“Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”
- Angelo, Measure for Measure, 4.4
I’ve never understood this bit about God not giving us more than we can bear. First, because that’s not quite what the verse says, and second, because, in my experience, God very often gives me more than I can bear. But even as a young child, I got hushed by Sunday school teachers for asking why, if this is true, Christians commit suicide. I was a difficult child.
But semantics aside, I’ve always struggled with faith. I know people able to will themselves to faith, to satisfy any sorrow with the belief that God is doing what’s best for them. I don’t doubt that, I just almost never want what’s best for me, and I usually suspect that I will manage to squander “what’s best for me” and make a mess of that too. I have very great faith in my ability to squander things.
I’ve also noticed that there are at least two ways to struggle with faith. The first seems noble, admirable; it is to wrestle, Jacob-like, with God. It is to struggle like Job, who questioned God up and down, for chapter upon endless chapter. God showed up to rebuke Job, yes, but God talked to Job. The second kind of struggle, my kind of struggle, is to take control, or to take control back, from God. To say, I know what I want and I know how to get it, and I will be doing that now, thanks. I haven’t made a complete biblical inventory, but characters like this don’t seem to end well.
When I was clinically depressed, in college, I remember dozens of times when, physically exhausted hours of sobbing, I would pray the words I had been taught would change things: “Lord, I surrender this to you.” And then, after the second or third time: “Really this time, Lord. I’m giving this to you, so why aren’t you taking it. Take it. I’m giving it to you. Take it. Take it.” My memory of that time period is of countless prayers going into the void. It was like praying to a brick wall, praying to an empty room, praying to a made-up god.
I did everything I knew to do. I went to church faithfully, even when I didn’t want to. Once Philip couldn’t go with me, and I went anyway, which I never do. This is faith, this is faith, this is faith. About halfway through the second song, I had to leave because I couldn’t stop crying. I was sitting near the front, and it was humiliating to flee past all those joyful people while trying to stanch my tears. A middle-aged man, about my father’s age and build, followed me to the parking lot to ask if I was ok. I told him I was really homesick, which was partly true, and he hugged me and asked me if I was ok to drive. Then I left, still crying. I recognize it now as a moment of real beauty in my life, because that’s mostly what fathers and father figures are on this earth to do, to tell girls that they are loved. But at the time it meant very little to me. There is a pain that shuts out love.
There’s more to this story, but in the end, I was finally diagnosed and put on antidepressants, and they worked. Which is no great surprise, of course. I never believed that I could “pray away” depression; that’s silly and I hope we’re all past that. I just didn’t know that depression could make God absolutely disappear. I still don’t know what to make of the fact that only chemicals restored prayer as a conversation, allowed me to hear from God again, allowed me to be comforted by God again. Things shouldn’t work that way. God should be stronger than depression.
Praying into the void. I felt that again this spring, albeit briefly, when we were trying to make a decision about my grad school this fall. I had prayed for weeks that I would be admitted to my top choice, a prestigious school with full funding about two hours from us. It would require a split household, but we’d heard from many others who had done similarly. I was admitted, but instead of relief there was dread. The stress of imagining a life with two homes—for a homebody, this is hell. My second best option, or rather, my most practical option, was here in Grand Rapids.
For many days I either didn’t eat or ate way too much; I hardly slept; my stomach never calmed. I woke up confident in one choice and went to sleep fully convinced of the other. As the anxious days wore on, the void returned. I prayed for wisdom and felt nothing. No word, no peace, no comfort.
In the end, a wise and generous priest counseled us, told us to pray that God would close a door, told me some other things I needed to hear. At the end of that meeting, I felt as conflicted as ever, but by the following morning, Philip and I both knew. So we made the choice to stay here in Grand Rapids. It was a choice toward wholeness and humility, away from ambition and prestige. That sounds really noble, written out, but it was also a choice, potentially, toward more limited options. Choosing against options is essentially choosing against probability. Probability of what—happiness, success, financial solvency? Hard to say here in the dark present, hard not to fear the worst.
But there is only one part of faith that I understand, and by that I must abide. I do not know, not really, how not to live an anxious life or how to embrace being thwarted or how to actually believe that I can make it through sixty more years on this earth. The one thing about faith that I know, though, is that on those rare occasions when you hear from God, when you actually do, you honor that. If there is one thing you know, even one thing, you do not second-guess it. When God speaks, you listen not just then but every moment thereafter.
Our decision brought a flood of peace to anxious days, and I believe that God, not bound by time, intends for it to calm not just those days but all days.