“And He began to teach them that it was inevitable that the Son of Man should go through much suffering and be utterly repudiated by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He told them all this quite bluntly. This made Peter draw him on one side and take him to task about what he had said. But Jesus turned and faced his disciples and rebuked Peter. “Out of my way, Satan!” he said. “Peter, you are not looking at things from God’s point of view, but from man’s!” 1 …“If you find the godless world is hating you, remember it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you. When that happens, remember this: Servants don’t get better treatment than their masters. If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you. If they did what I told them, they will do what you tell them. They are going to do all these things to you because of the way they treated me because they don’t know the One who sent me.”2
“Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what He said about Himself. Christ claimed to be The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Jn 14:6). For this reason, He would never be satisfied with adherents who accepted His teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make ‘admirers’ impossible.”
Soren Kierkegaard - Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard
If I recall correctly, it was Clive Staple Lewis who once quipped; I know God only has good instore for me, but I do wonder from time to time, just how painful that good will turn out to be.
When I first read that quote, it resonated deeply as it reflected the burgeoning apprehension I had in many of my own experiences. It is true that our Wise and Loving Heavenly Father seeks only the best for us, but the perceived ‘painfulness’ of that process is what makes us baulk, and at times, baulk hard.
So, if we do actually fully subscribe to this omnibenevolent posture and the ultimate realities of ‘good’ that it brings, why do we do that – baulk, that is?
Clearly, there are other pressing realities that inform responses to our perception and/or engagement with difficult or distressing events and seasons. And yes, one such informing element was unabashedly ‘called out’ by Jesus in our opening text – Satan and his pernicious and nefarious agenda.
On other occasions it can be an underdeveloped or skewed theological framework that can have one attributing causal motivations of such events or seasons to God Himself. Whilst the Omniscient Creator God might use, redeem, or even allow these arduous times, He will not be the author of them.
However, it would appear that culture – the world and flesh combining, in our current era, is the single most significant informing element in our perceiving and interpreting of what may be transpiring.
Since the end of World War II last century and increasingly so in the new millennium in the First World West, the emerging and now fortified cultural posture is comfort, ease, and pleasure – happiness.
It is now believed that achieving, maintaining and/or protecting that which we personally deem makes us ‘happy’, is the highest priority of the human experience. Then with the emergence of post-Christianity and thus inevitable post-truth malaise, we saw this superficial and incredibly subjective by-product harness faux human rights in a myopic focus for all our human energies and resources.
This now sets the stage for the cathartic culture with its new therapeutic treatise. The only interpretation and even diagnosis around any perceived discomfort or the diminishing of ones ‘happiness’ is that it is ‘duress – bordering on trauma’, and thus a ‘suffering’ that must be alleviated.
In growing cultural corners, feelings that I deem ‘nice’ are now considered good mental health. Consequently, Well-being triage is now distilled down to attempting to identify any perceived disrupter of those ‘nice feelings’ as an enemy of ‘my mental health’.
Once such a diagnosis has been rendered to the now happiness deprived psyche, then prescriptions for recalibration to the extremely subjective and utterly egocentric specifications are pursued – often with real causal factors being ignored.
The what I call, M.U.S.T Does have now become the tyrannical masters of the ‘agency disabled’ emotional slave.
Mood – Urge – Symptoms – Taste
Subjective favourability to any or all of the above are now the dictators of both behaviour and the core of prescriptions to protect those behaviours.
So, what is deemed best practice for this ‘therapeutic’ process? No prizes for guessing that is, whatever protects, serves or revives those ‘Happy’ M.U.S.T. do feelings.
Fact, truth, wisdom (ancient or modern) or other epistemologically sound mechanisms, may be useful, but only (as stated previously) if it creates the feeling one needs to escape the discomfort of the perceived suffering of an unmet or interfered with felt need.
Of course, in this myopic space, it will appear anything – we do mean anything – goes if it meets that subjective goal. Reality and facts are discarded or distorted to protects one’s emotional state. Well-being is now distilled down to happy feelings no matter the short- or long-term harms, damage or any negative consequences that may emerge. When they do inevitably emerge, we’ll simply apply another happy feeling restoring mechanism to re-centre around that subjective priority.
Substance use is arguably the quickest route to getting the hedonic feelings one believes are the key to happiness – which is perhaps why demand for such is growing, and of course, once one steps into that bio-chemically manipulative arena, an ever-growing dependency on them to revisit and/or maintain such counterfeit states will eventuate.
I believe it was the father of American Psychology, William James, who unwisely quipped, “the truth is what works!’ Pragmatism, as that may be called, is part of the three-pronged equation of how we know something to be, if not true, then at least known – cohesion, coherence, and pragmatism. In similar refrain, Sigmund Freud is on record as observing that… ‘most of human behaviour can be distilled down to the maximizing of pleasure and the minimising of pain’, buying into James’s outcome focused analysis.
However, is that quip really the final authority and best offering in the prescriptive tool kit for well-being from psychology? I do not believe that was the intent of Williams or Freud, but in our current cultural setting it appears to have the ascendency in attempting to assuage the unhappy psyche.
Concerningly it’s not only the world that lands on this default position for well-being – the Church, the Bride of Christ – has now leaned heavily into this ideology.
What of dominant 21st Century Western Christian Hermeneutics?
‘God doesn’t want you to be unhappy – miserable, that’s not His will!”
You may not hear that declared as candidly from any real Bible believing pulpit, but in many intimate settings, not least counselling ones, the sentiment is very real – at least from my growing experience over recent years.
Is this new self-serving mantra growing? Is it taking root as our post-truth Christianity’s motivator for prescribed action. Whilst an aspect of this declaration may be true in one sense, the unqualified embracing of this one-dimensional statement is an egregious error.
God does not ‘will’ you to be unhappy, but He also has no agenda to ‘make you happy’ either – not in any of the contexts we have just looked at. No, the happiness paradigm must be examined in a more thorough Biblical light.
Lens and pivot-points on God’s word can be helpful for emphasis, but these can never be used to contort or distort the more profound Divine meta-agendas. We must also examine any understanding also with the ‘bookends’ of God’s entire covenantal, and thus relational agreement with humanity.
I want to repeat, whilst unhappiness is not God’s goal for you, it is important to understand that happiness is not God’s goal for you either.
These elements are mere by-products of greater context. Wholeness over comfort, discipline over disaster, change making over calamity and conforming to the image of His son over self-actualisation are always God’s priority for His most precious creation.
Therefore, it comes down to the object of our pursuit, the focus of the correct part for our eternal well-being that will determine destination.
Christianity is Impossible?
The incredibly insightful social commentator, author and Church of Rome adherent, G. K. Chesterton, as a master of paradox, rightly declared that… ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting – rather it has been found difficult and left untried.” It is a life framework that cannot be ‘done’ without the relationship with its Author and the indwelling power of the Third Person of the Trinity. It is beyond a religion and even a way of life – it is… The Kingdom of the Creator.
The focus of pursuit of the world and even (to use Kierkegaard’s above descriptor – admirer) will be in stark contrast to a Disciple of Jesus. For the Christ follower, it must be the pursuit of His Kingdom and standard, (Matthew 6:33) and the wholeness and conforming with the image of His Son (Ephesians 4: 12-13) that brings perfection and all the accompanying joys and blessing that is His goal. The ‘by-products’ of happiness are not on the agenda because they are not a destination. And, that’s why the kingdom prescription for miserable, unhappy and even traumatic events, is ‘to count it all joy’ – Why? Because in Heaven’s economy these can simply be a signpost to the greater agenda and outcome of perfection – the only process that will bring the ultimate state that our pursuit of ‘happy-ness’ will only impede.
These statements I’ve just penned can, in and of themselves, all seem incredibly overwhelming and even duress creating for the one who is only informed by culture and feelings, who have perhaps been informed not by the full Gospel, but an effigy crafted in a well-meaning sales pitch for Jesus, ‘the home boy’?
Have no doubt, that those two potentially tyrannical elements of culture and feelings will scream their enslaving mandate – it’s impossible! So, we capitulate. Why? Because faith is geared only to emotions and not Truth; to feelings, not facts and consequentially we stop the resistance. The irony in all this is that it is only in resisting that we can ever determine how strong we and/or any perceived adversary are. Capitulating only diminishes us.
Cultural Anthropologist and pioneering missionary Reinhold Niebuhr was the author of the now very well-known and used ‘Serenity Prayer’.
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. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world As it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right If I surrender to His Will; So that I may be reasonably happy in this life And supremely happy with Him Forever and ever in the next. Amen.
It is important to note that whilst this prayer has been adopted by the 12 Step program space, it was not written for recovering addicts, but for Christian missionaries.
The language used is both profound and prescriptive, with some emphasises that echo the sentiments of this written exhortation. Of special note is the line, ‘accepting hardships as the pathway to peace’. This is not a Christian que sara-sara, it is a reflection of the Biblical posture. You’ll note the ‘bookend’ statements either side of this line. Jesus’ posture of taking (not accepting) the world as he entered it with a sober expectation of what is, but also the knowledge that in Him it can change, with surrender to His will being a key to that. At the other end was what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy practitioners have embraced – Mindfulness in the moment, not ignoring past or future, but living in enjoyment of Him in the now, even if it is difficult.
The Bookends of Wisdom and Sorrow – Conquering and Trial?
Wisdom is far away and very difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and the reason for things . . . to prove to myself the wickedness of folly and that foolishness is madness… It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and it is a good thing to think about it while there is still time. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. Yes, a wise man thinks much of death, while the fool thinks only of having a good time now. 3
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so, the weaker I get, the stronger I become. 4
Since we have such a huge crowd of men of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, and especially those sins that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up; and let us run with patience the particular race that God has set before us.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards; and now he sits in the place of honour by the throne of God. If you want to keep from becoming fainthearted and weary, think about his patience as sinful men did such terrible things to him. After all, you have never yet struggled against sin and temptation until you sweat great drops of blood.
And have you quite forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you, his child? He said, “My son, don’t be angry when the Lord punishes you. Don’t be discouraged when he has to show you where you are wrong. For when he punishes you, it proves that he loves you. When he whips you, it proves you are really his child… Let God train you, for he is doing what any loving father does for his children. Whoever heard of a son who was never corrected? If God doesn’t punish you when you need it, as other fathers punish their sons, then it means that you aren’t really God’s son at all—that you don’t really belong in his family. So take a new grip with your tired hands, stand firm on your shaky legs, and mark out a straight, smooth path for your feet so that those who follow you, though weak and lame, will not fall and hurt themselves but become strong. 5
The famous poet, author and tragically, drug addicted soul, Francis Thompson, who after much self-inflicted harm discovered what God’s counsel was prompting all along. In his discomfort avoidance and pleasure seeking he ultimately discovered little but an amplified duress he was ironically attempting to escape…“Power is the reward of sadness. It was after Christ had wept over Jerusalem that He uttered some of His most august words; it was when His soul had been sorrowful even unto death that his enemies fell prostrate before His voice. Who suffers, conquers.”
Not unimportantly too, is that one of 19th Century’s most prominent semitic scholars, philosophers and a practical Atheist, J. Ernest Renan, who, in his de-venerating work ‘Vie de Jesus’, after working tirelessly to defrock the Darling of Heaven of His Divinity, actually penned one of the most profound insights into this, ‘merely incomparable man’…“The idea of being all-powerful by suffering and resignation, and of triumphing over force by purity of heart, is indeed an idea peculiar to Jesus.”
Peculiar indeed! The upside-down Kingdom of God is not about pleasure, power, control, domination, and coercion for the purposes of perpetual happiness, under the current dispensation of Grace. No, it’s a counterculture of surrender, meekness, lowliness and humility. Other large theocratic religions and philosophies that have ‘deities’ cannot wrap their head around this paradox and deem such a God weak and pointless – especially in a world pursuing influence, rights, pleasure and power harbouring dominion.
Posture for Pain?
Arguably the modern master on articulating this humility paradox was pastor, preacher, and author Reverend Andrew Murray.
In this timeless classic essay, Humility – The Journey Toward Holiness, Murray has inventoried much of this Divine attribute that he correctly argued had been forgotten or side-lined by other virtues, qualities and capacities in the Body of Christ.
The following excerpts are but a glimpse of this indispensable imperative not merely for the suffering soul, but the serving and surrendered Saint.
“True humility comes when before God, we see ourselves as nothing, have put aside self, and let God be all. The soul that has done this, and can say, “I have lost myself in finding you,” no longer compares itself with others. It has given up forever any thought of self in God’s presence; it meets its fellowmen as one who is nothing and seeks nothing for itself; who is a servant of Gd and for His sake is a servant of all… 6 Let humility be our one desire and our fervent prayer. Let us gladly accept whatever humbles us before God or men – this alone is the path to the glory of God…7 The first mark of the dying of the Lord Jesus – the mark that shows the true follower of Jesus – is humility. For these two reasons: only humility leads to perfect death; only deaths perfects humility. Humility and death are in their very nature one: humility is the bud; in death the fruit is ripened to perfection…His [Jesus] boundless humility, counting himself as nothing except as a servant to do and suffer the will of God…But the full manifestation of the power of this death in your disposition and conduct depends upon the measure in which the Holy Spirit imparts the power of the death of Christ…8 The humble man has learned the secret of abiding joy. The weaker he feels, the lower he sinks, the greater his humiliations, the more the power and presence of Christ is his portion. When he says, “I am nothing,” the word of his Lord comes: “My grace is sufficient for you” 9 Christ humbled Himself, therefore God exalted Him. Christ will humble us and keep us humble; let us heartily consent, let us trustfully and joyfully accept all that humbles; the power of Christ will rest upon us. We shall find that the deepest humility is the secret of the truest happiness, of a joy that nothing can destroy.” 10
To bookend this short insight into humility, I’ll again quote C.S. Lewis who said, “Humility, after the initial shock, is a cheerful virtue.”
A Final Reflection
I want to conclude here with a very personal note.
As much as it may appear (and is in part true) what I’ve just written isn’t merely a hyper-faith exhortation or even an encouragement – all-be-it a stinging one. No, it is really more of a testimony of what I have discovered over my personal and often very difficult faith journey.
This post was not written by a naturally resilient and emotionally robust soul – far from it.
This author has struggled for most of his teen and adult life with emotional fragility including four consequential bouts of ‘burn out’, heavily linked to or initiated by those fragilities.
As a pre-pubescent child I was, well, a hand full. Not naughty in the classic sense, but extremely – intensely adventurous and completely fearless to boot – a distressing combination for any mother.
My difficulties really started when I hit puberty, which I have discovered over the past decades, is often the commencement point of many emotional and psychological maladies for people.
Besides a lingering dysthymia through the angsty teenage years often overlaid by peer rejection because of my open faith and evangelistic endeavours, I have had two serious bouts of depression.
My first and most intensely distressing experience was at 20 years of age which was so debilitating that I could barely get out of bed. Much prayer, counselling and ministry did not seem to shift it, and what was worse, it was in the era that those who exhibited such vulnerabilities were deemed insurance and workplace liabilities. My superannuation had a caveat put on it in relation to ‘suicide’ ensuring no payout would be given – even though I never expressed or even thought of taking my own life during those very dark days.
Did I want this debilitating torment to end? Yes, I did, but killing myself wasn’t on the radar. Yet, wanting to go to sleep and be happy not to wake up was an ebbing and flowing wish.
To some, what I’m about to write will seem at the very least ironic – but the only element that kept me ‘in play’ was the relationship I had with my Heavenly Father. A relationship that powerfully commenced when I got ‘saved’ – yes saved – by Jesus Christ two weeks before I started secondary school.
The encounter was Theophanic in nature and profoundly transformative (a thorough account can be read in Second Chance Solution (2nd Edition).)
As I have looked back over many years, I firmly believe that I would have tragically gone the way of so many now, into addictive behaviours, mental illness, self-harm and/or self-medication if it were not for that relationship.
During this first dark bout of depression and being unable to shift it, as final resort (and it was very reluctantly deployed) the doctor prescribed an anti-depressant. This was seen then as a very poor diagnostic outcome as ‘pill dispensing’ in this space was then unpopular.
However, to say it worked would be an understatement. Along with ongoing counselling, prayer and what we now understand as Christian Talking Therapies, within a matter of a very short few months not only was the depression lifted, but I no longer required the use of those prescribed drugs. Such was my first encounter with depression.
Life, as it is wont to do, dished up many and varied challenges, difficulties and traumas – and yes, they made me incredibly sad, aggrieved, frustrated, even angry and at times very much knocked down – vocational and financial crises (almost bankrupt twice), relationship crises, accidents, health issues, all with the underlying emotional fragility still trying to inform my posture, response and state.
My emotional refrain during these incredibly difficult times was always ‘stop, give up, it’s too hard, it’s not worth the pain, it’s making you unwell, and you’re always intense, or distressed or anxious or grieved.’ Other well-meaning saints in their limited understanding of love, often dispensed the limited kindness, that always seeks to alleviate, rather than cultivate. It is why love and kindness don’t end in the same place. Kindness almost never considers the eternal – the supra-cultural, only the important, but not imperative ‘felt need’.
But it was in great part, the truth penned by the Apostle Paul 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 that so often buoyed this emotional ‘roller-coasting’ soul.
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our inner strength in the Lord is growing every day. These troubles and sufferings of ours are, after all, quite small and won’t last very long. Yet this short time of distress will result in God’s richest blessing upon us forever and ever! So, we do not look at what we can see right now, the troubles all around us, but we look forward to the joys in heaven which we have not yet seen. The troubles will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever.
Lens, pivot points and bookends – It is vital that we keep our perspective anchored immovably to the eternal, never the temporary. Our head and heart in the heavenlies, but our hands and feet expressing that domain in this broken and suffering filled world.
Faith is a powerful combination of Belief, Trust and Patience that expresses itself in continuing obedience, regardless of feelings or circumstances – all with the understanding that this world is not our home and happiness in not our destination.
For further reading…When Your Emotions Become Your Enemy
Shane W. Varcoe (March 2023)
1 Mark 8: 31-33 JB Phillips
2 John 15: 18-21 The Message (Paraphrase)
3 Eccl 7: 24,25, 2-4 Living Bible (Paraphrase)
4 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10 The Message (Paraphrase)
5 Hebrews 12;1,2-8,11-13 Living Bible (Paraphrase)
6 Humility – The Journey Toward Holiness, Murray. A, 2001, Bethany House Publishers (p55)
7 Ibid (p 79)
8 Ibid (p 84)
9 Ibid (p 93)
10 Ibid (p 94)