Summary: How do we sustain joy in the midst of difficult circumstances? By reflecting on God’s blessings and promises.
Right now in Texas, a woman named Andrea Yates is on trial for the crime of murdering her five children, ages 7, 5, 3, 2, and six months. According to news reports, she confessed to police that she led them one at a time into the bathroom of their family’s home and drowned them in the bathtub. When I first heard about this, I reacted as probably most of you did, in horror and disbelief. It seems inconceivable that any mother, any person, could so calmly and methodically take the lives of her own children. What could account for such a monstrous act? How can we explain such inhumanity? The truth is that we can’t fully explain it. No one really knows what was going through her mind when all this took place. We can’t really know if she was legally insane, as her lawyers have claimed. We do know that she had been depressed since the birth of her fourth child. But to violently snuff out the lives of her own offspring -- no one thought her capable of this kind of atrocity. Was there some kind of psychotic break; did she lose her grip on reality? Or did she simply become overwhelmed, feeling more and more isolated and stressed until this seemed like the only way out? Only God knows; there will always be something at the core of this tragic story that is hidden and unknowable.
I relate this to you because we all share something in common with Andrea Yates. As far as I know, none of us has ever committed such a terrible crime, or even remotely imagined such a thing (although it would be a mistake to think ourselves completely incapable of it). But at times our circumstances, also, can seem hopeless and overwhelming, with no way out. We all experience daily the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. The truth is that from time to time, we all have ample justification for feeling discouraged. We’ve all experienced disappointments, both great and small. Everything from a failed casserole, to a failed job, to a failed marriage. We’ve all known loss, and pain, and sorrow; unmet expectations, broken dreams, shattered hopes. At times, the pain seems far away, the bad times all but forgotten. But at other times, the pain is so intense and unrelenting that it seems too much to bear, like some kind of migraine of the soul. And at those times, we wonder how a loving God could allow his children to suffer so; we’re tempted to abandon faith, and give ourselves over to despair.
In his recent book, entitled "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression," author Andrew Solomon makes an attempt to understand the roots of melancholy, to describe what it feels like to slide into depression.
He writes, "In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaningless of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance. Life is fraught with sorrows: no matter what we do, we will in the end die; . . time passes, and what has been will never be again."
Although Mr. Solomon does not profess to be a religious person, his words echo those of his namesake, King Solomon of ancient Israel, who wrote the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. And in that book, we read the following:
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
Ever feel like that? As Solomon considers the fact that we all die, whether we are wise or foolish, diligent or lazy, pious or profane; as he considers the fact that all human works are temporary; that nothing we do, or make, will last forever, he says to himself, "What’s the point? Why bother?"
Jesus understood pain and loss. Isaiah chapter 53 refers to him as "a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering". He knew what it was like to suffer apparent failure, to be abandoned and betrayed. At the end of his life, the crowds turned against him, shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" One of his own disciples sold him out. And when he was arrested, the others all left him and fled; his closest friend, Peter, denied even knowing him. And on the cross, even God turned his back, as Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Because God is holy, and so when Christ took upon himself our sin and guilt, the Father had to turn away from his own Son.