The smell of the lavender hits your nose as you remove the plant from its tiny plastic shell and rough up the compacted roots that have pullulated despite their confinement. Life is like that, making a way, filling in the gaps, taking advantage of limitations and seizing opportunities. You put the plant in its newly dug home and compact the soil around it into a little mound. And there it stands, this tiny sentinel of green and violet, a contrast of budding life in the center of an earthen moat. There is a beauty in the contrast and optimism in the new beginning. With time and care, the restraints lifted, the lavender should grow, thrive, and propagate.
But on this day, despite the Edenic contrasts and floral notes that feather their way through the air, you are on edge. You thought gardening would take your mind off things, but you cannot be undistracted because the thought is always there. Somewhere deep within, just outside the unconscious, hiding in the dissolving shadows that mark the space between awareness and instinct, understanding and undersense, there is a presence. It feels otherly—a part of you and yet foreign, an un-welcomed squatter. In the hinterlands of mindscapes, the presence is not easily discernible for it never unveils itself; its true form remains masked. There are no clear demarcations to it, no frames or profiles. The presence both scares you and is strangely familiar. It feels intimate and alien. A lover and a stranger.
This presence is always at work. It moves the levers of the mind, shooting signals into the physical body so that even though you are surrounded by the beauty of the garden, the scent of the flowers, the warmth of the sunshine and the chirping of the bird, you are unwell. Your chest is heavy and tight, an internal constricting, your mouth is arid and acrid, and your stomach is acidic and bitter. You are exhausted because you cannot sleep or have slept too much. Rhythms of the day become unnervingly important: twilight is frightening because your thoughts race and spin, morning is overwhelming because you cannot bear to face the day, relationships are burdensome because you believe you are a burden, and work is a chore because it cannot be avoided. This presence, lurking between consciousness and unconsciousness, sense and sensibility, living in the space-between-the-spaces and exciting the mind, now shows its true motive: it wants to make you like itself; indecisive, restless, impenetrable, lost and shadow-stayed.
For those who suffer the relentless distresses of anxiety and depression, the presence is a metaphor that attempts to explain something both experiential and transcendent. Sufferers of depression and anxiety find it almost impossible to explain to non-sufferers the extent of their plight. The difficulty comes from the reality that anxiety and depression are not merely negative moods. There is a transcendent, almost otherly-presence about them. This transcendent feeling isn’t easy to explain because it’s not rational, empirical, nor demonstrative. Everyone knows how it feels to be scared or anxious. But not everyone knows how it feels to be self-alienated to the point of experiencing living in contradiction.
Depressed people know they are depressed. Anxious people know their anxiety is irrational. Both depressed and anxious people understand that they must take personal responsibility for their own well-being. But what makes these diseases (I do hate that clinical term) so different from negative moods is the existential sense of being in two minds. The depressive understands their viewpoints as negative, the worriers believe the odds against danger are on their side. But something else is there too, churning, lurking, evolving, reconstituting the logic. The contradiction is that sufferers know their conditions are illogical. Logic’s promise—to bring order to chaos—doesn’t work. The logic is there, but so is the fear, the apathy, the hopelessness. Anxiety and depression transcend logic. “I know what I’m feeling/thinking doesn’t really make sense but….” And that’s essentially the presence: a depressive, existential awareness of logic’s powerlessness, that there is a transcendent “more” to whatever “is” and that no deductive ordering can repair.
For those who suffer the relentless distresses of anxiety and depression, the presence is a metaphor that attempts to explain something both experiential and transcendent.
That presence sometimes needs medication, almost always therapy. And Christians should never shy away from these advantages if they need them, for God has provided them. But I want to spend the next few paragraphs undermining this presence not from the perspective of science (nor contradicting it) but from the perspective of pastoral care. In other words, what can pastoral care contribute to those who suffer from anxiety and depression?
And the answer to that question is always Christ. That is always the pastor’s answer because Christ is always the Way, Truth, and Life. He is the way out, the way in, the way between the ways. He is the truth, the undiscovered truth, the denied truth, the truth that sets free. He is the life, the life before life, the life-given, the life to come, and the life living in you. So Christ is the answer. But how he is the answer is why the pastoral office exists. The pastor is a herald of Good News. The pastor’s job is to contextualize and incarnate Jesus into the experiences of life. To use an older metaphor, the pastor shepherds parishioners through mountains and valleys of distraction and experience so they can see the Good Shepherd who is always there. So in my remaining time, and without implying this is a comprehensive solution (it’s not, it’s a word of grace), I want to undermine the power of the presence with the grace of a promise.
Here’s where I want to shepherd you today. Read this slowly. Close your eyes first, take a deep breath, say a little prayer, and take in this truth:
God is good. God is always better than I can possibly imagine.
You can imagine a lot. Depressives and worriers are expert imagineers. But I want you to hear this again: God is always better than I can possibly imagine. What causes the presence to shriek and shrill into obscurity is the reality that its power is as shadowy as its form. Listen to this promise that God gives in the opening to Psalm 37:
Fret not yourself because of evildoers, be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth righteousness as the light and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices (vv 1-7).
Read that Psalm over and over. Keep going, and you’ll hear more promises like, “The steps of man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand. I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing” (vv 24-25). That is a statement from a man who lived a full life, had the benefit of hindsight, and saw God’s faithfulness perennial throughout his life. Sometimes, when we are in seasons of hardship and suffering we don’t have this benefit, we lose sight, and we become fixated on the problems of the moment. But I want you to know: God is better than you can imagine.
God is better. He is always better than whatever praise he receives. Prophesy the greatest outcome for your struggle: God is better. Envisage your perfect result: God is better. Brainstorm and analyze the solution to every and all problems: God is better. God is so much better, so much kinder, so absolutely more loving, so exorbitantly more generous, lavishly patient, eternally forgiving, insatiably wise, and triumphantly on your side than you can possibly imagine. Take whatever problem you are facing and pray boldly:
God, I don’t understand why this is happening to me, and I am so helpless. I know whatever happens you will be with me. But God, give me faith to trust and see that you are better than anything my mind can think. Your care and love for me, your desire for my goodness, goes beyond my biggest and deepest dreams. I’ve been selling you short when faith shows me your goodness has no end. You gave up your Son for me, and in you, I can entrust my future.
When the Psalmist cries, “Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the LORD for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps. 65:4; Ps. 100:5; etc.), he sings of the inexhaustible fecundity of God’s goodness—it has no end. When Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” He is showing us that we are unable to understand genuine goodness. But God is always better than your imaginings. God is greater than your thoughts about God!
Just consider: God is the God who sends the rain and sunshine. God put the scent in the lavender and newborn babies. God created the barrel-laughing group of friends and the susurrus dance of wind-blown leaves. God gave you His Son when you didn’t deserve it, and His Spirit, so you are always partnered. God adopted you into his family and has prepared an eternal place where you and He and all you love will be together. He is the God who took your sins away, keeps taking them away, the Great Sin-eater, though you sin seventy times seven. He is the God who—now really take this in—the God who wants to give you the desires of your heart. He wants to help you and make you happy. He finds pleasure in taking your side and helping you out because he is not just a god, he is God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Intimate Spirit. Fear, worry, loss of control: these sell God short. They believe in a god confined to the imagination. What an emasculated god!
God is greater than your thoughts about God!
So…the presence is there, pulling all those mind levers, agitating and oppressing. But the presence derives its power from imagination. It points you to unknowns where there are no promises and only “what ifs” and “so whats”. But against it, there stands a Promise-Giver who sealed his promises at Golgotha. He did not begrudgingly do this for his children, but delighted to do it because he’s better, more generous and loving then you can understand.
It’s not that God will give you everything you want. When God gives you the desires of your heart, it is because he has given you a new heart in Christ. In Christ, you find the death of the God who keeps score, balances scales, issues punishments, and withholds mercy. That is the God of law. And our God is a God of law. But you are no longer under the law; you are under grace. In your life, in your future, in your suffering, in your prayers, and in your comings and goings, live by His promise of who He is for you. Live in the light of truth, and you’ll see a bit of what St. Peter saw when he wrote, “Cast all your cares on Him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). He cares for you.
With that promise in place, let the presence rage. Light is breaking into such darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.