Lately I have been enduring what a friend and associate minister at our church referred to as "the dark night of the soul" in a recent sermon. At the time I did not recognize how aptly the term referred to me. But in later weeks, as I sobbed into my pillow over the apparent meaningless of life, I came to recognize the truth. While simultaneously suffering new joint pain that seemed to come with a vengeance the minute I turned 30, I half-joked to my husband one morning, after a particularly straining night, having awoken with a new God-given perspective, "I feel like I was wrestling with God - and I have the hip to prove it."
But, of course, the symptom wasn't my hip - it was a genuine soul-wrestling with the question, "Is this all there is?" Is this evil world where babies die too early and husbands leave this life without saying good-bye or even a farewell kiss. Where people destroy others, intentionally and unintentionally, and the endless pressure of social etiquette and friendly smiles hide hurting hearts. Is this where we're really stuck until God chooses to take us home? And why? What is the point of all this? If true joy is found in Heaven why are we stuck here? Because I'm looking at the future from a summit of a decent life and feeling the pain is going to hit much closer to home before I'll ever be ready. And I'd rather not. Thanks, but no thanks. Just take me home and let's leave this world behind.
And for the first time, I felt the truth of Paul's words. "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Death, from this perspective, seemed nothing but gain - something to hope for. Now, don't misunderstand me - I was never on the precipice of calling the game early, but I didn't fear that final buzzer, either.
In my wrestlings and angst, I felt the answer from God that if I'm still here, it's because He has me here for His purpose. I came to Paul's conclusion, "But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account," In this instance, I knew I was here for my family more than anything. "Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith" (Philippians 1:24-25). I was at peace with that answer at the time.
But for months I continued to wrestle with a deep aching. A depression of sorts, that left me feeling there had to be something deeper. I sought doctors and counseling, knowing there must be a fix for this emptiness I couldn't shake. My counselor asked me what I hoped to accomplish through our sessions, "I just want to feel joy in the moment." It was that joy I was lacking. My mother reminded me, "Joy is only found in Christ." And I knew that. And I actually felt closer to him than ever before, but the joy was still gone.
I knew this was something more than the stress of having a house filled with children who still can't wipe their own bottoms or just the transition to a new home or the sorrow over friends and family enduring tragedy. This was a deep spiritual ache. And no amount of scheduling my life, making lists of happy moments or attempts at self-focus was going to appease the longing. I needed more than just an honest look into me.
Fast forward to yesterday.
Or, first, back up. As a part of the women's Bible study I attend, we have been working through a book titled "66 Love Letters" by Dr. Larry Crabb. A book written from the perspective of a man having a conversation with God as He travels through each book of the Bible, attempting to draw out the actual purpose of each individual letter God placed in His Word.
With a heart freshly torn open I have found myself feeling the true emotional roller coaster of the relationship between God and His broken people. Every turning from him hurt my heart, every filled promise lifted it back up again. The calls to turn from idols dug deep and pulled out my own.
I have truly felt every word in these letters God has written to us and packaged together in this book of His Word. This story of His patience, anger, and redemption have hit me in ways I had never known in all my years of Sunday School, VBS and short-term missions.
Now we fast forward . . . All the way to Letter Twenty-One: Ecclesiastes.
I actually dreaded opening up the book. Ecclesiastes, I knew, was that depressing book written by Solomon at the end of his life. I was already broken and messed up enough - I wasn't sure I could handle the tone of such a heavy book. I knew the hopelessness in his detailing the futility of life and I did not need to feel that to my core as I had felt the rest of the messages in this Word.
But I'm a rules-follower. A homework-doer. Someone who can't walk away from an assignment. And this was my assignment for the week. So I turned the page.
The author speaks, "For several months now, God, I've wondered if I'm clinically depressed. . . . I'm feeling emptier than ever before. And confused. More cynical too. Nothing really brings me deep joy. All day long I find myself asking, 'So what?' or 'Why bother' I do what I have to do to get by . . . but I'd prefer to do nothing. But that prospect bores me too" (p 100).
I sat up straighter, clinging to this cliff-hanger. This is me. How could he know? And what does he have to say to that?
"God" responds, "Hear Me well: Until you fall into the dignity of despair where these words about Me mean nothing to you and where service for Me seems futile; Until the wisdom that comes easily fails to stir you with hope; . . . Until time with friends doesn't energize you as it once did; . . . Until you have nowhere to turn for the satisfaction of your soul's desire, not to the Bible, not to prayer, not to music, not to friends, not to church; Until all this happens, you will never dance to heaven's music as I designed you to dance. You will not hear My song of love as clearly and beautifully as I sing it. You will not know that every moment of your life is a perfectly tuned note in the eternal harmony" (p 101-102).
And as I read these words - this conversation about the heart of Ecclesiastes - I saw my heart. Everything I had been feeling for months but had been inadequate to express. I wanted to pick up my book and give it a big hug. It understands me, I thought. And, more importantly, maybe I'm not just crazy.
Maybe this is a place God has brought me so I can recognize there truly is no life apart from Him. Even when life is going well, it will not satisfy my soul. And though I knew that on a head level, I had not felt the empty despair of a life that wants nothing, nothing but to cling to Christ for all of eternity. I had wanted Him before - but I had wanted Him with everything else. And now there is no deeper longing of My heart than to know Christ and to be with Christ.
And this is the place He had to bring me before He could lift me into His joy.
I know these words would not have reverberated with everyone who read them - but from where I am at in my journey, I now find a hope in the despair of Ecclesiastes. And I cherish the conclusion of Solomon,
"All has been heard; the end of the matter is: Fear God [revere and worship Him, knowing that He is] and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man [the full, original purpose of his creation, the object of God’s providence, the root of character, the foundation of all happiness, the adjustment to all inharmonious circumstances and conditions under the sun] and the whole [duty] for every man." (Ecclesiastes 12:13 AMP).
Fear God. Keep His commandments. Accept His salvation. All the rest is just a prelude for what is to come. Savor it.