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August 21, 2007

Responding to Emptiness



Where do you go when you feel low, empty, spent? When you feel beaten down by your circumstances or just by your day?

At nine months pregnant with our second child, I experience moodiness and exhaustion as norms in my life now. But of course, I have plenty of non-pregnancy-related experience in feeling down too. We all do; we're human. And as women, we often experience our emotions fairly close to the surface - accentuated by a host of hormonal shifts that we encounter throughout much of our lives.

I've found that there are two contrasting responses that I and others often adopt when feeling empty or low - equally unhelpful and both, ultimately, of the Enemy.

1. The first response is self-pity. We feel sorry for ourselves. We lament our circumstances, our feelings, or the person or situation we believe is causing our distress. We compare ourselves to others we know and find our own situations wanting.

This response reflects the general mindset of modern Americans, bombarded with the lie that we should feel content and fulfilled at all times. If we don't then something is wrong, and someone else is probably responsible - partly or fully. We hoped for more; things should be better than they are? Ergo, we are victims.

We adopt this false line of thinking with amazing frequency and power, even as Christians with a completely contrasting worldview. Subtly or implicitly, we condemn God: How could he have let this happen to us if he loves us? Or how could we feel so empty and low if he is truly good and sovereign? We become accusers and wallow in self-righteousness.

2. The second response is to talk ourselves out of the way we feel. We know God is good; we know we should be grateful for all he's done for us and our many blessings; we know many in the world have situations far worse than ours. Who are we to be upset about something as petty as feeling distant from our spouse (for example) when there are thousands of children starving to death in developing countries?

On its face, this response seems godlier than the first as it plays at selflessness. The problem is that it's dishonest. God is a God of truth, and acting as if our situation or emotions didn't exist dishonors him and does violence to our own souls. God created us as emotional beings, and he is not glorified when we try to pretend away our feelings - even the ugly ones. Worse, this response robs us of the opportunity to engage with God and to hear from him in the midst of whatever we are experiencing. How can he help us work through our feelings to something holy and righteous if we won't let him shine light into our hearts?

The most helpful advice I've gleaned on this topic is from Elisabeth Elliot in her book A Path Through Suffering. A definition of suffering, she writes, that "covers all sorts of trouble, great or small, is this: having what you don't want, or wanting what you don't have." I love this realism and practicality. So often we deny ourselves the opportunity for God to meet us in our suffering by forbidding ourselves to acknowledge that we are actually suffering - even if it is "small trouble" rather than great, as Elliot would say.

Too, this definition paves a middle road between self-pity and denial straight to God's heart. We acknowledge and name our "trouble," don't shy away from calling it a form of suffering, and then let God minister to us in that place. After all, when Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," he did say all you who are weary and burdened. He knows the legitimacy of our 21st-century-American forms of weariness and burden; we don't have to convince him.

I think this is critical for us as women leaders. Those we lead are watching us to see how we will handle our challenges. Will we become complainers, letting our hurts conquer us? Or will we pretend it away? Only by acknowledging the places of our suffering, to ourselves and to others, can we go to Jesus to gain the rest he promises. The hurting, watching world is desperate to see evidence of the rest that is found only in Jesus.

Comments

l have read some of the words here it is true me bieng a pastor's wife in most cases l don't have some one to pure my heart to.
You can not tell a member of the church. a frend you want to share with might be very far so you just burn by your self and end up not helped at all. So l believe your magazines and words will be an ecouragement to me may the lord bless you as you help me know more

It's interesting that God allowed so many accounts of distraught, agitated, suicidal-feeling, despairing men in the Bible- particularly the Old Testament.

I think of Elijah, David, Jonah as three in particular who lamented to God their HONEST feelings, their heart ache and despair, their human perspective of their life. And God responded to these men with sustenance (Elijah), a listening ear and then empowerment to go on (David) and Jonah- mr. complaining,sulking purist of theology- with Jonah, God listened and responded. The God of Heaven and Earth doesn't require positive self-induced pep talks that we give ourselves out of obligation. He accepts man- human and falling, human and failing- and loves us back to emotional health.

Reflecting on the Prophet Jeremiah's life reminds me that we are not here for comfort but for Divine assignments and sometimes our quest for the Utopian "smooth sailing" is as unrealistic as the sun shining every single day. Jeremiah's life did not end sweet in this life though I am sure he is well received in the heavenlies. Unfortunately, among Christian circles we remain cosmetically "ok" toward others in that the freedom and desire to share among each other is not occurring. Worse too is that we are not willing to be intimate with God and wait on Him to give us the urgent direction or peace so needed.

It's interesting (though, not surprising, considering how God works!) to read your article today. (By the way, I'm six months pregnant, so also dealing with extra hormones and emotions!)

My husband and I had to discuss a serious problem with our relationship this morning, and afterward, on my way to work I listened to a speaker on the Christian radio station. What he had to say was so encouraging...but to be honest, one thing that struck me the most was when he talked about the millions who are persecuted for their faith. And I thought - just like you mention in your second scenario - how can I complain about my life when it's really not bad compared to the persecuted Christians in the world? Never mind that the problem that crept up this morning is one my husband and I have struggled with for 10 years and one that has crushed my heart and spirit more than once. At least I'm not a persecuted Christian!

What hogwash. Thank you for the reminder that God wants our honesty - even when it comes with our human ugliness and frailty. I'm so thankful we serve a loving God who truly wants to KNOW and LOVE and CARE for us - the one Friend who we never have to wear our happy face around when we just can't smile anymore. And really, it's only by baring our souls to God that we allow Him to truly heal our hearts. Thanks for your words.

I have been a missionary for 17 years and am familiar with those feelings of emptiness. Today, with internet and technology, things are easier, but I still have times when don't have something I want, mostly time with my family in the US. Combine that longing with the daily struggles of life in another country and I can work up a good pity party. Thanks for the reminder. . . I don't need to do that. I do need to confront my situation with truth from the Word of God.

It is so amazing to limp along for a bit, then truly bring our burdens to Jesus and receive sweet relief, a change of heart somehow even without a change of circumstances. I really, really agree with the 'Mary' above, whose 'small' problem was HER problem, the one God sent HER to glorify Him through her sufferings and longings of heart. Love to all.

This article is very pertinent; especially as I struggle with recognizing the sufficiency of Christ vs. acknowledging the 'suffering', be it ever so minor, in my life. Thank you for your insight!

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