God’s grace is sufficient

The first time I received therapy, one of the main issues I learned to handle was avoiding my emotions. For most of my life, I had believed that virtue consisted of ignoring emotions. Courage, for example, is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right and proper thing despite fear. Resisting temptation is largely ignoring what feels right and instead doing what one knows to be right. Love is not a feeling; it is a conscious choice to help another person, to make that person’s wants and needs more important than one’s own wants and needs, to be a servant to others rather than making other people one’s tools to be used or one’s obstacles to be overcome.

Anxiety and depression, then, were merely bad feelings to be shoved aside. They were impediments to doing what was right, but I could still do what was right despite those feelings. If my anxiety sometime was expressed in outbursts of rage, then that rage was simply a bad temper, one more feeling to try to control. If my depression made me resist getting out of bed or getting work accomplished, I got out of bed anyhow and got my work done anyhow, no matter, how I felt. In some ways, those accomplishments were a noble victory; in others, they reflected an incomplete awareness of my life, a lack of emotional health that was keeping me from reaching my potential.

My first therapist helped me to understand that feelings are important. Feelings are inner communication, warning that something is not right and needs to be corrected. This therapist helped me learn how to recognize triggers that lead to anxiety. Awareness of what was out of balance in my life helped to establish ways of correcting the imbalance rather than muddling through the situation. But being able to list the reasons I might feel depressed in 2020—reasons such as quarantine and isolation, political turmoil, job uncertainty, aging, and changes in the family—were not enough to help me overcome the feelings of depression. They were not enough to stop me from making some bad decisions in response to those feelings.

My second therapist is helping me work toward a new awareness of balance. She is not telling me to ignore my feelings, but she is demonstrating how to make a cognitive response to an inaccurate (or incomplete) feeling. We have discussed some of the typical human responses to stress—seeing only the bad and none of the good, feeling blame for problems over which one has no control, and assuming that things are not going to get better no matter what. One of the most perceptive approaches she has taken is to ask what I would say to a peer going through the same kinds of problems and discouraging situations. What I would say to someone else, I need also to say to myself.

Other factors are also part of the therapy she is recommending. I need to get sufficient exercise, find family members and friends who are supportive, and find ways to relax and recover energy. I pointed out that reading is my primary way of relaxing but also a way of escaping problems and being isolated from family and friends. (I have finished fifteen books since the beginning of the new year.) Because of downsizing of my department at work before the virus crisis, and because of the quarantine we have endured for ten months, I don’t have contact with friends outside the immediate family. Along with ways to balance those limitations, I am also learning to remind myself that “God’s grace is sufficient.” Could I lose my job because of further downsizing, accentuated by the virus crisis? I am doing my work duties to the best of my ability; I have no control over what the administration decides, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do I feel guilty that the congregation I serve is so small and has financial struggles? I am being faithful to God and his Church, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do gloomy Saturdays further deplete my strength to get things done—both necessary things and healthy, helpful things? I do what I can, and God’s grace is sufficient.

I am grateful to my online friends for your prayers and your encouraging words. I am grateful for medications and therapy, blessings from God that are provided for health and productivity. I am grateful that God’s grace is sufficient, even though I often forget that promise and look for something more. I am confident that, with God’s help, I will weather this storm, and that better things are coming. J.

Thank God for Prozac!

It’s been a crummy sort of week. I haven’t even felt much like writing, which is not like me at all. A lot of reasons feed into that feeling: my disappointment last weekend, tension over a major test I’m taking next Wednesday, summer heat and humidity, and the ongoing onslaught of bad news about hatred, violence, and other such ugliness. I’m not the only one struggling: some of my friends are describing their struggles as well, both online and in person.

My friends have an additional burden that I have not needed to face this week. Their family members mean well, but they are trying to support my friends with the usual vacuous platitudes that are so popular at times like these. You know the type: count your blessings and you’ll feel better; be more active and you’ll forget your problems; just remember that Jesus loves you and everything will be fine; your problems aren’t real, anyhow—they only exist in your head.

My problems only exist in my head? An inner ear infection might exist only in my head, and that wouldn’t make it less real. Anxiety and depression are not solved by bromides: they need a stronger medicine. We are complex beings, and solutions that help one person will do nothing for another and may even harm a third person. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of some sort of imbalance among my body, my mind, and my spirit. Many things can cause that imbalance. Some are solved by better nutrition and more sleep. Some are solved by prayer or meditation. Some are improved by counseling. Some are improved by medication. No panacea covers all the possible causes of anxiety and depression, but well-meant remarks like those quoted above are almost certain to fail to help.

I am puzzled by people who speak against medications that help battle anxiety and depression. For the most part they accept the need for medicines that lower blood pressure or reduce cholesterol, they will swallow a pill for pain relief or freedom from allergies, and they have nothing but compassion for people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, and others whose problems are obvious. Mention an anti-depressant, though, and they begin to speak darkly of conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and doctors meant to rob perfectly normal people of their money and their health.

I am not suggesting that any person should be allowed to ingest any substance that makes him or her feel better. I am saying that anxiety and depression are real problems that deserve real treatment. If a pill or two can give a sufferer relief, then who is entitled to criticize them? When Mrs. Dim decides to mow her grass before 7 a.m., and when drivers in traffic are doing fooling and dangerous things, and when my future career is very much in question, I’m grateful that a substance exists that helps me deal with my feelings.

For years I thought feelings needed to be ignored. As courage is not a lack of fear, but is doing the right thing in spite of fear, so I believed that virtue always consisted of ignoring one’s feelings and doing the right thing. Life is much easier now that I’ve been guided on a different path, and trusting a medicine or two to help me handle bad feelings does not mean that I trust God any less. I thank God for helpful medicine just as I thank him for doctors, nurses, counselors, physical therapists, and the many other ways he provides to assist the healing of bodies and minds. Whatever is good, whatever is beneficial, whatever is helpful, it all comes from the Creator of the universe who means it to be used for our benefit. For that, I can only give thanks. J.

 

Two paths

Two paths stand before each of us, and each of us much choose which path to walk. One is the path of pleasure, and the other is the path of virtue. The path of pleasure appears pleasant, even beautiful, and it is easy to travel, but it leads to destruction. The path of virtue appears unpleasant, and it is much harder to travel, but it leads to true joy and not to destruction.

I have just read an interesting discussion of these two paths, and no, the writer does not mention Robert Frost. The poem in which Frost chooses the path less traveled, “and that has made all the difference,” is beloved by graduation speakers. Yet Frost never says that he is glad he took the path less traveled. When the poem is read with a sense of regret, it makes equal sense. Frost was born too late, though, to be quoted by Soren Kierkegaard. In his monumental Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard mentions sermons he has heard about the paths of pleasure and virtue. Specifically, Kierkegaard mentions preachers who recommend the path of virtue and discuss its charms. “Little by little,” Kierkegaard says, they alter their description of virtue and its rewards, until finally it seems like lunacy to choose the path of pleasure, not only because it leads to destruction, but because the path of virtue is equally nice in every way. Kierkegaard scornfully refers to these preachers as a committee formed to beautify the path of virtue, planting flowers along the way.

I do not quote Kierkegaard merely to correct the “prosperity gospel” preachers, those who say that God wants his people to be wealthy, healthy, peaceful, and happy in this present sinful world. Correcting their mistakes with properly applied Scripture is as easy as fishing in the hatchery pond. Instead, I am noticing how often we all try to beautify the path of virtue. We convince ourselves that we feel better after doing something kind and helpful for another person; we tell ourselves that we would feel guilty after sinning and our sense of guilt would take away all the fun. We assure ourselves that the sacrifices we make for God are improving our lives, guaranteeing us contentment in the midst of sacrifice. (What kind of sacrifice is it, then, if it makes us happy?) We promise ourselves that God is going to smooth the way before us once he knows that we have chosen to honor him by walking the path of virtue rather than the path to pleasure.

Kierkegaard rightly says that the Bible promises no such things. Easy and wide is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road to eternal life. The gate also is narrow, and few find it. In another place, Jesus says that the road to virtue is so difficult that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. The path of virtue requires nothing less than self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total faithfulness to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard stops at this point. He does not go on to say that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. As Paul wrote to the Romans, not one of us has faithfully traveled the path of virtue—we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not only do we try to beautify the path of virtue; we convince ourselves that the path of virtue must be beautiful because the path we are traveling has all the surface splendor of the path of pleasure. Rather than confessing that we are on the wrong path, we honor ourselves by calling our way the path of virtue and by accusing others of being on the path of pleasure.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah says, but the Lord has laid on our Redeemer the burden of us all. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, but all are saved by his grace. We have not denied ourselves, but Jesus denied himself for us. We have forgotten to carry our crosses, but Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem to Golgotha. Like Christ’s disciples we have not followed our Shepherd when trouble arose. We have run in other directions; we have hidden from trouble; when challenged, we have denied our Lord. Yet he went alone to the cross so we could be redeemed. Alone, he paid the price for all our wandering and all our guilt. Alone, he walked the path of virtue so he could come back and take us to be with him. Our Shepherd has blazed a trail through the consequences of our guilt. Now his rod and staff comfort us, goodness and mercy accompany us every step of the way, and we will dwell in his house forever. J.