The trees rushed by, a hazy blur outside the car window. As my mother drove, she conveyed important news to my sister and I: my father was gone and would not be coming home. Why was he leaving? Did I do something to make him leave? What does this mean? I experienced so many thoughts, questions and emotions that I didn’t have the capacity to name or articulate. Dad had left and I thought it was my fault.
The spirit of death began knocking very early. Several incidents opened the way to this insipid presence, including having pneumonia as an infant, sharing Mom with my baby sister, and the growing discord and tension between my parents which led to their separation and divorce when I was seven years old.
Deep inside a message began to take root in my heart: you better not expect or hope for too much because it’s unlikely you will get it.
Good pervaded as well, and I am grateful for many glimmers of God’s presence. My home was comfortable, and my parents blessed us with many good gifts.
When I was a teenager, both my mother and father remarried. We moved across the country, away from what I knew and loved. I began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. College brought more attempts to find acceptance and escape, including sexual promiscuity and an eating disorder. The destructive behavior continued off and on through my twenties, eclipsing much of the light of my childhood.
When I finally said yes to Jesus, He saved my life! In every way possible, hope invaded. I began to feel and believe there was more for me, to be “confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). Yet living as a new creation, in the magnanimity Joseph Pieper describes, has proven far more challenging than I imagined.
As a new Christian, I believed God would give me the desires of my heart. I began to fall in love with Him and did all I could to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33). Yet as the years passed, and some of my deeper desires went unmet, my faith and hope became less certain.
I battled self-pity, disappointment, envy and despair. I prayed many prayers and cried many tears. I poured out my heart to Him and trusted friends and colleagues; I confessed unbelief, hopelessness and self-hatred. They spoke forgiveness to me as well as words of life and truth; they fought for all that the Lord had made me for.
I also read and meditated on numerous Scriptures about His love and hope, taking them as His promises to me. His Word and the words and prayers of my friends, church community and parents helped to overcome the heavy veil and shadow of the spirit of death. They anchored me in love and helped me see and live in my spacious spiritual home.
Most days I tried to do all I could to choose activities that brought me life: time in quiet and in the Bible, listening, praying and enjoying His presence, getting together with friends for dinner, a movie or visits to the museum, hiking, riding my bike and exercising, traveling to interesting places for ministry and pleasure.
I wish I could say I always chose to turn toward such life-giving sources. Sadly, I didn’t. At times sloth or acedia, the resulting sadness, inactivity, depression and discouragement Pieper describes, and in my case accompanying isolation, were my life-sapping “companions.”
Sometimes I fought the heaviness, reaching out to God and others. Other times I didn’t care enough to make the effort. The key to whether I stand in the fullness of my true self or abdicate my authority seems to hinge on a few decisions: first, my willingness to acknowledge and feel painful emotions tied to different disappointments; next, reaching out and making the life-affirming choices I listed above; and finally, I am honest with myself when I am withdrawing from life and people, and try to respond by asking for help and prayer.
Though I know it is necessary, I don’t look forward to the pain. Recently the surfacing of a deeper level of emotion has left me worn out. Perhaps the weariness comes with growing older. I’m not sure why, but the cry of my heart had become: “How long O Lord, how long?”
The pain and longing seem to come from two sources: my own personal pain and disappointment, and the pain and longing we all feel in our earthly separation from God (2 Cor 5:1-6, Rom 8:22-23). The ache of this exile and the more acute level of personal pain pushed me to seek God in ways I never had before.
He came. The “man of sorrows . . . familiar with suffering” (Is 53:3) met me in my suffering. He comforted me, “carried [my] sorrows” (Is 53:4) and eased my aloneness. He brought me to the cross, the place where all that works death in me has an end. There the anger and disappointment can find an end.
Though nothing compared to all He bore and experienced on the cross, my suffering became a door to Christ, a door of hope. Others also helped me find this door. Colleagues and friends listened and supported me in prayer. Often the sermon or Scriptures at church offered the words I needed to hear. A gifted counselor proved invaluable in helping me identify and release the painful belief that there would not be “more” for me in this life.
Now I want to live magnanimously, freely offering what I have so graciously been given (Mt 10:8). I want others to know “the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20). I see poignant reminders of His mercy, faithfulness and hope in the blossoms and green of spring. As one wise woman put it, I rejoice and “live gladly and gaily because of His love.”
In the midst of expectancy, certain questions remain unanswered. Some of the “not yet” desires of my life have become “not ever.” These are losses I grieve in order to avoid the worldly sorrow that brings death. Truly we all live with deep unmet longing, a hunger that can never be satisfied this side of heaven. Living in this tension makes me even more aware of my need for Him and others who can walk this narrow way with me.
I choose to live in hope, taking time to listen for Him, and to the voice of my heart. And I remember the hope of what cannot yet be seen. “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Rv 19:6-7).