The Big Lie
Most of us live in a culture that is constantly bombarding us with the message that “normal” life is happy, wealthy and long. We are being lead to believe that everyone else out there has enough money to pay their bills, has children that are doing great, has a love life that is fulfilling and is getting all of their emotional and sexual needs met regularly. We are being led to believe that following the rules will make all of this happen for you. We are being formed by our advertising culture to believe that even though death does finally come we slip out painlessly and quietly surrounded by adoring family and then into whatever afterlife you imagine is even better than this one.
This big lie is often not spoken explicitly, or we would rationally reject it, it is whispered to the elephant beneath in a place and time that is more secure, more affluent, more comfortable than any larger society in human history. We are told that this happy, wealthy, long life is “normal” and that is it ours if we just follow the rules and be good, compliant, passion seeking girls and boys.
Of course not all of us grow up in such a place or live in such a place.
Some of us grew up in places that were hard, and so we are skeptical that this imagined, advertised life really is as “normal” or expected as it seems to be on TV.
The Strange Consequence of the Lie
The irony is that the wealthier we become, the more powerful we become, the more anxious, depressed and alone we may become because the world isn’t giving us what we thought we were entitled to.
U.S. suicide rate surges to 30-year high, said the headline on an April 2016, New York Times front-page article. The overall suicide rate rose 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, with the rise over the last eight years double the annual rises the first seven years. It tripled for girls ages ten to fourteen and rose for every racial and gender category except African American men. Various experts were, of course, consulted within the article for explanations. One attributed the trend to diminishing job and economic prospects, yet the suicide rate of black men, perhaps the most economically excluded population of all, was not rising.
Keller, Timothy. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (p. 152). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Why would African American men, of all groups NOT be experiencing the depression and suicide while other groups would? Could it be because out of all of the groups in North American they live under the least amount of pretext about what “normal” is?
We’ve had a whole year of media coverage reminding us that especially for African American men America is not “safe”.
But what about the rest of us? Normal really isn’t all its cracked up to be. This is a blog post by a psychiatrist whose blog name is Scott Alexander.
I work in a wealthy, mostly-white college town consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the country. If there’s anywhere that you might dare hope wasn’t filled to the brim with people living hopeless lives, it would be here. But that hope is not realized. Every day I get to listen to people describe problems that would seem overwrought if they were in a novel, and made-up if they were in a thinkpiece on The Fragmentation Of American Society.
A perfectly average patient will be a 70 year old woman who used to live somewhere else but who moved her a few years ago after her husband died in order to be closer to family. She has some medical condition or other that prevents her from driving or walking around much, and the family she wanted to be closer to have their own issues, so she has no friends within five hundred miles and never leaves her house except to go to doctors’ appointments. She has one son, who is in jail, and one daughter, who married a drug addict. She also has one grandchild, her only remaining joy in the world – but her drug-addict son-in-law uses access to him as a bargaining chip to make her give him money from her rapidly-dwindling retirement account so he can buy drugs. When she can’t cough up enough quickly enough, he bans her from visiting or talking to the grandchild, plus he tells the grandchild it’s her fault. Her retirement savings are rapidly running out and she has no idea what she will do when they’re gone. Probably end up on the street. Also, her dog just died.
If my patients were to read the above paragraph, there are a handful who would sue me for breach of confidentiality, assuming I had just written down their medical history and gotten a couple of details like the number of children wrong. I didn’t. This is a type.
Here’s another. 60 year old guy who was abused as a child, still has visible scars. Ran off at age 15, got a job in a factory, married let’s say a waitress. There was some kind of explosion in his factory, he got PTSD, now he freaks out every time he steps within a hundred meters of a place where manufacturing is going on. Gradually stopped going outside because there were too many scary loud noises, his wife started yelling at him and telling him he was useless, he started beating his wife, put in jail for a year or two for domestic violence, came out, by this point his wife has run off with another man and took everything he owned with her. Moved in with an abusive uncle who is 80 years old and hates his guts, but the uncle needed a caretaker and the guy needed a place to live and they were each other’s only affordable option. Currently lives off disability payments, but the government keeps trying to cut them off, and he keeps having to spend what little he has on a lawyer to prevent them from taking even that away, but half the time he doesn’t make it to his lawyer appointments because he’s too nervous about going outside. Also he has chronic pain. Also he only sleeps two hours a night because of the nightmares, and he’s tired all the time.
(“You have the pill that fixes all of this, right, Doctor? The one they advertised on TV?”)
Do you still feel so under-privileged? Do you still feel so alone? As a pastor nothing he said surprises me. There are stories that many of you tell me that won’t necessarily tell each other.
Alexander goes on to run some numbers of what is “normal”.
So I made a short script based on the following information:
– About 1% of people are in prison at any given time
– About 2% of people are on probation, which can actually be really limiting and unpleasant
– About 1% of people are in nursing homes or hospices
– About 2% of people have dementia
– About 20% of people have chronic pain, though this varies widely with the exact survey question, but we are not talking minor aches here. About two-thirds of people with chronic pain describe it as “constant”, and half of people describe it as “unbearable and excruciating”.
– About 7% of people have depression in any given year
– About 2% of people are cognitively disabled aka mentally retarded
– About 1% of people are schizophrenic
– About 20% of people are on food stamps
– About 1% of people are wheelchair-bound
– About 7% of people are alcoholic
– About 0.5% of people are chronic heroin users
– About 5% of people are unemployed as per the official definition which includes only those looking for jobs
– About 3% of people are former workers now receiving disability payments
– About 1% of people experience domestic violence each year
– About 10% of people were sexually abused as children, many of whom are still working through the trauma.
– Difficult to get statistics, but possibly about 20% of people were physically abused as children, likewise.
– About 9% of people (male and female) have been raped during their lifetime, likewise.
This is only the obvious things and the random things. How much “normal” trauma isn’t on the list. Divorce, not-quite-addiction issues, bad emotional or relational habits, etc.
So what does “normal” look like out of 20 random people? (NP means “no problems” from the above list. It for course means that if you ask them or know them that they wouldn’t tell you they have not problems with grief, money, relationships, etc.)
01. Chronic pain
03. Chronic pain
06. Sexually molested as a child + suffering from domestic violence
12. Abused as a child
14. Chronic pain
16. Abused as a child + unemployed
18. Alcoholic + on food stamps
20. Clinically depressed
Now if you look around and divide the number of people around you by 20 how does this list look? Most of these things you can’t see. Many of these things are likely being hidden. What is “normal”?
When I talk about “the age of decay” people sometimes say “you’re being negative” and I say “no, I’m being realistic.”
David, looking hardly anointed or blessed
We’ve been following the life of David in the book of Samuel and as we saw last week David has descended into a moral quagmire. He has fled Israel, is raiding the enemies of Israel like the Amalekites, living under the patronage of other enemies of Israel, the Philistines and acting like the king of Gath’s most faithful servant. He is walking a moral-razor’s edge and now that the Philistines are ready to attack Israel David is being called to join the attack and to the king’s faith readily and faithfully obeys. Who is David’s king?
Then the story breaks and we cut to the nadir of Saul seeking Samuel through the witch of Endor. Saul is completely undone and the witch sets a feast before him.
The mission of God to reconcile the world to himself seems to hang by a thread. Israel’s monarchial plan A, pious Saul, is corrupt and bankrupt, and now the second anointed king of Israel is calling the Philistine king Lord, not Yhwh, and ready to use his impressive military skills and his personal basket of deplorable super-soldiers against God’s chosen people.
You might recall that Goliath was from Gath (1 Samuel 17:4). He was its champion. David bested Goliath. Will David now become the champion of Gath? Isn’t this the way the blood sport of the world works? The way to the top is by the sword and David, who was anointed to be the true servant of Yhwh and his instrument to free his people will now become the champion of the relational polarity of the age of decay, my well-being at your expense.
This brings us back to the central tension of the Bible. Can God save?
This isn’t just the central tension of the Bible, it is the central tension of our lives. Can God save?
Can God save us when we grew up in a hard place and know life is hard?
Can God save when we group up in a vat of denial imagining that life is peachy only to harbor the secret that MY life is anything but good or right or secure or the way things should be. Can God save?
God Rescues David From Himself, Again
David, ready to follow the king of Gath as his champion gets kicked out of the raiding party by the other kings. While Achish trusts David the other kings do not. David has fooled Achish but the other kings turn David away. He protests to Achish in the same language he uses to protest his innocence to Jonathan about Saul’s injustice toward him.
The formerly innocent opaque David is now a multi-layered adults full of responsibility, compromise, and we fear duplicity. He has pulled off his lie to Achish but quite reasonably the other Philistine Lords have not been with him enough to come under his spell. They do the simple math that this man by reputation may turn on them all in the heat of battle and once again become Israel’s savior.
David is, however, opaque to us. Was his his plan? Or was David at this point thoroughly compromised. Was David actually disappointed not to prove himself to his new Lord Achish or would he in the end be Israel’s savior in the ultimate hour?
Cursed by God?
David and his super-soldier basket of deplorables had marched 3 days to the Philistine assembly point leaving their families behind ready for what we don’t know. Now he has to march back and when he returns to Ziklag they all see that the Amalekites, the enemies of Israel that they’ve been raiding against have returned evil for evil. They raided Ziklag as well as other Judean towns and carried off everything of value including the families of David’s care, including his own.
David’s band of deplorable brothers have had enough. David was supposed to be their gravy train. They switched sides with him when he asked. They’ve seen his duplicity and been complicit with it and now it seems that good fortune or God’s fortune has deserved David. David’s lying, crooked, scheming ways have finally caught up with him and they have all been trapped in God’s judgment against him.
The View from David’s Side
David at this point might well wonder what he’s done to deserve all of this.
- David didn’t choose to have Samuel come and anoint him
- David didn’t choose to become Saul’s musician exorcist
- David was moved by childlike faith to slay Goliath
- Who can blame David for becoming Israel’s darling hero and marrying a princess
- David didn’t ask for his father-in-law to be a homicidal maniac
- David didn’t ask the basket of deplorables to make him their leader in the wilderness
- David was trying to be faithful in keeping those who looked for him for safety in Ziklag
- David tried to honor God and his Philistine master in his lying and raiding and true or false pleas to serve the Philistines into battle
- Now David returns to Ziklag to find the Amalekites have turned the tables on him, the basket of deplorables want him dead, his wives and children have been kidnapped and their home destroyed.
From what we know David might have been a “no problem” person on Scott Alexander’s list. David has in fact seemed to have lived a charmed life. He was picked by Samuel, not his older brothers. He was given incredible personal gifts. He married a princess and was successful in hundreds of battles, seemingly every single time. Yet here we find David, undone, destroyed. Is this his parallel to Saul’s undoing before the witch of Endor? Has God abandoned him?
Where can he turn?
1 Samuel 30:3–6 (NIV)
3 When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. 4 So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. 5 David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. 6 David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.
This reveals a faith, now an adult faith that grows out of the trajectory of the child like faith that killed Goliath. He knows full well that this God can turn his back as he’s done on Saul. This is not a “god for hire” who can be bribed with goats and oxen.
Given the contours of his life he may wonder if this God will reject him too like he rejected Saul. David too has reason to feel insecure given his duplicitous lifestyle. For those who are always trying to read the internal disposition of God towards them by circumstance this burning of Ziklag could easily be interpreted as God’s displeasure, disfavor or judgment. Is the rubble of Ziklag David’s counterpart to Samuel’s ghost bidden by the witch of Endor telling him that God has departed from him and his anointing will be as bankrupt as Saul’s?
The text says that David stops and strengthens himself in the Lord. David doesn’t find a Philistine witch or prophet to go looking for another God or another way to wrangle him to his will. He simply turns to Yhwh, doubles down on him.
Providence Once More and another test
After days of marching imagining themselves going to battle with the Philistines now returning home they are spent but God says they will catch them. Along the way they find an Egyptian slave who has no loyalty to his master. One third of his force is completely spent, probably the oldest and the weakest and so they stop will the four hundred remaining continue the pursuit of the Amalekites. They find them feasting and carousing on the booting plundered from Ziklag and other Judean towns. David’s weary basket of deplorables descends upon the Amalekites filled with vengeance and routes them completely recapturing all of the wives and children and a considerable amount of booty as well beyond what they have lost. David has zone from zero to hero in their eyes.
Upon returning to the weary 200 who saw no danger in the battle David’s men of course restore their wives and children but to the victor go the spoils. Why should the four hundred who fought keep the booty of the weary ones and the towns of Judah. What did Judah ever do for them?
David’s Misery and Deliverance
We’ve seen David in his misery. We’ve seen David in his “no problem” life which was in fact filled with problems.
We saw God deliver David by strengthening his heart, giving him the Egyptian to guide them and giving him the victory over the Amalekites. Now what will David do when he is restored?
David takes the dangerous and risky move of decreeing to his basket of unruly deplorables that all will share equally in the plunder and that the towns of Judah will be restored as well. Why this largess? Why this departure from “justice”?
David’s good fortune has been a gift from God, his king. Who is David to turn a gift into an entitlement?
Back to your misery
Where are you on Scott Alexander’s list? You might even be a “no problem” person who had a better than average family growing up and a genetic set that doesn’t dispose you to alcoholism or emotional or mental diffficulties that hamper your life. Or maybe you are? Maybe you are as out of options as David at burned Ziklag.
In the New Testament one of the best books for people with problems is 1 Peter.
1 Peter 5:1–10 (NIV)
1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
This is Peter’s message to the church. The same Peter that was told by Jesus to “feed my sheep”.
This was what David practiced, even in the middle of the mess of his life.
See the image of David at Bezor making his costly decision. When God turns the tables and gives the victory after you have suffered a little, what do we do? We do what Jesus did. David blesses the 200 who didn’t fight for the booty. He blesses the towns of Judea who didn’t lift a finger to help David when he was in need.
David becomes the proto-king that Jesus would finally fulfill.
Back to you normals
So, how is the world really.
- Can you be honest about the world and yourself?
- Can you see that you are not alone both in your misfortune, in the evil done to you and the ways you have participated in it against yourself and others?
- Do you see God as sometimes hidden and inscrutable in the circumstances of your life but revealed in Jesus and trustworthy to call upon?
- Can you in the moments of devastation and even condemnation strengthen yourself in him?
- After you have suffered a little, can you recognize that when good times to arrive or return that it is all a gift from him and can you reign over what he gives you with the generosity of seeing that it is all a gift meant to be shared with the other “normals” who suffer?