“Everything is against me” (Or: Our hopelessness and God’s holiness)

“Everything is against me” (Or: Our hopelessness and God’s holiness)

The Joseph story in the book of Genesis is one of my daughters’ favorite stories in the Bible.  It’s perhaps my favorite, too.  (Genesis, along with the Psalms, are frequently cited as the most frequently read books of the Bible.)  Why?

Probably for a number of reasons–e.g., it’s just great storytelling.  (I once heard an interview with a well-known Hollywood screenwriter who was asked, “What do you do when you’re out of ideas?”  The screenwriter responded without hesitating, “Actually, I read Genesis.”  The interviewer was caught off guard:  “You mean like Genesis in the Bible?”)

But the biggest reason (for me) is that the Joseph story is a story of hope.  It is a story of a God whose thoughts, as the prophet Isaiah would later declare, are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways.  How so?  The prophet continues:

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55.9).

(Here “thoughts” refers not so much to one’s interpretation of life or one’s intellectual ability (i.e., how “smart” a person is), but rather to the way in which persons (be it humans or God) plan, devise, and contrive.  The gloss “thoughts” is a bit too general but perhaps more accessible than, say, “devices” or “machinations”, though “plans” might work fairly well.)

Israel’s God is saying that there is an unfathomable divide between the way he devises and plans and how we humans devise and plan.  That unfathomable divide exists because of who God is:  He is holy.

What does it mean that Israel’s God is holy?

It means that there is no one like him.  In every way (in his justice, mercy, power, goodness, wisdom, etc.) there is no one like him.  Earlier God says through the prophet Isaiah, “‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.”

And this is one of Isaiah’s favorite titles for Israel’s God–viz., “the Holy One of Israel.”  Indeed, just before God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts”, he refers to himself precisely in this way (55.5).  God is saying, “You can’t even begin to grasp my purposes and plans–they are so infinitely greater and more sweeping and more beautiful than you could comprehend.”

In short, God’s holiness means that we will always underestimate him.  He will always surprise us.  Indeed, he will never stop surprising us for all eternity.  He is the sole inexhaustible source of awe.  What does this have to do with hope (and the Joseph story)?  Everything.

Isaiah goes on to describe one particular expression of God’s holiness:  quite simply, there is no one as powerful as he is.  God says through Isaiah:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isa 55.10-11)

Israel’s God will have his way.  His devices, his machinations, his scheming always come to fruition.

My favorite part of the Joseph story comes after Jacob’s sons have returned from Egypt.  They have encountered the appointed ruler of the land (a disguised Joseph), who has accused them of being spies and demanded that they leave Simeon as collateral and then return home and bring Benjamin back with them.  Upon their return, after their father Jacob hears of this deeply discouraging development, with no little anger and exasperation he accuses his sons (and his God):

“You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” (Gen 42.36)

This is my favorite part for two reasons:  first, I can resonate deeply with Jacob when he says, “Everything is against me”; second (and ever so subversively), I know that Jacob couldn’t be more wrong.  The result:  the conclusion that I have so often made (“Everything is against me”) as well as the discouragement and despair that accompany them, are radically marginalized, even overthrown by the recognition that my own imagination is so very limited.  Jacob could never imagined a world in which he would one day see Joseph again.  He was struggling to imagine a world in which his family would survive the famine; he was struggling to imagine, therefore, that God’s promises could be true.  But he would come to discover and worship a God whom Paul celebrates as the One “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

His (and our) conclusion that “Everything is against me!” rests solely upon a reliance on the limits of his own past/present sensory input and the limits of his own imagination.  So much of our despair (and even our s0-called depression?) are conceived, nourished, and sustained by a pride that demands to be able to see how one’s life is going to work out.  And when we can’t, we despair; we get “depressed”–which so often is actually just a deep-seated anger but one that is on the back burner (better that it’s on the back burner so that others can readily conclude that we are victims of our circumstances and not victims of our own pride).

“Despair” by Maren Jeskanen

Peter Berger, whose sociology of knowledge has been widely employed (for good or bad), said, “The most important vehicle of reality maintenance is conversation.”  That is, essential to maintaining some contact with reality is engagement with someone else.  Why?  Because our perspective is so incredibly limited.  Reliance upon self–especially self in isolation, says Berger, is the perfect recipe for a departure from reality.  We need outside input.

And yet we–I–regularly rely upon–give pride of place to, even receive uncritically–my own perspective, my own “thoughts”–i.e., devices, machinations, etc.  But Berger’s observation implies that humans were never meant–could we say, never created?–to rely upon their own individual perceptions to arrive at reality.  And the prophet Isaiah (who predates Berger by a bit) urges us:

“Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (55.7)

This invitation could provide freedom from the chains of despair (and, possibly, some forms of depression).  But it probably doesn’t, because Isaiah is addressing the “thoughts/devices/machinations” of “the wicked” and “the unrighteous.”  And we all know that can’t possibly refer to any of us.  Why?  Because reality is determined by me alone, and if I don’t feel wicked or unrighteous, that must mean that I’m not.  Hence, it’s best to remain in my self-declared “innocence,” in deep despair.

But to those (lucky?) wicked and unrighteous persons who do in fact forsake their own “devices” Isaiah holds out not only mercy and pardon but the glorious promise of a “going out”–i.e., a departure or exodus–from hopeless captivity and the promise of being guided not by self but by Another:  “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.”


8 thoughts on ““Everything is against me” (Or: Our hopelessness and God’s holiness)

  1. If it’s possible, this is one of my favorite meditations on God, springing from his aseity. And related, my favorite name for him (are we allowed to have favorite names for God?): I AM. That is, I AM who I AM. Totally self-referential; never requiring anything outside of himself to justify or explain himself. Completely self-justifying. Perfectly sovereign.

    The mind reels when we grab at similes and metaphors to describe God, but they all fall short: God is like a father, but…, God is like a husband, but…, God is like a king, but…, God is like a sheep, but… etc etc. I imagine John as he was writing Revelation, attempting to take in the visions he was experiencing.

    But rather than stark disorientation, the truth of Scripture strikes me when I dive deeper through this meditation, dwelling on the hope you’ve discussed. This “I AM” is not just “I AM.” God is not an abstract idea, and he is for us in the most amazing ways that are, yes, beyond imagining. To reference back to your mention of the story from Genesis, Joseph reminds his brothers than although they intended what they did to him for evil, God intended it for evil. What sovereignty, that God didn’t just make good use of a bad situation, but in fact had good intentions from the very beginning, even while Joseph’s brothers had evil intentions.

    But with this hope comes profound humility, as you touched on. If my hope is in the great “I AM,” then it’s not in my own scheming. Counseling the depressed, though, is a delicate matter. How do you balance reminding someone who is struggling with despair (or true depression) of the image of God that is imprinted upon them, while also drawing their eyes in lament and contrition to their fallenness? To do this without sounding Polly Anna (e.g., “Just look on the bright side! Hope! Hope!”) or lecturing/chiding (e.g., “Stop being sad. Get over it. You’re a bad person.”) is difficult, and I feel like the likelihood would be high that the person would either feel ignored or blamed. What do you think?

    1. Woops. Mistyped above, should read:

      To reference back to your mention of the story from Genesis, Joseph reminds his brothers THAT although they intended what they did to him for evil, God intended it for GOOD.

    2. Great question Josh. I wonder about that a lot too. I’ve usually just defaulted to basing it off of the person and the relationship that we have, but I’m not sure if that’s the most productive way since it can be easy to give up trying to help (eg “well that’s just the way she is…”; “it’s just too hard to be around him/her…” Etc). The most helpful and encouraging conversations I’ve had though have actually been with friends who have gone through depression and have come out ok on the other side. Having people who can articulate and relate to how you feel is huge; you can tell they have been where you are and yet were able to get through it. That in and of itself can be such a hope giving act/reality. Of course that doesn’t help people who have never gone through it before, but relating those individual’s stories or connecting them to each other might be a useful tool if used carefully. I don’t know. It’s tricky to know what to say; maybe a better place to start is to know what NOT to say or just to listen?

  2. RHR:

    “maybe a better place to start is to know what NOT to say or just to listen?”

    Agreed; listening is key. A big part of my education as a physician (and specifically a psychiatry resident) has been to listen more and talk less.

    1. Josh: “How do you balance reminding someone who is struggling with despair (or true depression) of the image of God that is imprinted upon them, while also drawing their eyes in lament and contrition to their fallenness?”

      Indeed, listening is itself an act of dignity, indirectly but powerfully asserting the worth / divine image they have. Also, the power of personal presence probably cannot be overstated, especially in our “fast food” culture: simply sitting silently with someone in despair / depression / grief is incredibly dignifying. Here is where the collective presence–i.e., the presence of small group members can together make a big impact. Further, simple, humble prayer with/for the person in their presence is very meaningful: bringing them into the presence of God, recounting to him (on their behalf) their desolation, despondency, heartache, grief, etc., expressing loss, confusion, (humble) anger, as well as giving thanks… All these things are dignifying; all of them are healing.

      But as for drawing their attention to their fallenness: again, listening is huge–if they are willing to talk (in fact, for a truly depressed person, getting them to say anything is a feat). As unsophisticated as it may sound, I have found hospitality is a beautiful and indirect way to touch the heart of such a person. I have been amazed at how God uses my little ones to reach those whom I could not: they will welcome and reach out in ways that I cannot. In such a context (i.e., in the home) but also in a pastoral / clinical setting, I have also found humor to be a surprisingly subversive means of breaking through (conscious or unconscious) defenses that have been erected in a person’s heart/mind to withstand a direct/frontal challenge but not the “back door” approach of humor. Finally, once a genuine relationship has built and trust has been established, I have found that I have the rapport to confront and be wrong. That is, with that rapport established, the depressed person knows that I care about them and that any challenge/confrontation–now matter how misguided–comes from a desire to love them.

      Do those sound realistic?

      1. Oops–I hit “post comment” too soon:

        RHR hits on something very crucial that can be frustrating for those trying to help: what if you haven’t been through what the depressed person has been through? There are several ways of answering that, but for me one of the greatest comforts for me in ministry is the high priestly ministry of Jesus. As I counsel, and as I teach and preach, I will often say something like, “I cannot begin to begin to know what it’s like to experience this, but there is someone who does know. In fact, they have experienced this [quite probably] in an intensity that is even greater.” Here the gospels provide much fodder for ways to connect the person with Jesus: he was alone, misunderstood, slandered, opposed, unfruitful in his ministry, manipulated, betrayed, condemned, etc. Not only do the gospels provide fodder but so do the psalms of David and even the so-called suffering servant songs. Consider depression in the light of Isa. 49: the servant says,

        “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
        He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.'”

        The contrast between, on the one hand, God’s predetermined purposes for the servant and, on the other, the deep sense of vanity / pointlessness that the servant feels could not be sharper: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”

        And when one looks at the ministry of Jesus, it is, to say the least, incredibly unimpressive. In fact, it is the astonishingly unimpressive nature of the gospels (esp. Mark) that lend them so much credence: who would have dreamt this stuff up?!

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