and spiritual dimensions related to sadness and depression, see the following:

Steve Cornell