One of the hardest lessons of the Christian life is that the difference between God and human beings is not as simple as the difference between the outer and the inner life, the body and the soul. That is to say, becoming a Christian and being sealed by the Holy Spirit, though it fertilizes the soil of the mind and emotions for all of the Spirit’s fruits, is no guarantee of perpetual joy. Our inner circumstances can be as seemingly random and unbearable as our outer ones.
I wrote the first draft of this poem in 2016 as part of a final project for a class. The combination of a new marriage, a move to a new city, and a crisis of faith brought on by a new period of study had all come together to send me into cognitive and emotional regression. At a time when I believed I was past the influence of the clinical anxiety that dominated my youth, it threatened to return. I lost the sense of control I had over my inner life and the sense of self-assurance that came with it.
In such times I have often felt that a word from God could spare me. “God, if only you would reassure me, I will be okay. I’ll keep walking the path I’m walking, or I’ll take another one, or I’ll do anything you want. I just don’t want to feel like this anymore.” American evangelical folklore—the promise, for example, that God speaks in a gentle whisper to those who will only quiet themselves and listen; the ultimate end of a literalistic understanding of the phrase “personal relationship”—has only left me all the more perplexed at the apparent silence of God.
Of course, God is not truly silent. The gospel, Paul says, “has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col 1:23, ESV). It is proclaimed to me in the scriptures of which I am a student and a disciple (two words that are less synonymous these days than they ought to be), in the preaching and counsel of pastors, in the love and prayers of friends and family, in the work of therapists.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
I feel reluctant to even share this poem, based as it is on a false premise*: that the only words from God that count are the words that come to us apart from an intermediary. If that were true, few Christians throughout history could rightly be called Christians. That doesn’t seem to be how God works. Samuel heard God’s voice as he lay in the temple, but God’s message to Samuel was not for Samuel—it was for Eli. The words of the scriptures may have been revealed to other men and women—“his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5)—but they are for you and me.
So I can hope in God, who has promised to renew my inner life. Today it is still touched by sin (though as I write it is also experiencing joy and gratitude in Christ), but God has promised a day when he will make all things new—when the chaos of the inner life will finally be defeated and replaced by the fullness of the glory of God in Christ Jesus, by new creation made complete. In the meantime, his word is, day by day, doing as my poem says it will.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
* Earlier drafts had “Don’t say I’m not listening” or “Please don’t say I’m not listening” in place of the current “Aren’t I listening?” Although the earlier versions expressed my frustration well, the current version leaves the question open, which I think is better for meeting my original goal—calling into question the whole idea that God speaks to me primarily by interacting in some manner with my feelings.