Positive Thinking vs. Godly Comfort

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How do you tell a “dark night of the soul” (a period of spiritual desolation God uses to test your reliance on Him) from plain old clinical depression? Support from strong spiritual mentors is helpful both in discerning the difference and in getting through either. But what many Christians get instead is “Job’s comforters” advice:

  • “Just snap out of it.”
  • “You must have done something wrong; fix that and everything will be fine.”
  • “If God seems far away, you’re the one who moved.”

My all-time favorite is, “You’ve got to think positive,” often phrased as “Look at all God’s given you; don’t be such an ingrate,” or “Complaining is a sin.” Like Job’s friends, you started out to make me feel better and wound up kicking me with blame-toed boots while I was already down.

Confession time: Studying at Wheaton Graduate School twenty years ago, I regularly heard, “How can you moan about your problems when God’s so good to you?” from one fellow student. When she had to return home because of her father’s severe illness, I silently gloated over the thought that she wouldn’t find it so easy to be perennially cheerful now. I know that attitude was nothing to be proud of and wouldn’t pass the “What Would Jesus Do?” test. There are more Christlike ways to deal with “positive thinkers,” even when you’re at your worst emotionally.

Choose Your Companions Carefully

If someone never shows a trace of unhappiness and can’t understand why you aren’t like that–which leads you to feel jealous and resentful–don’t feel guilty about limiting contact with that person. As St. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 8, sincere Christians are entirely capable of doing blameless-in-themselves things that can exert bad influence on fellow believers. Your spiritual growth will be better nurtured among less cheerful contacts.

Let me quickly clarify that neither should your contacts be gloom-and-doom types who are all too eager to join you in one pity party after another–that really is the sort of complaining God hates. What you need to look for are empathetic and insightful people who are good listeners, genuinely sympathize with your pain, and dispense advice in small tactful doses. If you have trouble finding anyone, try visiting a Celebrate Recovery or mental-health peer support group.

Be a Giver

If you’re really in an emotional pit, you may not feel like associating with anyone at all. Withdrawing into self-pity, however, will just bring you down lower and lower. By contrast, voluntarily doing something for someone else has a surprisingly uplifting effect on your feelings. Not only does God comfort us so we will have comfort to share with others, He uses the comfort we share with others as a channel to provide fresh comfort to us.

You can join an organized volunteer program or just look for opportunities to offer a kind word to someone who needs it. (And if someone who’s told you to “Snap out of it and cheer up” hits a rough patch, I hope you’ll be more mature than I was as a graduate student, and treat them as you’d want to be treated.)

Remember the Source of All Comfort

You can also help others by praying for them. And keep praying daily for yourself, even when you can’t feel God’s presence or see any obvious change. Fill your mind with comforting truths from God’s Word. Be patient and trust He will yet bring you through to true joy.

And yes, accept that this is not likely to be quick and easy. Like Paul, you may even have to live with this “thorn in the flesh” indefinitely. Often, all that’s kept me going is inherent stubbornness and a lack of alternatives.

Whatever else happens, cling to this: God cares, He treasures a personal relationship with you, and He can use the most surprising tools to lead you into the most amazing blessings.

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Surviving a Dark Night of the Soul

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It’s hard to concentrate on spiritual progress when your step is slow and your heart heavy. It’s even harder when doubt starts whispering that God is violating His own commandment not to put a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14)–that He should understand you have special emotional needs that require special accommodations (i. e., exemption from annoying and disappointing circumstances).

You don’t have to be spiritually immature to struggle with such thoughts. Mother Teresa is credited with saying, “I know that God won’t give me more than I can handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” Some 400 years earlier, St. Teresa of Avila fell off her donkey and burst out in frustration: “Lord, it’s no wonder You have so few friends, considering the way You treat them!”

(Bit of trivia: The name “Teresa” is said to be etymologically linked to the Greek for “harvest”–a frequent Biblical metaphor for the day God will come and “fix everything.” Seems appropriate!)

Getting frustrated with God over “bad luck,” however, is nothing compared to enduring a “dark night of the soul,” as described by St. John of the Cross (a colleague of St. Teresa). Basic symptoms are:

  • Feeling that God is distancing Himself from you and that your prayers just aren’t connecting–even though you can’t think of anything you’ve done wrong.
  • Nagging doubts that God really cares.
  • Loss of enjoyment in favorite things both spiritual and “secular.”
  • In the later stages, an overwhelming sense of desolation–cries of, “God, why do you treat Your friends like this?” replaced by cries of, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

To St. John, the “dark night” was neither punishment nor curse, but a magnificently terrible gift God gives His children to help them attain the highest pinnacles of spiritual maturity. As Jesus said in Matthew 24:13, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved”: the Christian who determines to trust God without benefit of immediate clarity or relief, who declines to give up on God or to seek lesser comfort in earthly pleasures and human consolation, who continues to look to God and God alone for the answers until they come–is the Christian who eventually will be rewarded with joy and closeness to God at a level never dreamed possible.

High theology aside, many Christians struggle with lesser “dark nights of the soul”: months when you feel stuck in a hopeless rut, years when you can’t get a discernible answer to that central heartfelt prayer. Scrambling for a “quick fix” isn’t always the wisest response: you may be bailing prematurely on a process that could hold great blessings in store. However, if a “dark period” lasts more than a few days, it’s best to:

  • Get a medical checkup to see if physical or mental illness is responsible.
  • Consider, with the help of a mature Christian friend, whether you’ve been neglecting God for the “idols” of hard work, achievement, or pleasure.
  • Ask people to pray for you. Arrange with one or two supporters to meet regularly for intense “hands-on” prayer.
  • Choose a spiritual discipline or two and commit yourself to practicing them regularly.
  • Remember to ask God–and keep asking Him–what He wants you to learn from all this. Determine to keep trusting Him no matter what. If His answer “seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed” (Habakkuk 2:3, NLT).

One thing we can be sure of: if we stick out our “dark nights,” God will eventually make it more than worth our trouble.

  • Sick of hearing complaints and negativity everywhere you turn? My free list of "100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World" provides 10 x 10 life hacks to counter such attitudes. Get your free copy by signing up here, and you'll also be registered to receive twice-weekly emails of Christian mental-health and encouragement topics.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and “ordinary” people who want to better understand mental/emotional problems or just pick up some stress-management tips for themselves. Visit my main website at www.HoustonFreelanceWriter.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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