Housekeeping: The article below, while having strong Christian overtones, is not necessarily a Christian article, meaning a subject that only Christians would be interested in. It has a lot of psychological questions, which from my perspective is the same as spiritual (look at the Greek roots to Psyche and Soul, they are the same).
I have grappled with how to handle this space. I seriously considered breaking it down into three separate blogs. One part is a relic of an old blog, which I had for almost ten years, under the title of The Christian Monist. It was basically a post-evangelical site and most of my visitors were from that perspective and we understood each other quite well. My intention was to give one last respite in someone’s journey from evangelicalism into atheism. I wanted them to know that they do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater (and the bathwater is deserving of tossing).
Then came the avalanche of the dear and caring friends at my diagnosis 14 months ago, who visit to see how I am doing with my struggle against cancer, and to check now and then to see if I am still on the top side of the sward. I am profoundly grateful for them. However, some of them are not interested in or used to my Christian-philosophical discussions and for a few that paves the way for misunderstanding and even hostility toward me, especially from the present evangelicals.
The last part of this blog is about novels and writing, which was the primary purpose of this space, before I got sick and let my illness topics take up occupancy. I have not done posting about writing of late.
When I went to investigate how to extract these three groups from this single blog page, it seemed like it would be a huge mess. I would have to force visitors to choose from the three sites, and knowing me, I would post an article on the wrong site. So, for now, I will leave this unholy blending here and I will always try to label things as Update (which is about my struggle with cancer) and Ramblings, is where I go off on any topic that has come to the forefront of my mind that week or day. However, I have added a new tool and will soon be a group of video messages in the side bar about what I believe or my theology. I do this to try and stop those who feel that they must write me private e-mails to argue with me about theological things, especially criticisms I have voiced here about evangelicalism or the church. Sometimes they frankly write to tell me that I’m going to hell because of the things I’ve said. If someone questions my Christian orthodoxy, please go to the video. I will do my best to answer your question there, and if I don’t, please don’t send me private e-mails to entice arguments because the videos are the best I can do in explaining my positions. I have never had thick skin, but it is worn even thinner after this struggle with cancer. I have a hard time dealing with people who write to tell me that I’m not a very good Christian, as compared to themselves, or that I’m going to hell. I have an equally hard time with people who suggest to me that I’m not handling my cancer correctly. But, with that said, I am deeply grateful for the vast majority of those who come here and get something out of it. I am even more grateful for those who are concerned about my health and keep Denise and me in their prayers.
Palpating the Edge of Trial’s Boundary
It is a common cliché within Christian circles and virtually all parts of our society, that you will not be given more than you can handle. It is loosely based on the Bible verse found in the book of 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says exactly the following from The Message translation:
13 No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.
I seem to remember a Hindu telling me that there was a comparable verse or parable within Sanskrit, although I do not remember what that was. All Christians don’t think the same and I’m sure that’s true for Muslims as well, but some of the Muslims I knew and spent a lot of time talking about religion and philosophy would say that God will prevail and save you from trial, unless he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, it is because you deserved the destruction you received, based on your or your family’s sins.
It is always easy to write articles or to give mini sermons that confirm what people already believe. But that is not my nature. I am a scalawag. I like to challenge what I think and what others think. This does not win me a lot of popularity contests where conformity is king. Sometimes my writing generates this hate mail, as mentioned above, especially if they perceive that what I said conflicts with their religious or political dogma.
So, as I approach this topic, I will not simply assume that our understanding of this principle, that nothing will be given to us above what we can handle, is rightly understood or true.
First, I want to look at this cliché to see if it is rightly understood. In The Message translation of the Bible (by Eugene H. Peterson) Dr. Peterson sees the original Greek text as saying that it is a trial or temptation that will not be beyond the limits of what we can handle. I looked up this word itself and the Greek root is close, and is the same word used for Jesus’ temptation when he was in the wilderness. That major temptation was for nutrition (food and water) and power. Since the former is more objective than power, I will stick with nutrition as my example.
Considering this passage in 1 Corinthians, it is first stating that we can take comfort knowing that we are not alone, that others have suffered as much or more in the trials they have faced. I have no qualms with that part of the verse and history supports that. However, getting into the later parts of the verse, it becomes more complicated.
If we looked at the one area of temptation of nutrition, from the reading of that verse, you could conclude that God would never allow starvation from food or water to his faithful servants, that you would physically survive until water or food comes your way. The problem is, from history, we know that is not true. I could give thousands of examples of devoted Christian men and women who starved or thirst to death within history. This happened in times of war, times of persecution, and through accidental abandonment, such as shipwrecks. Some of my Muslim friends would explain this as they had it coming. Some of my Christian friends would explain it that the ones who starved didn’t have enough faith to trust God to save them. . . or maybe God had some higher purpose in their brutal deaths, such as teaching someone else something trivial.
The best example that comes to mind was Lt. George W. De Long. He was a profoundly devoted Christian man who led an expedition to find the Northwest Passage on the USS Jeannette in 1879. They, however, got caught in the ice for two years. In his diary, he quoted this same verse from 1 Corinthians and told his men that God has given him a promise that he would save them from hunger. I hate to give away the ending, but they suffered slow and horrible deaths, even the last survivor eating his own arm.
Simply, we have three conclusions to make. The first one is that the Bible isn’t true, or if it is God’s word, he lied. The second one is that the thousands of faithful people, like Lt. George W. De Long, failed in their faith, or thirdly, that we have misunderstood the intent of this passage. While I suspect that most of my Christian friends, especially the evangelicals, will take the second position, I really think it is the last one which makes more sense. I mean really, if Lt. George W. De Long was not a faithful servant of Christ, I really don’t know who is.
I wish I could give a reasonable explanation what the verse really means but I won’t for two reasons, 1) it would take a lot of space and 2) I don’t really know. But I do think the verse was meant as a general statement in the same way I would say to one of my kids, “I will never let anyone hurt you again.” While I may mean that and the statement gives comfort, I know the limits of what I can do. Not that God is limited, but his willingness to intrude into history is restrained by his own volition. I believe that he does allow cause and effect play out in the wonderful universe he has created, although some of those consequences are not pretty and reflect the brokenness of this world.
Finding the Boundary in the Days of Covid-19
Putting the above stated conclusion in practical terms I will say that as we face trials, there is real mortal danger. While God will surely comfort us and may intervene, he may not intervene. Lt. De Long assured his men, who had not eaten for weeks, who were sleeping all exposed in -40 degrees weather, and the nearest settlement was 1,000 miles south in Siberia, from that verse that they were safe and no mortal harm could come to them. I wonder how many of those men lost their faith completely as they drew their last breaths.
So, what is this danger that we face?
I used to think that if I faced enough stress that I would “loose my mind” or “go nuts.” A psychiatrist friend of mine explained that it is highly unusual for anyone with no prior history of mental illness to have a psychotic break (professional name for “going nuts”) from stress after the age of about 25. Depression, anxiety, or panic attacks? Yes, that could happen. I think the biggest mortal danger comes in two forms. One is the indirect way where our stress ruins us so much that our health fails. The second one is where we take our own lives.
I have been candid that I seriously considered suicide a year ago. It was because the suffering I was experiencing was unbearable and I felt alone in that suffering. I can’t even begin to describe it, no more than could I adequately describe the Grand Canyon to an Eskimo who has never left the permafrost. The only thing that stopped me was the promise I made my family, that I would fight this cancer to the end.
Before I move deeper into my own story I want to say, this isn’t meant to be about me, but it is all of our stories. Most people are living under some type of COVID-19-world stress. I only share from my perspective because that is what I know the best. I will also add several caveats based on how I’ve heard some people respond when I start to share difficult things.
The first of these, just like the 1 Corinthians says, yes, I know that I’m not alone and that some people are suffering more than me. I’ve heard horrible stories such as where someone lost their job, their husband got COVID-19 and dies. No one will pick up his body and they are also taking care of, in the same house, their elderly mother and three grandkids because their daughter is hooked on drugs and this caregiver has breast cancer that is going untreated due to the pandemic.
I also know that there are people who come here to this blog who are suffering more than me. Besides some medical problem with profound symptoms, that they live completely alone. At least for me, Denise does eventually come home at night.
The last caveat I must add is that yes, I am grateful for the good things. I am extremely grateful that I have three acres and live on a lake. While I don’t see Denise nearly as much as I would like, I am grateful that I have her. I am also grateful for my dog who keeps me company. I love the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I am also extremely thankful that I’m not suffering like I was a year ago, especially that I’m not on dialysis. So, I do look at the bright side. With that said, I am also keenly aware of the dark side and I think denying that is not healthy for me or anyone. If you live with magical thinking, where you believe that you will be spared before being stressed beyond your limits, then you don’t plan or prepare for the inevitable. It is like those who say God will protect them from COVID-19, therefore they do nothing to follow sound public health recommendations.
If I were to design the most challenging mental trial for myself, I don’t think I could “improve” on the one I’ve been handed. Because I was almost taken captive by the Taliban in NW Pakistan in 2006, I often think that being held hostage by them, where I’m deprived of food and water for days and must experience frequent mock beheadings, as bad as it gets. Maybe. However, there are days I would change my present situation for that. . . just for a “change in scenery.”
But without going into the grisly details once again I will say that going from a state of excellent health with many plans for my life and a very productive full-time profession to, overnight, being slammed into a hospital bed with tubes in me and an attending physician who was telling me to prepare to die as she was not sure she could save me, was a shock in the least. Then to endure nine months of such a level of suffering that I never thought a human body could survive something like that, fighting the whole way for the sake of my family, and then a long and slow recovery. I do feel much better now thank you, but with lingering troublesome quality-of-life robbing symptoms and the evil cancer still inhabiting my marrow, trying to decide if it will give me many years of peace or crawl out and finish me off almost any day. Then, after fighting so hard to come back and to not have the results I was praying for from the stem cell transplant. I also fought hard to build my energy so that I could reclaim my profession and my patients, but was totally blindsided when I went back to work and was abruptly told my career was over and I was being laid off; that alone was almost more than I could bear. Then to have a glimmer of hope in creating a new clinic and have COVID-19 come out of the woods and rob me of that, like a masked bandit that it is to me, and all of us, is heart breaking.
The final blow for me is this extreme isolation that we are all familiar with. Because of my cancer and bone marrow transplant I can’t be within six feet of any human being, save my wife, who works 11-12 hour days. Nope, I am not looking this morning for pity, but I could not design a more challenging mental trial than this. Are you sure someone my age can’t go mad?
Do I have suicidal thoughts now? Not really. The tipping point of keeping me on this side of the dirt is my family and the fact that I’m not suffering as bad as I was, but that suffering is still in my shadows as a ghost of what was… and could be again.
The boundary of my trial is not taking my life by my own hands but having the will to live. In fighting cancer, the will to live is paramount. Many patients have committed suicide by cancer, simply by not following the plan. I won’t do that, but I respect that place of mind to the point that I must act now to steer away from it.
Like most homo sapiens, I start my day in bed. Each morning I lay there trying to think of a reason to get up. I really have none, but to engage in this mental war. I ask myself what purpose do I have? Am I only defined by the oxygen that I consume? The only answer I can find is an abstraction, God created me, therefore I have intrinsic value. I get up, I listen to the horrible news as I make my breakfast and then try to get on the trails before anyone else does. If someone beats me there, I have to return home to my isolation. After two miles with Greta, I come home to exercise, to practice archery, to write, to kayak, to fly fish for trout, to do home chores and repairs. I have to tell myself to keep moving and don’t stop (I actually feel better physically when I’m moving) for a rolling stone gathers no moss of hopelessness. I am thankful for Curt reaching out via Zoom, Jerry whom I occasionally call, Jean and Diane who have called, Kevin who came by keeping six feet away, but having coffee, and a couple of Zoom meetings with my kids. Otherwise, I have no other human contacts except of course Denise when she comes home but exhausted from a day with people.
Some have asked me, “Do you ever pray?”
What the hell do you think? Is that a serious question or sanctimonious exercise? I have a connection, like a Bluetooth earpiece, directly to the heavens where I constantly plead with God for mercy, day and night. And to suggest to me that my cancer has turned me against God… how profoundly ridiculous! I am on the tag team with Jacob and we wrestle in the dirt. The intimacy on the wrestling mat is greater than that on the lovers’ bed.
So, I depart from my story as not to bore you, but to ask how are your trials? I write this about all of us. Have you palpated that dark boundary of your limits and you know what lies there? What are your mechanisms of life to steer away, to keep in the clear of losing your freaking mind?
Mike, The Lake Hermit