The Lord Will Fight For You

There’s a fine line between acting in faith and trying to gain freedom in my own strength. I tend to think that if I talk about a struggle enough, if I analyze it from every angle and dress it in different words, I’ll be able to finally discover some insight that will set me free once and for all from thought patterns that keep coming back to haunt me. Now don’t get me wrong, there is responsibility on my part to be proactive in setting my mind on what is good and true, the way that I’ve been approaching it until now hasn’t been effective.

I’m reading a fascinating and insightful book by J.P. Moreland, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace. Moreland, a theologian and professor, recounts his experience with mental illness (he had two anxiety-induced nervous breakdowns 10 years apart) and practical steps we can take to replace toxic thoughts patterns with what is true. One of the most enlightening things I’ve gotten from the book so far is that fighting our toxic thoughts by camping out with them and analyzing why they aren’t true actually reinforces the thoughts and keeps the neural pathway that these thoughts reside in well-oiled. Moreland writes:

“The key is not to ruminate about the message, arguing with yourself why it isn’t true or drawing out horrible implications of it. Such rumination, even telling yourself why the message isn’t true, actually depends the brain grooves that trigger the message and makes it harder to get rid of. The goal is to dismiss the message…” (71).

My strategy, so far, has been just this, to ruminate, gritting my teeth, determined to kill the negative thoughts. But I see the irony, trying to fight the battle against distorted thinking with the logic of the mind in which the distorted thinking resides is foolish. Instead, I need to “dismiss the message,” as Moreland says, by acknowledging that the thought is a lie and refocusing my attention on something solid and true.

A good friend recently said the same thing to me, that redirecting my thoughts rather than dwelling on them will play a huge part in experiencing freedom. She used the analogy of a dog being trained, a mental image which stuck with me. When the dog acts out, a smart owner redirects the dog’s attention rather than reinforcing the action through long, drawn-out punishment. So instead of punishing myself every time I have a thought that I think I should have grown past, maybe the wisest thing to do is to submit it to God, refuse to self-flagelate, and redirect my attention to something that I enjoy, whether that’s writing a blog post, listening to Susie Larson’s podcast, taking a trip to the Russian grocery store, or watching Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jello.

When the Israelites found themselves surrounded on all sides-the Egyptians ready to strike and the Red Sea blocking their way, no human battle strategy could save them.

No human battle strategy could save them, but God could, and he did. Moses told the people, “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” (Ex. 14:14)

And God fought for them in a way only He was able: he parted the sea and His people walked to freedom. They had to step forward, yes, but it was the Lord who led the way.

In the same way, when freedom seems impossible to me, perhaps it’s because I’m trusting in my mind rather than trusting God to lead me to mental victory. No amount of analysis on my part will lead to freedom; instead, my victory will only come when I rest my weary mind, submit my thoughts to him and say, “Lord, only you can fight this battle.” So may I trust His healing process, may I rest my mind, and may I take joy in the fact that He is fighting my battles, and that He always wins.

Unless a Kernel of Wheat

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that Dostoevsky chose to open The Brothers Karamazov  with, words that are now etched as the epitaph on his gravestone.  I want to know what he was feeling when he chose that verse; take away all your critical essays and footnotes and academic speculations, and just let me see that man’s heart before his God.

Was he feeling what I feel today?

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

These are the words of Jesus that have been on meditative repeat all day long, washing away the fear that dirties my eyes and clogs my ears.

The fear has lied to me for years, spouting its logic that such a sacrifice is not meant for me, but for another follower. “You,” the fear whispers, “must make your primary goal self-protection, you must do everything to prevent yourself from this daily death. You are fragile, brittle, weak, and the grand paradox must be experienced from a safe distance, in the acknowledgement of the One who set the precedent and in the reading of stories of followers who were so much stronger than you. Don’t think you need to follow in their footsteps; it is your spiritual mission to achieve a peaceful control. Control over anxiety, depression, and your unpredictable emotions is what will make you most useful to Him. For what good is a desperate child, weeping, fumbling through the day without finesse or passion or plan? Only when you feel confident and competent will you understand what it means to live victoriously.”

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

The death is meant for me too, though, I realize as I walk along icy streets awaiting spring’s breath. Safety doesn’t equal freedom in His kingdom, and it is beauty, not shame, to be in the place where I have to cry every morning “your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.”

This death is meant for me, and the words of Christ nudge me to stop and consider if the goals I’ve subconsciously set for July and beyond really align with his calling. Five months of living in chaos external and internal has tempted me to exchange the word adventure for comfort, a concession I never thought I would make. Yet here I am, tricking myself into the smallness of stability.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” John 12:25

Jesus’ next words defy logic, proclaiming a paradox that I have been so scared to embrace. I love my life too much, and in trying to barricade it against harm, I suffocate and starve it.

I may never get control of my “issues.” Depression and anxiety may very well make regular appearances throughout my life. And I may not ever feel like I have it all together. But the words of Christ make me realize that gaining control of my emotions, my relationships, and my vocation shouldn’t be my goal. My goal, however unsafe and unfair and impossible it seems, should be to embody John 12:24-25.  In each feeble step forward to breathe “He must become greater, I must become less.”  To reclaim adventure by embracing this paradox of life through death.

Destination: Unknown

Ten years ago, I sat huddled inside a bus with dingy drapes, the steady beat of potholes jarring my head as I tried in vain to rest against the cold window. As I shivered and peered out the glass into the darkness of a Russian night, two questions circled, “where on earth am I going, and what have I gotten myself into?” I sat scared and vulnerable, my mind’s projections of my destination making me wish I could turn the bus around. Fettered by the unknown, I had no idea that I would be swept up into an adventure that would radically change the direction of my life, that I would meet people who would leave indelible marks on my heart, and that I would experience God’s faithfulness with a beauty and depth I had never known. No, all I could see that night was darkness.

In the same way, these last four months have felt similar to that dark night as a twelve year old on my way to Russia for the first time. Anxiety loves to feed off the unknown, and these past four months have been a constant tug-of-war between feeding the indefinite to my anxiety or to my God.

In the waiting, the voice of fear has been a constant attacker, tainting the joy that should be bubbling over. Fear loves to make me turn inward and focus on me and my abilities: “What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are? What do you know about teaching? You are inarticulate and will fall flat on your face.” Fear loves to fill my mind with the soundtrack of human approval:  “What if you don’t live up to the university’s expectations? What if everything you do is met with frustration and misunderstanding? What if your students don’t like you?” In short, fear loves to get my mind off God and onto the idols of self and others.

Fear wants to make this adventure smaller; it wants to tame it into something manageable and shaped like me. Fear wants me to lose sight of the vastness of God’s plan and have me settle for something comfortable and controllable. I serve the God who not only created the universe, but redeemed me from my sin, and I don’t want to spit on the sacrifice he made for my freedom by acting as if I were still a slave.

But right now, I feel just as blinded to the vastness of God’s plan as I did when I was on that bus ten years ago. I have two choices in this blindness: fear or faith. When I submit to fear because of my lack of sight, I begin to feel like a shell of myself. Instead of adventurous, I feel apprehensive. Instead of full of life and enthusiasm, I feel bottled, restrained and cold. Instead of joyful, I feel depressed; instead of active, I feel passive. But when I choose confidence in the unseen because of the God whose hand I do see, my anxiety is exchanged for joy, freedom, and perspective.

So in this period of the “night bus,” while my vision is foggy and my mind tempted to fear, I want to walk confidently into the future as Abraham did, who, “by faith…when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)