The Terrible Living God

terror-keepers-of-the-faithMany people express gratitude to the Almighty for being saved from desperate and problematic situations. But surely they’d have preferred that the problem would have never have arisen in the first place!

This, however, is not the proper attitude. The purpose of all problems is that they should serve as a means for a person to become closer to the Almighty. Both the problems – and the solutions – are part of the Divine plan to help elevate you.

The next time you are faced with a problem, think for a moment: “This problem enables me to become closer to my Creator.”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #756: Problems Bring Us Closer”

The world is not obstructing you. It is challenging you.

It knows its deepest treasures can be revealed only by the deepest faculties of your soul, and it taps those powers by providing isometrics for the soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Gosh, that all sounds so reasonable, so wonderful, so illuminating, so wise. I bet there are plenty of Christian writers who give similar advice. Just reading the words, I can imagine many other religions and philosophies also offer such an outlook and I don’t doubt that there are just tons and tons of books, including secular self-help books, that say more or less the same thing.

But when you’re actually having real problems, you may not immediately think in a cheerful inner voice, “Gee, this is a challenge God is giving me to help elevate me and bring me closer to Him.” You more likely are praying to God something like, “HELP!

I’m not saying that Rabbi Pliskin and Rabbi Freeman are wrong, just that such enlightened perspectives (and the vast majority of self-help aids on the market) fail to take real human beings with real worries, fears, and anxieties into account. They don’t consider the actual, lived experience of a person who is recovering from a serious accident or illness, who has just heard the news that a loved one is terminally ill, who has just had their house foreclosed, who has just had…

…you get the idea.

My father said: Truth is the middle path. An inclination to the right, to be overly stringent with oneself and find faults or sins not in accord with the truth, or an inclination to the left, to be overly indulgent, covering one’s faults or being lenient in demands of avoda out of self-love – both these ways are false.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, 27 Adar I, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Life, like truth, runs a middle path. Most of us aren’t incredibly holy and elevated people and most of us, if we have a spiritual awareness at all, aren’t feeding on the bottom of the river with the catfish either.

But people with a spiritual awareness can often drift off center, and when hard times come, we can either treat ourselves harshly, like we must have done something horrible to deserve this tragedy, or we may think that it’s totally unfair of God to let bad things happen to us and that He should cut us some slack. I’ve experienced both and “lived in” both places, and in my experience, hitting that “middle ground” is a very hard thing to do. It seems to be more reasonable and takes a lot less energy to just let yourself go emotionally and spiritually “limp” and throw yourself on the mercy of the court, which in this case is God.

But then Rabbi Freeman says:

There’s no such thing as defeat.

There’s always another chance. To believe in defeat is to believe that there is something, a certain point in time that did not come from Above.

Know that G‑d doesn’t have failures. If things appear to worsen, it is only as part of them getting better. We fall down only in order to bounce back even higher.

failureKind of makes me wonder if Rabbi Freeman has ever been in a situation where he’s felt defeated. Probably so, but one doesn’t successfully write motivational missives by admitting to such a thing.

You may gather from the topic in today’s meditation that I’ve been having a bad time lately, but that’s not actually true. However, I do sometimes react when I read advice articles or columns that I think are overly “perky.” I’m not sure that “religious people” always know how to cut someone enough slack to be compassionate without being so “mushy” that they (we) become enabling.

On the other hand, I think that there are times when we need to be confident in our faith and, in spite of the problems that are kicking us in the teeth, we need to persevere and push on. Certainly people like Brother Yun have had to do just that over and over again while being tortured, while being in prison, while being on the run from the law, while being hungry, while being homeless, and all of his other experiences as a Pastor and an Evangelist in Communist China.

But I also think there are times when the weight of a thousand, thousand problems, pressures, hurts, injuries, depressions, and hopeless situations land with a solid “thunk” on our chests and threaten to smash us flatter than a hockey puck and all we can to is cry out to God. Sometimes we can’t even do that and as we feel faith and even life oozing out of us, the only thing left is to give in and say, “God, do as You will,” and then let whatever’s going to happen, happen.

The trick is to know the difference. Neat trick. I wish I could learn it.

Or maybe I don’t. I’ve noticed that those people who have sincerely asked God to use them in a powerful way often experience trials and circumstances that were and are a lot tougher than they anticipated. Brother Yun made such a request of God and if you’ve read my review of his book (see the link above), you’ll know that he suffered tremendously.

For that matter, look at the lives of Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles. Most of all, look at the life of Jesus.

During a sermon a few weeks ago, my Pastor told a story. The story was about a Pastor who was giving a preaching series on discipleship. The series took many weeks to complete and was very thorough. When the Pastor finished his series, one of the long-time church members approached him and said:

Thank you Pastor for giving such an informative and insightful sermon on discipleship. Now that I understand what a disciple is and what it takes to be a good one, I don’t want to be a disciple anymore.

That’s supposed to inspire a “knowing” chuckle from the audience.

heavy-burdenWe always say that we’ll pick up our cross and follow Jesus anywhere, but how true is that? Do we put limits on how far we’ll go for our faith? Do we ever ask Jesus when we’re following him, why the territory seems to be getting so gloomy, scary, and dangerous looking?

Probably. Expecially in America and other Western nations, Christians aren’t used to having to work too hard at that “picking up cross and following” thing. Frankly, we should be afraid of it because we don’t really understand the implications, and if we did, we wouldn’t want them.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

Luke 22:31-34 (ESV)

I think we all know how that one turned out. Actually, in an ultimate sense, it turned out well, but not in the short run.

So what does that mean for us? Should we limit what we do for God because of the potential consequences? Should we stiffen our spines and just take what God gives us, no matter what, and be happy about it? I’d like to say the latter, but it scares me. I know faith demands the latter, but what will happen?

Becoming a Christian is like getting married. When the idea comes up and even as you approach the wedding day, everything seems great. You look forward to it. You see only the rewards. Then the big day comes, there’s the ceremony, all of your friends and family are there, you have the reception, you get lots of gifts and attention, sure there’s stress involved, but it’s hardly noticable in the whirlwind of activity.

Then there’s the honeymoon, setting up housekeeping, everything seems wonderful at first, you see only the good.

Then you have your first fight. A year passes, children a born, other years pass, you change, your spouse changes, and something interesting happens.

Stuff that you never, ever imagined would happen, happens. It could be stuff people, your parents, your Pastor, a counselor, tried to tell you would happen, but you didn’t listen or figured it would be no big deal. It could be stuff that you never imagined would occur in a million years. Stuff that only happens to other people. Stuff that you didn’t even think was possible.

But all that stuff makes your marriage hard!

You even think of divorce.

Actually, lots and lots of people get divorced and lots and lots of people stop being Christians and leave the church. End of story. It was too hard to be married. It’s too hard to be a disciple of Christ.

But then there are many, many other marriages that last thirty, forty, fifty, sixty or more years. Some of these marriages have managed to retain the love and devotion that the couple felt from the start, although the “magic” comes and goes periodically throughout the relationship. And then there are many, many other marriages where the relationship lasts just as long but the couple have drifted apart. Maybe some big problem forcefully inserted the initial wedge between them and then they traveled in different directions or maybe the initial “disconnect” was so subtle that neither husband nor wife noticed.

And now they live in the same house, eat the same meals, maybe even sit on the same sofa and watch the same TV shows, but they are actually living two separate lives. They never fight. They never argue. They never cuddle. They never make love. They’re just there.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Revelation 3:15-22 (ESV)

goldilocksThat probably describes a lot of Christians and a lot of Christian churches. The real tragedy is that these folks actually want it that way. A lukewarm bath is comfortable. Kind of like Goldilocks and the porridge. Not too hot and not too cold.

And not too demanding, stressful, or dangerous.

Lots of Christians describe themselves as “on fire for the Lord.” But fire burns out. Coals grow cold. Fuel turns to ashes.

How do we respond? First off, we should be careful what we ask for. Secondly, we should ask to be built up, so when God really does ask for something outrageous and spectactular from us, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. We’ve been prepared.

We should ask for mercy. Paul asked three times that his “thorn” (whatever it may have been) be removed from him, but the Lord said that his grace was all Paul needed. Pray that when the moment comes, we can let the Lord’s grace be all that we need as well.

And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:30-31 (ESV)

Each of us is fighting a hard battle in our lives. Pray that God will show compassion and mercy to us all, for if we haven’t realized it yet, we have all failed and will all fail…and then fall into the hands of the living God.

7 thoughts on “The Terrible Living God”

  1. “hopeless situations land with a solid “thunk” on our chests and threaten to smash us flatter than a hockey puck and all we can to is cry out to God.”

    I’ve found the time to absorb advice and to contemplate motivations like the ones you mention in the beginning, is during calm stretches for they strengthen us for the times of crises when you really aren’t able to learn anything “new.”

    Thanks for a great motivation.

  2. James, my dear friend, what a moving meditation, thank you for writing.

    It’s a funny thing, you know, hindsight.

    You said, “But when you’re actually having real problems, you may not immediately think in a cheerful inner voice, “Gee, this is a challenge God is giving me to help elevate me and bring me closer to Him.” You more likely are praying to God something like, “HELP!“

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Before I came to faith in Messiah, I was in the throws of an existential crisis, a nihilistic depression that was literally draining me of all life, love, and happiness. I stared into the abyss, and as they say, the abyss stared right back at me. I can tell you this, it was the most frightening, hopeless, void, meaningless experience I have ever encountered in my short life.

    I would have never stopped to consider, during my dark night of the soul, that what I was going through was actually making me stronger, and concurrently, bringing me closer and closer to G-d.

    All I felt at the time was utter helplessness…

    But as I was falling, with ever increasing speed, towards that inevitable end that nihilism ultimately brings, I cried out to G-d, with all of my Soul, much like you said, “HELP!”

    Slowly, not easily, mind you, I began to see light again. I began to see happiness, beauty, and most importantly, Love. I began to see miracles, I began to see G-d. Himself.

    Presently, when I look back on my experience and reflect, I laugh to myself, because, ironically, I thank G-d for it, and wouldn’t wish it away for anything in the world. Because, you see, I realize now that what the sages say, what the saints proclaim, what Yeshua embodied in His very person upon that terrible cross, is true. Suffering, is a blessing in disguise.

    I realize now that, while I was in what seemed to be at the time, the darkest, deepest, most dreadful region of the abyss, I was in fact closer to G-d than I had ever been in my life, prior to that moment.

    Anyways, thank you again my friend, this one resonated with me ( as this extremely lengthy comment undoubtedly shows 😉 )

    Peace to you, James.

    Blessed be The Lord Our G-d.

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