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More than I Can Bear: Of Restless Hearts, Weed-Free Souls, and the Grace of Redemptive Failure

March 4, 2012

More than I Can Bear:

Of Restless Hearts, Weed-Free Souls, and the Grace of Redemptive Failure


“Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’”

 – Genesis 4:13-14 (NIV)

“But my soul, heart, mind—what has grown, what has ripened, what has been discarded together with the weeds, that can’t be communicated and set down on a sheet of paper…. In general, prison has taken away many things from me and brought many others.”

                                                                                                                                                                    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Buried Alive and Left for Dead

In April of 1849 twenty-eight year old Fyodor Dostoevsky stood shivering hour after hour in the biting Russian wind, the ankle-deep slush numbing his toes as he waited to die. The firing squad, equally confused, stood at the ready, waiting on the final word from Emperor Nicholas, who had passed sentence on the young author for reading aloud works that opposed autocratic rule. Finally, Dostoevsky was informed that his sentence had been commuted from death to four years of exile and hard labor in Siberia.

In January of that year he was herded with a group of other prisoners onto a prison train bound for Omsk, an isolated outpost in the Siberian tundra, where he would serve his time. The next four years were an interminable period of privation and suffering unimaginable to him until that time. In his letters to family he described his experience as “being shut up in a coffin,” noting, “It was inexpressible, unending suffering, because every hour, every minute weighed on my soul like a stone.”

Dostoevsky went into prison a man of nominal faith and convictions, but emerged a man profoundly changed, who described himself as transformed. His writings took on added depth and began to explore the inner workings of human nature and “eternal questions”, but more importantly, a grounded faith in God.

There is nothing quite so horrifying as the experience of being locked away against one’s will. It is nearly impossible to adequately describe the helplessness, the humiliation, and the feeling of utter hopelessness that follow the sound of doors clanging shut behind you that will only open if and when someone else deems it appropriate.

The involuntary hospitalization following my suicide attempt is filled with bad memories – the kind that I try not to think about, but often resurface in my dreams. Looking back, I can’t think of even a moment when my mind wasn’t racing with ways to bargain or beg for my freedom. I was overwhelmed with the need to get back to a home that no longer existed, to salvage a marriage that was already over, to reassemble a family already shattered beyond repair. I remember writing long, rambling letters with the short, soft-leaded pencils we were allowed to use, taking blame for everything that went wrong in our marriage, even making up things that I had done and seeking absolution in the hope that it would be enough. I prayed; I cried; I hoped – all in vain.

The word “hospital” implies that some sort of rehabilitation or healing takes place. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My time there was nothing short of imprisonment. My clothing – right down to my underwear – was taken from me, replaced with ill-fitting hospital-issue apparel, including open-toed beige shower sandals that flapped as one walked. There was no therapy, only unfilled time spent sitting in a large common room with a TV that ran nonstop, and which was difficult to hear over the near-constant arguments between inmates and, more often, between inmates and the voices in their heads. Nearly half of the population was overflow from county jails – inmates awaiting sentencing or psychiatric evaluation before moving on to prison, which meant a constant threat of violence. It was a noisy, malodorous, miasma of misery that fairly vibrated with a mixture of agitation and hopelessness. I would do nearly anything to avoid experiencing it again.

And yet it changed me.

Like Dostoevsky, I went in an arrogant, entitled, petulant man who demanded an exponential return for his efforts and affections, and who was not above punishing those around him who disappointed or fell short by means of scorn, sarcasm, or just plain refusing to any longer acknowledge their existence. It took nearly dying, and then being buried alive, to bring me to the place where God was able to chip away at the sharp corners and rough edges that defined me as a person.

As Peter Hitchens, brother of recently deceased atheist author Christopher Hitchens, recently wrote in his book Rage Against God, we tend to bring these circumstances upon ourselves by virtue of our entitled attitudes and lax values. In reflecting upon his own journey from Christian to atheist to Christian again, he writes, “Perhaps (my attitude) was because (my parents) brought us up too kindly, convinced in the post-war age that we should not endure the privation, danger, and strict discipline that they had had to put up with, so we turned arrogant. I certainly did.”

Sometimes a course correction is in order, and sometimes that correction proves painful.

Redemptive Failure Defined

These experiences, which I have come to refer to as redemptive failures, are what I believe to be God ordained experiences of failure and loss that are so painful and devastating that they bring us to the end of ourselves and open the door for God’s power to work anew in our lives. Although I hesitate to imply that God brings about such catastrophic events, I do believe that he allows our choices and those of others to bring them about and then gives us the option to be redeemed and restored through them.

Despite the fact that God does take away a great deal during these times, it is a mistake to think that he takes away everything, much less leaves us for dead. As we take a deeper look at the story of Cain in Genesis 4, we will see that there are three very important doors that God leaves open for everyone.

God Never Turns His Back

I doubt Cain ever set out to kill his brother. Like most of us, he was doing what he thought was expected of him at the time. His reaction to God’s correction – “Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (v.5) – indicates that he was extremely embarrassed and humiliated. He probably brought his sacrifice in complete confidence that he would be praised for his hard work in the fields and the excellent quality of his offering. When he got an unexpected reaction, it set off a flood of emotion inside of him.

In counseling I often find myself explaining to people that anger is what we can a secondary emotion, meaning that it never arises in a vacuum, but rather is caused by another feeling, such as hurt, loss, fear, or sadness. The problem with these primary emotions is that we perceive them as weakness. To admit that we are hurt or afraid is to invite ridicule or that we are unable to handle what is in front of us, so instead, we choose to become powerful in the most convenient way possible – anger.

The problem with anger is that it takes us out of the realm of reasoning and purely into the realm of emotion. We say and do things we normally wouldn’t. Some people even describe periods of blackout when they are extremely upset. The anger described here (charah) means “to kindle,” or “to burn very hot”. It flares up quickly and intensely, often going away just as suddenly, but sometimes not before we do something we regret afterward.

Life is like that sometimes. We are going along doing our best in whatever arena of life it may be, and we make a minor mistake. God, whether through circumstances or direct means, offers a mild correction, and rather than taking the time to let it soak in and really examine its merits, we flare up and rebel. Unfortunately, our rebellion often sets of a chain of events that then requires a much stiffer set of consequences, and that is when we are in danger of falling away from God. The Bible speaks frequently about anger, but never designates the emotion in and of itself as wrong. Anger only becomes bad when it causes us to sin.

Ironically, the very emotional response we use with the intent of protecting ourselves from embarrassment usually ends up humiliating us all the more, and worse yet, creating more distance between ourselves and those we care about. Notice Cain’s first reaction to God’s pronouncement. It is first and foremost an expression of sorrow that God has turned away from him: “My punishment is more than I can bear. . . I will be hidden from your presence” (v. 13). The original language here basically says “you will turn your face away from me”. Cain is heartbroken at the thought of losing his relationship with Him; more than losing his family or his home, Cain is afraid of losing God.

In response, God gives him a reassurance of their bond. The story says that God placed a “mark” (‘owth) on Cain so that everyone would know he was under God’s protection no matter where he went. The word implies that this was proof of an agreement between two parties, a sign of warning. Although God’s correction stood, he didn’t abandon Cain.

In our own lives we sometimes pray for God to take away the consequences of our choices. We protest that it is more than we can bear. But for whatever reason, He chooses to let those circumstances stand. If we look, though, we will always find evidence that he never stops walking alongside us, protecting us along the way, as we grow through it.

God Never Leaves us Alone

A second fear voiced by Cain is that of being alone. Up to this point, his entire world has been the area around the Garden of Eden. The rest of creation is a scary place, and in a culture in which family is not just valued but seen as a necessity, he is suddenly very much on his own.

I never gave much thought to loneliness when I was married. Getting a few minutes alone in a house with three children was a pretty good trick in and of itself, so there was no time or opportunity to be lonely. But as soon as all of that was ripped away from me, the isolation descended on me like a cold, damp, gray cloud. Time slowed down, food lost its taste, sleep was hard to come by, and words stopped making sense. I was painfully, brutally, excruciatingly aware of my aloneness, which was quickly accompanied by nagging feelings that I had come to deserve this state by virtue of some fundamental flaw within myself.

We can hear those same feelings in Cain’s lament, as he heads east to the land of Nod (wandering). The most difficult seasons of our lives are generally those in which we feel lost. Life used to make sense; our goals seemed clear and achievable; we knew exactly where we were going and what to do. But then the rug gets pulled out from under us and we start wandering. Sometimes we wander for a few hours, sometimes for weeks, or months, or years. But God’s plan is to teach us and guide us even as we wander, and he knows we are not meant to be alone.

We pick up the story and see that Cain has found a wife and that she has borne him a son. The specific word used for “wife” here, ‘ishshah, is from an Arabic root word that means “to nest, to take root, or to be established”. In his goodness and mercy, God gave Cain what his heart desired – a sense of stability and place again.

We also see that, in turn, Cain’s heart has changed. The passage says that Cain named his firstborn son Enoch, which means “dedicated,” or “trained up”, Cain’s way of promising that he would make it his life’s work to teach his son to love and obey God above all else. He must have done a good job, because Genesis 5 tells us that “Enoch walked faithfully with God” (v. 21) for 365 years before God “took him away”. Additionally, the genogram tells us that Noah, the one man God saw fit to rescue from the great flood, was directly descended from Enoch, and therefore, from Cain.

Times of loneliness and despair are intended as opportunities for us to examine our hearts before God and allow him to make the necessary changes to our character. As we are faithful in those walks in the fog, we can take comfort in the fact that God knows the deepest desires of our hearts, and seeks to honor them.

 God Never Leaves us Defenseless

Cain’s final fear is that of coming to harm at the hands of other people. God’s mark is a part of that equation, but we also see that, as Cain is transformed from within, his outward circumstances change accordingly. The passage says that not only does God give him stability, place, and heritage in the form of his wife and son, but also that Cain is able to “build a city” that he also names Enoch.

The terms “build” and “city” denote two very significant developments in Cain’s life. First, it tells us that he is restored to wholeness. The term banah (build) means “to restore, to establish, or to rebuild”. Interestingly, it is also used to describe a man who gains a son for himself by impregnating a servant woman or concubine. As such, we get a picture of the transformation of a broken, devastated, hopeless man into a new creation who has a hope and a future ahead of him again, but who knows full well that these blessings have come with help from someone else. It is the mark of someone who has found humility and contentment.

Secondly, the word for “city” (`iyr) comes from a root word meaning “to be excited or triumphant” and indicates it is a place in which there is a guard on watch against danger. As Cain established a safe place of his own, he experienced hope again, but more importantly, he experienced a sense of victory and security that came from God alone.

In our times of confusion, pain, loss, and betrayal, we are tempted to give in to feelings that everyone is out to get us and that we have been abandoned somehow. The truth is that God is working tirelessly behind the scenes to help us find what we need, and it will arrive right on time.

Keeping the Wolves at Bay

In 1876, some twenty years after his release from prison, Dostoevsky wrote a simple story called The Peasant Marey as an account of his own transformation in the gulag. In the story, Dostoevsky is dealing with the daily stresses of prison camp. He is watching as a group of low-born prisoners brawl and argue drunkenly, and finds himself sympathizing with a fellow prisoner of noble birth who laments at the burden they must bear at being forced to live in close proximity to such animals.

Finding a relatively quiet spot, the author drifts into a restless sleep and dreams of an episode from his childhood, where, playing in the forest, he suddenly becomes convinced that he is being stalked by a wolf. Frantically, he runs, screaming for help, and encounters a peasant worker in his family’s employ named Marey. Tenderly and with genuine concern, Marey comforts the small boy, reassuring him that, even if there is a wolf, he will protect him from being harmed. “Cross yourself, lad,” he says, “and the Lord be with you.” When he finds himself too terrified to engage in the simple act of trusting God to care for him, the kindly peasant reaches out and crosses the boy himself, whispering “Christ be with you.” Miraculously, the childhood Dostoevsky is able to return to play, forgetting his fear, trusting in the care of the hired hand.

Upon awakening, Dostoevsky wrote of a dramatic change within:

“I remembered that encounter so vividly, right down to the last detail.  That means it had settled unnoticed in my heart, all by itself with no will of mine, and had suddenly come back to me at a time when it was needed; I recalled the tender, maternal smile of a poor serf, the way he crossed me and shook his head: “Well you did take a fright now, didn’t you, lad!” And I especially remember his thick finger, soiled with dirt, that he touched quietly and with shy tenderness to my trembling lips. Of course, anyone would try to reassure a child, but here in this solitary encounter something quite different had happened, and had I been his very own son he could not have looked at me with a glance that radiated more pure love, and who had prompted him to do that? 

 Our encounter was solitary, in an open field, and only God, perhaps, looking down saw what deep and enlightened human feeling and what delicate, almost feminine tenderness could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian serf who at the time did not expect or even dream of his freedom. 

 And so when I climbed down from my bunk and looked around, I remember I suddenly felt I could regard these unfortunates in an entirely different way and that suddenly, through some sort of miracle, the former hatred and anger in my heart had vanished. I went off, peering intently into the faces of those I met.”

The burden is not more than you can bear. Instead, God is waiting to do a dramatic change in you as well. Wait for it; watch for it; and when it comes, welcome it.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Willa Beth permalink
    March 9, 2012 7:36 pm

    Truly God seeks to restore every soul and desires for no one to go their own way. ” In repentance and rest is your salvation (when we stop trying to save ourselves) and your strength comes in complete dependence on Me” Isa 30:15.No one is given up on.

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