Counseling and the "Inconsolable Things"

If you ever get the chance to pay someone $100+ dollars to sit across from you and tell you all the things you're doing wrong and call it counseling, I suggest you do. It sounds like a lose-lose, but I promise if the counselor is good (and mine is), it will be worth every penny. You would think you would leave a room like that poorer both in money and in strength, but the truth is the money is an investment for the aching muscles you're exercising. It's like the gym for your soul. You stretch, you grow, you ache, you get stronger. That's the hope anyway. 

I've been learning, for example, that most of my life has been spent trying to do two things. The first is protect myself and others from bad experiences (or what I perceive to be bad), so much so that I want to rewrite the story as it's happening, tying myself into a pretzel if it will make them feel better until I get eaten alive. The second is that what I have always thought to be a disposition toward patience and long-suffering is actually particular species of passivity and avoidance. Counseling is glorious, I tell you. 

Like the gym, though, all these sudden realizations about weak muscles eventually become realizations that you're stronger than you think you are while also realizing you're a lot weaker than you think you are. It's this beautiful conundrum and I still don't know how it works. I confess I'm weak and I can't make everyone's story more beautiful and, in that, I find the Spirit strengthening me to be faithful to whatever story He has for me. I know I must seem daft to have not known this before, but counseling, I tell you. 

Zack Eswine has written about the "inconsolable things," his book: Sensing Jesus (Which you can no long buy, but you can purchase The Imperfect Pastor which is a tightened, more polished version of it. Though I will always have the softest spot in my heart for the original, less polished sort.). I wanted to share them with you today in hopes that they encourage you like they've encouraged me. 

“Inconsolable things” are the sins and miseries that will not be eradicated until heaven comes home, the things that only Jesus, and no one of us, can overcome. We cannot expect to change what Jesus has left unfixed for the moment. The presence of inconsolable things does not mean the absence of Jesus’ power, however. Rather, it establishes the context for it. There in the midst of what is inconsolable to us, the true unique nature and quality of Jesus’s  power shows itself to be unlike any other power we have seen.

This is what I mean. Jesus teaches us that the faith of a mustard seed can move a mountain. “Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). So we bring faith to what troubles us. And according to Jesus it would seem that there is nothing in the world that we can’t fix if we just have the smallest seed of faith.

But this is not the conclusion Jesus draws for us. This challenges our Herodian ideas. Though nothing will be impossible for us with faith, “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus says (Matt. 26:11). The paradox emerges. When it comes to poverty, there is no knockout punch or decision in your favor. You must step into the ring with faith, knowing that you will not win in the way you want to. Faith takes its stand amid an unremoved trouble.

The inconsolable things, therefore, are identified first by the “cannots” of Jesus’s teaching. These things he identifies as impossible for any human being. For example, no matter who we are, “no one can serve two masters,” no one (Matt. 6:24). Even if we are wise and knowledgeable by his grace, there are still things and seasons in our lives that we “cannot bear… now” (John 16:12). No matter how strong a will a person has, “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself” (John 15:4). No matter how many oaths we take or how much we spin words into boast, we “cannot make one hair black or white,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:36).

These cannots from Jesus teach us that sickness, death, poverty, and the sin that bores into and infests the human being will not be removed on the basis of any human effort, no matter how strong, godly, or wise that effort is. The power to give this salvation is inconsolable as it relates to us. We cannot give people the new birth with God (John 3:3-5). We cannot justify someone, make her righteous, sanctify her, give her adoption, convict her of sin, or change her heart (Luke 19:27; 1 Cor. 12:3).

This presence of inconsolable things reminds us that healing is not the same as heaven. Miracles are real and powerful, but they do not remove the inconsolable things. Those whose leprosy Jesus healed coughed again or skinned their elbows. Those who were blind but now able to see could still get a speck of burning sand stuck in their eye. The formerly lame could still fall and break their leg. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to find his resumed life filled with death threats. Moreover, the raised friend of Jesus would die again someday, along with this company of the healed. Bodily healing in this world is not heaven. Sickness and death are inconsolable things. Their healing reveals Jesus but does not remove sickness or death from life under the sun. A soldier survives combat only to die in a car accident on the way home (or forty years later of cancer). Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.

In my first pastorate we began to make ourselves available as elders once a quarter on a Sunday evening. Our intention was to invite people to what James teaches us in his letter about coming to the elders when sick for prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:13-15). During those seasons of prayer and worship nearly everyone was nourished and encouraged in their faith. A handful of them were even healed. I remember a young girl whose eyes were fading into blindness. The doctors that week were astonished to learn that the cause of the trouble had disappeared. We all rejoiced in amazement and gave thanks to Jesus. I still do. The peace he gives is a sign, as we will see in a moment, that he is here.

Yet, Joni’s healed eyes did not remove eye disease or blindness from the world. Healed eyes humbled us into tears of gratitude, but this did not mean that Joni’s life was no heaven or that ours was. She was still a middle-school girl within a lovely but broken family, with all the realities of a fallen world and an untamed heart. So were we. It’s like being a hero. the moment the hero rushed into the burning home to save a young boy resounds with a sacred dignity. At the same time, we know that buildings still burn. The little boy still has a whole life ahead of him of grace and joy but also of ache and inconsolable things. The hero himself still lives on too for another forty years. But heroes aren’t always so, as a long life of broken moments reminds each of us.

Inconsolable things reveal and refer to the ache that exists in every created thing and within even those who have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:18-23). There is an ache within us that will remain even if what ails on the porch is blessedly mended. Jesus demonstrated there are some things he did not change but left as they were for a time, until he comes. We minister the peace of Jesus amid the troubling unremoved. He walks there with us and leads us through. Jesus empowers us to resist both adding to the damage and hastily trying to do what only Jesus can.

I've read this passage in Sensing Jesus ten or more times and know it cognitively, but there is coming to me a real, deep, painful change inside me in recent months. It both empowers me to say, "I cannot" and frees me to trust that sometimes faithfulness for me is simply obeying without the pretty ending here on earth. If that's you too, I'm praying for you today, that we would rest knowing we exist in the Already/Not yet of the kingdom. That Christ has come but he has left some things still unconsoled and he is coming again. 

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 10.37.58 AM.png