To Christians Who Suffer

Some Christians suffer more than others.  God, in his mysterious sovereignty, has given some of his children a more difficult lot and heavier load than others.  Depression, chronic illness, handicaps, intense family conflict, mental illness, and other trials are the hard lot of some Christians.

Abraham Kuyper reminds us that St. Paul had a very difficult lot as well.  The apostle called it a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7).  Kuyper says it was a trial that felt “as though a demon assaulted [Paul] and beat him with fists.” The thorn was given to Paul so that he might stay humble and also experience the sweetness of God’s grace.  Kuyper notes that Christians who suffer should remember from Paul’s experience that God’s fatherly plan for us in suffering is a gracious one.  This way we won’t despair when our prayers for relief are not answered in the affirmative.

Kuyper also writes that sometimes suffering is long, intense, and doesn’t let up.  It seems like suffering is our permanent state of existence.  To the sufferer,

“Every morning the affliction is new, and every evening he pours out again his complaint before his God.  Ineradicably the sense that we were not created to suffer continues to struggle against the pain that restlessly accompanies him upon his pathway through life.”

Often what happens at this point is that the sufferer looks around at others who are happy and healthy.  Then who can stop this “sad complaint” from arising: “O, My God, why am I not as they?”  On top of this Satan comes and tempts the sufferer to grumble: “If you are a child of God, where is your heavenly Father to help you?”  Satan mocks: “Where is your God?”  The suffering continues, and some believers at this point seriously backslide in the faith.

But Kuyper said it can be otherwise.  Sometimes the suffering child of God realizes that the Lord can use the suffering to “reveal in him the majesty of His grace.”  Prayers for deliverance continue, but the soul becomes convinced “that in such suffering God intends something different with us.”

“That such suffering does not come upon us by chance, but comes to us from Him, and that He chose us to bear this suffering, that in this our suffering it might become evident, even with suffering most prolonged and bitter, what sacred medicine of soul grace is.”

“And if the eye might but open to this, O, then each day brings experience of new grace; till finally the spirit made willing in us begins to cooperate with grace, to triumph over this suffering and to show Satan and the world, that the happiness God’s child enjoys, is too rich and too abounding to be shadowed even by severest suffering.”

“And so at times sufferers have been seen, who were so gloriously disciplined by grace and in grace, that at the last it seemed, as though they had become insensible to their trouble, yea, that they took pleasure in it, with a heavenly smile upon their face to mock their suffering.”

If you are suffering, I pray God gives you the eyes of faith to see that his grace is sufficient for you in your weakness even right now.  As Paul said in his trial, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Suffering is so hard; it is a heavy, heavy burden.  But God’s grace lightens the load, shines light on the path, and makes it possibly for us to joyfully make it through suffering.  And remember, your trial will not last.  When Jesus returns, he’ll renew your body and you will no longer have any pain, sorrow, trials, or tears (Phil. 3:21; Rev. 21:4).

The above quotes and thoughts are found in Abraham Kuyper’s 23rd meditation of In the Shadow of Death (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1929).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

 

 

Focusing on Feelings?

Christians Get Depressed TooHere are some helpful words from a helpful book:

“One of the most common tendencies for those with depression is to focus on feelings and to base beliefs and conclusions on those feelings.  This is especially true of Christians.  For example, they may feel forsaken and conclude that they are forsaken.  Also, in an effort to restore true feelings, there is the tendency to read Bible passages that address the feelings.  But such a focus on the subjective tends only to make things worse.”

“We should encourage the depressed person to move away from the realm of the subjective and to instead think on the objective truths of Christianity, things that are true regardless of our feelings: justification, adoption, the atonement, the attributes of God, and heaven, for example.”

Well stated.  This is also one more good reason for us to know biblical doctrine (such as justification, adoption, etc.)!  It helps keep us standing on the unchanging promises of God rather than our changing feelings and emotions.

The above quote is found on page 97 of David Murray’s book, Christians Get Depressed Too.

Shane Lems

The Happy Christian – A Review

I try to be a positive Christian with a positive outlook on life.  Generally speaking, I look on the bright side and press on in the Christian life with hopefulness because Christ is on the throne.  But sometimes I fall into a rut of gloom, cynicism, and I think the cup is “half empty,” so to speak.  From time to time I can identify with Christians who are always gloomy, pessimistic, and critical.  The question is, how can we get out of the rut of gloom?  We should want to, since the Christian faith is not one of gloom, doom, and extreme cynicism!

David Murray answers this question in his new book, The Happy Christian.   In ten chapters, Murray tackles gloom armed first with Scripture and secondly with some helpful scientific studies and insights about pessimism and optimism.  If I can make a generalization, Murray is basically calling God’s people to a Christian optimism, or a biblical optimism based on the truths of Scripture.  The book is just over 260 pages.

The chapters go like this: To gain a more positive outlook on life 1) focus on facts more than feelings, 2) avoid so much bad news and focus on good news, 3) focus on the fact that Christ’s work of salvation is finished, 4) focus on the strengths of other Christians instead of their weaknesses, 5) focus on the blessed future we have in Christ rather than the past, 6) Find God’s common grace in the world instead of sin and evil, 7) Find things to praise people for instead of critique them, 8) give money and things away instead of hoarding, 9) View your work as a calling instead of a job, 10) be around people of different ethnicities instead of one ethnicity.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and much of it made perfect sense.  I appreciated Murray’s call to focus on the facts rather than be led by feelings (I’ve learned that over the years!), and I appreciated his emphasis on the gospel (chapter 3), which leads us to joyful freedom and service instead of a constant negative guilt for sin.  I also appreciated Murray’s call to stay away from so much news/media, since the news tends to focus on the negative and then makes us negative (I agree; I quit following the news years ago and it has helped me be more optimistic).  Murray was also dead-on when he encouraged churches to aim for joy, grace, and a spotlight on the Good News.  His chapter on praising others was also a good reminder for me to work harder to encourage and bless people with my words.

There were a few things in the book about which I was less enthusiastic.  First, Scripture citations are endnotes rather than written in the text or as footnotes (minor,  I know, but endnotes kill my reading optimism!).  Second, there was a ton of information covered in this book.  I was almost overwhelmed at times, since Murray did quite a few bullet point type lists/paragraphs.  For one example, in his discussion on the benefits of Christian hope (p. 95ff), Murray lists twelve benefits followed by eight ways to grow in hope.  The notes were good, but it was almost an information overload for me since there were many lists/paragraphs like this (e.g. ten parts of constructive criticism, ten ways of learning to praise others, nine ways to give biblically, eight ways to pursue diversity personally, ten ways for a church to pursue diversity, five truths about giving in leadership positions, etc.).  I realize all readers are different, so perhaps this is subjective, but those lists sort of bogged me down in the reading.

One other question I had about the book is the chapter on diversity.  I fully agree with Murray’s emphasis on breaking racial barriers down, since Scripture calls us to love others and since Jesus died for people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  However, I didn’t quite see exactly how diversity increases joy; does this mean that the less ethnic diversity there is in a person’s life, the less joy he or she has?  Many house churches in China can’t really be diverse; the same can be said about a church in a tribal jungle location or in some rural parts of other countries.  Also, if I have a handful of good Christian friends, can’t they increase my joy no matter what ethnicity they are?  Maybe I’m missing something; and I am honestly open to correction here!  And again, I agree that Scripture does call us away from racism and it calls us to love others based on the gospel and God’s love for all sorts of people.

In summary, I’m glad I read this book, The Happy Christian.  The church for sure does need more emphasis on the true, the beautiful, and the good since she usually talks too much about what is wrong with the world.  I’m going to incorporate some parts of this book into my own actions, conversation, and Christian teaching.  It’s always a good thing for me to be pointed in the right way of Christian optimism, since Jesus does reign!  God treats us, his people, like sons and daughters, therefore “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees (Heb. 12:7, 12)!”

[As a side, it was neat to learn that David Murray is a Reformed pastor and seminary professor.  I’m thankful he put so much time and energy into this helpful resource!]

David Murray, The Happy Christian (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015).

((I received this book from the Booklook blogging program; per FCC rules, I need to note that I was not compelled to write a positive review.))

shane lems
hammond, wi

Some Reasons for Pastoral Burnout

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor Clay Werner, a pastor in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), has been through the pastoral wringer and lived to write about it in his new book, On The Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2014).  If you’re a pastor who feels overwhelmed with the workload, difficulties, disappointments, and hardships in the ministry, you’ll need to read this book.

Perhaps our readers who aren’t pastors may sometimes wonder what causes pastors to face burn out?  Werner explains a few (I’ve edited these to keep them brief):

1) Prolonged Exhaustion.  Prolonged exhaustion can be driven by the expectations of others in the church and also by our own prideful motivations.  Others may expect you to be present at every committee meeting to make decisions, every hospital room to pray, every church event to participate, and in everyone’s living room for conversation and dessert….

2) Delight Turned to Duty.  Delight can turn to duty in our own personal relationship with God and also in our calling to minister to others.  There is an enormous temptation in ministry, because you are around the Word of God so often, to begin to treat it as something common and eventually unnecessary.  …There can be an emotional deadness of soul that begins to make you wonder if God is really there.

3) Mild Discouragement to Severe Depression.  Most leaders have great expectations of how God is going to work in and through them and how God is going to transform the community of which they are a part.  More often than not, our expectations are not met to the extent or in the time-frame we hope for. …When we lose hope that God will work, it is easier to walk away from the situation.

4) An Older-Brother View of Ministry.  [This is when the pastor thinks,] ‘God, I’ve been through so much and done so much for you, and this [tragedy] is what I get?’  See Luke 15:28-30.

5) Anger.  …If you stay angry long enough, you may begin to think that others are not worthy of your ministry or that people are impossible, so you might as well give up.

6) Fear, Anxiety, and Worry.  If our ministry experiences have involved a lot of interpersonal conflict or congregational chaos, we may begin to be controlled by fear.  If someone asks to come and talk to us, we know for sure that it’s because he or she is angry at us for doing something or disappointed in us for not doing something.  We fear being exposed, humiliated, or rejected, and so we may stop visiting people, encouraging or correcting others, or making necessary phone calls.

7) Sinful Self-Indulgence.  …We [often] are unaware that we are not rooting our ultimate and deepest joy in Christ, so we try to find joy in the  midst of ministry, and if we don’t find it there, we look for it somewhere else.

Werner notes that this list isn’t exhaustive, of course.  He also goes on to talk about the power of God’s grace in the pastoral ministry, and how pastors are to rest in his grace to make it through the difficulties of pastoral ministry.  I’ll come back to some of these themes later, Lord willing.

For now, I recommend this book for tired and weary pastors who need some encouraging words of grace.  Also, if you’re a parishioner whose pastor has a heavy workload, I’d say get this for him – and pray for him while you do so!

Clay Werner, On the Brink (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2014).

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Mental Illness, Nutrition, and Medicine

A friend of mine and I were recently talking about mental illnesses like ADHD, bi-polar disorder, depression, and mood swings.  Somewhere in the conversation he told me about this book: Blue Genes by Meier, Clements, Bertrand, and Mandt.  Since he’s a solid Christian and a good psychologist, I ordered it and read it right away.  I did find helpful – enough so to mention it here.

This book is sort of a short guide on certain mental illnesses – what they are, the brain chemicals involved, the nutritional side of things, and medicinal remedies.  There are real life stories scattered throughout the book that give hope for readers who are suffering mental illness (or know someone who is).  The chapters are devoted to certain illnesses such as paranoia, anxiety, post-partum depression, ADD/ADHD, depression, bi-polar disorders, and hormonal imbalances (among others).  The authors give helpful insights on sleep, vitamins, foods, and healthy habits.  I really appreciated how the authors talked about which medicines are typically best for different mental illnesses.  The book is written from a Christian perspective, but it isn’t really a theological guide on these things.

There are some weaknesses in Blue Genes.  I’m a little hesitant to agree with the authors’ view of dreams.  They believe that God sometimes communicates to people through dreams, so we should really interpret dreams.  I also was hoping for a more robustly biblical insight – such as a longer discussion about sin, sanctification, and trials in life (for just a few examples).  While it is a helpful book, it isn’t “the best ever.”  (As a side, I hope it is updated sooner than later, since there have been medical advances since the book’s publication in 2005).

As a pastor, friend, and father, I’ve had to deal with some of these mental illnesses first hand.  The are not imaginary, nor are they to be taken lightly.  There are such things as chemical imbalances and hormone deficiencies that need medical attention, prescription drugs, and counseling.  Of course, we shouldn’t throw a pill at every problem, but sometimes the problems are biological and pills definitely work.  This book helped me understand mental illnesses better.  I do recommend it.  It shouldn’t be the only book you read about mental illnesses, but it should for sure be one of them.

Meier, Clements, Bertrand, Mandt, Blue Genes (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2005).

rev shane lems

Christians Get Depressed Too

Christians Get Depressed Too Around one year ago I did a short review on an excellent book: Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray.  In this book, Murray rightly notes that depression is caused by a variety of things, from biological factors to spiritual factors to “life” factors.  He also talks about the cures of depression.  One of the preliminary ways to fight depression is to assess wrong/unhelpful feelings and thoughts and seek to correct them.  Murray continues,

“If assessing your feelings and thoughts does not work or you can’t even get started, then I would suggest that you seek out trained medical personnel for diagnosis and possibly prescription of appropriate medication.  And please do not wait until things have gotten so bad that you ‘crash’ to a halt.  The farther you fall, the longer it will take to return.  Even a low dose of anti-depressant is sometimes enough just to begin to restore depleted brain chemicals and pick up your mood sufficiently to enable you to begin to take the steps necessary to correct your lifestyle and thoughts.  However, more serious depressions sometimes require medication for two to five years in order to permanently restore the brain’s chemistry and processes.”

“If you go to your doctor, you may find it helpful to write out some of your symptoms, how you have tried to manage them, and also what you think may have caused them.  Sometimes that initial visit can be rather emotional, and you may forget important facts.  Make a list of questions you want to ask, especially about medications.  There are a number of myths and false ideas about anti-depressants: ‘If I take antidepressants I won’t be my true self….  There will be horrible side effects….  I might get addicted…. People will look down on me….  It will mean I am crazy.’  Your doctor should be able to refute these myths and reassure you.  However, as mentioned, anti-depressants should not be viewed as a cure-all.  You will still need to work at changing false and unhelpful thinking and harmful behavior” (p. 79).

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend this short booklet on what it means for Christians to fight depression.  It’s a clear, biblical, and pastoral book written from a Reformed perspective, and I honestly believe it is one of those “must have” resources for those who suffer depression or for those who minister to people dealing with depression.

David Murray, Christians Get Depressed Too (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).

shane lems

Marriage, Mental Illness, and Love

Product Details  One helpful section of this helpful book, Broken Minds, is the authors’ emphasis on the importance of the Christian marriage covenant.  In other words, what does a husband do when his wife suffers a mental illness?  What does a wife do when her husband is debilitated by mental illness?  What do you as a husband or wife do when you’re the one who is mentally ill?  A brief biblical answer is love one another.  Keep your family in mind during a crisis.  The Bloem’s expand on this main principle.  I’ve listed their anchoring precepts for a family crisis below (they are edited for the sake of space).

1) Remember God holds the marriage covenant in high esteem.  If your loved one is sick, it can take what seems a superhuman feat to persevere.  Pray for grace and submit to God’s Word by sticking with your spouse and family.

2) Never make a decision of importance while either depressed or manic – especially manic.  In a state of mania, you must be aware that you cannot trust what you may be certain is true.  The side effects of some mental illnesses include inflated self-esteem, hyper-sexual fantasies, and other extremes.  Those with a tendency toward a manic phase are well advised to adopt a conscious habit to always doubt the truth of impressions, perceptions, feelings, and judgment.  Don’t trust yourself.  Rely upon someone who is trustworthy to help you sort out your thoughts, emotions, and desires.  Don’t trust perceived revelations from God, but stick to simple, direct precepts in Scripture, praying that he guides you through the valley.  And deny any urge to find previously hidden meanings in a biblical text.

3) Make a conscious decision not to sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.  The Devil wants to destroy God’s ordained institutions, and the breakup of the family is one of his chief aims.  Too many counselors are quick to advise the spouse that it is far more advantageous to separate or divorce than to stick it out when the symptoms become severe.  Some counselors will even say that to the one who has the mental illness.  You may have to utilize treatment centers or hospitals, but don’t take the “easy” way out of divorce.  When you and your spouse are in a right frame of mind, make this firm decision to press on together.

4) Do not go off your medications for any reason, except as directed by a knowledgeable medical doctor.  When you are feeling well, it is hard to remember how bad it can get.  Do not let your ‘recovered’ brain chemistry deceive you into thinking that the medicine’s benefits were ‘all in your mind’ or a ‘placebo effect.’  You are feeling better because the medicine is doing its work!

5) Do not abandon God’s economy for order in the family because of illness.  Whatever society may tell you, gender roles do matter, and they are biblical.  Husbands are the heads of the home. It may be difficult, but they must do their prayer-filled best to maintain their role even through illness.  And when a wife is ill, the husband has a holy responsibility to protect his wife and that means not shrugging off the times when she ‘has the blues.’  Pray for your wife, and support her as much as you can during the desperate times.  Sometimes you have to go through regular schedules and routines while ill; don’t throw in the towel.  Spouses should support one another in their biblical roles.  It is also advisable to seek help from your church family (p. 92-96).

Again, this is just a summary of a helpful – and much-needed! – discussion.   I recommend this book for pastors and elders who have parishioners suffering mental illnesses.  I also recommend it for those who struggle with mental illness as well as those involved in lives of others who face this difficult trial in life.  As Steve and Robyn Bloem know so well, there is hope in Christ and his Word for those who are mentally ill.  It is a hellish trial, but mental illness, like any trial, is temporary for the people of God.  It will not last forever.  On that last day when Jesus makes all things new, not a single one of God’s people will suffer any sort of illness.  Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Steve and Robyn Bloem, Broken Minds: Hope for Healing When You Feel Like You’re ‘Losing It.

rev shane lems