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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Come on, my soul

It has been a difficult couple of weeks, and, increasingly, I am tempted to stay in bed rather than face the day. I do not mean that in a particularly melodramatic way; life just seems very hard at the moment and days are grinding on rather than being joyfilled. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who is used to having energy and passion - to feel suddenly unsure and faltering rather than bouncing through the day at such a speed that the next one seems to start without me really noticing. And yet, and yet, I am convicted of my own indulgent self-pity. A good friend of mine said that, after she moved to Zambia, this was something she struggled with a lot: the temptation to wallow because somehow, bizarrely, it is actually quite enjoyable to feel sorry for yourself. It is actually quite nice to be sad and tell God he's a meanie and that lament that everything is rubbish and hard and difficult and and and. That is not to say that things sometimes aren't rubbish and hard and difficult. They are. I realise, however, that, like my friend, more often than not, my response to adversity is self-pity. I love to wallow. And I think this love of wallowing is rather sinful. I don't like to admit that, of course, because it means that I've got to do something to sort it out instead of bemoaning that God is not doing His bit and sorting it out for me. Again, I am not saying that I can magic myself happy, or that I can suddenly decide to be joyful and voila joyful I shall be. It doesn't work like that. Humans being are pretty emotionally complex and although feelings can't always be trusted they do have an uncanny ability to completely incapacitate us - perhaps for the very reason that they can't be trusted. I am a victim of my own feelings and the way they lure me into self pity, but what is to be done about it?

Another good friend and I spend a vast amount of time discussing our own ridiculousness - namely in relation to our other halves and the quickness with which we become frustrated at them - and to what extent we are to blame, or perhaps culcable, for our thoughts and feelings. She suggested that there are three stages in the awareness of and action against sin (self-pity just being one example of the kind of sin we're talking about; others could include deliberately acting in a way that you know is going to start an argument/ cause pain to someone (again, probably someone close to you like a husband or a friend) overreacting unnecessarily, sulking etc). The first is unconscious and incompetent: you don't know that what you're doing is sinful and therefore you can't do anything about it. The second is conscious and incompetent: you have realised that deliberately getting attention by stropping isn't really the best way to deal with a situation but you still haven't learn to deal with it. This is the stage that I feel that I'm at with most things, including self pity: I realise that it is selfish and silly to wallow deeper and deeper into my own introversion and yet I can't quite stop doing it even though I know that I really should. This is particularly pertinent at that mid point in an argument where I really know that I need to stop and yet, rather than stopping, I keep going, enjoying, relishing even, the opportunity to gain something - although, in hindsight I am never entirely sure what I was trying to gain in the first place! The third stage is conscious and competent: you know when you're doing something sinful (or about to) and you stop doing it. I am definitely not at this stage yet for ninety percent of the things in my life, but I would like to be better. I would like to recognise when I am tempted to stay in bed and enjoy my own bad temper and, instead, do something different. To really want to start an argument just for the sake of being right or having something to fight about and not do it. To I feel on the cusp of shouting because I'm in a foul and irritable mood and restrain myself.But - and here's the key - I would like to do that without feeling like I'm having a constant coversation with my own thoughts and at absolute breaking point because all I want is to give in and have a self-indulgent stress.

I am not sure that I have an solution. But, perhaps, it is more about replacement rather than restraint. The pattern of the psalms is not only a plea for God to protect us from our sinful nature and subdue it (e.g. Psalm 19: "But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression" ) but also an active striving to praise and rejoice even when that seems a totally ludicrous thing to be doing. It is difficult to type this without making it seem glib - like some kind of miracle plaster cast to be smothered over our sadness and struggle and painted garish luminous colours - but I do think that we are called to strive with our own souls - as the psalmists do - and (as it were) get them out of bed: Ephesians 5:14 " Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Practically, I am not totally sure what this means. It means we need to know scripture and use it as a weapon. It means we need to learn to talk to ourselves (Mike Reeves does an excellent exegesis of Psalm 42 on this theme, which can be found here. John Piper's is also helpful:) and that we need to stop reading  "Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song" (Psalm 95:1-2) as a joyful, happy clappy invitation to those who quite fancy hanging out in church together and singing some nice acoustic guitar songs (I mean no offence; I love nice acoustic guitar songs). It is much more than mere invitation; it is command. "Come on, soul! Get on with it. Yes, you don't feel like it; yes, you're tired and weary and you don't want to talk to God right now but get on and do it." 

Lloyd-Jones puts it much better:  
"Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”  

I haven't mastered the art of talking to myself, but I think I am becoming better at detecting when my self, and my sinful nature, is saying things that aren't true or helpful. (Conscious but not yet competent). Prayer helps, even if, for me anyway, that prayer is simply: Come on, Soul. Praise the LORD! And when you can't pray, then being with people who can helps, even if you resent their silly, holy prayers even as they pray them. Last week I managed to use the first tactic on Tuesday: I got up, went for a run and sang this song on repeat: "Come on (my soul)" Rend Collective Experiment. I didn't manage to do that on Thursday so I went to church instead for the early morning prayer meeting and subsequently became a snivelling heap in front of the whole staff team. Nice. But helpful. I didn't want to pray and I was tired of shouting at my own soul; actually, I wasn't even whispering, let alone shouting. I couldn't be bothered to say anything to myself, so God used brothers and sisters to do it for me. 

" Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:13-16)

I am not sure that self-pity technically counts as a sickness but being prayed for certainly felt like a kind of medicine. I am still low emotionally and feeling drained but (perhaps) I have (a little) new resolution: Come on, soul! Stop wallowing; start praising.

"Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God."
(Psam 42:5)

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