05 December 2007

dissolution of my dichotomies

God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I wish I had the answers. I wish I were more certain. I wish that after a single great struggle, all those struggles yet to come would cower in its wake and I could just kick up my feet and coast through my days with profound and utter certainty. Perplexity would be vanquished, doubt a thing of the past.

Even when those occasionally intellectual places in myself are functioning at their peak, I somehow continue to aspire to the belief that one day, this absurd fantasy just might come true: it will all make perfect sense, one day all loose ends will be tied. I will experience no more confusion or mystery. I’ll write the book and my work here will be done. I wish.

I wish. I wish. I wish.

Truth is, I’m angry at God right now. After several weeks of avoidance, I really just acknowledged it a few days ago. I cringe at my own words; I do not want to be, but I’m angry with Him, with what He’s doing and not doing in my life right now. On the thinking-feeling scale, I tend to lean heavily toward the former. It’s not that I’m not emotional, but I rely more on my intellect to drive me. And when I have an unpleasant emotion like anger or sadness, I attempt to rationalize my way out of it. Instead of having the emotion and learning to express it in a healthy way, I bargain with it. I negotiate with it as if it were holding me hostage. It hasn’t worked yet, but I continue to try. My propensity to barter with my heart is so automatic that most of the time I do not even recognize when it’s happening.

I’ve questioned what He’s about. As I break into new territory where my faith is concerned, I question why He would choose now when I’m at my most vulnerable to strip those things I’ve relied upon. In regards to my faith, I’ve never felt more stranger and alien; He chooses now to take away certain comforts and place limits on relationships, to make me less understood by those who were once my familiars. To take me to this new place alone, one that I did not actively seek, but stumbled upon in the pursuit of an altogether different dream.

I’ve moved forward in spite of feeling so tentative, in spite of my heartstrings pulling me backward. At first I couldn’t recognize why my forward movement was so timid when my intellect was so persuaded. I recently recognized this familiar pattern: before my heart had the opportunity to recognize anything resembling anger, I attempted to subdue it not only with well-constructed arguments, but with Scripture as well:
Take up your cross and follow me.
No one who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.
He who loves his father or mother … son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

But my heart still does not follow. I read the words and I think I’ve got a good handle on what they mean. I just don’t like it; I resist and I wince, knowing what they require of me. I don’t want to draw lines, hold boundaries, or restrict friendships. I don’t want people to think I’m crazy or rash or impulsive. And I definitely don’t want anyone to disagree with or scrutinize my decisions. It seems so petty to say it, so terribly shallow. And maybe it is. No sooner do my thoughts and the feelings they inspire take shape than I realize there is a good answer for them. I am not encountering anything that wasn’t promised. But I still want to scream.

I know that a life of faith requires sacrifice and yet I object to what is demanded of me; I give with a heart that is less than cheerful or generous in the offering. It hurts, I plead. To which my intellect says, so what? God promises us many things; easy is definitely not on the list. So where and why is the disconnect?

What I’ve come to know with increasing familiarity in recent weeks is that there is a gap between God and I that exists by virtue of me being finite and His being infinite. It is vain to expect that I could ever wrap my tiny little flesh-bound brain around God and all his God-ness. I’m fairly certain this -- my inability to understand -- is what lies at the root of my anger and what keeps my reluctance well-fed.

As I learn to embrace my faith in a new way, I am learning to see a far more expansive picture of God than I ever have before. God is the embodiment of what our minds might deem polar opposites:

He is mercy. He is justice.
He is grace. He is law.
He is compassion. He is authority.
He is gentle. He is powerful.
He is comforter. He is rebuker.
He is rest. He is go forth.
He is peace. He is the sword.
He is neither do I condemn you. He is go and sin no more.
He is the lamb. He is the lion.

And the list goes on.

Because of my limitations as a human being, I cannot wrap my mind around how He simultaneously personifies these and countless other seeming opposites in all their fullness. I’m willing to bet these are not opposites at all where God is concerned. My tendency has been to favor one trait over the other or make them entirely circumstantial depending on who I think He needs to be. It makes it simpler for me to break it down, to tend toward an either/or way of thinking of Him, because fully embracing the notion that He’s all these things at once far supersedes my cognitive abilities. Breaking it down gives me the illusion that God’s character is somehow subject to my whims and personal needs. It’s not that I think God is not personal, because I know He is. But if this process has taught me anything, it is that if we present ourselves to Him with open hands asking to be led, He will gladly take us up on the offer and the God we meet may not be who we expect. While I implicitly trust He has our best in mind, that path toward our best may be at times a spare and empty one, devoid of clarity and answers, and perhaps without those peripheral inducements strewn on the path like breadcrumbs to entice us forward.

I can’t make sense of this. God utterly defies the dichotomies I’ve favored and lived by, and all my former perceptions are reduced to ash as a result. He is shattering my former ways of knowing Him; He will never fit in my understanding. The minute I try and wrap my head around any of this experience, boil it down and make sense of it is the minute I make Him infinitesimally smaller than He is.

Perhaps this is why Solomon advises do not lean on your own understanding. Nothing contained within our understandings could possibly allow God to be God. Any god held so neatly within our minds is one we fabricate for ourselves; it is an idol and not God at all.

How am I to grasp that He is one and the same who gives me everything and demands it all in return, who comforts and corrects, who gives grace and demands perfection, who is gentle and who is fierce?

I can no more hold all this in my mind than I can hold Him in the palm of my hand. I must learn to resign my ability to understand and allow myself to be enfolded in Him, to be led by Him. To embrace the fact that even if I don’t understand Him, I know Him. I confess I don’t really know what all this means; I don’t know what it will look like in the thick of daily living. But I expect I will learn. I must in all [my] ways acknowledge Him: lay my whole heart on the altar, even if it is one that is frightened and angry; accept that my mind cannot break Him down into smaller pieces to comprehend Him; trust that the path I’m on is a straight one even if I cannot see where it leads.

One day, I hope I will no longer protest His right to be God or the demand that I entrust Him wholly with all He’s given me. But for now my heart responds to these demands with irritation and reluctance, so much so that there are days I go so far as to wonder if any of it is worth it. I don’t want it to be this way. If I move forward, I want it to be with my heart and not in spite of it. And so I pummel His chest with clenched fists, knowing somehow that He still holds me close. Knowing He can handle my fighting. It hurts so much, I say. I feel like I am breaking.

I know, He says. I know.

For all my not knowing, at least I can hang on to this: that He asks no more of me than He gave Himself. That He loves me. That He understands. That He is good. And maybe that is enough.


  1. Kirsten, this is raw, honest and inspiring.

    Thanks for allowing us to journey with you through this time of growth. Your transparency with your feelings and the expression of them feels right, feels holy.

    "All growth has pain as it's heart-flower and it's petals are the many colors of suffering." As said by poet Ulrich Schaffer. I believe this to be true.

    I am sorry for your pain, my sister.

    What an amazing and mysterious love we are loved with, and that is transforming us! Good to see you are living out this hope, through all of life's vulgarities and vicissitudes.

    Blessings upon you and your gluten-free cupcakes.

  2. Thanks, Kirsten, for sharing your thoughts. I love this post.

    I've always been moved by the story of Jacob wrestling with God (even though I don't quite understand it). It sounds like you are wrestling with him, too.

    I love how you see your way out of the "thinking God" trap and distinguish that you do in fact know him, even if you don't understand him.

    I certainly know from experience that it can be hard to let go of the coping mechanism of intellectualizing and instead let ourselves sit face to face with a personal God. Thanks for the reminder and for the example of risking that encounter with your whole person, mind and heart.

  3. Wow Kristen. What a thought provoking post. I sometimes wish I had all the answers. I wish I had the easy life that some have. I wish my "sign" was God standing before me with no doubt at all in my heart. But then what right do I have to ask these things.

    God wants us to think so he doesn't give us all the answers. It is kind of like which came first the chicken or the egg? There is no answer to that question as there should be no end to our questioning attitude.

    The easy life that most of us wish for is a life without purpose. I struggle daily and that makes me a stronger person. The coasters are weak and will have their greatest challenge one day.

    As far as my sign of God. It is here now but most of us really don't want to see it. Have faith Kristen.

  4. like 23 degrees said, thanks for being so raw and honest, kirsten. believe it or not, i think it is an encouragement to others when we share stories like this. it's hard to pretend everything is fine and dandy when it's really not. and it's good to know others share some of the same struggles.

    i think sometimes, we, as christians, are expected to always have our *smiley* faces on, whistling dixie, like life is a bed of roses because we have Jesus. but, i think we all know that's not true! :)

    much love to you, friend....and courage for the way....

  5. Kirsten,

    I am so glad to have stumbled across you on the internet. You are both wise and honest. I love it. Thank you for your encouragement on my blog as well. I hope some day if God leads me your way to meet the woman behind the blog!

    Merry Christmas

  6. 23 Degrees - Wow. Thank you. And once again, you give me a most fitting quote to cling to.

    This is a post that I was so reluctant to put out there; I can think of few times when the act of writing was actually more about interior spiritual work. This piece went through several incarnations as I was led to new places through the writing of it.

    It is an amazing love! This love that turns us inside-out and on our heads. But somehow it all makes sense.

    Thank you for your encouragement; I will eat a gluten-free cupcake in your honor!

    Jen - Thank you for your kind comment. It is nice to know another who has sat in, walked through, or wrestled in the same place as I am now. I think it was hard to come to terms with the knowing, but not understanding. I don't need to understand Him. This mode of vulnerability is somewhat new to me.

    Greg - Thank you for stopping by, and thank you for your kind words. You are so, so right about the coasters: they are in for a rude awakening and are avoiding reality if they think walking with God is easy.

    Blue - Thank you so much for your encouragement. What I've come to love about the ever-expanding blogging community we've created is that it is a safe space to expose these vulnerable things, to seek prayer & find encouragement, to know we're not isolated in the challenges we face. So glad you are along the way, my friend!

    Carl - Your words are so very kind & mean so much to me. I will echo to you what I said to Blue: I am continually amazed and grateful for the tightly knit community these blogging spaces have become. I don't know what a lot of my friends here look like, but they know me, and I them. Thank you for your encouragement. You & your family will continually be in my prayers.

  7. Kristen- I love your use of language about emotions “holding your heart hostage.” This so accurately describes what I’ve been realizing about myself recently. I too tend rationalize my feelings away, keeping them locked inside.

    I admire your bravery to continue traveling along the path, despite not having all the answers.

  8. Hello my dear friend,

    You should have seen me this morning, trying to read your post with my eyes swollen shut. I woke exhausted (again). Agreed with myself that I would stay home from school today. Brushed my teeth with my eyes closed. Came out to write my instructor an e-mail about missing class, and then couldn't keep myself from checking your blog. A new post, and a long one, but gosh darn it, I was going to sit there and read it with my tired eyes that had no glasses on, to boot!

    Of course, I had to come back later and re-read it again, just to be coherent in my reading this time. :)

    What an amazing person you are. Everyone here has thanked you for your honesty, and I join them. I totally get this war between the heart and the mind, this bargaining that happens without our even knowing that it's going on, the contradictions in God's character that really make the mind split itself open like it's cracked and gone insane with trying to figure it out.

    "Figure it out." I learned some years ago that this had been my long-term mantra for getting through life -- I'd just work it and work it and work it until I figured it out, whatever came my way. Until I started in on a path toward not needing to have it all figured out, not needing to be in control of all that I aspired to know. Scary!!! And still scary for me, as I catch myself in those spin cycles still. It takes a great trust to let down the need to get it, to just allow one's self to be human. I think I tend toward needing to be super-human most of the time. And God gently says, "But I made you human, not super-human."

    I feel like perhaps, beyond all the actual things that are going on in your life and which are big enough in their own right, there is an even greater mystery at work in you right now. It's huge and momentous. It's about your heart. I will fight hard for it in prayer.

  9. Hi Chloe - Whew! I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels that way. I guess I also need to accept that I have a heart and I have an intellect and I can't make one subject to the other. They are not opposed to one another, but definitely function differently, don't they?

    I don't like to think of myself as sums of parts, but there's no doubt in my mind that there are two very different things going on here!

    Thanks again for your kind words.

    Christianne - Ah, Christianne. I remember discussing in the comment space on your blog a week or two ago how we feel like we're repeating struggles we've already been through with God and with our faith. This feels like one of those too; I feel like there have been other times I've learned these lessons.

    I mean, it's so obvious that we can't figure God out. We just can't. I know this & have known it, but now it's just more intensely personal than ever before and so directly aimed at my heart.

    I love what you said about God making us human, not super-human. I think sometimes I (over-achiever that I tend to be) put those higher expectations on myself. I think sometimes I struggle with the not knowing because there's a part of me that feels like if I could figure it out, if I could just know what's going on, then it wouldn't be so fill-in-the-blank: difficult, painful, exhausting, etc. There is another place in A Grief Observed where C.S. Lewis writes, "Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? ... there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it." Argh. No detours here.

    I feel like something huge is going on here too; thank you for battling with me and for being here as the mysterry slowly begins to unfold.

    Thank you, my dear friend!

  10. Thanks for sharing your struggles, my friend. I know how it is to "live in your head" and want to put it all out on papear, but not necessarily knowing how to get it all out. I am amazed, in my own struggles and journey, that I come out the other end, looking the same, and basically "believing" what I did beforehand, but God giving me a whole new sense of compassion for others. Its interesting, because you talk about being intellectual, and when emotions come along, not allowing yourself to just feel/express them - I on the other hand, am much more of an emotion type person, who has to not let myself be overcome or controlled by my emotions. I have to have that intellect/logic and tell myself often "you are fine - pull it together" - interesting how there is that need for balance.

    In this journey of yours, I would encourage you to continue to allow others who you trust, to join with you. I found for myself, that I times, I didn't trust what I believed, and I had to rely on someone else to hold on to the Truth for me, knowing that eventually, I would be able to stand on my own two feet, and hold on to that truth. Sometimes our journeys lead us somewhere new, and sometimes our journeys lead us back home, with a whole new understanding of where we have been.

  11. Thanks for these honest reflections. I've been meaning to ask you... Have you ever read The Cloister Walk? It might be something for your journey.

  12. Thanks for visiting, LL. I have not read that, but will look into it. Thank you for the recommendation!

  13. I just realized that I should proofread my comments - oops - I'm sure you understood it though :)

  14. Kirsten
    Again I am caught at Nate's house on his net. Man I have got to get myself a computer. Anyway I just wanted to say in response to this blog. POWERFUL absolutely POWERFUL!!!! This blog literally sounds like you have bugged by house and written down my woes as of late. I am still in shock over this. I have never felt like someone took my silent words that are hidden deep down and put them in front of me. I am sitting here feeling like someone just took a huge bucket of ice cold water and has thrown it in my face. Nate is sitting on the couch saying how intense I seem over this blog. Well I will meditate on the fact that I am not alone in my struggle. Thanks for the honesty. I still just have to say WOW. I had a very hurtful experience a few years ago that literally broke me in half, still I am not out of the fight. But I can vividly remember one day being in my bedroom and falling on my knees. That was one time in my life that I can remember that bowing my knees was more than a physical act. I truly feel on my knees in hopeless abandonment and said outloud I am not God, I cannot fix myself, my life truly is in Your hands. What I mean my very breath at that moment was God's, not that I was so surrendered but that I was so overtaken by the thought that I am not God. I literally could feel the words of Job, when he said I have heard of you but now I know You. Job found God when he found out that he was not in control. Many of your words expressed Job's dilemma with himself. Boy, I am answering some of my own questions right now all sparking from your blog. So thank you....later.....

  15. Dear Tammy,
    My heart aches in unison with yours. I have had some experiences over the last few years that have dealt several hard blows (some bigger than others) that rattled my faith, challenged my trust, and brought me face to face with the inadequacy of myself. Not long ago, it was for weeks on end that I was also in that position of being on my knees, with tears and sobs, in utter desperation with what I was facing & feeling like there was no way out. God felt hopelessly distant, but somehow I still *knew* He was there & listening & could handle my arguing & fighting. I knew He was with me in my pain & had faced that same feeling of abandonment & loneliness.
    I don't know the particulars of what you've faced, but I can't begin to describe how it blesses me to know that this has connected with you & resonated with you so very deeply. This is by far the hugest & most unexpected blessing that has come from blogging for me. It is such a gift to know that even in our moments of darkest despair, we are not alone.
    Can I express how thankful I am, too, to have met another kindred spirit, whose heartbeat echoes my own?? You've got such a beautiful soul, Tammy. And what's great is that God doesn't ask that we get all our stuff together before coming to Him; I think it honors Him when we come to Him in all our barrenness & brokenness & offer ourselves to Him as we are. I'm so, so deeply thankful our paths have crossed!!!