A visit with my husband these days generally involves a litany of complaints about the mean charge nurse that comes on the weekends, the poor quality of the food, and the belief that some of the med aids are signing out his pain meds and then not giving them to him. It’s hard to listen to, because the charge nurse on the weekend doesn’t seem to love her job, so it’s believable that she is unpleasant. The food is pretty gross. And, well, while I am fairly confident they are giving him his pain meds, he believes they aren’t because he is still in pain. It wearies me on many levels. It isn’t the life I would have chosen for him. It saddens me that it has come to this.
Beyond that, it saddens me that he seems so incapable of applying himself to blooming where he is planted. I come in to the nursing home to visit him and see the man sitting in the lobby with his walker and his guitar, playing and singing (in spite of the bitter old woman on the other side of the room who finds “that kind” of music to be totally inexcusable). I see the group gathered around the table in the recreation room playing a game of dominoes or cards. I see the ones sitting outside soaking up the sunshine who greet me cheerfully as I walk in. Granted, they aren’t all that way. There are more than a few that choose to be like my husband – or worse. But there is proof that it is possible to be a resident at this very nursing home, and find a way to be happy, or at least to make the best of it.
If I ask if the nurse lectured him about calling them all the time because he is, actually, calling them all the time, he becomes irritable and defensive. If I suggest maybe she needs someone to pray for her, that maybe her life is hard, he becomes unresponsive. In the afterglow of our church family camp I waxed eloquent about how God was not unaware of his circumstances, and that we had to continue to have faith that there was a purpose to how things have developed in his life. I suggested that God was continuing the work He had begun in Strokeman many years ago and for some reason He has chosen to accomplish that through his present circumstances. He played possum. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep until I shut up.
So I come home and I am toast. I find myself unable to muster the energy to do much of anything. I will have a week, here or there, where I get up early, read my Bible, do a little writing and plan my day; all before running off to yoga. And then it unravels. I find myself sitting a lot. The dishes pile up, the clothes are laying on the floor, and I am watching Netflix. No follow through. No sense of urgency, no motivation. My whole demeanor shouts, “why try?”
A while back I had a really bad week. Full blown depression. It reminded me of a woman I had met in February who has struggled with severe depression for decades. I prayed for her. How hard it is to be the one who is depressed. The one who feels unsuccessful with life. The one who perpetually struggles to do the things that “normal” people do with seeming effortless consistency. I was reminded that having these struggles has made me more compassionate. I am far less likely to wonder why someone can’t get their act together, because – well, I know what that feels like from the inside. I wrote the following to a friend:
I have thought a lot about whether I am willing to “be” in depression if it will make me more useful to others. Can I be content to have hard times that seem to have no earthly solution if they can be used of God – even if only to bring fellow strugglers to mind so that I pray for them? I am so quick to want an escape, an ease of the burden, but maybe I need to have the tension of an uneasy life. “Lord make me willing to rest in the darkness until I see the light of You”.
This has made me think about the kind of people who have been an encouragement to me in the midst of my difficulties.
There are the many examples of scripture: Job, who lost everything dear to him, and was left with a nagging wife, judgmental friends, and boils; Joseph who was sold as a slave by his brothers, and spent a good deal of time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit; David, who threw his whole life away on somebody else’s wife; John the Baptist who declared the coming of the Messiah, was thrown in prison, and Jesus never even came to visit him; Paul who wrote most of his epistles in a jail cell and sometimes mentioned those who had forsaken him. All of these stories with layer upon layer of helpfulness and application to my present life. But God…
Then there is William Cowper. Maybe you know some of the hymns he wrote. But you may not know he struggled his whole life with depression. He tried repeatedly to commit suicide. He was haunted by doubts that the grace of God extended to him. I would imagine that he would have assessed his own life to be anything but successful. Could he have ever foreseen the thousands of people who would benefit from his gifted writing? Could he have imagined for a moment that God would use weak, doubting, mentally ill William Cowper so mightily for His glory and the furtherance of His kingdom? Cowper couldn’t even muster the faith that some day he would be made whole. He saw the grace of God. He expressed it beautifully in his poetry and lyrics. His dear friend and teacher, John Newton, faithfully taught him all the good theology. But there was something that held on to him and filled him with despair.
It makes me think about 1 Corinthians 1. God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we all begin to flail ourselves and attempt to end our lives. I still believe it is better to find a way to be cheerful in whatever situation we find ourselves. I believe we are responsible to give thanks in all circumstances and endure hardship with patience. We need to take the battle seriously, and get up the next day ready to take up the fight all over again.
What I am suggesting is that God’s economy is not the same as ours. We don’t see things clearly, and we won’t until we see Him face to face. We can’t possibly measure the value of a spiritual life with our earthly measuring tools. I don’t have any idea what God is doing in my husband’s spirit at the moment. To me, his life seems mostly pointless, pretty tragic, and very depressing. All I can do is trust that there is more to this spiritual journey than is visible to the earthly eye. I don’t know if I will ever shake this cycle of depression, or if I will ever find the self discipline to make my life successful and meaningful by earthly standards. All I know is I have to get up every day and try.
I think for every William Cowper there are probably thousands of Christians who struggle in similar fashion and die in obscurity. No one sings their hymns. No one but God even remembers them a generation after they pass from this world. From our perspective, this would indicate failure. We want to be one of those “not many” mentioned in 1 Corinthians who are the wise, the powerful, the noble. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” vs 27
This is God’s economy. He uses the weak, the low and despised, the nothings of this world so that we will not boast of our own success. All we have that is worth anything in the spiritual realm is Christ: His wisdom, His righteousness, His sanctification, and His redemption. He gives some of us the ability to rise above our circumstances, to reflect Christ in a way that brings courage and hope to fellow believers. But there are some who are not able to do this. Is it because they aren’t really Christians? Maybe, but who can know for sure? Is it because they haven’t applied the right formula to their daily quiet time? Maybe, but who can know for sure? What about those whose brains are damaged – maybe from birth – who can’t control impulses or comprehend great spiritual truths? Who can know for sure the condition of their spirit? Only God has the tools to measure these things.
Here is what I can glean from the life of our friend William Cowper: He availed himself to the means of grace. He read helpful books. He spent time with friends who encouraged him in the Truth. He studied the Word of God and applied it. He found ways to serve others. It didn’t keep him from being depressed. It didn’t keep him from making countless efforts to end his life. He probably never had a sense of accomplishment in anything he did, but he kept trying. And God used his sorry life to benefit me, long after he died, and long before I even knew his history.
So. I am learning to rest in the darkness – the unknown. God knows. I don’t have to comprehend what He is doing. I just have to keep living out my faith one step at a time. I have to fight against the urge to measure my life (or Strokeman’s) by the measuring sticks provided by this world. Because at the end of my life, all the things that would make me successful in earthly terms won’t be worth the dirt I will be buried in. (For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? Luke 9:25) I am like a three-year-old. I want to know why. And sometimes all I get from my heavenly Father seems to be, “Because I said so.” I am learning to trust that like that proverbial three-year-old, I am not capable of comprehending all the whys. I just have to trust the goodness and wisdom of my Father.
I am developing a sense of wonderment about the spiritual realm, and the things that go on there. What is there in that dim mirror that I can’t comprehend? What transformations will take place in the seemingly foolish things of this world when I see my Savior face to face? Well, I must wait and see. For now the mirror is still quite dim. And I must be content to not know. I learned a long time ago that love is more an action than a feeling. I am learning the same about faith and hope. Faith is something I live, even when I don’t feel it. And hope is an anchor – not on things that might happen, but on the promises of God, who cannot lie, of things that will happen. And I am learning to be content that these are the three that remain when all else seems to be melting away.