the death of loneliness: 2 Cor. 12

(Rd. 2 Cor. 12.)      “I don’t want to come out of the stone,” she said aloud.

You may have read THE GOOD EARTH as a teenager, as I did.  Pearl S. Buck won the Pulitzer for it and soon after she won the Nobel.  But I stumbled on a novel of hers recently called THIS PROUD HEART.  I couldn’t put it down.  It’s about a woman who loves her family but also loves her art.  She’s a sculptor.  When she’s with her family she feels only half alive, and when she’s sculpting she feels only half alive.  She longs for both.  Both complete her.

And yet she always has the loneliness, always.  Her eyes are drawn to the woods beyond her house.  When people speak to her, half of her mind is elsewhere.  She is dreaming.  She is asking questions of herself, questions of her art.  A grumpy male sculptor tells her she has to give up her family.  He says an artist must be alone.  But she knows better.  She says her life is what gives art to her craft.

But the loneliness she feels, even when praised, points to a loneliness inside us all that neither career nor family can touch.  It’s a loneliness, I think, for God.  It’s hard to comprehend because so many of us associate the word God with formality.  Many associate the word God with cruelty.  Some associate the word God with the way the earth was when God first created it – formless, without void.  We think of God as an absence.

But God is presence.  He is warmth.  He is love.  He is laughter.  He is light.  He is the thing our souls ache for from the moment we arise to the moment we fall asleep.  We seek Him in our dreaming and in our waking.  And what we fail to realize is that He, too, is seeking us.  He is stretching out His arms to us at the same time as we stretch our arms out to Him.  We meet there in that endless embrace, and if we could only let ourselves believe it, realize it, sense it, perceive it, perhaps just accept it, we would experience an eternal bliss even here in the temporal.

Paul tries to write about that bliss here in this beautiful chapter in 2 Corinthians 12.  He describes being caught up in visions and revelations from the Lord.  He describes a “third heaven.”  I love that it had happened 14 years prior to Paul’s writing.  Perhaps it took him 14 years to find the courage to tell anyone.  But he tells it now, here, in this chapter.  He lets rip with the glory of it.  “Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know – only God knows.  Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body.  but I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” 2 Cor. 12:1-4.  But Paul is telling.  He is trying.  He is intimating.  He can’t hold it in.  As David once said, if we try to hold in the beautiful things God shows us, the very stones will cry out.

For Susan Gaylord, in the novel THIS PROUD HEART, the very stones do cry out.  As a sculptor, she feels her creations speaking to her from marble.  She listens, trying to free them.  Just so, does God listen to us, to the cries of our heart.  He, too, wants to free us.  He wants to free us from prisons of darkness, of shame, of blame, of inadequacy, of indecision, of sin, of an existential sense that all that we are doing is futile, just as David’s son Solomon once wrote.  To a human with an infinite soul made in the image of God, to seek satisfaction from this world alone is futile.

Yet the tension is inescapable because we are also creatures of clay.  God didn’t make us for abstraction.  He made us for real life.  Our families and careers are gifts from God, to be treasured, relished and yes, redeemed.  When Jesus comes again, he will make a new heaven and a new earth.  The things of this world matter.  The most beautiful thing in this beautiful chapter isn’t even Paul’s attempt to try to explain the glory of God He was shown in visions.  Instead, it is Paul’s wrestling with God about Paul’s weakness.  Most of us have heard of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  Many speculate what it was.  The answer is it’s like the rat cage in George Orwell’s 1984.  It’s the thing that breaks us.  But while Big Brother strapped the rat cage on the protagonist’s head in 1984 in order to break him of his identity, God allows weaknesses in our lives to help us realize our true identities.

Because God knows that our pride is what imprisons us in the worst way.  Satan and the angels who followed him were thrown from heaven for wanting to be like God – and we make ourselves miserable when we follow suit.  We have to be broken, over and over, of our desire to be God.  It hurts.  We hate it.  But in the end it makes us beautiful.  It frees us.  It gives us dignity.  We learn as Paul did that God’s power works best in weakness. God’s grace is all we need:

“So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.  Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need.  My power works best in weakness.’  So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.  That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  2 Cor. 12:7-10.

I’m not sure we can begin to fully understand how our weakness makes us strong.  But I do know that the more we ask God to remove our pride, to humble us, to use us despite our weakness, the more joy He gives us.  Because how else are we to rid ourselves of the things that make us miserable – “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorderly behavior”? 2 Cor. 12:20.  In short, how are we to free ourselves, by ourselves, of hard hearts, of hearts of stone, of hearts that think that being in charge will complete us?

Somehow everything that we are and long to be is tied up with the cross.  Our loneliness finds it fullest expression there.  When we see God Himself dying for us and experiencing the loneliest moment of all, we can perhaps start to take in that because of His sacrifice we are never alone.  Jesus cried out on the cross the loneliest cry: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  To be apart from God is what we all should experience, because we choose to live apart from Him all the time.  But in His love, He excluded Himself so He could welcome us in.

That’s why loneliness is dead.  God already experienced the loneliness we have chosen when we choose to live apart from Him, so we could be with Him in glory forever.  It’s the thing we most want, although we fail to realize it.  God became stone so we could come out of it. He asks only that we allow Him to open our eyes to the beauty of how God can soften even us – if we are willing to allow Him to mold us as a potter His clay.  We don’t want to come out of stone.  But God will help us even start to want the best things.  He will take even our loneliness if we let Him and use it for His glory.  Because that’s what He always does with all of our weaknesses.  He sculpts them into something beautiful.  He brings shape out of the void.  He is an artist who has loved each of us as His own unique creation, created for His glory.  It feels like weakness to love on this earth, but we have no choice but to let love pull us to the ground.  For it completes us, as we are made in the image of the one who is love.

posted by Caroline Coleman on October 22, 2014.  If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy my novel, LOVING SOREN:

 

 

the gift of feeling useless: Romans 5

read Romans 5.  Some days we don’t feel ourselves.  We feel blechy.  Our bodies don’t want to function at their peak capacity.  We need a vacation, but the only thing outside is a grey sky.  We feel restless.  Feeling useless can feel almost like hunger, but eating doesn’t make it go away.  We wonder what’s wrong.  Usually we can bounce out of the feeling by achieving something.  But when we feel less than zippy, it’s hard to achieve anything.  Those are the days we feel our worst, and yet they’re the very days that can be our best.  Why?  Because those days are opportunities to explore what it means to be just us.

Who are we when we’re not achieving something?  Who are we when we – gasp – don’t get to brag about anything because we can’t think of one thing we’re good at?  Who are we when we don’t have the energy to remind ourselves of what separates us from the crowd?  Who are we when there is no crowd?

We just are.

And that’s enough.  Except we forget that.  We thought we had to prove ourselves not just to other people, but to ourselves.  But really?  What exactly are we trying to prove?  Who is the one setting up this standard?  Where does our idea of perfect come from?

Perfect comes, by definition, from our perfect God.  And we somehow get it all backwards.  We think WE have to be perfect, but the truth is, He is the only perfect one.  And in His perfection, He loves us no matter how useless we are or feel and He longs to cover us with Himself.

That’s why those days when we feel under the weather are blessings.  Those days we want to crawl right back into bed are opportunities.  Those times when we don’t want to work out – or work –  are gifts.  Our weaknesses are a door.  They’re a way into a place we would never willingly go on our own.  The more we are stripped of our own gifts, the more we are forced to ask for God’s help.  To ask for help means we don’t have it all in ourselves.

That was true all along.  We just forgot.

If we ask for help from the one who loves us just because, we discover that our weaknesses open us up to the world of grace.  They unlock the closed barren places in our hearts that can only blossom in the presence of unconditional love.  We move from the emptiness we feel when we can’t achieve, into a fullness we couldn’t have even imagined.  We discover a new joy and a confidence that “lasts”.  Romans 5:2.

It’s this kind of experience of learning to depend on God, I think, that informs these seemingly difficult words of Paul about how we “can rejoice… when we run into problems and trials.”  Romans 5:3.  It’s not just because, as Pink sings, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  It’s that the strong you discover when you rely on the Lord, is the most beautiful strong of all.  When Paul here talks about endurance, strength of character and hope, he’s not using these words the way we usually do.  It’s not a white knuckle grip on our humanity.  He’s talking about enduring anything in God’s presence; about a strength that comes from relying on God’s strength instead of our own; about character honed in the furnace of humility, where we yearn for a godly character and discover how short we fall; and a hope in God rather than in a change in our circumstances.  Romans 5:3-4.  This is not the mantra of self-reliance or a muscular kind of Christianity.  It’s the tearful grateful joy of the one who relies on the cross alone.

We often think the cross is a symbol of condemnation.  Paul reminds us it’s really a symbol of how God loves us even at our weakest.  God died to restore his “friendship” with us when we were “helpless.”  Romans 5:6, and 10.

So our weaknesses are an opportunity to walk more closely with God.  They’re an opportunity for us to let God do what He longs to:  “to fill our hearts with love”.  Romans 5:5.  We discover in our helplessness something glorious.  We find the power of our “wonderful new relationship with God.”  Romans 5:11.  It’s the power of a love based only on God and not on anything we’ve done.

Knowing that lifts our heads up high.  It restores the light to our eyes.  It puts a new song in our hearts.  It makes us smile from the inside out.  We start to realize that just being WITH God gives our lives the sense of purpose and destiny we’ve always longed for.  Worshipping Him and being thankful to Him lift our spirits higher than the heavens.  So we start asking not whether we’re being “useful” but whether we’re in God’s presence.  And THAT is a question we can always answer in the positive.

Always.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on March 13, 2013