It’s been a long time. When last I wrote it was summer, I was glorying in my new running habit, and I was looking forward to my first 5K. I’ve now done three 5Ks and I’m trying to figure out the best way to keep running through winter weather. And boy, are we already having winter weather.
Running is the least complicated thing about my life, which is part of the reason I enjoy it. You run, or you don’t run. That’s pretty much it. There’s not much nuance, not a lot to analyze. Given my tendency to over-analyze, this is a gift.
But elsewhere in life, I keep doing that thing I do. I try to solve unsolvable world problems inside my head. I set arbitrary deadlines by which I plan to settle issues that have confused me for years. I demand from myself absolute clarity or else. “You hear me, soul?” I say. “Get your act together!”
I’m here to tell you, if you have a disposition like mine, this is a bad path. I’d been feeling depression-free for months until I decided to get all my questions sorted out. I would determine precisely what I believe about sexuality, about the nature of the afterlife, about the interplay between human freedom and divine action, about the character of God himself.
Set aside for a moment how arrogant that sounds. I wasn’t trying to settle those questions for the whole world, or even for the whole church. Just for myself. And I figured I would go back to the Bible and read, read, read, read, read until it was all clear.
I love the Bible: I’ve written about that before. I love wending my way through its poetry. I love its weird nooks and crannies. I love the rich diversity of characters, love spotting myself in its stories, most of all love the Jesus I find there. But when I come to the Bible making demands of it, insisting that the text and my brain are going to uncover the final God’s-honest-truth answer to the questions that plague me….as I said, it’s a bad path.
I wasn’t treating the scriptures or myself with any tenderness, but slave-driving both of us. I didn’t get the results I wanted, and that made me angry. I started to see new things in the scriptures that puzzled or troubled me (old things, really, but seen through strained, anxious eyes), and that made me angrier. I had friends reading with me, trusted friends who love me and who wanted to help me on my quest. But when they weren’t bothered by what bothered me in the text I became angry at them, too. Anger turned into hopelessness. I started to panic, afraid that I would feel this way forever.
I finally stopped cold in my reading. I told one of my friends, “All of my thoughts are leading to dark places. I can’t trust my own mind right now.”
I’m starting to understand that this is what it is to live with depression lurking right under the surface even in good times. Sometimes it rises up without warning, but at other times I am careless and I give the darkness power over me. This was one of those times. There is a line in “To Kill a Mockingbird” – “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another” – and I’ve always pointed outward when thinking of that danger. Fundamentalists, using the Bible like a bludgeon. Misogynists, racists, homophobes, quoting scripture to reinforce their oppression. But this time it was me, turning the Bible on myself, forgetting that this book is not an end in itself. It’s not “Life: The Desk Reference”. I forgot what Jesus said to some Jewish leaders who seem to have had similar blind spots: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
So I stopped raging through the New Testament, demanding that it give me my answers.
I’ve discovered recently that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote some pretty dark sonnets. He was an English poet and a Jesuit priest, a man who seems to have channeled his passions into profound devotion to both God and the natural world. Without going too deeply into Hopkins’s life story, he did experience deep emotional valleys and wrote his “terrible sonnets” out of those times. I’ve been reading a few of them, and one in particular, Sonnet 47, felt as if it had been written for me, especially these lines:
My own heart let me have more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet….
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what…
That is the place I came to, of needing to take pity on my own heart, of stopping my own tormented mind from furthering tormenting itself. I had to “call off thoughts” in order to make space for comfort. Oddly enough, I found that comfort in the very place I’d found my torment. I went back to certain places in the Bible the way a child asks for the same lullaby they’ve heard a thousand times.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us.
My questions aren’t bad questions, although they are sometimes, perhaps, the wrong questions. My hunger for absolute clarity pushes me away from love, makes a sentence like “God is love” seem childish and simplistic. But Jesus welcomed little children, and what matters may be simpler than I understand. John Wesley, who could plumb the theological depths with the best of them, wrote that “there is nothing higher in religion-there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark”.
And so I’m letting myself by rocked again in that quiet place of loving and being loved. “Return to your rest, o my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.”
I’m not telling anyone to quit searching for the answers to their questions. I also know myself well enough to believe this is only a temporary respite for me. I’m a questioner, a seeker, an over-thinker. But I’m also learning my limits. I don’t, can’t, know all the answers. I will live with confusion. The answers I have and the answers I don’t have will sometimes seem inadequate not only to me, but to those around me. My “tormented mind” will torment itself until confusion turns to despair, if I am not careful with myself – and even careful with the scriptures I love so much.
For right now, until I feel restored and in my right mind, I’m going to “call off thoughts awhile” and rest. I’m going to know and rely on the love God has for me, the way I did when I was a child. If all I ever sort out is that I want and need that love, and want and need to give it to others, that will have to be enough.