Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re travelling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it; I wonder what’s gone wrong
© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon
These words were written over 4 decades ago, yet they still ring true today. As somebody who has been abused, misused, forsaken, confused and battered, I think I can understand the sentiments of this song, but unlike Simon, who I have respected as a musician in the past but do not agree with as a philosopher, I do not come to the conclusion that its ‘alright’. While this may be the everyman response, the final conclusion that we draw at the end of the day when all we are trying to do is ‘get some rest’, the comfort we give ourselves that its going to be alright, the fact is that it isn’t getting better, and it isn’t alright. Yes, we have all been battered and abused, and this is the way of the world, but to try and ‘rest’ in a fatalistic idea that ‘we can’t be forever blessed’, foreshadows the end of civilisation as we know it. We can’t simply go to bed and forget that it all happened. Yes, we have all been bruised, but there is a hope and a goal beyond our suffering.
I recently read the blog post of an author who was angrily addressing the sentiment often expressed by Christians “God won’t let you be tested more than you are able to bear”. He said that this was, in his words, ‘bullshit’, and that moreover it wasn’t biblical. He said that this sentiment was a re-working of a scripture which promises that we will not be tempted more than we are able to bear and that it is wrong to apply this verse to those who are suffering more than they are able to bear.
I disagree, respectfully, with his assertion. He had been through probably the worst three weeks of his life. He was allowing the pain and emotional exhaustion to cause him to succumb to the fleshly anguish which ranted and raved at all who tried to comfort him in his Job-like suffering. I agree, he was being tested, but how does he know he cannot bear it, when here he is writing a blog post about his suffering. People who are not able to bear their suffering have nervous breakdowns and end up in a comatose or psychotic state in which they are removed from reality and have simply stopped functioning. People who are not able to bear their suffering commit suicide, or worse. People who are not able to bear their suffering are generally those who are not Christians and have no hope that God is able to help them in their suffering. My question to this blog author is, and I say this carefully and genuinely without wishing to cause further anguish, do you believe God is able to be with you in your suffering? Because, having also been through the darkest of places, the valley of the shadow of death, I can say with deep conviction, that although I could not sense God in that place, I know having lived beyond it, and not really expecting that I would, I realise that indeed God WAS with me in my suffering, and He DID enable me to bear it, and He did give me comfort, however little I could feel it.
I know this to be a fact because looking back, I neither gave way to those terrible thoughts of self-destruction, running away or leaving my husband and family because of my anguish and pain, nor did I have a nervous breakdown, or any other kind of mental or psychological breakdown. I survived. Plain and simple. And for three years, I truly did not know how to do anything other than crawl out of bed, walk around my house, do the most basic tasks, deal with my children and go back to bed again. I KNOW how much pain a person can live through and survive. And perhaps somebody will say “well you didn’t suffer as much as this man did”, well how do you know? All I know is that this man was well enough, a few days after the burden of his suffering fell upon him, to get on the internet and give it a fair going over to anyone who would read, and I know that when I was in the deepest level of my suffering I was hardly able to think straight let alone write about it.
I say, to the person who gets angry enough to yell at those trying to help him in his suffering, despite the fact that they may say trite or pointless things, anything anyone says when you are in that kind of deeply self-involved state is going to sound trite and annoying. Anything anyone tries to do for you when you are angry, upset, frustrated, exhausted and overwhelmed is going to seem pointless, and anyone who has been through a few weeks of deeply emotional suffering is going to feel as you feel.
However, given time, and perspective, I guarantee, that this suffering will be pulled back into a state where you are able to dispassionately analyse what happened, how you got into that state in the first place and you will realise that indeed, God did NOT allow you to suffer more than you were able to bear. It may have seemed unbearable at the time, but it clearly was NOT.
But in whatever respect anyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I am just as bold myself.Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?
(2 Corinthians 11)
Scripture is clear that we all will suffer. We will suffer from trials of our faith, persecutions, difficulties, temptations and all manner of physical and emotional traumas. Paul’s famous dissertation upon his own suffering wherein he recounted the many difficulties he had faced, imprisonment, shipwreck, stonings, starvation, beatings and so on, proved that while he himself suffered a great deal, he was willing to count it all joy for the goal that was put before him. He was able to continue to preach the gospel, knowing that his God would uphold him and that he would find contentment within his circumstances, whether abased or abounding. Paul knew how to deal with suffering and we can be sure that in a time when Christians were murdered, tortured and oppressed in every possible way that many counted the cost of their faith and saw others doing the same every day. This was an era when suffering was considered the hallmark of being a Christian, and nobody was seen to be discussing their faith with the vehemence that the author of this post has done.
As a counter to the lyrics with which I began this post I would like to remind readers of Psalm 34. It has been a real encouragement to Steve and myself and we have often quoted from it to help each other through the rough patches we face. Let’s be aware then, that we are not only going to suffer difficulty now, but it will continue to get worse. As the world darkens in the prelude to the oncoming judgement of God during the tribulation, those around us will despair of life and will feel deserted by God. Even many Christians, scripture tells us, will desert their faith. It is a distressing thought, but God is not distressed. He already knew this would happen. I might point out here that while God knows everything, He does not rejoice in another’s suffering. Whatever we are going through, he is going through it with us, and any anger or blame we may feel justified in expressing to God is neither righteous nor fair. God is good, perfect, blameless, sinless and without malice. If we do not believe this, we have no hope in finding peace and help in times of tribulation. It is in fact tribulation which purifies our faith, being the tool with which God tests our belief to see if it is genuine. My faith faltered during dark times; the wick smouldered, it did not go out. I am here to testify that God does not put out the smoking wick, he fans it with the breath of His Holy Spirit to bring the flame once again into being.
The LORD, a Provider and Deliverer. A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed.
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul will make its boast in the LORD; The humble will hear it and rejoice.
3 O magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together.
4 I sought the LORD, and He answered me, And delivered me from all my fears.
5 They looked to Him and were radiant, And their faces will never be ashamed.
6 This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him And saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, And rescues them.
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
9 O fear the LORD, you His saints; For to those who fear Him there is no want.
10 The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; But they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing.
11 Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Who is the man who desires life And loves length of days that he may see good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous And His ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against evildoers, To cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 The righteous cry, and the LORD hears And delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones, Not one of them is broken.
21 Evil shall slay the wicked, And those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned.
Previously I wrote about Sucker Punches and how to deal with them. But something the Lord showed me the other day has prompted me to revisit this subject. I was ruminating on the means we use to avoid Sucker Punches. Since Sucker Punches are, by definition, a surprise, it is very difficult to prepare yourself for them. Some might suggest that you could, in martial arts terms, just become really good at self-defence thereby continually being at the ready. The article I quoted from last time did this very thing. It outlined a number of red flags to look out for when in the company of those who might be likely to suddenly swing at you; drunken idiots at parties for example. This is all well and good, but in general terms, the Sucker Punches I have described are those which come at us from all quarters, are often coming from those we feel safe with and come in ways we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. I would even go so far as to suggest that God makes sure we cannot possibly prepare for every eventuality so that the trials and tribulations He has prepared to refine our faith do the work they are supposed to do. A Christian’s preparedness for battle is not that of the unsaved individual. And we should remind ourselves that a battle it most assuredly is.
For many of our worst Sucker Punches come from people, yet Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against demonic powers. What we really need to be doing to both avoid and to defend ourselves against Sucker Punches is using the armour God has given us. What many of us do, myself included, is use the armour that the flesh attests to.
10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age,[c] against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
14 Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints— 19 and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak
We tend to think that hardening ourselves against impending attack is the best means to defend ourselves. We are impressed with what popular culture calls a ‘badass’ – a tough, uncompromising and intimidating person (internet dictionary). When we as real, vulnerable, tender and sensitive human beings try and harden ourselves to become like Dirty Harry we end up with stony hearts, impregnable minds and brittle souls. Like the boy David who tried to put on King Saul’s armour to fight the enemy of Israel, we find these defences unwieldy and in fact an impediment to action. We cannot be ‘badass’ and remain open to other human beings, or in fact and more importantly to God. Yet so many of us give ourselves permission to close off, shut down, and simply live life with fleshly armour on condemning ourselves in the process to eternal misery.
Let’s look at some of the types of armour we employ as human beings against the Sucker Punches, and the Sucker Punchers of life.
Many believe that mental preparedness paves the way to personal peace and security and they employ a method called ‘Defensive Pessimism’. This involves thinking of every conceivable negative outcome of a situation and devising strategies to deal with each possibility. Once you have done this, theoretically, you are supposed to lay them aside and carry on. The only problem is that the sorts of people who espouse Defensive Pessimism are often the sorts of people who get manically obsessed with ideas really easily. They find it incredibly hard to just put down the plans they have made to deal with the possible negative outcomes. Instead they will be crafting and polishing until the day comes that they finally realise that none of these outcomes have eventuated and they have just wasted months if not years of their precious time and energy in an imaginary world getting more and more tense and anxious. No, I am sorry, but I have tried this method. It. Does. Not. Work. I cannot emphasise this enough. DO NOT try this at home. It is not a means of defence and eternal pessimism results in depression, not peace and tranquillity. I mean just who are you fighting against here? In the end, you are fighting yourself.
The biblical alternative to this is simple.
5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ
(2 Corinthians 10:5)
How about that favourite of many people being angry all the time? Not violently angry, and not so much as anyone else would notice, but just simmering under the surface and ready to jump up and defend yourself whenever anyone looks at you funny or makes an off-hand remark. The trouble with this kind of defence is that it doesn’t do much for your mental or emotional health. It is incredibly exhausting being emotionally on the balls of your feet at all times. You are like a boxer who is all keyed up to get into the ring and begin to fight but there’s nobody there when you get there. So you have to start looking for other people to get stuck into.
I recently heard a story about a boss who told his second in command that the best way he found to keep his employees in line was to use sarcasm. What he may not have realised was that sarcasm is actually verbal aggression. Sometimes it can be very funny (it is used regularly on sit-coms) but it is always a means of subtly putting somebody else down and is therefore a hostile mechanism. In fact, I found some time ago that when my children were small they started using the tone of voice often employed by actors on sit-coms. They began talking to each other with the sarcasm they heard other people using on television. It was then that I realised the damage it was doing. There is no respect, no care, no empathy and no kindness in sarcasm, yet many people use it as a matter of course to keep others at bay, or as in the above example, to control other people. I have heard teachers use it in a classroom of adults. Not helpful! It is both a weapon and a defense. It is a very human means of armouring yourself up, but as with every other type of human defense it comes at a cost to yourself and your relationships. Unfortunately, the media and television, not to mention the internet have encouraged this form of communication until now it is hardly even noticed that people talk almost permanently with withering expressions of deprecation and scornful attitudes. People out there get wounded easily but most of us walk around with a hardened façade making sure nobody else sees the pain. Again, we end up with terminally scarred souls if we don’t acknowledge the problem. So what is the answer? Even for Christians, its really hard to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open and God I believe both understands and saves us in our weakness. The answer is to understand God’s perspective and to get the big picture.
Some psychologists have suggested that the best way to deal with relational aggression is through self-esteem and assertiveness. In my many studies of psychological methods I well remember the mantra, assertiveness is different to aggression. When you are assertive you are being respectful to the other party and if you are being aggressive you are being abusive. While this is true, it doesn’t technically prepare you for a Sucker Punch which is the main point to this post. You can be as assertive as you like, but if you fear being punched when you are not looking then you are going to need to find some other means of protecting yourself. Assertiveness is great if you already have a strong personality and are not concerned with arousing somebody else’s aggression against you. But there are many people out there who have spent their whole lives dealing with abuse, especially from family members or spouses and their personalities have been shredded with anxiety and fear which eventually turns to anger which becomes that most dreaded of human defenses. You cannot be angry all the time. At some point or other you have to recognise that all this does is cause you to become a vengeful, bitter and defensive person who has no capacity to relate to others because you are continually looking for the sucker punch. You spend all your time on DefCon. 1 and no time at all actually enjoying life. In fact, it is my experience, that people like this have completely done away with any fantasy that their lives are ever going to be enjoyable. They have in fact learned to live entirely on adrenalin and they will probably not stop to consider the consequences until they are in hospital or jail. Even then, many have hardened their hearts to such a degree that they no longer even know what peace and joy are.
Here for your amusement is a table of all the Def Con’s and what they involve (thanks to Wikipedia)
|Readiness condition||Exercise term||Description||Readiness||Color|
|DEFCON 1||COCKED PISTOL||Nuclear war is imminent||Maximum readiness||White|
|DEFCON 2||FAST PACE||Next step to nuclear war||Armed Forces ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours||Red|
|DEFCON 3||ROUND HOUSE||Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness||Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes||Yellow|
|DEFCON 4||DOUBLE TAKE||Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures||Above normal readiness||Green|
|DEFCON 5||FADE OUT||Lowest state of readiness||Normal readiness||Blue|
I don’t know about you but Operation Double-take looks to be about right in my household.
And here I must return to the Ephesians 6 verses above, for this is what God showed me about self-defense. There is absolutely no point in trying to prepare yourself for either abuse, unkindness or sucker punches from other people. You cannot ever get to the place where you will always be ready for the unexpected. Not even insurance policy advertisers will try and get away with that fallacy. In fact, they use the fear of the unexpected to convince you that you can never fully relax because maybe you might just need another insurance policy for some other unforeseen misfortune. Recently the advertising for funeral insurance hit an all time high. When we used to have a television set, I remember thinking that every second and third ad on TV was about insurance. Human beings are fully aware that they can’t clean up their lives and keep them clean for very long before stuff gets messed up again.
That being the case, what is our best means of getting through this life marginally unscathed? The armour of God is our answer. God has given us spiritual armour to defend ourselves against the wiles of the enemy. For as He points out through Paul, we do NOT wrestle against flesh and blood. Our defense should not be against human beings. Which would seem to be a strange thing to say. People make their own decisions about how they treat us right? Even the sucker punchers decide to get drunk, or deliberately do mean and horrible things because that is who they are. I know people are inclined to think the best of others – because frankly that is what they are hoping others will do of them – but lets face it we all know somebody who is just plain ornery. Or evil. I know a few of them.
So if it is true that we can rule out human beings, flesh and blood, as the root of all evil, what we truly need to do is armour up against the spiritual forces of darkness and wickedness. There are apparently ‘hosts’ of them which means very large numbers. When we go and deal with people who are mean, vile and aggressive, we are not in fact dealing with human beings, but with the spirits who work through them. Which begs the question, was Paul talking about other Christians in this passage, or simply those who were not saved? Because we do get sucker punched often by other Christians. Whether Paul meant Christians or not is unclear, but the fact of the matter is that spiritual forces of darkness work in the church as well as out of it. Paul frequently warned about false brethren, teachers and prophets and our need to watch against these individuals (Galatians 2:4). If he is warning us to be on the watch, (or DEFCON 4) then it is clear to me that he must have meant that those principalities and powers were going to come at us from all corners, and some of those corners had brothers and sisters in them.
Our means of preparedness against the fiery darts of the wicked one is not mental, emotional, or physical, it is spiritual. But here is the thing. The armour of God covers all the vital areas. Our heads are covered via the helmet of salvation. Our hearts are covered by the breastplate of righteousness, our intestines or gut (ever had a gut feeling?) are covered and kept by truth and our feet are shod with the gospel. Our whole bodies are protected by faith. Consider the actual armour Paul is talking about. Some have suggested he is thinking of the Roman soldier’s outfit. Their shields, their breastplates and their helmets were made of metal; hard, unable to be pierced, protective and sure. God’s protection, which in essence is Christ himself, is able to ward off the devices of the evil one. We cannot harden ourselves against the battle which is coming against us, only God can do that. He doesn’t prepare us internally however. Please note that there is no such thing as defensive pessimism in the Bible. In fact, scripture calls this ‘unbelief’. It is a sin. We are ‘limiting the Holy One of Israel’ (Psalm 78:41) by daring to believe that we can arm ourselves with our imaginations and intellects in order to defeat any calamity which comes our way. Instead, the helmet of salvation protects our heads. And in fact, scripture, another means of defense – the sword of the spirit which is the word of God – tells us that ‘all things work together for good to those who love the Lord and walk according to His purpose’ (Romans 8:28). This, my friends, is the very best form of defense. If we are putting on Christ and everything he has given us, salvation, righteousness, truth, faith and the word of God, then we are both arming against the real enemy and able to defeat him, and also protecting our inner lives, our souls, hearts, minds and spirits. For every other defense we try and employ as human beings is destructive to those sensitive parts of us. They undermine, sabotage, rot and destroy, which are the very things which Satan employs to defeat us. He prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and we are devoured by our own protection every time we use fleshly methods to defeat spiritual forces. And we must continually remind ourselves it is against spiritual forces that we fight.