Growing up through the 1950s and ‘60s as the daughter of a pastor and an oldest child, not to mention a child with a peculiar temperament, has given me a singular familiarity with spiritual angst. Not feeling guilty and not consciously repenting of something is cause for suspicion and results in a sort of vertigo, as if self-examination was my one strategy for holding onto a precarious standing with God.
There’s always been plenty needing repentance. One of my earliest memories is of allowing my little brother, Ron, to be punished for something I had done. In the lowest moments throughout my life, I’ve wondered if that incident defines my character.
I knew that God, by definition, was good and omniscient. Sometimes I actually perceived it, and wanted him—so I’d go to the big rope swing hanging from the huge tree in the backyard of the parsonage in Iowa, and I’d swing and sing to him. But then I’d get furiously angry with my little brothers or I’d lie about something, and have to hide from him again.
The story of the prodigal son would come to mind, but along with it always the question, “And how many times do you think the Father would put up with that? What if the son ran off again tomorrow, and again next week?” To this day I have the unenviable ability to counter every exhilarating, encouraging, or comforting verse in the Bible with one that will make you wince.
Am I writing about this lightly, blithely? I don’t mean to. Being haunted by uneasiness about the very foundation of life isn’t continually and consciously harrowing; it’s more like living with an earache or a toothache. Angst-times are eclipsed by grace-times—times of living fully in the moment, in the pleasure of absorbing conversation, in delight at God’s surprisingly unorthodox ways in our quirky little church. But always there’s a strong undercurrent pulling against the joy.
To this day I have the unenviable ability to counter every exhilarating, encouraging, or comforting verse in the Bible with one that will make you wince.
My husband, a pastor, suffers with me and sometimes just has to suffer me. An INTJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Rich quite naturally maintains personal equilibrium, exercises restraint and appreciates rational discussion. But as my spouse and friend he bears with my periodic descents into discomfiting questions. And then (probably equally challenging) bears with exuberant expressions of awe and wonder when Colossians 3 floods me with hope, or leaves drift down from our old maple tree, or a crescent moon pierces the clouds. I’m just as helpless before beauty as before anxiety; any glimpse of God’s activity pierces the gloomy old fog with clarity and conviction. “Oh!” I gasp with relief, “I’ve been wrong about God again!”
And yet would I know the delight if I hadn’t known the apprehension? It was, after all, “grace that taught my heart to fear” even as “grace my fears relieved.”
“Oh!” I gasp with relief, “I’ve been wrong about God again!”
In his book Hearing God in Conversation, Samuel Williamson tells a story that continues to teach me over and over again. Here’s an abbreviated version of the story as he tells it:
I was ten years old the first time I heard God speak. It was autumn, a new school year had just begun, and a new fad was spreading among my adolescent classmates.
I was raised in a conservative Christian church where Sunday School teachers taught us the Ten Commandments. … Instead of an elusive “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain,” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And when they said, “Don’t swear,” they meant, “Don’t cuss.” For us, cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.
One day while playing school-yard tag, I tagged my girlfriend, Diane, and she shouted, ‘S***!’ I felt a horrible shock wave race through my body, as though I’d been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch, and I can exactly picture the playground gate where Diane cussed. I gasped for air, but nothing came. …
I expected God to cast down a lightning bolt and burn Diane to ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
Almost, but not quite. I leaped back seven feet in case the bolt went wide.
And then … nothing happened. Not one thing. The game continued. No lightning bolt. Not even a firefly. I felt as shocked by the absence of righteous retribution as I had been by the cuss. …
My juvenile understanding of Christianity was simple: God blesses good people and he punishes bad people. [But here] the wicked flourished and the righteous were trampled.
I decided that God could not exist. … It was all a cruel hoax.
The next day I unleashed the filthiest mouth in the city of Detroit on my classmates. I said things even the wicked feared to say. …
Then, at the end of that day, alone in my bedroom, God spoke to me with a fierce, undeniable, and certain clarity. But all he said was, “Sam, I am real, and you don’t understand.”
I love that story. I read it and want with all my heart to never forget (never!) that God is good in every way we need God to be good. I want to get it once for all and then live there.
So far that hasn’t happened.
But maybe that seemingly dismal fact is grace too. Maybe I don’t need to get it once for all because, after all, I have him. This life with God is a relationship. He’s available; he can remind me. Maybe it can become a sweet thing to be shown the truth about him today and then again tomorrow.
Could it be that even my recurring spiritual angst is a gift I can offer him, trusting that once it’s in his hands it will become something fruitful? The unpredictable swings, too—the breathless marveling and then the anxious fretting—couldn’t each of them become sweet conversations?
It was with “a fierce, undeniable, and certain clarity” that God spoke to Sam. But I’m a lot older than Sam was; God’s been around the block with me more times than I can count. Maybe that’s why it’s with a certain rueful and tender humor that he seems to say to me, as often as necessary, “Sharon, I am who I am, and you don’t understand.”
It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe the day will come when he and I, the two of us, will laugh together about me. I’m looking forward to that.