Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thought's Captive, Part 6

(You may read Part 5 in this series here.)

When the Dark Cloud Looms

The other day, I mentioned to my husband that in that this next post I was planning to finally relate what I do when I feel an episode of emotional distress brewing. His thoughts went immediately back to my most recent occurrence of severe emotional torment, which was nearly a year ago. (He remembers it well.  He was the helpless soul I clung to for dear life but who could not find anything to say that would calm me.)  He asked me what I thought I could have done differently that dreadful weekend that might have diffused the darkness. It was a very good question. I thought for only a moment before I realized that the answer lays in all the posts I've written in this series up until now. If I had laid that solid foundation beforehand, I would have been better equipped for that particular storm. In fact, I may even have been able to navigate clear around it.

I'm not free to explain exactly what it was that triggered what would prove to be one of the worst bouts of anxiety/depression of my life. It is enough to say that early on a Saturday morning a fear entered my head that I had made a critical and irreparable mistake at work on Friday. Even though I had a checklist at home that seemed to indicate that I had in fact done the right thing, my mind would not let me accept that evidence. There was no way for me to access my office until 9:00 Monday morning, so I spent the entire weekend circling in a downward spiral of fear and shame, unable to eat, pacing the floor, unable to sleep, raging with terror, tossing in bed, refusing hope, uncontrollably rehearsing words of confession, and dreaming up nightmare scenarios. Normally lacking in imagination, the grave outcomes I concocted were ingenious. My mind rewrote my life into a Shakespearean tragedy.

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."- Macbeth

But God is not an idiot, and, thankfully,  He is the author of my life.  Looking back I can see that all through those black hours, though I felt so alone and helpless, God was guiding me with the faintest glimmers of light. There was the near-constant prayer, which at the time felt fruitless. There was the unflagging support of my devoted husband, whose words of comfort at the time seemed powerless.  There were a couple of Scripture passages about trusting God which I repeated over, and over, and over in my head, seemingly to no avail.  There was a morning and an evening church service. There was an impromptu invitation to the home of a dear Christian family who listened to my fears, prayed for me, fed me, and did a fine job making me feel genuinely loved for a few hours.  Through the cloud of my suffering I had not recognized that all of these were the threads with which God was holding me together.

All I knew at the time was that somehow I had survived until Monday. I drove to work, numb with exhaustion, praying, determining to trust God no matter what happened.  When I arrived I found that my checklist had not lied.  I had not made the mistake I thought I had. No confession of failure would be needed. Everything was fine. The crisis had existed only in my imagination, but the episode left a deep impression. The immobilizing terror was gone, but a deep unsettled feeling would linger for days.  What if I had made that mistake? The plates were still spinning, but they could just as easily have crashed. What mistake might I make in the future that could destroy my life? And then, if I could be so mistaken as to think I had made such a blunder when I really hadn't, well, that about as bad as making the mistake in the first place, right? Surely I was incompetent.  Furthermore, I had succumbed to a fear so dreadful that I had been tempted with suicide. What on earth had happened to my faith that it let me sink this low? I felt humiliated.

Yet, I was alive.  Purely by the grace of God, I'd endured a 48 hour storm of self-inflicted horror and several days more under the wispy dark clouds which trailed behind it.  Humbled, I clung to Christ and regained my footing.  Determined never to be caught so unprepared again, I once again began taking stock of my life.

Up until that fateful Saturday morning I had allowed my days to fill up with everything that wasn't Christ. I was working two jobs, one of which consumed most of my "time off".  I worked at work, and I worked at home. Part of this keeping-busy was engineered, I realize now, as a way of distracting myself from the grief of losing my mother and from various other sorrows that had piled on top of it. From there it had snowballed with no intention on my part as I allowed myself to take on more and more responsibilities that I could just have easily refused. I was over-committed at work and home. For a while I enjoyed the challenge and felt a sense of accomplishment. But soon my sense of worth and meaning began to be tied up in my ability to keep the many plates spinning.

The emotional energy I was expending in the process was immense, however, and I was doing little to replenish it. I still prayed most mornings and nights, but little beyond that.  I was not spending much time listening to God's voice in Scripture. Thankfully I'd been getting excellent teaching at church, but it was like drinking gallons of fresh water every Sunday and then going dry for the rest of the week.  It was just barely enough to keep me going. I had also been sorely lacking in Christian fellowship until only a few weeks before that horrible weekend. I was dreadfully weak, but, until the storm came, I hadn't really noticed.  When it did, I was nearly overwhelmed.

This is why I've spent so much of this series thus far on foundation-work.  For the Christian, God's word, prayer, and Christian fellowship form the infrastructure of a stable emotional life. These are the means God uses to strengthen our faith and hope in Him.  If we spend time in the Scripture daily, pray constantly, and fellowship regularly - building close bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ - we will find we have an emotional structure which provides refuge and peace even in the midst of the raging storms and spiritual battles of life. This stability - this deep faith - will, in and of itself, douse many of the flames which might otherwise have triggered an explosion.

None of us is perfect in our faith, however, and so there will still be times when dark clouds loom and their rumbling thunder makes us tremble. Since that fateful weekend I have developed a strategy of sorts for managing these threatening emotional crises.  Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Mk. 10:14,15) When my children were little they would come to me for everything, but when they were frightened or hurt their worlds came to a screeching halt and they came running to me for help and comfort.  That, in short is my strategy.  When I feel even the smallest beginnings of emotional turmoil, like a little child I drop everything and run to God.

For a grown-up child of God, it works this way:

1) Silence everything - This means turning off wherever possible radio, music*, news, television, internet, etc.  It is possible that you are using media to try to avoid thinking about issues you really should be addressing.  It is also possible that the information you are taking in is triggering your emotional upset.  Whatever the case, you will not be able to get to the bottom of your problem, or be ready to listen to God, until you silence all the external demands upon your mind.**

2) Seek God:  Pray for help. Pray for wisdom. Pray for everything you think you need at that moment and everything God thinks you need as well.

3) Seek understanding: Trusting God to give you wisdom, try to identify the cause of your emotional malaise.  Examine your thoughts.  Try to trace your dark feelings back to their source. What was the trigger?  Was it something you heard? Was it something you thought up on your own?  Was is something you did? Whatever it was that got that eight-ball rolling, identify it, then get to the bottom of why it troubles you.  Perhaps it made you doubt God's love for you.  Perhaps it caused you doubt His grace, or His compassion.  Perhaps it reveals that you don't believe He really forgives your sin, or that it is you who is harboring unforgiveness. Perhaps you know you've sinned but don't want to repent. Perhaps the trigger was related to a painful experience from your past. Whatever the case the next step is the same:

4) Submit it to God:  Whatever you've found - doubt, fear, anger, guilt, shame, unforgiveness, etc. - take it directly to God and confess it.  Pour your heart out to Him. Be honest. He knows your thoughts and your feelings anyway. Tell Him what you are afraid of. Tell Him how it hurts and why. If it's a sin that's hard to let go of, admit that to Him. Make your requests to Him. Ask Him to give you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.

5) Search the Scriptures:  What does God's word have to say about your situation?  Find some passages that speak to your trouble and meditate on them. Commit them to memory. Let His words transform your thoughts and your behavior.

6) Seek fellowship:  We are not meant to go this Christian life alone. Together we Christians make up the body of Christ on this earth. Each of us is just one small part of that body. We need each other more desperately than we realize. Sometimes, most times, you will need the help of the body to get to the source of your emotional problems. Sometimes you will find that being cut off from that body is at the very heart of your pain. If you have not built relationships within your local church, start right away. Depression and fear will try to tell you to hide away. Don't do it.

The pain of depression and anxiety has taught me that there is great comfort and peace to be found in Christ and His church. It has taken awhile, but I've finally learned not to try to tune out the stirrings of emotional trouble with media or with busy activity.  I have learned not to wait until things get really bad before I run to Him. I can come to Him right away and for any reason, and you can, too. I have also learned to run to God's people, to let their love be a balm to my soul.

Finally a few words of common sense advice:  Be sure you are getting enough exercise, enough sunshine, and enough sleep. Don't give in to behaviors that contribute to your problem. If you are depressed and have taken to your bed or your chair, get up and do something. If you are frantically/anxiously busying yourself, sit down and rest.  Do the very things your depression tries to keep you from doing:  walk, sing, shop, pray, cook, draw, clean house, finish projects, call your friends, go to church, tell people how you really feel and what you are really going through, go out to lunch, read your Bible.  These are the very mundane things that help you regain lost perspective.

These practices have seen me through many difficult days, and so I share them here in hope that they be of help to others.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort." 2 Cor. 1:3-7

*    After publishing this post, it occurred to me that while I have written in others posts on the value of hymns and psalms, I have failed in the context of this series thus far to mention the positive role music can play in the spiritual life. For the purposes of this post, and step #1, however, I had in mind secular music, as well as any other music that might serve to contribute to or distract, for whatever reason, from your ability to focus on the trial at hand.

**  I recommend maintaining the media silence at least until you have completely moved beyond the crisis.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Talk: Crazy Like Us

My, how time flies!  It's so hard to believe it's been over two years since I heard an interview with author Ethan Watters about his book, Crazy Like Us, on NPR's Talk of the Nation program. I was so intrigued that I determined to run right out and get a copy. Typical of me, I promptly forgot until a few days later when I learned that this same author was not only a native of our community (his mother still lives here) but was going to be giving a lecture and book-signing right here in Chico. This was too good to miss. Paul and I were there at the locally owned bookstore on February 11, 2010 with bells on to listen, meet the author, and purchase a copy of his book. As interested as I was in the subject matter, life's events would conspire until just a few weeks ago to keep me from reading it.

The subject is the Americanization of the world's psyche, how we are "homogenizing the way the world goes mad".  As far as I can tell, the issues it raises are as alive and well in the public dialogue as they were when the book made its debut two years ago. Nothing in the interim seems to have changed substantially enough to diminish the import of the book, and so I think it is as worth reading today as it was two years ago.

Emotional suffering is nothing new to mankind, but expressions of it differ from place to place and age to age. Watters' introduction gives a brief but enlightening tour of the diverse manifestations of mental illness in  various places and periods of history, painting a picture of great cultural diversity and sometimes rapid changes in manifestations of mental illness as madness seeks to find a fitting expression within each cultural narrative.  
"Because the troubled mind has been perceived in terms of diverse religious, scientific, and social beliefs of discrete cultures, the forms of madness from one place and time in history often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another. These differing forms of mental illness can sometimes appear and disappear within a generation.... Symptoms of mental illness are the lightning in the zeitgeist, the product of culture and belief in specific times and specific places. That thousands of upper-class women in the mid-nineteenth century couldn't get out of bed due to the onset of hysterical leg paralysis gives us a visceral understanding of the restrictions set on women's social roles at the time.
"But with the increasing speed of globalization, something has changed. The remarkable diversity once seen among different cultures' conceptions of madness is rapidly disappearing. A few mental illnesses identified and popularized in the United States - depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anorexia among them - now appear to be spreading across cultural boundaries and around the world with the speed of contagious diseases. Indigenous forms of mental illness and healing are being bulldozed by disease categories and treatments made in the U.S.A." (p. 3)
As America once flooded the earth with missionaries hoping to save humanity, we are now with like evangelistic fervor inundating the planet with our mental health theories, tests, diagnoses, therapies, pharmaceuticals, and professionals, confident that we are best equipped to confront the rest of the world's mental health traumas. Eager to ease suffering, hoping to enlighten the ignorant, sensing at times the opportunity for profit, confident of the superiority of its understanding and methods, the American psycho-pharmaceutical complex has unwittingly (and sometimes not) shipped its own versions of mental illness around the globe. American-style mental illness has gone viral.

Watters traveled the world documenting the ways in which American-style psychoses are being insinuated into places where they had never been and foreign anguish is being squeezed into the mold of American mental illness diagnoses. He notes the new problems our western involvement introduces which these societies' indigenous coping mechanisms are unequipped to handle. As cases in point, Watters focuses on four mental illnesses in four different countries: anorexia in Hong Kong, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in Sri Lanka, schizophrenia in Zanzibar, and depression in Japan.

In the cases of Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Japan, the mental illnesses in question did not exist in their "American" expressions prior to American/Western involvement. Anorexia in Hong Kong was previously rare and a disorder mainly of the love-lorn, having nothing to do with a distorted body-image. Prior to the influx of Western mental health professionals following the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka was "a population...that seldom needed outside encouragement or counseling to get back on its feet even after the most punishing hardships" (pg.88) which at that time included a recent earthquake and civil war. In Japan, the rise of western-style depression can be traced to the "marketing campaign of GlaxoSmithKline and other SSRI makers" (p. 199).

The matter of schizophrenia in Zanzibar has a different feel. In this case the disease had long appeared in that culture, as it has all around the world. It was interesting to learn that the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenics around the world reflect the fears, religions, and obsessions of their specific cultures - which put me in mind stories I've heard of disturbed individuals lining their homes or their hats with tin-foil to protect them from the secret spy rays being beamed at them by their perceived enemies - stories which ooze with Cold War/McArthy era paranoia. Schizophrenics are not entirely divorced from their reality and culture. In is research Watters found that the disease varies from place to place not only in its expressions, but in its prevalence and severity, and, even more striking, he found that:
"...people with schizophrenia in developing countries appear to do better over time than those living in industrialized nations...the regions of the world with the most resources to devote to the illness - the best technology, the cutting-edge medicines, and the best financed academic and private research insititutions - had the most troubled and socially marginalized patients." (p. 137-138)
What most surprised me in the discussion of schizophrenia was the impact the western "medical model of mental illness" (viewing mental illness as a chemical imbalance, brain disease, etc.) has in the places where it is adopted. The common thinking has been that diagnosing schizophrenia and other mental problems as "diseases" will benefit the sufferers by de-stigmatizing them. Unfortunately, the results have been shown to be exactly the opposite. Studies show that where the disease model is well-accepted the stigma is increased not decreased:
"The problem, it appears, is that the biomedical or genetic narrative about an illness such as schizophrenia carries with it the subtle assumption that a brain made ill through biomedical or genetic abnormalities is more thoroughly broken and permanently abnormal compared to one made ill through life events."
In fact, studies show that people treat sufferers worse when they believe them to have a mental illness than when they believe them to be suffering emotionally as a result of painful experiences. And so we find another case of western methods making matters worse rather than better.

Of greatest interest to me, as someone who was at one time diagnosed and medicated for depression, was the discussion of depression in Japan.  The surprises here for me were two-fold:  first, the heavy hand of the pharmaceutical industry in promoting the American model of depression in order to create a market for their product (In Japan "depression" had little in common with its Western counterpart, and what we would call depression was not originally viewed as a bad thing.); second, the absence of "scientific consensus that depression is linked to serotonin deficiency or that SSRIs restore the brain's normal 'balance' of this neurotransmitter."
"To date, no lower levels of serotonin or 'imbalance' of neurotransmitter have been demonstrated in depressed patients. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry states simply, "Additional experience has not confirmed the monoamine [of which serotonin is a subgroup] depletion hypothesis.'
SSRI's don't bring a patient's brain chemistry back into balance, but rather broadly alter brain chemistry. Although that change may sometimes help a depressed patient, the idea that SSRIs restore a natural balance of serotonin is a theory without evidence. Put another way, this idea is more of a culturally shared story than a scientific fact..."
Reading those words, I remembered how little the anti-depressant I had taken had helped me, and how hellish the withdrawal had been when I discontinued it.  I found it difficult not to feel as though I had been sold a bill of goods.  And, sadly, I continue to hear this "chemical imbalance" narrative repeated in almost every discussion of depression I hear.*

As it turns out America is rather unique in viewing depression as a medical problem. "Feelings and symptoms that an American doctor might categorize as depression are often viewed in other cultures as something of a 'moral compass,' prompting both the individual and the group to search for the source of the social, spiritual, or moral discord. By applying a one-size-fits-all notion of depression around the world...we run the risk of obscuring the social meaning and response the experience might be indicating." (p. 196) In other words, in other cultures emotional suffering is understood as having meaning and moral import.  When we reduce emotional anguish to the level of chemical processes, we dehumanize the sufferer and invalidate the social and moral aspect of whatever tragedy is causing their pain.
"The ideas we export to other cultures often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection and hyperindividualism.... that have encouraged us to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group. Even the fascinating biomedical scientific research into the workings of the brain has, on a cultural level, further removed our understanding of the mind from the social and natural world it navigates. On its website advertising its antidepressant, one drug company illustrates how far this reductive thinking has gone: 'Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar, and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.' The Western mind, endlessly parsed by generations of philosophers, theorist, and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls." (p. 254, emphasis mine)
I share Watters' over-arching concern, but not only for the sake of the rest of the world, which we are rapidly converting. I feel we've done ourselves a disservice in the way we treat mental disorders right here at home.

I heartily recommend Crazy Like Us to anyone affected in any way by Western mental health practices. It is not only informative, it is riveting.  You will walk away with a broader perspective, and, if you're like me, a renewed sense of respect for the emotional suffering of the world.

* I heard the following assertion regarding SSRIs recently in a rather disturbing (to me) discussion on the treatment of depression:  "...if we go back to Prozac, and we go back to an era when the people used to talk about depression in terms of this chemical in the brain called Serotonin, right. Everybody, oh, your Serotonin is low, that's why you're depressed. And that turned out not to be the case, or it was not nearly that simple, that depression was simply a lack of Serotonin."   The subject of the full discussion is a certain party drug which has been found to curb depression quickly in some people. You may listen to the interview or read the transcript here.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Thought's Captive, Part 5

(You may read Part 4 in this series here.)

The Priority of Prayer

If you've ever been caught in the quagmire of depression or anxiety you know how impossible breaking free from the grip of those grim or terrifying thoughts feels. No amount of "reason" can out-reason your darkness. No matter what your actual circumstances are, you feel as if you are teetering on the thin line between life and death.
"...for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so....O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." - Hamlet
Shakespeare demonstrates, through his tempted and tormented Hamlet, what any mental sufferer knows: no external force can directly destroy the soul of a man. It is the response of the mind and heart which directs it down a path which leads either toward spiritual life or death. Long before Shakespeare, the writers of Scripture taught that spiritual warfare, the battle for our souls, takes place, in large part, in our minds, and that to win this battle we must take control of our thoughts. 
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..."  2 Cor. 10: 3-5
The very fact that the Bible refers to this process as warfare should make it clear that there is nothing easy about it, and that forces are arrayed against us trying to foil us at every turn. Whether we recognize it or not, we are all in this battle, but those of us who suffer from emotional disorders are often keenly aware of it. For this reason, I would go so far as to say that this weakness of ours can be turned to our advantage in our warfare, for as the apostle testified:
"But he [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Cor. 12:9-10
Weakness becomes strength when it leads us to connect through prayer to the power and love of the almighty God. Since there are few times we feel weaker than when we are suffering from depression or anxiety, these times, rather than destroying us, can lead us to even greater strength. I am certainly not suggesting by this that we should wallow in mental suffering. Rather that we should determine to use this weakness of ours as a reminder of our desperate dependence upon God's strength.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his mightPut on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints...*" (Eph. 6:10-18 emphasis mine)
In this famous passage about spiritual armor we are taught to prepare ourselves for the inevitable spiritual attacks. The pieces of armor we must don are listed, and finally we are told "in all circumstances" to take up the "the shield of faith...the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times...."  Take up the word of God, praying...Prayer is the manner by which we take them all times...means we are to be continually communicating with God and depending upon Him to exercise His strength on our behalf.

What this means, practically speaking, is that we take all of our thoughts, cares, and concerns to God. We hold our thoughts, words, and deeds up to the light His words shed on them, asking Him to help us see them as He does. We ask for forgiveness for any sins it reveals. If we are afraid, we tell Him, and ask for faith to believe His wonderful promises. If we are feeling hopeless, we do the same. If we are confused, we tell Him, and ask for clarity and wisdom. If we are overcome by anger or unforgiveness, we tell Him, and we ask His help to remember the love Christ demonstrated to us while we were still his enemies. When what He commands seems too hard for us (and it often does) we ask for the strength and resolve we need to obey Him. It also means we take all our requests and desires hopefully to God, as a child does to a loving parent, trusting and expecting Him to answer in whatever way is best for us.

And if we do this we will find it to be true that even in the midst of a spiritual war...
the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
*Prayer and spiritual warfare are not meant to be solitary ventures.  In a future post in this series I will discuss the importance of the church body to the spiritual maturity of each believer.

(In the next post in this series I will share the methods I've found most helpful when faced with an acute crisis of anxiety or depression.)

(You may read Part 6 in this series here.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thought's Captive, Part Four

(You may read Part 3 in this series here.)

The Priority of Scripture

In my previous post in this series I introduced Scripture's critical role in transforming our minds and creating emotional stability and a sense of inner peace. Today I would like to expand on that thought by addressing how important our attitude toward Scripture is in this transformation.  

Five years into my life with Christ, a series of events, deaths mainly, but other painful experiences as well, heaped one on top of another culminated in a crisis that violently shook my spiritual house and nearly crushed my faith. The crash was frightening, but when the shaking ceased, the foundation and a few  supports still stood.  Christ was that foundation. The pillars were my deep belief that the Scriptures are God's words to man.  So, with Christ as my hope and Scripture and solid teaching as my guide I began to rebuild, sifting through the rubble to salvage what I could.  I carefully examined the materials I had used and evaluated my methods of construction. This process was confusing and difficult, especially at first, and the temptation to toss everything impetuously away was overwhelming. But deep in my heart I knew that I had used some very fine materials for which there was no substitute and that it would be wrong to toss out what I knew to be good and true merely because I'd used it in some very wrong ways. What soon became obvious was that I had built my entire structure using only the materials and methods I liked best while neglecting many essential ones that didn't appeal to me. My technique was half-hazard and slip-shod as well.  My use of plumb-line and levels was sporadic rather than systematic. The combined result of these many factors was that my structure was unable to withstand the earthquake when it came.

My first and biggest mistake was in allowing the voice of God in Scripture to lose its priority in my life. It was a slow and subtle shift. During the two years or so leading up to this crisis, my attention was being gradually diverted from Scripture to books, articles, discussions and debates about Scripture. Even though what I was reading was by and large biblical and sound and contained plenty of Scripture references and scriptural concepts, I was relying mainly on hearsay, so to speak. I had allowed my focus and emphasis to be determined by high-profile preachers (very good ones mainly) and whatever doctrinal talking points were making the rounds within my rather isolated circle, and around the internet. I had pet doctrines, favorite attributes of God, and a favorite group of Bible teachers. As my focus narrowed I began to lose track of the big picture: the true emphases of Scripture and the true uses for which its doctrines were intended. I laid weight where the Bible doesn't and gave light consideration to some very weighty things.

While claiming to have the highest regard for Scripture and the God who reveals Himself in it, I was picking and choosing what I liked to focus on, and behaving as if the rest were not there, exaggerating some features and minimizing others, adjusting the picture to suit my preferences and my perceived needs. My near-disaster taught me what a dangerous game this subtle form of idolatry can be. Not only is it blasphemous to treat our Creator in this way, as though we had the right to dictate to Him what kind of God He should be, it is downright destructive to us. Just as every attribute of God is essential to who He is, as beings made in His image, each is also essential to who we are. We Christians are those fallen beings in whom God's image is being restored, and this re-creation takes place as "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:18)  

Seeing Him clearly, precisely as He really is, is the source our spiritual transformation, and it is the source of our emotional and spiritual wholeness. Since God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through His written word, nothing can be more important to knowing Him than listening to everything He tells us about Himself and using every fiber of our being to rightly understand Him, to love Him as He really is, and to obey His every precept. If we don't accept and love Him as He says He is, we are not really accepting Him at all.  If we don't believe all of His word, then we have determined that His word is not believable. If we don't believe His word, we can never trust Him - we will never be changed and we will never experience peace.  In truth, if we do not trust Him, we can never be saved at all.

And so it is essential to both our spiritual life and emotional stability that we come to love and accept God as He really is. This means we try not to take His words out of context and we resist the urge to read into it what we want it to say. (Think how we hate to have our own words twisted, and yet how often do we do this to God's words?) It means we embrace the whole of Scripture, not just our favorite verses, topics, or doctrines. I cannot emphasize enough just how important this careful balance is to inner peace and stability, but I will try to explain.  As I've said before, God's word does not change us by "magic" - as though reading it does the trick. It reaches our hearts through our minds as the Holy Spirit gives us understanding. Change begins when we believe what we've heard and act upon it (Romans 10:17). Our attitudes, feelings, and actions, then, are the products of what we truly believe. This is why what we understand and believe about God is so important.

For example, some of you may believe that the love of God is over-emphasized in the church and you may even mock those who love to preach this "wimpy" God. A time will come, however when, overwhelmed by guilt, you realize just how desperately you need His love, His gentle voice, and His tender mercy, but the echos of your mocking voice will taunt you. In your time of weakness will you find grace or comfort in your Dirty Harry version of God?

Or maybe you are one who detests the notion of God's wrath. Your idea of a loving God would never be anything but gentle and kind. But when the horrors of cruel injustice - of murder, of rape, of torture, of genocide - someday stare you in the face and you find no earthly justice or recompense, where will you find rest for your soul unless you believe with all your heart that God sees, that He is even more angry than you, and that He will repay?

Conversely, it might be that you are a person who secretly (or openly) delights in the doctrine of God's wrath, lording it over people, threatening them with it in the guise of "witnessing", smiling inside as they squirm. But what will you find to smile about when someone you deeply loves dies without Christ and your ungracious thoughts and words come back to torment you? Or when you yourself are overcome by sin or doubt, and the wrath you've delighted in swings like a pendulum over your own head?

Perhaps, instead, you are one who rejects the notion of authority. You don't believe God can or should demand anything of His creatures. But what then do you do when you need Him to act on your behalf? If He has no right to command you, or any other human, by what authority can he bring anything to pass? What good then are your prayers?

Or what happens if your idea of God's sovereignty has overwhelmed any sense you have of personal responsibility, or potency to effect change in your life, or motivation to prayer; when it has left you fatalistic or foolhardy in the face of the future? Or what if the teaching that God does whatever He does only for His own glory leaves you feeling like a cog in His glory-wheel? What happens to your heart when your understanding of the doctrine of "election" (the belief that God chooses and saves whoever he chooses to save) which once gave you a deep sense of hope and security eventually turns on you, leaving you in an agony of uncertainty, fearing every sin may be the evidence that you aren't one of God's elect?

Believe it or not, all these potentially disastrous outcomes, and many more, can result from the mishandling of perfectly good Scripture and doctrine. Some of these were causes of my own spiritual crash. What we think about God matters, right down to our souls. Taking our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ, can only be accomplished through a full and rich understanding of God's word - all of it. This kind of growth may feel slow. My own structure is growing much more slowly this time around - but I can already feel how much sturdier it is when the wind blows against it. I have learned that building a stable life with Christ, using the Scripture as it is meant to be used, does not prevent storms or dark nights of the soul, but it does provide shelter and light in the midst of them. It provides emotional stability - which is even better.

In future posts I will be discussing more specifically the practices that contribute to a sturdy spiritual life.

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, 
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season, 
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1

(You may read Part 5 in this series here.)