When Faith Feels Like Defeat
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.”
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.”
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.
Sign up to receive Scott’s weekly post in your email inbox.
Browse and learn about all of Scott’s books.
Learn about Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
Listen to Scott’s sermons or teaching on his YouTube channel.
Connect with Scott on social media — Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2009), Kindle edition.
 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (New York: Scribner, 2009), Kindle edition.