Dear Fellow Survivor Blog: Choose Joy

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Dear Fellow Survivor - Choose Joy

Summary

This is a blog post series by the author who wrote the devotion series "Dear Survivor". Follow along as he blogs about the background of his experience on his continued journey of healing.

Dear fellow survivor,

Choose Joy knowing you are a child of God

It’s been a month since I last wrote to you. I’m still living in the real world (see my previous post “Coming Out into the Real World”). I still lean heavily on my wife, my therapist, and my brothers (“Sharing My Burden”). I still know that in Christ I am powerful (“Not Powerless”). But unwanted and intrusive thoughts still regularly trouble me. And because of that, I recently became extremely frustrated.

I was frustrated that every trip to the gym and into the locker room felt like something I needed to survive rather than the ordinary, everyday activity that I felt it should be. I was frustrated that standing at the urinal next to another man made me feel uncomfortable. I was frustrated at feeling nervous about attending a church convention because I was afraid that I’d start comparing myself again to all the other men who would be there. I was frustrated that I still occasionally felt the urge to measure myself, even though I knew that there was absolutely no reason for me to do that.

Most of all, I was frustrated that all these unwanted, intrusive thoughts kept entering my mind at all. I KNEW that I had nothing to fear at the gym or in the locker room. I KNEW that I had no reason to give any thought to any guy who might stand next to me at the urinal. I KNEW that I had no reason to compare myself to any other man. I KNEW that I had no reason to feel any urge to measure myself. So, why did I still feel these things? Why did these thoughts keep coming? I didn’t want them in my mind. I wasn’t purposely trying to think them. They just kept coming, in spite of all the work I had done to try to overcome them.

I knew that being frustrated with myself would not help me overcome my frustration. That’s like trying to overcome a splitting headache by banging your head against the wall. But I had reached the point where I had had enough. I was tired of dealing with all these thoughts that I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and knew were less than worthless.

Thankfully, amidst all this frustration, it was time for my next appointment with my therapist. I shared with him my frustration at having to deal with all these continuing, unwanted, and intrusive thoughts. I asked him, “Will I ever reach the point on this side of heaven when I don’t have to deal with these thoughts and feelings anymore? I just want them to stop!”

He looked at me compassionately and said, “I don’t know if they will stop before you get to heaven. This may be something you’re going to deal with in some way for the rest of your life.”

My eyes teared up when I heard that. I knew he was right. But that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

He then helped me understand why these thoughts were so durable. The abuse that I experienced happened at a key time in my life when my mind was developing its internal “wiring” that would affect the rest of my life. Associations were being made. Connections were being forged. Beliefs were being formed. At this formative time in my life, I was injured. That injury caused faulty associations to be made, malformed connections to be forged, and false beliefs to be formed. All these things were “wired” into my brain. And that faulty wiring became more entrenched as the years went by. I now have been living with that faulty wiring for almost forty years. I can’t expect to be able to rewire my brain in just a matter of days, weeks, months, or even years. It’s not that rewiring can’t happen. It’s just that it takes a long time.

That was the neurological reason that I might continue to deal with these unwanted, intrusive thoughts for the rest of my life. But there also was a theological reason. My therapist reminded me of a difficult situation that the apostle Paul lived with. I’ll let Paul describe it.

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

Paul suffered from some unknown torment that he desperately wanted to be rid of. Three times he pleaded with God to take it away. Each time God said, “No.” Why? Because he was going to use this suffering to lead Paul to rely entirely on him and his grace. Which is exactly what happened. In the face of suffering that he could not bear on his own, Paul relied completely on God and his strength. He realized that only when he recognized his own complete powerlessness and relied only on God’s strength was he strong.

It was not God’s will that I was abused. It is not God’s will that my mind continues to struggle with unwanted and intrusive thoughts and feelings. But it is God’s will that I am drawn ever closer to him. So great is his love for me, so intense his desire to embrace me ever more tightly, that he is willing to use even those things that go against his will to do that. It could be that God will allow me to struggle with these unwanted thoughts and feelings for the rest of my life. But if that happens, God will use this struggle to draw me ever closer to him and lead me to rely entirely on him. He is determined to redeem ALL things, even the abuse I experienced, and even the unwanted thoughts and feelings that come from the abuse.

So, does this mean that I can do nothing to lessen these unwanted thoughts and feelings? No. I might not be able to eliminate them from my life, but I definitely can diminish them. The key to doing that, my therapist told me, is to consciously choose joy whenever unwanted thoughts or feelings intrude on my mind.

Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is entirely dependent on circumstances. When your circumstances are good, when you’re comfortable, when everything seems to be going the way you want, then you’re happy. Because happiness is entirely dependent on circumstances, and circumstances constantly change, happiness is inherently unreliable. You may be happy as you sit on your porch in the sun. But then a sudden cloudburst drenches you, and you’re not happy anymore.

Joy is different. Joy is not dependent on circumstances. Joy ultimately comes from Jesus and what he has done for us. Joy is the confidence that everything Jesus has done for us, every promise he has made to us, and everything he says about us is reliable and true, even when it doesn’t feel that way. Joy is being confident that I am a child of God through faith in Jesus, even when I don’t feel that way. Joy is knowing that in Jesus all my sins are forgiven, regardless of how vehemently Satan accuses me. Joy is being certain that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), even when there doesn’t seem to be any possible way for that to happen. Joy is knowing that God is always with me and will never abandon me, no matter how alone I may feel.

Since joy comes from Jesus, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and is built on everything that he has done for us, which can never be undone, joy is utterly reliable. It can never fail us. It will always be there, no matter how we may feel, and no matter what our circumstances are.

I do not have a choice of whether I will experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts and feelings. They will come whether I want them to or not. But I do have a choice of what I will do with them. I can choose to follow them, or I can choose not to follow them. How will I make my choice? I will consciously choose the option that leads to joy.

When I feel the urge to compare myself to another man, I’ll ask myself, “Will doing that lead me to joy?” The answer to that question is simple: “No, it won’t.” So, instead of following that thought into deeper and deeper discomfort and frustration, I will consciously choose to see myself in Jesus. In him, I am a dearly loved, wondrously made child of God. Recognizing that will bring me joy because that will never change.

When I feel the urge to measure myself, I’ll ask myself, “Will doing that lead me to joy?” The answer to that question also is simple: “No, it won’t.” So, instead of following that thought into an unending cycle of measuring something that means nothing, I’ll consciously choose to measure myself in light of what Jesus has done for me. I’ll see that in him I already am everything that I need to be. That will bring me joy because that will never change.

And when I’m angry at myself for having these thoughts at all, I’ll ask myself, “Will becoming frustrated with myself lead me to joy?” Again, the answer is simple: “No, it won’t.” So, instead of continuing to fruitlessly bang my head against the wall and give myself an ever-increasing headache, I’ll consciously focus on God’s promise always to be with me and work all things for my good. That will bring me joy because that will never change.

I’m under no illusion that consciously choosing joy will immediately make me feel better. I may continue to feel uncomfortable. And I know I will continue to struggle. But consciously choosing joy can powerfully counteract and diminish all these unwanted and intrusive thoughts and feelings by grounding me in my Savior and all that he has done for me. The joy I have in him is something that no unwanted thought or feeling can overcome. My joy in Jesus will last forever.

Dear fellow survivor, I know from my interactions with other survivors that I am not alone in struggling with unwanted and intrusive thoughts and feelings. I suspect that many—if not most—of you also regularly deal with thoughts you didn’t ask for and feelings you don’t want. It may be the belief that the only thing you’re good for is to be taken advantage of by others. It may be the disgust you feel as you look at yourself in the mirror. It may be the conviction that if only you had done something different the abuse wouldn’t have happened. It may be the fear or nagging unease you feel when you’re in a crowd. It could be any number of false thoughts and lying feelings that have become embedded in your mind and far too frequently intrude unbidden into your life.

I understand if those unwanted thoughts and feelings frustrate you. I understand that you just want them to stop. While I can’t guarantee that they will stop on this side of heaven, I can encourage you to do what my therapist encouraged me to do. Don’t give in to the frustration. Don’t become angry with yourself just because you’re having these thoughts and feelings. Doing that will not help you. You’re not doing anything wrong in having these thoughts and feelings. You didn’t ask for them. It’s not your fault that they’re there.

You may not be able to eliminate these thoughts and feelings from your life. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow them whenever they appear. You can choose not to follow them where they want to lead you and instead consciously choose to pursue joy. You can focus on Jesus, what he has done for you, and who you are in him.

When your mind tells you that you have no purpose other than to be taken advantage of, when the sight of yourself in the mirror fills you with disgust, when you feel as if the abuse was your fault or that you’re unsafe when in a crowd, ask yourself, “Will following that thought or feeling bring me joy?” I think you’ll find that the answer to that question is simple: “No, it won’t. Following that thought will only bring me pain, not joy.” Then, instead of following that thought down a bottomless pit of self-destruction, consciously choose to pursue something else. Choose to pursue the joy you have in Jesus. Focus on his incredible love for you, which led him to sacrifice himself on the cross for you. Focus on your status as a holy and dearly loved child of God in him. Focus on his promise never to abandon you and always to work all things for your good. Know that even amidst times of great suffering, his greatest desire is to draw you ever closer to him and to embrace you ever more tightly.

I know that this is not going to magically make you feel better. But the unfailing joy we have in Jesus is powerful enough to counteract and diminish the thoughts and feelings that we didn’t ask for and don’t want. We may still struggle with these things for the rest of our lives. But even if that happens, they cannot and will not rob us of our joy. Our joy is grounded in Jesus, who cannot change, and in all that he has done for us, none of which can ever be undone. Our joy in Jesus will never fail us. Our joy in Jesus will last forever.

God be with you, dear fellow survivor, as you with God’s strength choose to pursue the joy you have in Jesus.

In Christ,
Your Brother Survivor

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This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Blog - Dear Fellow Survivor