A view of the front and back cover

On Calvin and Hobbes and Building Character

The “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip by Bill Watterson ran from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995. One recurring theme was his father telling six-year-old Calvin, “It builds character.” The things he said build character include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bug bites
  • Camping
  • Numb toes
  • Starvation
  • Shoveling the walk
  • Playing sports (baseball)
  • Enduring cold weather
  • Food
  • Suffering a tough life
  • Learning to ride a bicycle.

So basically, any time Calvin had to do something he didn’t like, his father said, “It builds character.” One in particular stands out to me. Calvin complained that it was cold in the house.

Calvin: It’s freezing in here!! Why can’t we crank up the thermostat?!

Dad: Consuming less fuel is good for the environment and it saves money.

Calvin: Oh.

Dad: And being cold builds character.

Calvin: I KNEW IT!!

https://www.reddit.com/r/calvinandhobbes/comments/83o3q6/being_cold_builds_character/

Blame it on Paul and James

I imagine, like Calvin, the last thing you want to hear about this crisis is it builds character. So I won’t do that. I’ll let Paul do it.

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope …

(Rom 5:3-4 NRS).

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. So Paul agrees with the dad. Sorry, Calvin.

But when we’re going through suffering or trials of any kind, it’s hard to see anything positive. It’s hard to “count it nothing but joy,” as James said (1:2). It’s hard to think about the perspective and maturity you will gain when all you want is for it to be over. After you go through a few trials, though, you can look back and see, “Yes, I am a better person for having gone through that.”

At some point, we all ask something like, if God loves us, why is there so much suffering? Why won’t God get rid of the Coronavirus? If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), why is God allowing all the chaos and suffering of this pandemic? We think love wants to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. And that is true, to an extent (Mat 7:9-11). But that is only part of the picture. My experience living with clinical depression and Irritable Bowel Syndrome has convinced me that God’s love cares more about our character than our happiness. I wouldn’t have chosen those trials and the crises of faith that came with them, but they made me more compassionate and wiser. They stripped away any what’s-in-it-for-me aspect of faith I had before. And they resulted in a WD Award Winning book.

A view of the front and back cover
I was pleased with how the front and back cover looked.

As wonderful as that is, what I really hope for is people telling me after they read my book, they got diagnosed, or they started counseling, or they now understand why their son, daughter, spouse, or parent acts the way they do. In other words, that it really helps others living with depression. That is often where perspective and wisdom happens. God allowed me to go through this, so I can help others who are going through the same thing.

A New Prayer for Perseverance

The only way your faith can mature is to go through trials and experience God’s faithfulness through them. James said it this way.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

(Jam 1:2-5 NRS)

In that spirit, I wrote this prayer I am using to get me through this, and I hope it helps you.

“God, you said through your servant James that the trying of my faith would produce perseverance and wisdom. I would rather you remove it from me. For that matter, I would rather You remove it from my family, from my neighbors, and from the world. I am facing the brutal facts, and they are overwhelming. But if You choose not to remove it immediately, I know there must be a reason. There must be a lesson in this, even if I can’t imagine what it is right now. I confess that I am lacking wisdom in this trial. You promised to give me this wisdom, the perspective I need, if I ask. So I ask You to give me wisdom to see as You see, and to use this until You choose to remove it. Amen.”

Don’t Call It “The New Normal”

I added the word “immediately” because God will remove this at some point. Or our medical experts will find a cure and/or vaccine. We can take some comfort in knowing historically, no pandemic lasts forever. The plagues of the 14th and 18th centuries did come to an end, as did the Spanish flu of 1918. That is why I refuse to use the words “new normal.” New normal implies this is what life is going to be like from now on. Social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces several times a day are all good for flattening the curve. And the sooner we get everyone on board with that, the sooner it will be over.

But it won’t be like this forever. One day, it will be safe to gather together again. We’ll be able to go back to church, movies, and concerts with our friends and family, and without masks. We’ll be able to shake hands and hug those we love. I and others will be able to seek out speaking engagements in person rather than on screen. But for now, the loving thing to do is to protect each other by stopping the spread of the virus however we can. Remember who you are doing this for. I socially distance from you, so I don’t have to socially distance from my wife. No offense, but I’d rather get close to her than to you.

So stay safe and six feet apart. If you can’t do that, wear masks and wash your hands. And remember the words of Paul and James I shared with you. They had it right. Suffering and the trying of our faith does produce perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, so that the trying of our faith makes us mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Ask God for wisdom to see how this is forming your character to conform to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Because as bad as this may be, the only thing that could be worse is if we have to go through this and not learn what God wants us to learn from this trial.

Grace and Peace to you.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

My Third Principle for Recovery

Does faith help or hurt recovery? In my experience, it depends what kind of faith. In most religions, I would say there three possible meanings of faith.

  1. Faith as a set of rituals and doctrines accepted by members of a particular religious order. For example, if someone asks, “What faith are you?” it’s like asking, “What religion are you?” And you could answer, “I’m of the Catholic faith,” or “the Presbyterian faith,” or “the Jewish faith,” or whatever.
  2. Faith as belief. The Apostle’s Creed, for example, has many statements about what Christians believe. Those beliefs we usually say we accept by faith.
  3. Faith as trust. If someone says, “I believe in God,” that usually means they believe God exists and would be the second kind of faith. If someone says, “I have faith in God,” that is usually more personal. That person claims to have a relationship with God built on trust. This kind of faith doesn’t have to be religious. You can faith in your family, a mentor, a friend, a program like AA, anyone or anything you think is trustworthy.

When you encounter the word faith in the Bible, or you hear people talk about faith in church or synagogue, it could mean any of these. Usually, you have to infer the meaning through context. For example, Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham,

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

(Gen 15:6 NRS)

When it says Abraham “believed” God, what kind of faith is it talking about? Not the first. There were no temples or organized religion about the God called “the LORD” at that time. Is it the second, belief? God had just promised him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen 15:5). He believed that promise, so it could be belief. God said it, and he believed it. But the Hebrew word for “believe” in verse six can also mean “trust.” Maybe the point is not Abraham’s belief itself. Maybe it was trusting God, believing the one who promised was trustworthy, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Faith and the Third Principle

I’m talking about this because my third principle is: Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

So of the three, which is best for recovery? Number three. Lesson’s over. You can go home.

Sorry, I wish it was that simple. Any of them can help with recovery.

Regarding the first kind of faith, if you are part of a church, synagogue, or other organized religion, you can probably gauge whether it helps or hurts your depression. How do you normally feel when you leave the service? Uplifted or beat up? I’ve experienced both. If it’s the former, it’s good. If it’s the latter, it’s bad.

Regarding the second, if you believe in the tenets of a religion, it can be a comfort. I can sometimes calm myself by repeating the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. On the other hand, feeling pressured to believe something you don’t is likely to make you more depressed. But ideally, one and two should lead you to three.

The third, a trusting relationship with your higher power (whatever that means to you), I think, is essential to recovery. However, trust in a higher power, just like in a person, does not happen automatically. It takes time and experience. And like recovery, it is mostly one day at a time. But any of these three meanings could legitimately be called faith. Each of them plays a different role in the life of a believer, but number 3 is the one I have found most helpful.

Another Kind of Faith?

There is one more type of faith that seems to be uniquely American, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I say that because most preachers of this kind of faith historically began in America. It is no longer unique to America, but even most of those who are from other countries learned it from Americans. I would advise you to avoid it altogether.

When I was involved in it, it was often called the Word of Faith or Full Gospel movement. Some other names I’ve heard are “Health and Wealth,” and “Prosperity Gospel.” Unless it is a local church broadcast, this is the version of faith you usually see preached on television. They own the Christian networks, and the biggest names have audiences in the millions.

This type of faith says, If you believe something enough and do not doubt, your faith becomes some magic force you can use to coerce God to give you whatever you ask for, as long as you can find a passage in the Bible that promises what you want. You stand on that promise until God gives it to you. And you don’t take “No” for an answer.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1 KJV) is one of the most popular verses for explaining this. Faith is what makes the unseen seen. When you hope for something, it is not seen yet. But faith (belief) will make it manifest. And so basically, this says God is under your control.

But before you buy into this, you need to ask, “Did God really promise this? Did God promise health, wealth, victory and success in everything I do?” The Word of Faith preachers say yes, and they have a whole litany of scriptures about how you will be healed and prosperous and victorious in every situation—if your faith is strong enough. They quote all these Bible verses that sound like that’s exactly what God promised every believer. On the surface, it looks like trust, because you are taking God “at his word.” That is, if God promised it in the Bible, they believe it. That means they trust God, because they know God is not a liar.

“(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden,” by Lynn Anderson

Did God Promise That?

But what if God never promised you that? Would you still trust God? See, I was in the Word of Faith for a long time, over a decade probably. When I prayed, I would have my verses lined up, and I prayed, and I believed, and I received the way they taught, and it never manifested. I thought it was my fault, because I didn’t have enough faith, or I had too much doubt for it to happen.

But faith that is trust recognizes God is in control, not you. You can’t use faith to force God to give you what you want just because you quote some Bible verses around it. God may answer you like the leper who came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean” (Mat 8:2-3).

But we don’t always get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God, and trust that God hears you.

But not all of us get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God and trust that God hears you.

And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

(1Jo 5:14 NRS)

But there’s the rub. If we ask according to his will, God hears us. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” said the leper. That’s the model of faith the church has taught from Jesus to the apostles to the saints of the last 2000 years to today. It is the most authentically biblical model of faith. It has been practiced in both Judaism and Christianity from their origins, and it is the essence of AA’s third step, which says surrender your will and life to the care of your higher power.

Promises. Promises.

The Word of Faith does not belong to any legitimate, Biblical understanding of faith I outlined above. Of course, I understand why it’s so popular. I practiced it for over a decade. I was a true believer in that model of faith. The problem is, they don’t read the Bible in context. If you don’t read it in context, you can find promises of health, wealth, success, or whatever you want. If you can find it in the Bible, God has to give it to you. God has no choice. And if you can make the Bible say anything you want and then use that to make God give you whatever you want or do whatever you want, then wow! Suddenly, you’re like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

“My own terminator? You have to do what I say? Cool!”

You have access to power most people can only dream of. All you have to do is believe what the Bible says. You literally have the keys to the Kingdom, on earth and in heaven, right there in your Bible. Who wouldn’t want that? I saw the appeal, and I went for it.

When the Other Shoe to Drops

Unfortunately, all those promises of health, wealth, and success were taken out of context. I learned that the hard way, but thank God I learned. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you read the Bible in context, there are only two things God promises to you and me personally: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be all with us always (as in eternal life). That’s it. Those are the only things the Bible promises to you or me as individual believers.

I think this is why people get fooled. It’s not just about people reading or not reading their Bibles. I read my Bible daily, and I still got fooled. The problem is most people don’t know how to read the Bible in context. So when they say God promised you things that God never promised to you as an individual believer, you don’t know they are taking it out of context. The result is they misrepresent God and set you up for disappointment. I lived with that disappointment long enough. I can tell you, it is no fun.

Faith in Magic or Faith in God?

The way I see it, if you want to live a life of faith, you have to choose between two types of faith. Will you choose the faith that trusts God’s promises of forgiveness and restored relationship with God? Trust in the promise that God will be with you always? Faith that trusts that God loves you and desires ultimately for your good, even if you don’t understand how your current circumstances have anything to do with your good? Faith that acknowledges God is in control, not you?

Or will you choose faith as a “substance” that claims if you know how to use it, God will have no choice but to give you the desires of your heart? Which one will you choose? Faith as trust, or faith as magic? I chose the latter, and it almost ruined me. Because over and over again, I kept trying to force God to fulfill promises that God never made. Trust me, that is a losing game no matter how many aces you have up your sleeve.

So when I talk about faith that is good for recovery, I mean a trusting relationship with God, or your higher power if you prefer. This is the kind of faith Jesus taught, his Apostles taught, and the church has taught for the last 2000 years. Yes, that tired, old, dead tradition (as Word of Faith preachers call it) is what taught me what true faith is. And really, full disclosure, if I had received the miracles and healings and wealth they promised, I’d still be in the Word of Faith camp. But when that didn’t come, I almost lost my faith. Actually, I did lose my faith. I lost my faith in magic and found my faith in God.

What Kind of Faith Is Good for Recovery?

I don’t know where you are on your journey. Maybe you want to believe in something but don’t know what it is. If so, that’s not a bad place to be. Your search could lead you to your higher power, one that is worthy of your trust.

Maybe you’re in a good traditional faith, but you’ve encountered this magic faith, and those promises of health, wealth, and success are tempting you. Maybe you’re already in the magic faith like I was, and it’s not working for you, and you think it’s your fault. It’s not. It’s not your fault that it’s not working. It has nothing to do with whether you have “enough faith” or not, because God is in control, not you. The only thing you did wrong was believe people who preached a different gospel. That is the only thing you did wrong, and you can stop following them at any time.

You can come to faith as trusting God, trust that God loves you, trust that your sins are forgiven, because while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Trust that God ultimately is working for your good. I have been in that kind of faith for a while, and ironically, this is not the faith that promised me healing. But I have experienced healing here, healing that never would have been possible if I had continued to believe I could control God with my “faith.”

My third principle of recovery says, Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

Here are some questions to ask before you apply any type of faith to your recovery.

  1. Is it about faith in God or faith in faith?
  2. Is faith about making God give you what you want, or is faith about acknowledging God is in control?
  3. Do they only talk about success and victory, as if no one who has faith ever fails at anything, is poor, or gets sick?
  4. Is the Bible like a magic spell book to them, as if it will give you anything you ask, if you quote the right verse?
  5. How do they explain when it doesn’t work? Is it always your fault?
  6. Do they talk about “believing God for something,” as opposed to believing in God?
  7. Is there any room for reasonable doubt, or do you have to believe everything they say, no questions asked, even if you know it’s not true?

Trusting God doesn’t mean you never have doubts or questions. It means you trust God loves you and will never leave you or forsake you in spite of your doubts and questions. It doesn’t mean you expect God to stop anything bad from happening to you. It means in the midst of trials and tribulations, you trust God is with you and will work this for your good, as Paul said in Romans.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

(Rom 8:28 NRS)

That is the only kind of faith I have found to be sustainable, healthy, and good for recovery.

Grace and peace to you.