When Faith Feels Like Defeat

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I lost my mother last year.

After ten years of Alzheimer’s-related decline, time ran out in what affected families call “the long goodbye.” I didn’t shed any tears when she died—not because I didn’t love her, but because a decade of incremental, ascending grief was already behind me. By the time Mom died, I was out of tears and content to release her into heaven’s care.

I can’t think of anything positive to say about Alzheimer’s. I won’t even try. It is a cruel, demoralizing, dehumanizing disease.

Recently, I enlisted the services of a counselor. In my sessions with him, some uncomfortable things about my life—and about me—have been uncovered. In the uncovering, the counselor recommended that I add a trauma specialist to my treatment.

As it turns out, I am less whole than the optics on my life suggest. I have good health, a wonderful wife, two beautiful daughters, a congregation that loves us, some excellent friends, and more opportunity than I ever dreamed possible. But behind the curtain of this wonderful looking life of mine, there also exists a small, sometimes scared, self-doubting man whose story includes the aforementioned, hard realities. I am a mess, a busted-up sinner who is dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly needs mending (per Melville). Every person you encounter, including the one in the mirror, is fighting a hard battle.

The past year has felt like too much. Like a pile on.

Sometimes I wonder, why all of this? Why all at once?

Do you ever feel this way?

I am an American who has been shaped to expect comfort. Because of this, I am vulnerable to cynicism, moroseness, and self-pity when my outside and inside worlds betray expectations. The cultural air I breathe has trained me to think that life should be more carefree, predictable, and in control than it is.

Having been among the world’s privileged minority for most of my life, luxuries like good health, decision-making power over what and how much I eat, higher education, physical safety, social networks, clean water, and access to things I need and want, have felt more like entitlements than luxuries. I have never buried my own child or experienced irrecoverable theft. I have never suffered violence because of my faith, hunger, poverty, sustained unemployment, or a terrorist attack. I have never been trafficked or kidnapped. I have never spent a night out in the cold or in prison.

I am a well-off American man. As such, I have been conditioned to expect that life—my life—will run smoothly.

I have also spent many years ignoring some betrayals and injuries from my past, which my counselor is helping me process at age fifty-two. It’s never too late to ask for help. The combination of expecting ease on one hand and denying my own trauma on another has left me lagging in my ability to live fully in a fallen world. But there is hope for change.

As an elder led our church in prayer recently, “Lord, this has been a year filled with disruption, isolation, confusion, illness, and death. We ask for relief, but not without the revival of our hearts.”

There are heart-reviving lessons that preach loudest through pain. As C.S. Lewis said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures … but shouts to us in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[1]

One such lesson is that the world, as it is, is not our final home. No matter how hard we try to make it so, this present world refuses to be our paradise. We cannot make heaven happen for ourselves because heaven can only be given and received. When we accept this truth, the revival of our hearts is made more possible. Being awakened by God’s pain-megaphone redirects our focus to essential things worth preserving and nurturing: relationship with family and friends, rhythms and practices leading to health, humble service toward our work, our churches, and our neighbors, and above all, anchoring our roots in the character, promises, and future of God.

Mercy reveals itself through regret, hurt, and fear.

I am not alone in realizing this.

Many of the world’s greatest souls became their best selves not in spite of, but because of, their own distress. Cowper wrote hopeful hymns and Van Gogh brushed epic paintings while contemplating suicide. Spurgeon preached some of his best sermons while depressed. Lincoln, Churchill, and King battled melancholy. Princess Diana suffered from an eating disorder at the peak of her fame and impact. Beethoven went deaf. C.S. Lewis buried his wife after a short, cancer-ridden marriage. Frankl, Wiesel, and Ten Boom survived the Holocaust. Ann Voskamp lost her sister and Joni Tada her ability to walk in tragic accidents. Christine Caine suffered abuse and Tim Keller got terminal cancer. John Perkins endured jail, beatings, and death threats from white supremacists.

One grief expert famously noted:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”[2]

Beautiful people. The ones we admire. The ones who change the world for good. The ones we like and want to be like. These people do not “just happen.”

This axiom, that beautiful people do not just happen, also demands our attention in Scripture. Job lost ten children, his wife’s affection, his livelihood, and his reputation in a single day. Moses stuttered. Jacob limped. Sarah was infertile. Tamar and Bathsheba were assaulted. David was betrayed by his son. Hosea’s wife fell into prostitution, as did Rahab. Ruth was widowed in her youth. Mordecai was oppressed and belittled. Jeremiah battled depression, as did Elijah. Gideon doubted God, as did Thomas. Mary and Joseph sought asylum from a reign of terror. Mary and Martha buried their brother. John Mark was rejected by Paul. Peter hated himself.

And Jesus wept.

As we read the Bible, it is important to see that every book except for a small handful of them—Ecclesiastes (written by a rich, empty man), Proverbs (possibly the same man), and Song of Songs (in its own category)—was authored by someone who was enslaved, seeking asylum, in prison, facing persecution, or under another form of distress.

Beautiful people do not just happen. And…?

Sometimes the deepest, truest faith feels more like defeat than it does victory.

 


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
is now available for individuals, discussion groups, and churches.

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[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2009), Kindle edition.

[2] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (New York: Scribner, 2009), Kindle edition.

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19 responses to “When Faith Feels Like Defeat”

  1. Johnny Orr says:

    Scott, beautiful. I can so relate. Thank you.

  2. Jeremy Casella says:

    This is indeed beautiful. Thank you brother for putting words to so many thoughts I myself have been feeling too.

  3. Sherrill says:

    And that trauma that you have experienced is why I follow your beautiful and insightful writing. You are one great example of being refined by gold and of sharing the 1 Cor 2.3 comfort that you have experienced SO THAT you can comfort others. Thank you for your vulnerable sharing.

  4. Felicia Buchanan says:

    I so appreciate your openness and willingness to be real with your growth and healing journey. I KNOW that many NEED to hear this sweet words. So thank you, and especially being a pastor, for sharing.

  5. Jenn W. says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written expression of faith and suffering and loss. I resonated with every sentence. I lost my dad six months ago yesterday and this was exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  6. Ed Sirya says:

    Scott, I’m very thank you for you, and for the continued work of God’s grace in your life. Thank you for humbling showing us what that looks like.

  7. Alfredo says:

    Thank you Saul for share your heart!!!

  8. Charlie says:

    …actually, Beethoven went deaf (not blind). His progressive hearing loss began as he was reaching the peak of his ability, and by the time he wrote his 9th symphony, he was totally deaf. To a composer, the ability to hear lies at the very center of the creative process. Beethoven was able to overcome his deafness due to his genius, but it left him depressed and sociopathic in his later years.

  9. Mimi says:

    I think the thing we most long for is to be seen. It is also our greatest fear. Thank you for having the courage to step out of the shadows and be seen. May your example encourage others to do the same so that at last we can be together and not alone.

  10. Joyce Horton says:

    Scott, I so appreciate your transparency and good sense. This blog post was a shot in the arm and a gentle knock on the head. The reality of our world cannot be ignored, it can only be acknowledged and put in proper perspective. You have done that and I appreciate it. The rain falls on the just and the unjust and it is good to be reminded of the good company we are in as we deal with the reality of the world we live in.
    Thanks

  11. deborah says:

    Thank you for your authenticity. We need more of this from our Christian leaders.

  12. Barb says:

    Deaf. Beethoven went deaf. This makes your point even more thoroughly bc he wrote some of his best works while completely deaf and pretty much single-handedly brought music to a new era. And listen to the 9th symphony. He was still able to write “Joyful, joyful we adore thee…”

  13. Greg says:

    Thanks for your honesty. I can relate to some of this including the fact that i am also 52. I find that the older i get the worse i handle stress.

    Additionally, seeing Francis Collins(a self described Christian scientist) on the tv a bit lately related to this pandemic, I’m reminded about how his theistic evolutionary philosophies that speak so loudly but falsely in declaring that all this pain this side of heaven is just God’s creative purposes in action. Isn’t that what evolution does?- Survival of the fittest through agonizing striving and straining? To be sure such secularized “faith” that is determined subjectively through the fickleness of science sure is not objective Biblical faith determined by God speaking through His spokesmen! We see today’s scientist indecisive about masks over a course of months let alone having the nerve to speak for God about how life formed. And our thinking about how life formed really becomes the foundation for all other thinking. When God created, his works were marked by shalom, not strife, thank you. After Adam sinned, shalom was replaced for strife and our perfect bodies exchanged for broken ones. And real Biblical faith which comes from hearing it (Ro 10:17 ) describes to me in my ESV Bible real hope and real victory and real redemption in and from a world gone mad due to the sin nature initiated by that first couple Adam and Eve a few thousand years ago. I encourage all to read His Word about this redemption plan and count it as fact. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
    ‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬ ‭ESV‬‬

  14. Stephanie says:

    This resonates deeply with me.

    I had a relatively short “long goodbye” with my dad when he battled ALS over 15 months in 2008-2009.

    Recent counselling sessions have taught me that I have kept a lot of my pain and fear inside…. not knowing how to feel it without being completely overwhelmed by it, thinking that faith cancels it out. But like you said, pain demands to be felt first before being surrendered.

    Thank you for this— I suspect there is deeper healing on the horizon for me.

  15. Shay Nicole Johnson says:

    Thank you for this, as well. I needed to read this, I appreciate you sending it

  16. Debbie Drew says:

    Thank you for sharing your struggles. I lost my father in September 2020. He had declined with Alzheimer’s for 9 years. Your words express so well how I feel about our “long goodbye.” As you described, “I didn’t shed any tears when she died—not because I didn’t love her, but because a decade of incremental, ascending grief was already behind me. By the time Mom died, I was out of tears and content to release her into heaven’s care.” Exactly. I, too, had grieved increasingly and cried for years as my kind, gentle, Christian father gradually slipped away from us. I look forward to our grand reunion with the Lord, and, in the meantime, I know that my father is at peace – no more tears, pain, confusion, fear, or distress – the hope of heaven!

  17. […] When Faith Feels Like Defeat | Scott Sauls — Read on scottsauls.com/blog/2021/03/11/when-faith-feels-like-defeat/ […]

  18. Jim Glasgow says:

    Scott, I’m a retired pastor of 40 yrs. (friend of Jim Douglas). Yours is the only “Blog” I read. This One … confirms Why? I’ve worked a lot with Addictions and have advanced Degrees in Counseling but … would’ve “go crazy” if I hadn’t continually “gotten counseling” (ministry)myself. = “Physician heal Thyself.” We Can’t and Ignore Jesus’ Counsel … at Our Peril. I’m Moved that “a High Steeple Pastor”
    would have the Courage to be so vulnerable. Not only will you be the Beneficiary, but, the 1,000s that receive ministry from “your
    wounds.” May All you’ve given Scott … return to you. jim glasgow

  19. Pam says:

    Your post is very relatable for me. My husband,3 years ago, had a very similar set of circumstances happen in his life. We are Believers, 65 years old now. This experience turned our lives upside down. Emotions were raw. We’ve always had what many would call a ‘good marriage’ despite some very difficult circumstances in our 43 years of marriage. When this long buried truth was revealed through counseling and later devastating flashbacks, there were many tears, much pain and questions from both of us. God’s process for restoration, healing and intimacy with each other and especially with Him has been the most amazing experience of our lives. It hasn’t always been smooth, in fact quite rocky in the first year. Ultimate Truth is worth the pain and trauma of learning it. Hang in their Scott.

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