As I look over the last two posts on the blessings of a long battle, I’m reminded of what the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians about the importance of not being ignorant concerning the schemes of Satan (II Corinthians 2:11). After reading those posts, I realized a word of balance was needed in discussing the relationship of formulaic Christianity to spiritual practices lest the devil distort the truth to his advantage.
Both posts encouraged the believer to move beyond canned formulas to a restful trust in and radical dependence on Christ. A common formula for someone who finds themselves in a protracted struggle with sin, weakness, or some thorn in the flesh is “Read the Bible, pray, and attend church and that will solve your problem.”
These are wonderful spiritual practices but the problem is that people begin to trust in the formula more than the Person who can heal their inner leper. The formula can become a religious idol.
The biblical view of spiritual practices (prayer, Scripture study, church attendance, fellowship, fasting, meditation, and the sacraments) is that they are both avenues of renewal and bridges to intimacy with the Living God. They are sacramental; they are a means of grace.
Christ is the Vine; we are the branches. One of the primary ways that the branches stay connected to the Vine is through spiritual practices. That is how we abide in him and apart from abiding in him, we can do nothing.
This next part is crucial, and, if you only get one thing out of this post, this is it: when the believer gets frustrated enough to forsake impotent formulas, the devil’s primary agenda then is to get that person to forsake authentic, life–giving spiritual practices too.
That’s why the Christian should ask for wisdom every day so that he or she can tell the difference between the two. Satan is more than happy to allow us to forsake the false as long as we don’t replace it with the real.
It’s part of the human condition that, in our anger and frustration, we often throw out the wheat with the chaff. And a person who is involved in a long, difficult battle is going to need all the grace–filled spiritual practices they have time for!
I’m convinced that when the devil sees a believer, who is involved in a long battle, leave anemic formulas and begin to become engaged in regular, soul–nourishing spiritual practices, it fills him with uncontrollable rage. He will come to that Christian with many false voices in an effort to separate the branch from the Vine. Here’s a small sampling:
“ You tried this religious stuff before and you still have the same addiction/weakness/problem. What makes you think it’s going to work this time?”
“If you have your quiet time with God in the morning when you don’t feel like it, you’re being a phony. You should only do it when you feel like it.”
“If your quiet time with God becomes a regular thing, it will become a dead religious ritual. You don’t want to become legalistic. Keep things spontaneous. Just do it when your heart moves you to do it.”
“Regular spiritual practices aren’t the real you. You can find God in every day life without them in a way that fits your personality.”
“You’re a person of action not of contemplation. You get things done without all this navel–gazing and spiritual stuff.”
These are just a few plays out of the devil’s playbook. May God give us the discernment to recognize his voice and the wisdom to reject his counsel.
Today I realized that I was sick and very tired of myself. It’s really not disgust, or even loathing. It’s more like a weariness, an exhaustion. I’ve never felt this way. In a strange way it intrigues me. Could this definite disenchantment mean something spiritual? Does it have value, or am I just feeling self-absorbed or conceited?
There is a real rigidity to evil. As I have seen it– sin hardens all who touch it, plain and simple. My growing immobility disturbs me, as I know I’m developing a “hardness of heart.” Atherosclerosis is a condition of a sick heart where arteries become blocked. It’s also known as “hardening of the heart, or arteries.” It is a patient killer, slowly and surely making hard deposits that block the flow of blood.
The Bible speaks about having a hard heart. It also uses the metaphor of fallow ground that must be plowed up. Jesus used the same image in His “Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13.
“A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain.”
There are only four real options.
The first is seed that never arrives.
The second lands on hard stones.
The third possibility is landing on thorns and thistles.
Only the fourth flourishes.
The question I have is this, can the hard soil become soft, and can the good soil become overgrown with thistles? Is this a static, set experience? Or could it be far more fluid? I seem to move from one soil condition to another.
I have found that my own heart drifts. Manic Depression is a mental illness where emotions fluctuate constantly. They gallivant around, floating here and than there. I maybe depressed and suicidal in the morning, and then I can be euphoric in the evening. It’s having the identity of a “wandering star.”
I want my heart to soften. I want to sit with Jesus and hear His words. I need Him to share what He is thinking about. Any sin I entertain has a hardening effect in my spiritual heart. This really scares me. *
I am very clumsy. I have no claims on gracefulness to speak of. I seem to bungle and bump my way through life (to the amazed hilarity of my guardian angel), I walk into walls and stub my toes regularly.
Things others do elegantly I do bumbling. I have no rhythm and no grace, bumping into things and lurching myself through life’s obstacle course.
A lazy fly just flew by. He’s headed for the window for the hundredth time. His unskilled attempts to fly through it are thwarted by the screen. I finally have pity, and open it up. He earned it.
Christians are probably the clumsiest people on the planet. It seems we’ve one foot in the kingdom of God, and the other in this world. This isn’t an easy place to be. We don’t do either very well. We stub our toes a lot.
Even in the Church grace can be a foreign concept to many of us. God’s grace especially. I sometimes wonder, do we really grasp the wonder of this we so blithely profess to know?
Like that fly we try so hard and see no real results. Grace seems to elude us as we make another stab at being obedient. Why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t I make it work?
I’m so awkward. I barely understand the kingdom of God. And I still can’t fly through “screens.”
And still God’s grace meets us.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
“Ebedmelech from Ethiopia was an official at the palace, and he heard what they had done to me. So he went to speak with King Zedekiah, who was holding court at Benjamin Gate. 9Ebedmelech said, “Your Majesty, Jeremiah is a prophet, and those men were wrong to throw him into a well. And when Jerusalem runs out of food, Jeremiah will starve to death down there.”10Zedekiah answered, “Take thirty of my soldiers and pull Jeremiah out before he dies.”
11Ebedmelech and the soldiers went to the palace and got some rags from the room under the treasury. He used ropes to lower them into the well. 12Then he said, “Put these rags under your arms so the ropes won’t hurt you.” After I did, 13the men pulled me out. And from then on, I was kept in the courtyard of the palace guards.”
Jeremiah 38:8-13, CEV
At the very last, there was just one remaining. A single man, Ebedmelech. He was a Ethiopian; made a eunuch by the will of the king. The situation in Jerusalem has gotten very difficult. In an action of revenge and reprisal, certain men intend to kill the prophet Jeremiah. They take a certain satisfaction in this, and Jeremiah is thrown into a very deep cistern. They intend for him to starve to death, which is a terrible way to die.
The king in these last pathetic days is being manipulated by the surviving leadership of the city. Zedekiah gives tacit approval for the destruction of Jeremiah. He just lets it happen without a good reason. The prophet is lowered in the muddy cistern. Without food, he will soon starve. In the minds of this evil mob, they have taken care of the any last vestiges of a godly ‘righteousness.’
But there is one, he is a wild card. And no man would have guessed it. Ebedmelech, the Ethiopian eunuch steps forward and decides to change history. Not only his ethnicity, but his state as a castrated man are definite issues. This mob never recognized him as someone who would intervene. He was a non-entity, a non-factor. He was black, and a eunuch, a nobody.
But Ebedmelech is intervening, in the face of terrible risk, he steps out boldly to make an intercession. He doesn’t appear to be intimidated, and makes a cry for the truth. He becomes an intense and strong advocate for the release of Jeremiah from the deep mud.
Ebedmelech is given the ‘green-light’ by king Zedekiah. Ebedmelech rounds up thirty men to assist him as he delivers the prophet. Ropes are brought out, and out comes Ebedmelech with a big armload of rags. They shout down to Jeremiah. The instructions are called down to him of what needs to take place for the extraction.
It’s interesting, but the rags are the most interesting.
They are really an extra touch, not a necessity. The rags become essentially, a form of grace. They would pad the ropes, providing a degree of comfort as the prophet is pulled up out of the mud. Ebedmelech showed the heart of God in what he did. There was his desire to somehow make the prophet comfortable. In doing so he communicated a kindness and concern that was saturated with God’s own enveloping presence.
Our illnesses– physical or mental, have moved us to a lonely place on the edge.
We are those on the so-called ‘margins.’ Ebedmelech has now become a carrier of God’s grace. Jeremiah could have been lifted up by just the ropes. It would’ve been more difficult, granted. But the rags sent down by Ebedmelech provided the prophet an extra gentleness. And I am certain it did not pass by without notice. Their mention in this Book of Jeremiah is significant, and shows Jeremiah’s deep appreciation of kindness.
We can gather up much from what has been written. We will sometimes find ourselves in parallel situations. But our kindness and concern can make the difference. Admittedly, they are quite insignificant–quite minor. Call it ‘icing on the cake.’ But when you show the kindness of our Father, you will infuse the situation with love, and grace.
So be an Ebedmelech,— an outcast perhaps– but in a position of kindness.
NAMI’s Interviews With Danielle Steel & Kay Jamison
Last year, Steel published His Bright Light, a memoir of her son, Nick Traina, who committed suicide at age 19 after a life-long battle with bipolar disorder (manic depression). More recently, Jamison has published Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, combining research, clinical expertise and personal experience to explore one of the world’s leading causes of death.On February 8, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Resources, Education & Related Agencies will hold a hearing on suicide prevention that will include testimony from best-selling author Danielle Steel and Professor Kay Redfield Jamison, author of several academic and popular books on mental illness.
Interviews with Steel and Jamison have appeared in “Spotlight,” a special supplement to The Advocate, the quarterly publication of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Conducted by NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn, they offer a possible preview of Steel and Jamison’s testimony on Tuesday. Excerpts follow below.
NAMI’s Interview with Kay Jamison
Spotlight (Winter 1999/2000)
NAMI: What do we know about the linkage between suicide and mental illness?
Jamison: The most important thing to know is that 90 to 95 percent of suicides are associated with one of several major psychiatric illnesses: depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and personality disorders. These are obviously treatable illnesses. Another thing people don’t think about enough or emphasize enough is that because cancer and heart disease hit older people, they are seen as lethal illnesses. Because the age of onset for mental illnesses is very, very young, people don’t tend to think of mental illnesses as the potentially lethal illnesses they are. It’s important for people to understand that they have an illness to begin with and then that they get good treatment for it.
NAMI: You have spoken specifically of suicide and college students.
Jamison: Yes. Suicide is the second major killer of college aged kids. It’s the second leading killer of young people generally.
NAMI: You also have pointed out that, worldwide, suicide is the second leading killer of women between ages 15 and 45. These statistics are staggering, yet most people don’t seem to be aware of it.
Jamison: Absolutely. Across the world. There are almost two million suicides a year worldwide. I think people just don’t have any sense of the enormity of it. Suicide unfortunately has been so individualized and, because of the early suicide movement in this country, so separated from mental illness. People working in the field of suicide concentrated on existential factors and vague sorts of things, when in fact the underlying science is very clear that they’re associated with a few mental illnesses.
NAMI: Knowing what we do about illness and its treatability allows us to be able to discuss preventing suicide.
Jamison: Right. [U.S. Surgeon General] Dr. David Satcher’s emphasis has been very strong on three fronts. One is public awareness. Secondly, intervention and all that’s involved in making doctors and others more able to ask the kinds of questions needed to uncover mental illness. And then, thirdly, to support the science that’s necessary to study suicide.
NAMI: What else can policy makers and public officials do?
Jamison: I think we have to have public officials talking about it. When you have someone like Jesse Ventura out there saying these outrageous things-I think it’s really beyond the pale-we’ve got to have the president of the United States saying look we’ve got a real epidemic here, and there’s something we can do about it. People are dying from not gaining access to treatment-or from having three days in the hospital, and then going out and dying.
NAMI’s Interview with Danielle Steel
Spotlight (Winter 1999)
NAMI: “His Bright Light” is a very personal story about a very painful subject, the mental illness and death of a child. What did you hope people would learn by sharing your story?
Steel: I hoped first of all that people would come to know my son, and learn what an extraordinary person he was. I wrote the book to honor him, and to share with people what a remarkable person he was, in spite of his illness. I also wrote it to share with people the challenges we faced, so that they feel less alone and less isolated with their pain, in similar situations. I wrote it to give people hope and strength as they follow a similar path to ours.
NAMI: What did you learn from this painful tragedy?
Steel: I’m not sure yet what I learned from the tragedy, except that one can and must survive. But from his life, I learned a great deal about courage and perseverance, and love.
NAMI: Lots of people in America might be facing signs of a mental illness in one of their children. What about Nick’s behavior made you realize that it was more severe than just the normal growing pains of a child?
Steel: Nick was different. Always. His moods were more extreme. I sensed from early on, that despite his many wonderful qualities, there was something very wrong. I knew it in my gut, as I think many parents do.
NAMI: How long did it take for Nick to be diagnosed as manic-depressive and receive treatment for that condition?
Steel: Nick was not clearly diagnosed as manic depressive until he was 16, a good 12 years after we began the pursuit of the causes for his ‘differences’. He received no medication until he was 15, and did not receive the most effective medications until he was 16. A long and very painful wait for all concerned!
NAMI: Prior to knowing of Nick’s manic depression, what did mental illness mean to you? Did you associate stigma with mental illness?
Steel: I don’t think I realized, before Nick, that one could still be functional, or seemingly functional, if mentally ill. I thought of it as something totally incapacitating, and of people who were shut away. I don’t think I realized how intelligent and capable mentally ill people can still be. I’m not sure I did associate a stigma with mental illness. It just seemed like a sickness, and not necessarily a shameful one. I just thought of Nick as sick, whatever it was called, and wanted him to be cured.
NAMI: How did Nick deal with the knowledge that he had a mental illness?
Steel: For a long time, Nick himself was in denial about his illness. And eventually, he accepted it. In the last year, he told people he was manic-depressive. Before that, when he felt ‘normal’ on medications, he believed he was cured. He had a hard time accepting at first that he would be manic-depressive all his life.
NAMI: Are schools able to cope with the mental illness of a child?
Steel: In most cases, I don’t believe they are. It is a huge challenge for all to meet, and certainly hard on the other kids to have one child acting out. We were very lucky, in Nick’s high school years we finally found a wonderful school that understood the problem, accepted him as he was, and was willing to work with him in a framework he could cope with. They were remarkably flexible and creative. But for most schools, it’s asking a lot to expect them to adapt to a mentally ill child.
NAMI: If you could tell a family member who is caring for someone who is mentally ill one thing, what would that be?
Steel: Never give up. Get the best help you can. Keep trying, keep loving, keep giving, keep looking for the right answers, and love, love, love, love. Don’t listen to the words, just listen to your heart.
NAMI: What do you think support groups like NAMI can do for families coping with the mental illness of a loved one?
Steel: I think groups like NAMI can provide support, both emotional and practical—the knowledge that you are not alone. And resources, where to go, who to talk to, what works. You need all the information you can get, and it is just about impossible to do it alone.
NAMI: Stereotyping the mentally ill as violent and dangerous is pervasive in America. How do we change this perception?
Danielle: Information. Obviously there must be some mentally ill people who are violent and/or dangerous. But I suspect that most are not. Nick certainly wasn’t either of those, he was gentle, loving, smart, funny, compassionate, extremely perceptive about people, and very wise. I cannot conceive of Nick as ‘dangerous,’ although ultimately he was a danger to himself. But for the most part, I think the turmoils of the mentally ill are directed within and not without.
NAMI: What do you think the average American should know about mental illness?
Steel: I think most people should know how common it is…I also think people should know how serious it is when it goes untreated. And how potentially lethal it can be. It is vitally important to get good treatment, the right medication, and good support. If you let a bad cold turn into bronchitis and then pneumonia, without medication, it can kill you. If you do not treat serious diabetes, it can kill you. If mental illness goes untreated, it can kill you.
NAMI: We know that having “hope” is important to battling any disease. What hope do you see for people with mental illness?
Steel: I see a huge amount of hope. The medications today can give people whole, happy, productive lives. There are lots and lots of people with mental illness holding down good jobs, even with important careers, happy family lives, and doing great things. It is possible to lead a good and happy life if you are mentally ill. If those who are doing just that would speak up, it would give great hope to all those who are still groping their way along in the dark.
NAMI: What is Nick’s legacy?
Steel: Nick’s legacy is the love we had and have for him, the word we have spread of what a terrific person he was. In his lifetime, he touched countless lives, with his warmth, with his mind, with his music, with his words. Through his experiences, others have and will learn. Through the Nick Traina Foundation, hopefully we can bring help to others, in his name.
“In one of the villages, Jesus met a man with an advanced case of leprosy. When the man saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground, begging to be healed. “Lord,” he said, “if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.”
Luke 5:12, NLT
Let’s jump right into this passage from Luke 5. A very sick man desires to become well. The Bible text reveals that his condition is agonizingly desperate. His leprosy has advanced; he is covered with it from ‘head-to-toe.’ He is completely infected; he is ‘unclean’ and without hope. There is no treatment for what he has, doctors can do nothing, so he comes to Jesus.
We must emphasize this, the leper has no illusions of wholeness. He knows it; he doesn’t need to be convinced, or persuaded by anyone else. It occurs to him, that Jesus the healer (of lepers, and the like) may provide healing, or at the least a morsel of comfort. This leper approaches the presence of Jesus, with such humility it is almost painful to witness. This man is completely broken; he has no hope, except Jesus.
There is a fellowship of misery–some of us are “card-carrying” members.
Our diseases differ, but they have affected us completely. Our pain, and our darkness vary. Some have physical pain, others have a mental illness. When we meet, there should be a secret handshake or a password. We share a comradeship— we are all part of the same community. We are a broken club of tired and decidedly unclean misfits.
How do we measure our pain and desperate darkness? What do we use to measure it? For the most part, our lives have been destroyed. I think we can understand it by looking up at Jesus. Lying in the dirt, we believe the unbelievable. Our faith doesn’t activate his healing as much it guides it to our greatest need. The presence of Jesus drives away the pain. His love for us echoes into our emptiness. And he wants to do this! He has come for us. He carries us through this.
I struggle with deep depression and despondency. I have been on meds for a long time. But when I come into Jesus’ presence, all this melancholy is driven out. He comes and injects a true hope into my spirit. Am I a stellar example of perfect discipleship? I think not. (My wife could tell you this.) But isn’t about us becoming “angels”, it’s about us becoming intimate with Jesus.
“The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws. The Church is not made up of whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.”
The leper would be healed by the authority (and touch) of Jesus Christ. What is impossible with men, is possible with God.
“Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!”And instantly the leprosy disappeared.” (v. 13)
“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
“God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us.”
Consider this: the jawbone of a donkey, a sling shot. and barley loaves, a woman’s tears, a young boy’s lunch, a young colt, and a talking donkey, they all suggest that God touches the common and the insignificant. He uses what we consider of minor importance. We often turn to the talented and gifted far too readily.
Peter and John are being seen by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish “Supreme Court”). They are to give account of themselves before the highest court of the land. There had been a healing, and there was the matter of preaching as well. Both Peter and John exude a confidence that these religious leaders couldn’t deny. Their perception was that they were ignorant men. Uneducated and common. But. They also knew they had been with Jesus.
In the minds of the leadership, they were nothing more than religious “white-trash.”
God loves to use what we consider common. His revealed history has been to take anything at His disposal and utilize it to redeem lost souls. A staff or a sling-shot are used with an adroitness that seems extraordinary among men. The things we think are simple and common are used to further God’s work among mankind.
But the message always returns back to the preachers. The Sanhedrin knew of the disciples preaching. They had absorbed the fact of a miracle; a crippled man had just been healed. (This they couldn’t deny.) But they were troubled. And they didn’t really know what to do.
What more could this be, but a direct intervention of God? And yet, God is working through “common people.” Then look…
“…if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed,”
Within this preaching was woven this healing. The Holy Spirit was ‘rocking their world.’ The people who came in contact with these disciples would never be the same. Paul tells the Corinthian church that:
“Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.”
1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT
If God has a specialty it would be this. He desires all the glory. He goes out of the way to use the broken and weak. He shows His strength through insignificant and minor things and people.
“We are all wounded. But wounds are necessary for his healing light to enter into our beings. Without wounds and failure and frustrations and defeats, there will be no opening for his brilliance to trickle in and invade our lives. Failures in life are courses with very high tuition fees, so I don’t cut classes and miss my lessons: on humility, on patience, on hope, on asking others for help, on listening to God, on trying again and again and again.”