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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When You Don’t Feel God Is Keeping His Promises

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Dante’s Inferno put traitors in the lowest level of hell, branding them worse than murderers. If being wounded by an enemy can turn your world upside down, a wound inflicted by a confidant turns your world upside down and jerks your last solid support out from under you–then clubs you over the head with that very support.

Sometimes, though, a “betrayal” isn’t really the “offending” party’s fault. We have a tendency to expect more than is reasonable and, when others can’t deliver, label them selfish and undependable. In the worst-case scenario, we can turn into chronically needy souls bouncing from one best friend/spouse/church to another, latching onto each new prospect in desperate hope that this one will never disappoint us, then storming away the first time they don’t deliver perfectly on our demands.

God, I Thought You Promised Me an Easy Ride!

Many of us go beyond blaming our disappointments on individuals to feeling that God Himself has betrayed us. The Bible says, “Ask and ye shall receive“–so why am I still single after praying years for a godly spouse? God promises to reward those who do good and work diligently–so why am I barely getting by while unscrupulous and lazy acquaintances bask in luxury? Scripture states that God gives “peace which exceeds anything we can understand“–but struggling to believe that, in the face of circumstantial evidence, only makes inner peace seem more unattainable.

Small wonder we’re frequently tempted to grumbling–or cries of despair–as we contrast the seemingly ideal picture of the believer’s life with the reality of our own. This isn’t the trip I signed up for when I became a Christian!

Part of the problem is that we read the Bible selectively, picking and choosing the parts we want to apply to us. We know intellectually that the great saints had their share of problems (often more than their share) and that believers are “promised” trouble and persecution in this life, but we convince ourselves we should be exceptions to that rule. Perhaps we’ve been “helped” in that thinking by “prosperity gospel” types whose motto is, “If you just have enough faith [and otherwise do everything right], you’ll never have a single problem.” (And as Job found out, friends with this attitude are often quick to betray us in real trouble by implying it’s all our fault.)

But Aren’t There Any Black-and-White Rules?

Not that our own attitudes will fare much better if all our friends focus on how we deserve nothing from God–while forgetting that He actually wants to be good to us. And not that we should churn all these seeming contrasts in our minds until we conclude that maybe the relativists are right, there really are no absolutes at all.

Still, we can learn a few things from relativists–notably that it’s not our place to turn universal truths into narrow-and-inviolable rules. Yes, God is good. No, that doesn’t mean all our circumstances will be good. Yes, He cares how we feel. No, He won’t always arrange life to spare our feelings. It’s not that He’s gone back on His promises. It’s just that He sees the bigger picture–the best way to work everything out for the greatest ultimate Good–and we don’t.

Knowing that should encourage us to emulate the cat being hauled to the vet: she may never understand why the people she trusts would subject her to such “abuse,” but within half an hour of returning home, she’s back on their laps, purring as contentedly as ever.

Whatever happens, let us stay close to God and reaffirm our trust in Him.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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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 anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.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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