Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Reflection On Small But Forgotten Victories

Today I joined a group of Christ followers who wish to live to make a difference in the world for His sake. We came together to learn more about discipleship and forming disciples. Things got very real very quickly. In the course of our dialogue, we spoke of the need to grow, to continually repent from our own ways and to move towards His. As we discussed, one way in which we listen for God’s reminders in our lives, those biddings to move forward in our trust in Him through life-changing sanctification, is through our reactions to the situations in life that take us off guard, those bumps in the road that cause us pause and reason to ask questions about our selves and the sort of lives we live. What is going on? Where is God? What does it all mean? What is He trying to say to me?

Sometimes, the situation can be a self-induced failure, a series of decisions that have led us to a place of despair. At other times, it might not be the situation itself, but our reactions and feelings in light of the situation that remind us of our deep need to draw ever close to him. Illness, loss of loved ones, and the like might be examples of “the uncontrollable” being a catalyst that reminds us of our deep and utter need to rely on Our God.

What was most refreshing about the discussion was the praxis. We did not simply touch on the topic, as if it was simply something to keep in mind. Too often Christians encourage each other to do this or that, but we do not spend the time to model for each other what we say must be done. But, in this case, we spent much time exploring the issue at hand. We explored learning from everyday experience in order to see the areas of life we have yet to give over or have not fully matured in, areas in which we need to repent and do things God’s way. As a matter of cementing the lesson in our mind, the leader of the small discussion asked if someone would step forward to share something God was sharing with his or her heart so that we all might explore what it might mean to repent and move forward in this situation.

One brave soul stepped forward and shared. Life had thrown many hardships and times for grief into her life in recent years. As she looked over the past few years of her life, she saw many highs and many lows. She shared how when things first began to unravel, her resolve was strong and sure, dedicated to the knowledge that God was in control, but as time went on and one sadness followed another, and one issue led to the next, frustration arose. Put all together, she was frustrated that what had started out so well went so wrong, and it all seemed for naught.

Aren’t we all like this? Aren’t we all tempted to look at the big picture and because we see failures within, or we are experiencing hardship at the present, we equate the whole thing as failure, or as if, at least for the moment, we are failing and throwing away all that we had gained? Guess what! It is okay to feel this way. Lament is actually a good thing, for we find answers in lament.

Oh how her words began to resonate in my soul, reverberating to those points of sadness and concern in my own life. I knew the sounds being sung, the chords being struck on the strings of her heart, because my heart was singing them too in a heavy and melancholy lamentation. As I heard the sad melody, I reflected on how many times I had heard the songs before. They are sung all the time, in our own lives and the lives around us.

As a culture, we do not handle lament well. We see it as a fully negative experience, but, for ancient Israel, lament was a desperate cry to the Lord that was most often followed by His sweet answers. Lament often led to true repentance. Just look at their history. Just look at their psalms. Lament is to be embraced, for it is in our brokenness that we most often find clarity. Lament was the place to which this person who was sharing with us was taken today, and because she was able to admit her pain, she was also able to hear from the Lord.

Our culture wars with each other on finding the right answer to pain. We have all sorts of psychological theories and treatments for overcoming our issues. We have pills we take to completely alter our feelings so that we do not need to face our pain. We are told that we do not need to change. We are perfect the way we are. The American avoidance goes on and on, to greater and greater lengths to avoid our real issue, our utter need for God. However, in our avoidance, we miss out on His often, quiet voice, reminding us of the freedom He has given us.

I can think of a fairly clear example of our own confusion in our culture, and it comes in the form of alcoholic reform programs. Whether we have been to such treatments or have seen them modeled on television, we are aware of how they often work (and many times to great success). The treatments and theories are as numerous as there are experts. In other words, they each have their own system that is supposed to be better than the next, and certainly there are some practices better than others. I know healed persons that will testify to this.

Nonetheless, we see one common theme with each program. They make room, whether they want to or not, for relapse. Too often it is a real issue. How each program views relapse can differ, and no matter what the counselor tells the man or woman that relapsed, often a sense of tremendous failure follows. It is this sense of failure I want to reflect upon for a moment. Again, many programs share with the persons in the program that relapse does not mean failure, but too often, these words of hope are lost on the one suffering. The person in relapse might say, “I thought I was beyond this. I thought I was cured. Was all this for nothing?”

At the core, the person identifies his or her biggest failure, his or her biggest (if not only) character flaw, as alcoholism. In other words, the person thinks, “If only I get past my alcoholism, I will be okay.” Is this so? Most certainly not… In all our lives, our big issues are numerous and tangled with all the little issue, so that when one is jostled they are all jostled. Like a box of unattended Christmas light, we do not simply sort them all separately and at once. Often, we sort them out together, often finding the points of tension between two or more strands so we can move forward. Yes, we might find real victory once we have untangled many feet of chord, but there is much to go. And, failure to tend one chord for too long can cause it to ensnare other chords we have worked on for far too long to go backwards.

So, what happens with many alcoholics when they forget the other areas of sin in their lives? They blame every failure back to one source, to their alcoholism, but drunkenness might not be the root of every failure, but the go to response to any and all failure. If this is not seen, the relapse will bring about a sense of failure. The alcoholic will say, “I must not have fixed anything at all. All the years of sobriety were fake victories.” No, a thousand times, no! This is wrong, especially when the victories were sought with God. What we often find is that as we grow in sanctification, we dig up deeply buried sins that we have not yet dealt with, as we deal with them, if we are not careful, we can let them pull us down. Thus, the alcoholic might revert, and what they do not realize is that this is not the same old thing; a new trigger has been uncovered.

Let’s say that an alcoholic’s trigger is his worry. That worry drives him to hide in the bottle. What the person might not realize is that all those years ago, what brought him to worry no longer brings him worry. Perhaps he had distrust in relationship, and when a relationship was strained, he moved to drink. He prayed for God to heal him, and God, working hand-in-hand with the man, uprooted the sins that brought him pain in relationship. As he untangled the strands with God, he was able, through sanctifying grace, to completely untangle the chord of relational distrust. He has had victory.

Years pass, and nothing brings him much worry, but then he loses his job, and he worries about his finances for his family’s sake. He is then driven back to his old friend, the bottle, and he drinks. The next day he awakes, feeling like a failure and a fraud, and he forgets that God has healed his big flaw of distrust in relationships and the sins that caused them to fall apart. For him, sanctification is real, but he has equated all his failures to one character flaw, instead of realizing that throughout life, God will bring him to various points of brokenness, that often manifest in the same way, but are only new opportunity to have victory in life.

This does not excuse his reaction. He should have turned to God and not to drink for comfort, but, it also does not mean he has been fooling himself. That his sobriety has not been real, that it cannot be really regained is a denial of what God has already done. (Let me also note that I do believe that alcoholics can be truly healed from alcoholism and do not have to be forever afraid of new triggers, so that it is not even a go to comfort in light of various strains, but I am simply using this particular scenario as a case study.)

While our stumbling block might not be alcohol, we can often feel like the relapsed alcoholic. When we find ourselves feeling a certain negative way, as we might have at another juncture of life, we might think we are back at square one, but, perhaps we are simply reacting to a new issue as we did the old. Certainly, if we see the reaction itself as negative, we need to ask God to not only fix our current situation, but our go to reactions as well. That comes in time. My friend that shared today moved from feelings of victory to frustration. Perhaps frustration is your go to stumbling block. Mine is anger. Whatever it is, God wants it. He wants victory for you. Let him redeem that area, and move forward to identifying other areas where victory is needed.

How many times in the midst of their lamentation did God have to remind Israel of the victories He brought to them? All they saw was their failure, but He reminded them that He was the God that delivered them from Egypt, that brought them out of the desert, that led them to victory over their enemies, and brought them out of exile time and time again. And when they forgot their God-given victories, they were led back to self-reliance and sin.

He reminds them to count their blessings. In the midst of our sorrow, we must not look back at all the other times in which we were able to overcome and say of them that they must have been fake or by chance. No they are victories. Count them. Sins run deep, but they do not negate the fact that God has done much to untangle the web of sin in our heart and continues to do so, so that there is real change, and it certainly does not mean that when we fall that we are forever stuck. Instead, we should be reminded that the God who has delivered us from our slavery will do so again and again.

As she shared her lament, the thoughts I just shared came to mind, and I spoke them forth before the group. It was as if God was saying, "You just had to see the frustration in someone else and how it can take away joy in order to see that the joy is actually still there, even while the pain can be blinding." I felt a great measure of peace in His reminder, and, as I shared, so did the person who had so generously shared. She thanked me later on, but how much more should I thank her. If she had not been willing to lament, I would not have been able to identify with her forgotten joys and, in turn, see my own forgotten joys.

God is good.

Small but forgotten victories are all around us. Let us not forget them any longer, for they bring us the courage to move forward.