The Vacant Expression Of A Crushed Spirit

I had a strange experience the other day while spending some quality outdoor time with a friend.  We were enjoying a beautiful day and snapping some photographs when my friend looked at me and asked with concern,”are you okay?  You aren’t smiling in any of these pictures, are you upset?”

At first I was a little confused, as I was neither upset nor tired.  My only feelings in the moment were happiness, contentment, and excitement.  Outdoors on a gorgeous day is one of my happiest places to be, after all.  But when I looked down at the camera, I could see it – an unconvincing attempt of a smile, with lips stretched horizontally across the face but not quite up at the ends into a real grin.  It was a look I’ve seen a million times, except not in my own reflection.  This was my mother’s smile, the exact same one she always had in photos – the one that always made me wonder why she even bothered smiling at all.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I felt when looking at my mother’s smile on my own face.  Mostly shock, mixed with some sadness and disappointment.  I mean, I know the reason why I wore the look and I wonder if, at least in part, it’s the same reason she did.  Despite some significant differences between my mother and I, what we have in common are lives defined by emotional and psychological abuse.   I was abused by her and my father, she was abused by her parents, and so on down the line.  And even though our responses to such abuses were very different, the damage done to us was the same and it was that same look of brokenness that I saw staring back at me in that photo.  There is something hauntingly familiar in the vacant expression of a crushed spirit.

The unfortunate but true reality is that my mother is an angry and spiteful woman who would rather stab you in the chest than show you an ounce of concern.  She even frequently bragged that she never felt mercy for anyone – a truth she demonstrated on a daily basis.  I, on the other hand, feel everyone’s pain as if it were my own and frequently, though not intentionally, end up hurting myself while trying to help them.  Though I was equally horrified at the sight of her smile on my face, I also felt a pang of empathy for the woman who bore me.  Which isn’t to say I excuse her.  She really is, if you can imagine it, more like an untamed lion infected with rabies than a human being.  You can pity it and even feel compassion for it’s condition, but no matter how safe it may seem while asleep, it will kill you the moment you’re within reach.  My mother is the exact same sort and you can only feel anything resembling compassion for her while at a very…very safe distance.  Otherwise, you’re only thoughts are of survival…or death.

But even so, that half-hearted smile looked the same on both our faces and there’s really no ignoring the brokenness behind them.  From a distance, I do feel sympathy for the rabid lion who daily ripped my soul to shreds – not because I excuse her, but because I know well the pain that drove her to such a reprehensible state.  Do I think she’s responsible for how she treated me?  Yes.  It was her choice to let the pain turn into a narcissistic hatred.  And it is still her choice to continue in such hatred and vile darkness without even the desire to change.  She has chosen her lot.  Do I care to ever be near her again?  No.  Cohabitation with the rabid lion would be safer.  But my heart is still sad that she chose not to overcome the evil done to her, and is instead a willing conduit for it.  I cannot help her or save her, but from a distance, I do indeed pity her.

I am reminded that she and I were both infected with the same deadly poison.  And I am reminded that I have the choice whether or not to allow darkness to consume me or to choose light.  The reality of that makes me fearfully fall on my face before God.  Begging for mercy, for help, for healing, and to ask that I be spared from the fate that every single person in my family has met.

Lord, please keep the darkness away.  If I must bear continual pain, then keep me in the brokenness until you overcome it with love.  Do not let me turn to hatred and darkness for comfort.  Let the fires of my heart burn with love, justice, truth, and mercy.  Let me only hate that which is evil.  Lead me always into your light and goodness.  Amen.


To Hide And To Rest

“Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.  And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.  My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.”

– Isaiah 32:16-18

I feel a few things when I read these words.  The first being excitement at the idea of justice dwelling “in the wilderness.”  If this world is anything, it’s a wilderness.  And of all the awful things that take place in this wilderness, such rampant injustice is one of the worst.  And I don’t just mean that which has happened to me – I mean that everywhere I look, there seems to be evil and injustice stealing love and peace from innocent people, the severity of which is far more upsetting than things that have happened to me.  It is without a doubt the hardest thing I struggle with.  Often enough, the only idea that brings me consolation is that justice and righteousness will, one day, overcome this deeply twisted world.  I certainly feel hope when I read of concepts like these.

As I continue reading though, my feelings begin to change.  It seems that words of peace, quietness, trust, security, and rest do not immediately produce any feeling at all and the excitement switches rather dramatically to a vague and far-away sense of confusion – as though I’m reading words of a language I do not know.  Yes, I can spell and even pronounce them correctly, but it’s disconnected as I have no idea how they’d look or feel.  The best I can manage is to think of scenes from movies and imagine the happy feelings that would embody those ideas.  But they’re imaginary to me.  I can’t think of a single memory or experience in which I actually felt peaceful or secure. If I have any, they were either illusions or have long since been forgotten.

The other day, I was having a conversation with God about some issues I currently face.  These issues directly effect my life and future, but I have not been allowed any control or influence over them.  No amount of action (or inaction) makes any difference at all, which leaves me feeling wildly fearful and out of control. After expressing these fears and frustrations to God, I asked what He wanted me to do and the only two words I felt in my spirit were the exact words I don’t know how to implement.  Those words were “hide” [in Him, not from life] and “rest.”

Ugh…really?  Of all times that ‘rest’ may seem like a reasonable achievement, this is most certainly not one.  My life and future are currently shrouded in darkness and hang in the balance of strangers I don’t even know.  Hell, I don’t even know how I’m going to feed myself next month. Every moment is ridden with anxiety, so this is most certainly not the time in which I would think, “Yay!  Let’s take a break!”  Quite the opposite.  Sheer panic is far more natural…and yet…God did not stutter.  In fact, the words rang in my spirit so loudly they may as well have been audible.  I can’t exactly pretend like I didn’t hear them.  (Well I suppose I could, but being a foolish idiot isn’t a flaw I particularly wish to add to my already long list.)

So… now I struggle.  To hide in Him and rest during the most anxiety-filled, out-of-my-control, world-altering season of my life is the exact opposite of everything I find natural. It also requires trust, which I fully believe was left entirely out of my genetic makeup.  To entrust myself (or my life, or my feelings, or my plans, or my future) to anyone outside myself has never come naturally, even before I encountered betrayal and trauma.  I even prefer the self-checkout at the store because it seems quite stupid to have another person do something for me that I’m fully capable of doing myself.  (In all fairness, that’s also because I find non-essential human interaction an annoying waste of time.)  My very first words were “me do it myself,” for crying out loud!

But back to my point… it takes an enormous amount of conscious effort and energy to act so counter-intuitively, which isn’t helped in the least by having PTSD. Even if I do manage a meager amount of trust that maybe, just maybe, things are going to be okay…random interactions trigger the PTSD and then all internal hell breaks loose. Feelings and memories I can’t control flood my body, setting off the fight-or-flight response which then takes hours, days, or even weeks to settle. And you never know when those triggers will get flipped, which is anxiety-producing in itself.  (And people wonder why I prefer to be alone.  Holy cow…believe me, it’s for the best.)

Anyways, when I think about it though, a lot of Jesus’ instructions are counter intuitive.  The last shall be first, the poor shall be rich, you must give to receive, and to lead you must serve.  To rest and have peace during the world’s worst hurricane is right in line with the rest of his teachings, and is clearly illustrated in many a Biblical story.  Remember when Jesus called Peter out of the boat and onto the crashing waves?  There was a storm on the sea and there Jesus is, walking on the water and beckoning Peter to come hang out with him.  You know, like it’s no big deal.  Peter begins to walk on the water but then begins to sink as he sees all the waves crashing around him.  Imagine the panic he must have felt at THAT moment.  Now imagine living in that state of panic for months and years on end.  Yeah…not cool.

But here’s the thing.  Maybe I was never meant to experience peace, quietness, trust, security, or rest as part of this broken world.  Maybe Christ, and “hiding” in Him, is the only place I will ever learn what those words mean – even while the world rages on around me.  I may be 30 years old, but I have absolutely zero experience with any of this so I might as well be a newborn.  But again, wouldn’t that be in line with scripture?  Being “born again” has a lot of implications…one of which is that no matter how old we are, following Christ is going to be a new start.  We are going to learn things we never knew or understood before and in losing our life to Him, we will truly find it.

For me, lessons in rest and trust are only now beginning, but I am committed to learning them.  I may not always have a clue what they mean or what they look like, and sometimes I legitimately think God has lost his ever-loving mind.  But I also don’t go back on my commitments which means I’m going to figure this thing out one way or another.  And in the meantime, pray that He sustains me as I fumble and crawl along this rocky path.







To Walk Alone


In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a novice demon, Wormwood, is pleased to report that his assigned human, or “patient”, has fallen into a spiritual trough.  Being a new and rather inexperienced tempter, Wormwood feels quite victorious that his patient can no longer see or feel God and is subsequently struggling with his faith.  Wormwood gloats over this victory to his uncle, a more experienced tempter.  However, despite Wormwood’s achievement in producing spiritual doubt, he is warned that sometimes these spiritual troughs produce an even stronger faith than before.

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Right off the bat, this deconstructs an assumption within the church that I have encountered all too often; namely, that faith can be measured by any particular emotion, desire, sense, or feeling.  In reality, the whole idea of spiritual “troughs” paints the picture of someone who no longer sees, feels, or even desires God’s will at all.  This person does not even hear or see God anymore.  That’s what spiritual darkness is.  And there’s a strong sense of abandonment that goes along with it, which is usually accompanied by a strong sense of betrayal – especially if the person has sensed and felt God’s love or presence in the past.  But then for no apparent reason, it all suddenly disappears and everything that feels and looks of God in the world is completely gone, often for an agonizingly long period of time, forcing the question of whether or not it was even real to begin with.  Left with only darkness, this person is sent (quite understandably, I’d say) reeling into emotional turmoil, doubt, and even moments of deep despair.

I think anyone who has legitimately suffered through spiritual darkness would agree that these elements are the very things that define such a state.  Some may call it a “dark night of the soul,” where all light seems to have vanished from the world and there is no positive feeling connected with… well…anything.  Emotions are tortured, or just plain dead, and there is no visible hope in God or in anything else.  Some lofty church-goers may wrongly ascertain this to be a “falling away from faith”, “backsliding”, or any other catch phrase.  Others may shame you, judge you, or simply avoid you altogether because your feelings and questions about life make them uncomfortable.  You are challenging their own basic perceptions of God and the world.  But I would argue that in those cases it is their own lack of faith, insecurity, or just plain ignorance that leads them to such conclusions.  Often enough, those people would not have the strength to endure such trials or darkness anyways.  In my opinion, those people would do well to stay silent and learn from those who are given a lot of suffering that would break a weaker person.    Even Jesus, who lived in Heaven for all eternity before coming to earth, asked of his own father, “why have you forsaken me?”  Do we really think we should suffer less?

Secondly, this statement presupposes that the crux of faith is not in our ability to sense God or, perhaps more importantly, to even believe that He is still with us.  The person who God has left, quite understandably, “…asks why he has been forsaken…”  God can, and often does, choose to withdraw his presence from a suffering person – not because He does not love that person any longer or because that person did anything wrong – but because God chooses not to hold their hand anymore.  The person is forced to learn to walk alone and in so doing, must determine exactly how true his faith really is.   In fact, this whole statement (and the chapter, if you read it) presupposes that the crux of faith is on two things which have absolutely nothing at all to do with feelings, sight, or the presence of God.  It has to do with something that remains within our power and control at all times, despite our spiritual or emotional state; and that is our own free-will.  Our choice to obey despite whatever it is we happen to perceive.

We cannot choose to see invisible things, nor can we choose to feel particular feelings.  We may see and feel nothing but abandonment from God and subsequently, the overwhelming sense of loss that brings.  But we still have choice.  We can still intend to do His will, even if we no longer see or feel him and that, I believe, is the crux of faith.  Feelings, or the lack thereof, have no sway over whether or not we will obey God’s will.  And that, I have to say, provides a stronger and more solid sense of power than anything a particular emotion or sense of presence can bring.

I guess what I’m really trying to say, is that walking by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) is still easy when we can feel God alongside us.  But if God never lets go of our hands, then our whole perception of faith is going to be based on having that assistance.  Let us never set our own crutches as the standard for such faith, becoming boastful and judgmental of those who are walking without them.  For those who neither see nor feel God, especially for prolonged periods of time where life continually beats them to smithereens, and yet their will and intent is still set on obedience….they are experiencing a faith stronger and deeper than most will ever know.

I pray that my heart and compassions are always bent towards those who are stumbling along in the dark.  They are developing a superhero kind of faith as they learn to walk alone.