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.


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.

be anxious for nothing

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to an excellent sermon on the above passage, and like all excellent sermons, it forced me to think.

I memorized this passage in Awana as a kid. It’s one of those universally-loved sets of verses that frequents Christian greeting cards, bookmarks, and journal covers, to the point of becoming so commonplace that we could easily - tragically - miss its riches entirely. I know I have, for far too many years.

But do you see it? This is no Pauline greeting card. This is the Biblical cure for the anxiety that runs so rampant within us.

I am an anxious person. I worry ad nauseam - about my circumstances, about my family, about unknown outcomes. It is my pet sin. I hate it, and yet I return to it again and again, like an addictive substance from which I cannot get free.

I think the biggest reason I’ve ignored Paul’s cure for worry all these years is that I’ve tried praying. I’ve tried to “be anxious for nothing” - oh, how I’ve tried! But trying harder makes no difference. Even praying more makes no difference - sometimes it even makes it worse, because it slaps a spiritual-sounding name on my sinful ruminating, and gives me an excuse to continue to dwell on my fears while I wait for God to change my circumstances.

The Philippians 4 cure for worry and anxiety hasn’t worked for me. But it’s not because there’s a flaw in the cure - it’s because of a flaw in me, and in my administration of the cure.

Verse 6 - “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” - is no Christian fortune cookie statement. It’s sandwiched into a context, some of which is made up of verses 4-5 and verses 7-9. It’s not meant to be taken as a magic pill, but as one piece of a changing heart.

That heart-change begins here: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Every word of that instruction matters as part of the cure.

Rejoice: The Biblical definition of joy (borrowing from the wisdom of my Bible teacher) is “The resolute assurance that God cares about and has the ability to handle my problems.” That’s the joy Paul is commanding. Not jump-up-and-down gladness, not a constant “good Christian smile,” but a resolute assurance that God knows and God cares - that God is equally sovereign and good.

In the Lord: This is a rejoicing that wouldn’t stop even if you journeyed to hell and back, because it depends on just one never-changing thing: The character of God. We do not rejoice in our circumstances, but we rejoice in the Lord. The kind of joy that can cure anxiety is anchored eternally to the One who does not move, shift, alter, or end. But take heed: this means that if you want the cure to work, you must know God for who He is, not for who you have mistakenly assumed Him to be because of your upbringing or your parents or your pastor. You must have confidence that He IS both sovereign and good, or you will never trust Him enough to rejoice. And the best way to truly know God, without prejudice or preconception, is to know His Word, and to walk with Him through the mountains and valleys of life.

Always: The command is not “Rejoice.” It is not “Rejoice in the Lord.” It is “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Our God is changeless, but we are fickle, and so Paul has to warn us that if we are going to successfully kill the sin of worry, we must be committed to trusting God’s character at all times - not just when things are going well, and not just when we feel like it, but always.

This is the call to heart-transformation that precedes verse 6.

This is the Biblical cure for worry. It’s not a matter of “Stop worrying!” or “Pray more!”, but as so many of the most difficult things are, it’s a matter of the heart, and the heart’s submission to  the character of God.

I’ve tried to stop being anxious, and I’ve tried to pray it all away, but it has never worked because I have failed to lay the foundation of trust first. No matter how much I pray about my problems, they will remain apparently insurmountable if I see God as smaller, weaker, or meaner than He is.

And then, in verse 7, Paul paints even more necessary but often-forgotten detail into the picture of this cure: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When we take verse 6 by itself, as I have so often done, we assume certain results. If only we can be anxious for nothing long enough to make our requests known to God, surely He will notice our heroic efforts and change the circumstances that are giving us so much grief - right?


Again, this is no magic pill; it’s transformation. It’s no overnight cure; it’s a process - a process of heart-change. Not circumstance-change.

The result of making my requests known to God is not necessarily the instant resolution of my complaints. But if I have laid the foundation of trust and am rejoicing in the Lord always, I can count on God to do one magnificent work in response to my prayers: guard my heart with His incomprehensible peace.

My circumstances may not change.

The people around me may still suffer.

The outcomes may not go my way.

But my anxiety is gone, because the peace of God stands guard over me.

That part doesn’t usually make it onto the greeting card, but it’s the most important truth of all: My circumstances do not define God’s character, and because of that, they don’t have to define my state of mental health. But God’s character absolutely defines how I should view my circumstances.

If I know Him for who He is, I will know that He is sovereign and good. If I know that He is both sovereign and good, I will be free to rejoice always. If I anchor my joy in Him, I will remember to bring my anxiety to Him in prayer and thanksgiving before I let it run my life. And if I bring my anxiety to Him on the foundation of trust that each of these vital pieces has built, I can count on Him to protect my heart, even if my situation does not change.

In conclusion, friends, we follow the instructions of verses 8 and 9: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

God alone is unfailingly true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise. So instead of dwelling on our problems, we dwell on who He is.

This is the Biblical cure for anxiety. It’s not a matter of “Stop worrying!” or “Pray more!”, but as so many of the most difficult things are, it’s a matter of the heart, and the heart’s submission to the character of God.

Note: I would be remiss if I did not point out that not all anxiety is strictly a moral issue. Some anxiety is rooted in an actual disorder and is related to imbalances in our bodies or brains, or psychological trauma that has never been properly addressed. If you suspect that your anxiety is not just a moral choice but something deeper, please don’t hesitate to get help from a doctor, a therapist, or another professional! God created our bodies and brains to work in amazing ways, and due to the fallen world sometimes that means our brains revert to unhealthy self-protection mechanisms. Spiritual means, though vitally important, should not be our sole response to mental or physical ailments.

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.