It Can't be True, Because I Don't Feel It: Elspeth Shepherd
Often what we think to be small or mundane decisions in our lives turn out to be the ones that affect us the most. One of mine reminds me of the always-quoted Robert Frost poem about the two roads in the woods. I just didn't realize that I had been at a crossroads until years later.
It was Fall break at Grove City College, and most of the campus was empty. My suitemates and I had decided to stay at school to soak up the days that we knew were numbered, in a place that felt enchanted because of the gorgeous turning foliage. We laughed and sang to John Mayer's new album on the 45-minute drive to the closest Starbucks where we got a little bit of studying and a lot of talking in, watched movies at night, played Dutch Blitz and ate peach ring gummies after dinner, and generally enjoyed the more relaxed pace of a break. It was not exactly the setting I would have imagined for one of the most defining moments of my life.
One night during this break, however, found me sitting in the always-open Harbison chapel. Well, not exactly sitting. I was in the upper balcony of the chapel, wedged underneath the front corner pew, hoping that whoever was playing the piano would continue filling the chapel with sound so that nobody would hear me weeping and find me. The only light was the stained glass window at the very front of the chapel. As I lay there on the cold chapel floor, I knew the chances of anyone finding me were very slim, and that made me both grateful and sad. I wanted to be found and comforted, but I also knew that that heart healing simply takes time, and any comfort couldn't ultimately erase the hurt that would just have to heal.
The reason for the tears was simple - tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. They date. It ends. Nearly every human has experienced the bitter anguish of this, but the commonness of that experience doesn't lessen the pain. I poured out a mixture of thoughts and prayers into my journal with a pen. Even now, six years after graduation, I can feel a touch of that anguish when I read those words that my younger self wrote. But not for a second do I wish that I had the power to take that pain from her.
As I lay there, crying and praying and writing, I knew in my head that the only place to find comfort was God. Theology majors know a lot of things from the books they read, but when the rubber hits the road, those words can do little if they remain in the mind. I mechanically turned to passages of Scripture that I had given to others in their hour of pain. It wasn't until I turned to Psalm 34 that I found what I didn’t know I was looking for: "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit" (Ps. 34:18, ESV). I couldn't believe it.
My eyes widened, cheeks got hot, and eyebrows shot up. Gone were my tears. "Yeah Right!!" I said loudly enough to be heard. I think the pianist fumbled for a moment after realizing she wasn't alone in the chapel. I quieted down, but I was full of anger on top of my sorrow. My mind and hand operated furiously as I wrote. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. What in the world?!?! There's no way that's true - I can't believe that the Bible would say this when I so clearly can assure anyone that that simply isn't true! If God is "near to the brokenhearted," I would know it! If God is "near to the brokenhearted" then I would be comforted! I would feel him near to me!
And other thoughts (that clearly didn't belong to me) began to gently argue with me:
But is that true?
Yes. I retorted. Yes. If God is near to the brokenhearted we wouldn't be brokenhearted anymore.
But is that what the verse says?
Well, no, it says that God is near to the brokenhearted.
And what does that mean?
Just that, that he is near to them.
Why do you think David wrote that?
Because he felt like God was near to him. Good for him.
Any other reason?
Well, so other people would feel that way too. So they would know where their comfort was coming from.
Why would David write it if other would already feel it too?
Well because brokenhearted people feel that there is no comfort to be had - that's what we mean by brokenhearted. And because they don't naturally know that God is near them in those moments, David wrote it so they would know it was true.
But their feelings tell them that God has forsaken them!
Right, but when it comes down to it, that's why it's in the Bible - because the Truth is truer than how we feel. We have to decide to trust God over our feelings.
Yes, we do.
Oh my goodness.
Yes, go on…?
Yes. God is near to me. I can't feel it. The ONLY way I can know it is through believing this verse, because my emotions are telling me the opposite. But when it comes down to it, and I have to choose between trusting God and trusting what I feel, I choose…God.
Quieted, but still sad, I dried my tears. Within me, though, I knew this was an important decision - I just didn't know how important. I could walk through this sorrow, knowing that God was with me. And I didn't even have to feel that he was, because his Word said that he was near to me. His Word didn't need my feelings to confirm it. It was true regardless of how I felt. I thought I had made a grand discovery about brokenheartedness - that God put that verse specifically in the Bible for hurting people to read and find some comfort.
It wasn't until years later that I realized that that evening, I had reached a fork in the road. Two paths had presented themselves to me - the path of trusting my emotions/intuition/feelings, and the path of trusting God regardless of how I felt. I didn't know that I would later see them as they really were - the path of deceit and the path of truth. The path of me, and the path of God. The path of living my life and the path of dying to myself. But that night, thanks to the Holy Spirit at work in my heart and in my mind, I took one baby step on the path of Truth. Many times I have wandered off of it in search of the path of trusting my emotions, but the Holy Spirit has led me back to trust Him and His Word. As I crawl down this path, I look ahead of me to the men and women who have gone before me.
There is a sword at the end.
To stay on this path is to choose to trust God's lead even when I feel like I would rather hold on to my life. The sword is the sword of martyrdom, and that is at the end of this path. Earthly death may overtake me before I reach that end, but to step on this path at all is to die to myself. The only reason I can do that at all is because the Spirit of the one who died and was raised again lives in me.
Those who have crossed the finish line through the sword of death cheer me on. Jim Elliot and his four friends, Blandina, Polycarp, Stephen, William Tyndale, the Coptic Christians executed by ISIS, Dietrich Bonhoeffer - all of them make up the cloud of witnesses that declare with Scripture that "[God's] love is better than life!" The memory of these who reached the end of the path and who chose Christ over their lives and endured the sword call to me: Run, Elspeth! Run with joy this living death! You already have the prize - God Himself - so run!
And in those moments when my legs tire and my lungs burn, and I can't look forward anymore, and I'm tempted to trust my emotions over the Truth, I turn around, rest my hands on my knees, and look back. I see in my memory two paths . I see a girl crying under a pew in a dark chapel in Pennsylvania, and I remember that pivotal moment when I first took a step in trusting God over my feelings. I think through all the thousands of times since, when my emotions have lied to me about my God, and how I am (still) learning to trust Him over them. Those two roads presented themselves before me, and I took one of them. Maybe this is why Frost's poem has stuck around for so long - because so many of us have tasted the truth in the last stanza of it:
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Photo Credit 1: Two Paths Diverged in a wood, by NathanWert Source site
Photo Credit 2: Harbison Chapel, by Paul Vladuchick Source site
Frost, Robert, Helen Vendler. Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction And Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.
Elspeth Shepherd is currently studying for her MA in Biblical and Theological Studies at Southeastern. Like most seminary students, she enjoys coffee and books. She met a ginger pastor dreamboat on eHarmony, who said when they were dating that he'd "wife her up" and then take her to the same seminary he attended. She is grateful that he makes good on his promises. After North Carolina, their next destination is France to plant a church and share the gospel with one of the least evangelized people groups on earth.