A Calvinist, a Jesuit, and an Apostle walked into my brain this morning. They didn’t tell me a joke, and they left me feeling sober—sober with an assurance that I pass on with the hope it can help you feel at least alright.
In a collection of messages called How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? Calvinist Lew Smedes preaches a message from Psalm 139:8-10, which in some translations goes: “If I make my bed in hell…even there your right hand will hold me.”
To preach that message, Smedes mostly narrates his experience of being led from orthodox beliefs about grace alone into a true experience of grace, by which he felt God even as he felt himself sinking into a mini-hell within his own mind. After describing his own need for approval from human gods, Smedes describes feeling like a hypocrite as he experienced a vision of sorts, in which all the people he counted on deserted him when he most needed them. He “heard” his closest friends saying, “Sorry, we cannot reach you there. We cannot help you;” and he felt himself falling into “a mocking empty hole of unworthiness and helplessness.”
But as he made his bed in hell and lay down in his own spiritual waste, Smedes writes, “I fell into God.” He felt the pierced hands of Christ holding him with the strength of his love. He did not experience lyrical ecstasy, a sweet passion, or a flood of heavenly sunshine. Instead, Smedes writes, “What I felt was the sober, ultimate relief of knowing that I could face the worst and not be destroyed.” Smedes admits he cannot prove the truth of his feeling. Yet he knows it is true.
The Jesuit in my brain who helps me experience my version of Smedes’ feeling is William A. Barry. In his book A Friendship like No Other, Father Barry writes, “The biggest obstacle to a true relationship with God is our belief that the relationship depends, ultimately, on us… If God wants my friendship, it doesn’t matter how insignificant I feel.” (p. 93) For some reason, Father Barry’s formulation has helped me feel what the Protestant Reformers teach about grace.
The final word goes to the Apostle Paul. To a messed up group in Corinth, the Apostle writes that our Lord Jesus will sustain us to the end, “guiltless on the day of our Lord,” because “God is faithful.” (1st Corinthians 1:8-9) During a time in which he felt “utterly, unbearably crushed” Paul learned to rely not on himself “but on God who raises the dead.” (2nd Corinthians 1:8-9) So please know that however you feel today, God feels resurrecting love for you, and that’s what matters ultimately.