What do you think about when your mind wanders? Do you wrestle with negative, accusatory thoughts? Do you only think about positive things, careful to block out anything less than happy? What types of judgments do you make as you observe things throughout the day?
What about when you or someone you love is in pain—and the pain won’t go away? When there is no quick fix? What happens when it causes deep doubts because your experience conflicts with certain beliefs you’ve held?
I’d like to propose that we’re not always spot-on in the conclusions we come to when we’re hurting, either internally or externally—and that’s encouraging. Here’s what I’d like to suggest we remind ourselves of in those cases: we don’t have all the facts.
Logical person that I am, I really hate that. Lately, though, I’ve been reminded of that repeatedly. (God knows I need to learn the same lesson more than once!) The latest was this morning when I was in Psalm 22, which is the Psalm Jesus drew peoples’ attention to while he was dying on the cross when he cried (screamed) out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?!” This is a messianic psalm, and by Jesus shining a spotlight on it, we need to not merely read it from an analytical perspective, but in this case, from the perspective of what he wants to convey here.
It begins, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my roaring?” (The King James Bible uses the word “roaring,” and it indicates being tormented with extreme anguish.) He’s far from finished, though. He goes on, “O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” This is in the psalm Jesus was pointing to. Is this what he was truly feeling? Maybe. He was fully human. This is the mystery of Jesus being fully God and fully man. If he indeed felt these things, it was not sin. In fact, Jesus was so unenthusiastic in his humanity about following through with the plan that had been in place before the world had even been created that he asked his Father to come up with something else—three times in a row.
So imagine if that’s what God in human flesh was feeling. Are the sentiments expressed in Psalm 22 true? Did his Father abandon him? Is he “far from” him? No. We do know that Jesus was experiencing emotional agony given that, according to the physician Luke, he was sweating blood the night before, which is a medical condition brought on by extreme psychological distress. And that was before he took on the punishment for the sins of humanity. The point being that if the man Jesus can feel these things, even though they’re not in actuality true, should we think that in our darkest moments we’re seeing truth with complete clarity?
But if imagining Jesus thinking or feeling this is too much for you, there are numerous examples in the Bible of people being raw and real with the pain they think God is inflicting on them. Take David, who wrote Psalm 22. Certainly he felt those things, since he wrote them. Or Jeremiah, who wrote in the book of Lamentations, “He [God] bent his bow and set me as a target for the arrow. He shot his arrows into my heart.”
When we’re in pain, we just want it to stop. Our mind and emotions, often, are not our allies in these cases. We don’t have all the facts. We don’t know the future; for that matter, we don’t even fully know about the present. Another thing we don’t know everything about are the conclusions we draw from our observations. We see so many things: neighbors doing or saying things, peoples’ posts on social media, snippets of conversations. And we make assumptions and draw conclusions. I’d like to point to Jesus again to illustrate the fact that we don’t have all the facts.
There is a passage in Isaiah 52-53 which refers to Jesus’ suffering, and in it, it points out our perception of what we thought was going on with Jesus: “we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done.”
Is this what was actually occurring? Certainly not. But, based on what was being observed at the time, that’s would’ve been a reasonable conclusion.
In no way am I suggesting that we ought to live in constant doubt of what we think and observe. What I would like to offer is that it’s a good idea to pause and consider that there are things we don’t know before firmly declaring, “This is what’s going on.” After all, we have no idea how this will be used to shape our own character, how this might prepare us for something in the future, or how this might put you in a position to help someone else in the future.
Jeremiah—who had lots to say when it came to the hardships God was bringing to him—also said, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.” (emphasis mine)
Our emotions fluctuate constantly, which should indicate to us that they’re not always trustworthy. While we don’t always feel God, he never fluctuates. His love and faithfulness and trustworthiness is constant regardless of our emotional state. When your feelings threaten to swamp you, remind yourself of what is true, not what is screaming for your attention in the moment. I fully admit that this is difficult, because we want to sink down and allow the feelings to take us where they will. This is unwise and, frankly, unhelpful.
I’ll end with two recommendations from Paul: “Take every thought captive to make it obey Christ,” and, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.”