My heart hurts. It doesn’t really matter why; it just does. It’s a feeling with which all of us are familiar because we live in a fallen world. I am sure that you know it well: The weight of the world seems for a moment to rest, Atlas-like, upon your shoulders. The crushing pain of it reaches tendrils of frustration through your flesh to the pit of your stomach and churns it into a writhing fist of frustration, anger and gloom. It seems to clutch, with a grip of iron, some unidentifiable organ right behind the sternum and alternately plunge it into your stomach and lift it forcefully into your throat. That gripped organ may be unidentifiable, but it is nonetheless vital. As if you didn’t know it was there until it ceased to work properly due to the pounding. And now that you are aware of it, it seems like the only thing that matters. As it sits in your body, lead-like in density, you look for anything to assuage the despair of the idea that you will be unable to get rid of the pain.
If you’re anything like me, the beginning of these sensations is disregarded; the assumption of its short lifespan giving hope that it will fade to nothingness before the cause of it rises again. This is a benefit in some cases as it clears the way for a healthier general outlook on life, but in other cases it seems to intensify the panic felt when it persists.
To be honest, the part that bothers me the most is the spiritual aspect. I know, deep in my heart, that the nasty, rampant nature of it stems from fear … and that fear should be corralled and tamed by faith. Isn’t that what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6 and Paul in Philippians 4? However there are times when faith almost seems to wear itself out in its attempts to break fear; and it is those times where the misery seems unbeatable. When you wake up at 4am because gloom has shaken you out of rest, it’s almost like being, for a moment, a cowboy thrown from a raging bronco for the thirty-eighth time: sweating, shaken and breathing heavily you look at the object of your struggle and just wonder for a moment if you have the strength to get in the saddle again.
Even the smallest, most mundane test seems to cripple me. It almost seems that before my eyes the snorting, fiery-eyed Bronc that threw me violently from his back morphs into a little, dew-eyed kitten mewing spitefully in my face. I see for a moment a little more clearly that my issues are really, comparatively small. How do my trials compare to those of the martyrs? How do my concerns compare with those of the persecuted? How do my worries compare with those who can’t find clean water or nourishing food or shelter? And it taunts me still further in acknowledging that fact: that I am so weak I am worn out from fighting the momentary and small problems of life … how would I ever handle something truly demanding?
Therefore I have to remind myself that strength is perfected in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). It is the only way to deal with the pain of feeling weak and remaining sane. The frustration of fear, the emptiness of despondency, and the pain of not-being-strong-enough can spiral downward and inward into the arrogant and prideful heart – reinforcing the belief, “If I just knuckle down, I can beat this situation.” But the issue isn’t about sickness, or loss, or having too little paycheck at the end of the month – things which might be possible to remedy with enough stick-to-it-iveness. It is about not having enough – not BEING enough!
Think about it this way: there is a cavity within every soul. It is a place where God was meant to be … but we unceremoniously kicked Him out with the depravity of our lies, lusts, anger and rebellion. With that vacuum created, something has to fill it – nature abhors a vacuum after all. As soon as the space is vacated by the God who promises rest to the weary and burdened (Mt 11:28f), fear skulks in on the heels of sin and sets up camp. It doesn’t just pitch a tent and call it a night though. It constructs a fortress for itself within your heart. It’s a bastion of despair that continually seeks to expand and continually makes sorties into other parts of your life, attempting to empty your last reserves of strength. And when (if!) one finally recognizes that that stronghold of fear is there, no siege tower or battering ram exists within all of humanity which can breach those fortress walls; and even if one could breach them for a moment, what is actually needed is for them to be ground into dust and its garrison of fear permanently put to flight. “But thanks be to God! [Who] gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57). He can reconquer that innermost part of ourselves from which we had previously cast Him out.
The hard part – about fear and about my analogy – is that we still carry within us the very sinful nature which cast God out in the first place. And though He gives us victory, though He brings us salvation, there is a disease of sin – a body of death, with which we are clothed – still waging war against our minds and our souls.
Think about Romans 7 and 8 for a moment. Romans 7 ends with that famous passage where Paul is talking about the law, sin and the spiritual warfare which results. He makes it clear that the law is there in order to make the person understand his sinfulness. It didn’t create the sin, or the resulting righteously-judged death, by proclaiming an action sinful and then proclaiming judgment. No, instead the law simply revealed what was unholy by showing what holiness is. So, in other words, the law didn’t do anything to create the sinful nature or to combat the sinful nature, it just revealed the human nature to be sinful. So how can we be free of the nature which causes us to do what we don’t want to do? Paul speaks to that, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (vv. 24f).
But Romans 8 continues the thought and the incredibly hopeful message, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (vv. 1-4).
You see that the law revealed to us that the invasion of sin and fear had taken place, but only Christ’s sacrifice can breach its defenses and purge it from our lives. Those of us who have taken on Christ have therefore clothed ourselves with Him (Gal 3:27), and it is no longer we who live, but Christ within us (Gal 2:20). Unfortunately, we still abide in these “bodies [of] death” and so we are still subject to invasions from without – Satan utilizing our treasonous bodies against our spirit. So we have to ask ourselves, “What is the point at which we can make a stand? Where can we fight off the advances of sin and despair?
Paul, having alluded to it at the end of chapter 7, answers that question a couple of verses later in chapter 8: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (vv. 5f).
We must transform our minds then if we want to stand against the devil’s schemes and if we want peace. Satan wants sin to re-enter our lives and he wants despair to come with it. He is the father of gloom, the engineer of pain, and the architect of fear. Why would we as Christians, after tasting the fresh air of the freedom of Christ, then give way once again to that crushing weight of anxiety and depression he foists upon us? The answer is simply that we DON’T want to taste it again. But, sadly, we DO feel it from time to time as the transformation of our minds takes place within our bodies of sin.
If we want to make the pain come less often, or decrease the intensity of it, we must continually stay in the word of God. We must incessantly feed our minds with the Spirit. We must persistently be found in prayer – locked in combat against the unholy through the power of the interceding Spirit. Our minds are the bulwark of our faith, therefore we must keep reinforcing it with the immovable truths of God.
Over the years I’ve felt that weight of fear come many times; and I know that I’ll feel it again in the future. My heart will hurt, my stomach will churn and my strength will fade. I’ll feel the nagging doubts creep in and the fitful sleep will draw out the days … and hours … and minutes to an eternity of dread. But, with the grace of God, each successive encounter will be lessened. Each advance of the enemy will be rolled back earlier and more tenaciously. My pitiful strength will be swallowed up in God’s overwhelming force; my weak resolve will finally be overcome by His unyielding nature; my fears will resolutely be astounded by His glorious peace.
I wish that that day will come soon. Oh, how badly I wish it! I want so much to be overwhelmed by the glory of God to the point where nothing in life – no challenge, no pain, no fear – could possibly shake me into a state of depression. But I am weak and sinful. Consequently, I must be content with the words of Christ to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). And, as Paul responded to Christ, so must I, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly [in] my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9f).
One more thought on that verse: Think for a moment about how it is phrased. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul was very Jewish. He probably thought in Hebrew, even if he wrote or spoke in Greek. Could it be that he used that Greek word for “I am” (είμί) with deference, or to add significance, in some cases? The Hebrew tetragrammaton for the name of the LORD (all uppercase in our Bible today signifying the use of YHWH) is translated as “I AM WHO I AM.” There was a lot of significance in those words, “I AM.” That’s why they picked up stones to stone Jesus in John 8, when He used the term to describe Himself, saying, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” Jesus was using the name of God to declare Himself openly as God – something which would have shocked and appalled the Jews standing in front of Him as He said it.
What if we were to think in those terms then about Paul’s phrasing, “For when I am weak, then I AM strong.” Could we not then realize the deeper truth: When [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] is weak, then GOD is strong! Because that is the important takeaway that brings us to a more full understanding of our fear. We can never, ever, ever be strong enough to handle the pains and fears of life. So, if we are able to rest in God, to “take [His] yoke upon [us] and learn from [Him],” will we not then also “find rest for [our] souls” (Mt 11:29)? In battling the strong, it is always better to give the command and the authority for fighting the battle to the indefatigable, omnipotent General, than to misappropriate the power and control to oneself. In stripping ourselves of the power, we gain the victory through I AM.
So … having said all of that, I know that I’ll never be able to fully escape that horrible plague of heartpain in this life. However, I will set my mind on the Spirit in order to bolster my faith against the slings and arrows of life, giving glory to I AM for the victory He gives through His Son, Christ Jesus. After all, “I have been crucified with Christ [so] I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20).