background noise

I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.

But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.

More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.

There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.

When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.

Like Hey. You’re lonely.

Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.

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Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?

Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.

So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?

I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.

A trendy hashtag does not a community make.

Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.

And they were real.

All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.

But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.

I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.

I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

thoughts from a loud silence

I think I must confess the reason for my recent silence.

Some of you already know that longer gaps between blog posts usually mean that my brain has grown too loud for me to fully distinguish and organize my thoughts in the way that writing requires. I take these weeks of silence to reflect and try to give the noise its space by taking long walks in the fresh air and doing a lot of informal doodling, but often it takes weeks or months of this treatment before I can fully untangle all the different threads.

They’re still pretty tangled up right now, but one of them has begun to catch my attention.

I’ve found that it’s become harder for me to write about real-life struggles when I’m not confident that I can wrap them up in a pretty bow for you.

And so I err on the side of not writing at all - even though I’d like to - because silence seems more bearable than leaving you with a lament that I can’t genuinely end with a positive spin yet. Or worse, false joy.

But then I began reading a new book this week - Inside Out by Larry Crabbe - and this paragraph convicted me:

“Yet there is no escape from an aching soul, only denial of it. The promise of one day being with Jesus in a perfect world is the Christian’s only hope for complete relief. Until then, we either groan or pretend we don’t.”

My soul aches - it always has, and it always will. It is always throbbing a little (or a lot) in the void that, if we were still in Eden, the tangible presence of God would fill.

And so does yours.

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Following this thread through the deafening silence of recent weeks has reminded me that not all pain can be wrapped up in a bow. Not every heart-wrenching lament is fully processed into holy surrender overnight. Sometimes we must come to God with the untempered groaning - sometimes we must honestly lay out the anguish with Him, and with each other.

We’re not where we belong. We’re not who we were made to be. We’re being made new, but the process is excruciating.

We can pretend none of this is true and live in denial of our pain - we can try to cover it with good deeds, more consistent devotions, the praise of others, or whatever our drug of choice may be - but it’s still there. We either feel it or we spend our lives putting on an act - and then still feel it, in the dark of alone when there’s no one nearby to use as a buffer.

What if we could all be honest about this? Imagine if we could admit to each other our disillusion with life without fearing that the response would be “You must need to spend more time with Jesus.” Imagine if we lived with the expectation that this life is, and should be, disillusioning, but that this very fact is what gives us such delight in the anticipation of the life to come:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the anxious longing of creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Romans 8:18-23

I looked up that word, “groan,” in a Greek lexicon. It’s transliterated stenazo, and it means “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).”

We are in pain, yes, but our pain is productive. It’s forward motion. It has a glorious reward, like the agony of birth.

It’s not meant to feel good yet, but it will.

you are a God who sees

There's a saying: "Hurt people hurt people."

It's been on my mind lately. There is so much pain in this world and it seems to increase at an exponential rate, which makes sense - because every one of our wounds can be traced back to the hand of another wounded soul. Sometimes things hurt so much that the only accessible relief seems to be to turn and hurt somebody else, even if it's entirely unintentional. Even if we hate ourselves for doing it a moment later.

Hurt people hurt people.

Hurting fathers hurt their children. Hurting wives hurt their husbands. Hurting children hurt their families. Everywhere, pain breeds more pain, and one person's wounds can sink claws of destruction deep into the soul of a child many generations down the line, perpetuating a brokenness that has cracked us all down the middle since the fall of Adam.

It seems hopeless: I am broken, just like endless ancestors before me. And if I ever try to numb my pain, I'm doomed to break someone else in the process.

You are a God who sees: Sarai, Hagar, and how hurt people hurt people

There's a very broken woman in the pages of the Bible. Her name, at least when we meet her, is Sarai. We don't know much about how she grew up or what wounds she carried with her from childhood, but we do know that she was deeply scarred in her marriage and in her relationship with God. Her husband quite simply did not cherish her as much as he loved himself (Genesis 12:13). She was denied, too, the opportunity to love and be loved by a child (Genesis 11:30). She witnessed God's promise of a biological heir for her husband, but toward Sarai herself, God was silent (Genesis 15:4).

A deep, jagged wound left Sarai empty and aching in her area of most profound need. And she did what all hurting people do: she turned around, sucked in a shaking breath, and plunged her pain into someone else like a poisoned blade. She found half a moment of blessed relief, and in an instant another generation - no, another whole nation - was infected with destruction.


After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me.” But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

Genesis 16:3-6


Enter Hagar - another very broken woman, an Egyptian slave in Abram and Sarai's household. Hagar likely had nothing of her own in life, least of all a voice or any kind of power. She was entirely at the mercy of others, and when Sarai's pain became unbearable, Hagar received the abuse.

She was treated little better than a cow for breeding - violated to dull someone else's pain.

And she did what all hurting people do: she turned around, sucked in a shaking breath, and plunged her pain right back into her mistress like a poisoned blade.

This, to me, is one of the bleakest pictures in the Bible. Two broken people in heart-to-heart combat, each trying to destroy the other in hopes of forgetting her own desperate state for just an instant.

And I can look around at any relationship of any kind on this earth and see the very same image.

Is there any hope for healing? Any chance this sick cycle can ever be broken? Or should we just resign ourselves to hearing of another school shooting or another ugly divorce or another split church every passing day?

Well, the story doesn't end there.


Now the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” Then the angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” The angel of the Lord said to her further,

“Behold, you are with child,
And you will bear a son;
And you shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
“He will be a wild donkey of a man,
His hand will be against everyone,
And everyone’s hand will be against him;
And he will live to the east of all his brothers.”

Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

Genesis 16:7-14


There it is: Hope.

In the middle of this black picture, the angel of the Lord appears.

Hagar has been driven out, all the way to Shur - the middle of nowhere, wilderness of wilderness. She is desperately alone. But God says,

"Hagar." I know your name.

"Sarai's maid." I know who you are.

"Where have you come from and where are you going?"

What an incredible pair of questions for the God of the Universe to ask at that moment. He knows the answers - but does she? "Where have you come from?" It's about more than her journey from Abram and Sarai's dwelling in the land of Canaan to the back of beyond. God probes into the origin of the problem, the origin of the wound. Healing only comes when we all answer the question: Where have we come from? We have to dig out the roots of our actions, all the way down to the bedrock of brokenness they spring from. No healing can happen until we cease trying to medicate away our symptoms and reach instead for the rotting insides of the wound.

"And where are you going?" When we get down to the messy guts of our pain, God's plan is never to leave us wallowing in it. Healing only comes when we answer the question: Where are we going? Now that we've uncovered the real traumas, we have to cut out the rotting core and wash the wound clean. No healing can happen until all the lies we have believed because of our wounds are completely eradicated and cleansed with the truth.

Hagar only answers the first question: "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai." It's God who answers the second. "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority." Go, but don't take the pain with you. Go, but don't keep stabbing others with your wounds. Go, but go in the healing of the truth.

And what is the truth?

You are a God who sees - Sarai, Hagar, and how hurt people hurt people

For Hagar, who has lived the life of a piece of property, the healing truth is that she is significant. She has a place in the world and a voice in history. God hears the cry of her heart and sees the pain she has endured.

She names her son, the father of one of the greatest nations on earth, Ishmael - "God hears." She names that spring of water where He appeared to her Beer-lahai-roi - "The well of the Living One who sees me."

That is the truth that breaks sin's sick cycle in our world. God hears. God sees. Our pain is not unnoticed by Him, and He doesn't want to leave us in it.

He's calling us by name and asking two questions: "Where have you come from and where are you going?" Because if we're going to stop being hurt people who hurt people, we need to know the answers.