In the book Pure OCD, Chrissie Hodges describes what it was like to grow up experiencing obsessive and compulsive thoughts. Her story, in my view, is helpful, painful, and potentially tragic. Let me give you some reasons for each of those.
First of all, helpful. Her story is extremely valuable as she vividly describes the inner turmoil she experienced throughout her childhood and college years. She had two primary thoughts that dominated her mind and that led to other fears. The first one was a fear of throwing up, both her throwing up and other people throwing up and the atmosphere that is contaminated by such an event. The second is that she might be gay, and this is twenty or thirty years ago, before it was as fashionable. She was not gay, but she was terrified that she might be. Listen to how she describes what is happening in her head.
“It felt like fire inside my head from the racing questions why I would worry about something if there wasn’t some sort of truth behind it. I concentrated every moment on looking for proof in my past to neutralize each worry. It was exhausting. Just when I believed I could disprove the thoughts, my mind would remind me, ‘Normal non-turning-gay people’ would never question anything in the first place. And the cycle would start all over. I prayed ritualistically. I prayed for sleep. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for my soul. I prayed for relief.”
Later, she wrote,
“When the bad thoughts and feelings abated, other torturous feelings became prevalent. I constantly battled feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. I was acutely aware of being a phony to the outside world regarding my fears and anxieties. I did my best to portray a social, Christian, outgoing, happy, and successful girl. In reality, I was a frightened, empty, shameful, and guilt-ridden girl unable to control or manage her thoughts. I felt guilty. I felt weak and stupid.”
In college, avoidance became her primary compulsion and escape. As she describes,
“Every move was controlled by anxiety. I avoided certain people. I avoided areas of campus. I even avoided classes. Sometimes I needed to walk completely around campus to avoid walking straight to class if I believed I’d experience anxiety. I was afraid to see my friends. I was afraid to spend too much time with anyone, fearing that thoughts or feelings would latch onto them. I couldn’t watch television. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. I wasn’t sleeping…. Everything was falling apart.”
And I found this illustration so helpful in understanding what she was experiencing.
“It is like fighting a boa constrictor in my mind. I wrestle and squirm, hoping and praying I may have a slight chance of escaping, but the snake uses my fighting against me to ensnare me. I become so entrenched in the fight that I cannot move anymore, I cannot breathe anymore, and I’m forced to relent into surrendering to loss of hope and faith; and all the while believing it is something I have caused, something I have done wrong, and something I must deserve. The harder I fight, the worse it becomes.”
And as she is spiraling downward, she continued to invest every ounce of energy into (these are her words) managing
“an image of perfection to the outside world.”
And this led her deeper into anger, and then anger unresolved typically leads toward depression, until she tried to kill herself. Amazingly, praise God, she was unsuccessful. This resulted in her receiving much needed care and beginning to gain insight into what was happening in her mind.
And much of this is super helpful — helpful for fellow strugglers, helpful for all of us to grow in understanding and sensitivity. Today, Chrissie is doing well. Helpful.
Secondly, I mentioned it was painful. The painful part for me was the fact that she was walking through all of this completely alone. She never told anyone. Her friends didn’t know. Her family didn’t know. She was experiencing these torturous thoughts all alone. Even after she tried to kill herself and she got out of the hospital and out of an institution, her family met her with awkwardness, if not at times insensitivity. And that part is heartbreaking — not being able to just be present, listen well, ask good questions. That part was painful.
The potentially tragic part is that she equates these torturous thoughts with God. She grew up in a Methodist church in Georgia. She held onto many, many warped views of God. I read this book in a sitting, and I was experiencing this roller coaster of hoping and then having those hopes dashed and wanting to just cry out to her, “The way you think God thinks about you is not the way God thinks about you!” That part was tragic. But then the potentially tragic part is that she seems, throughout the book, I don’t know exactly where she stands today, but it seems that she is rejecting God, assuming he is the source of the obsessive thoughts. She does not know how to distinguish the voice of perfectionism, the voice of OCD, from the voice of God, the voice of the Spirit through his Word.
She said this.
“I had insight that my behavior and intense worry didn’t make sense, but what stopped me from seeking help was the voice in my head saying, ‘If there was not some truth to this, you wouldn’t worry about it.’ This voice kept me silent. This voice held me in fear.”
So, whose voice is this voice? This is a big question, not just for those who struggle with obsessive and compulsive thoughts. All of us on different levels will experience unwanted thoughts, a flood of emotions that come with an emotional fire that make them feel real, true, irresistible, overwhelming. How do we interpret those? How do we respond to those? How do we resist those?
I believe some of the greatest battles we will face in life are these invisible brain battles. And maybe no one around you … You can be in church worshiping, and no one around you might realize that inside of you is a warfare happening that is torturous, like a boa constrictor in your brain or heart. So, how do we distinguish voices of deception from voices of truth? Even more fundamentally, how do we know what the voice of God sounds like?
Isaiah 40 is training God’s people in hearing his voice, knowing what his voice sounds like when we’ve sinned or when we’re in the midst of suffering, things we’ve done, or things done to us. He is speaking these words, as we talked about last week, over one hundred years before Judah will go into exile. So, it’s as if God is saying, “I want to shape your memory and train you to hear my voice of comfort before you even realize you need to hear my voice of comfort.”
I mentioned last week Isaiah 40 is a supersized renewal sandwich. It begins, verse 1, with comfort.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
And that repeated “comfort, comfort” in the Hebrew, as we talked about last week, could be translated “Comfort my people, God keeps saying!” implying he’s seeking to overcome or navigate around our comfort-resistant minds and hearts when we are bombarded with other thoughts. So, it begins with comfort, and it ends. Look at verse 31, the famous verse.
“They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They’re going to mount up with wings as eagles.”
So, it begins with comfort, ends with comfort and renewal. And everything in between is all about God, God’s greatness, God’s goodness, implying what we need most is not to get lost in our heads, not to swim around in the soup of our own self focus, but to have a huge view of the greatness and the goodness of God. That is the true source of real comfort. That is the true source of real renewal.
God’s people, Israel and Judah, the northern and the southern kingdom, are facing the most hopeless period in their history at this time. Assyria crushed Israel in 722 BC. Babylon will conquer Judah around 586 BC. The people of God will suffer intense loss and be sent into exile, and God commissions three voices to speak comfort to their hearts regarding their suffering, regarding their sin. And if you missed last week’s introduction, I would encourage you to go back and watch or listen to that because that sets up the context for what we’re focusing on today. God calls these three voices.
Look at verse 3 “a voice cries,” verse 6 “a voice says,” verse 9 “lift up your voice.” So, when we sin, when we suffer, voices will assault our minds and try to squeeze comfort out of our hearts. And God is speaking to hearts so they can hear comfort. So, what do these voices say? What do they sound like? Let’s listen to his three voices.
Number 1, God’s glory is coming. God’s glory is coming. “A voice cries in the wilderness.” Notice the location of this first voice. It is in the wilderness, in the desert, a place of barrenness, bleakness, emptiness, hopelessness. Look at the preparation in verse 3. “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. Every valley will be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low.” The minds of Isaiah’s hearers would have imagined countless obstacles that would hinder God’s glory from coming to them. It could be their sin, could be pagan armies. It could be geographical distance — “I’ve just gone too far.” It could be topographical obstacles.
I took this picture last year of the Judean wilderness while climbing Masada. This region has sections that are almost impassable. These are the rough places that Isaiah was talking about. Look at this image. Imagine a royal entourage passing through this to get to Jerusalem. This is what you’ve got to go through to get up to Jerusalem from the Judean wilderness. This is near where John the Baptist was ministering when he quoted these words in Luke 3 to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways.’”
God is saying “I will move heaven and earth to come to you. I will build a highway of glory in the most unlikely of places, and I will overcome all insurmountable obstacles to bring my goodness and my glory to you. Every person who has been crushed by thoughts of fear, depression, guilt, anxiety will be raised up. Every person who is exalted by pride or prejudice or narcissism or greed will be brought low. Nothing will stop me from bringing my glory to my people.” That’s the voice of God. That’s the heart of God. “And there will be an interstate of glory as I speak comfort to my people.”
Look at the revelation, verse 5.
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
My glory is not just for Jewish flesh or Arabic flesh or Asian flesh or American flesh, but all flesh. How is that possible? John 1:14
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace, full of truth.”
God’s glory is coming. It’s just another way of saying the gospel is coming. Good news, words of comfort are coming. Will you hear his voice?
Secondly, God’s Word is continuing. God’s Word is continuing. Listen to the second voice, verse 6.
“A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.”
That word “beauty” is a word I talk about a lot, the Hebrew word “hesed,” which is “loyal love.” It’s typically used of God’s loyal love for his people. Here he’s talking about our loyal love. Our loyal love is not very loyal. It’s like a flower in the desert. It blooms — “I try to love God” — and then fades — “I tried to love him. I tried to be faithful to her” — but then it wilts. Verse 7,
“The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”
And at this point, some of you sharp listeners are asking the question “Now how exactly is this comforting? Is this supposed to be comforting?” You’re just a bunch of grass, fading flowers!
Look at verse 8.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Here’s where the comfort comes if we have ears to hear. If I build my life on the voices in my head or the voices in my culture, I will become like a flower in the desert — bloom, shrivel, fade away. But if I build my life on the voice of God, the promises of God, the Word of God endures forever, then I am secure, stable, lasting. That word “stand” — “The word of God will stand forever” — In this context, it means “to rise up.” It was down; it is standing. And standing in two senses: to engage, the Word of God gets involved. The Word of God becomes the filter through which we evaluate all other competing voices. We hear through the filter of God’s Word. We interpret all of life through God’s Word. It stands up. It gets involved, engages. And it endures, meaning it never fades or passes away. Fads, trends come and go. Philosophies and ways of thinking that seem so powerful and liberating appear and then disappear. The Word of God endures forever.
Peter highlighted this in 1 Peter 1:23.
“Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for [and he quotes this passage from Isaiah] ‘all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
That’s the source of our comfort. Good news! Gospel! Are you listening?
Quick summary — three voices. First, God’s glory is coming. Second, his Word is continuing when all of the words are blown away. And three, God’s power is carrying. God’s power is carrying. Look at verse 9.
“Go up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God [Adonai, Yahweh] comes with might and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
So, the voice is raising our vision away from ourselves, away from our sin, away from our suffering to behold our God. Adonai, Yahweh, Lord God comes with might; his arm rules for him. His reward is with him. Who’s his reward? What is his reward? His people. “His people” is his reward. “His recompense,” which is the fruit of his labor, “is before him.”
So, what does his ruling arm do? Because many of us think this language of ruling and might and power is terrifying. But look what Isaiah says, verse 11.
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms.”
Verse 10, “His arm rules.” Verse 11, “He will gather his lambs in his …” It’s interesting. The Hebrew there is singular. It’s really “in his arm” because Isaiah wants us to see the connection between his ruling arm and his gathering, carrying arm. The arm that conquers is the arm that carries. We’re talking about the same God. Verse 11,
“He will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.”
Now, Isaiah develops this theme of carrying in very interesting ways. Let me show you one example. In Isaiah 46:1,
“Bel bows down.” Bel is the Babylonian god. “Nebo stoops.” That is, Bel’s son is Nebo. And some of you may be familiar with a famous Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar. The beginning of his name Nebo-chadnezzar, named after him. So,
“Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts.”
Now, Isaiah is using a little sarcasm here. He is likening their false gods to gods in a suitcase, strapped to a mule. You’re toting around your gods. Verse 2,
“They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. ‘Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.’”
Either you carry your gods, or God carries you. That’s the difference between religion and gospel. Religion is all about you carrying your gods. Have I done enough? Have I been good enough? Have I been sincere enough? Did I pray well enough? “If only …!” That’s religion. The good news, the gospel is “I carry you. I carry your sins. I carry your sorrows. I carry you.” Verse 11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms. He will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.”
Now, there is so much that we’ve just walked through. Let’s just focus on two points of application. Number 1, will you hear his voice of comfort? Now, I know I’m oversimplifying, but to go back to OCD, OCD is essentially an addiction to certainty. Our brains’ alarm system is triggering that there is an intruder, there is a fire, there’s a crisis when there might not be one.
For example, I was chatting with a friend of mine who was not at his home this week. And he kept getting notifications that his alarm was going off. The police came several times and then they notified him that they would charge him the next time they get a call. There was no fire; there was no intruder; but his alarm system was acting as if there was one. That’s a very simple illustration as to what is happening in our brains with obsessive compulsive thoughts. They have a very low tolerance for any level of uncertainty.
That is why one of the most effective treatments is ERP, which is Exposure Response Prevention, and that is when you are under care, you are put in a situation where you are exposed to thoughts and maybe experiences that will trigger anxiety and intensify these feelings of fear and compulsions. And then if you will remain there long enough to experience the heights of that anxiety and then to begin to see that go down, over time, you retrain your brain to be okay with uncertainty. And unfortunately, in this world, all of us have to be okay with uncertainty.
On a very different level, Isaiah 40, in one sense, is God doing a little ERP on us. He is exposing us to various kinds of uncertainty. Look again at verse 6. Why, in the midst of comfort, would he say, “You’re grass. You’re flowers. You’re fading. In case you didn’t notice the last time you looked in the mirror, you’re wilting”? And we’re thinking, “God, why are you saying that? That just intensifies my anxiety. That increases my fear. Why don’t you just tell me something different, tell me something happy?”
And what is God doing? Well, what do we typically do? We know this is true. But we either do one of two things — we either delusionally ignore or escape reality by just turning the music on louder and avoiding facing reality, or we obsessively fear and become consumed. And God is saying, “No, real comfort is not found in either of those responses.” It comes when we, within ourselves, recognize that we need to grow comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty. We don’t know the number of our days. We don’t know everything God has planned for us in our lives, what will happen tomorrow or the next day.
So, all of us face this uncertainty. But our certainty comes not in knowing, but in trusting the certainty of his promises. You could just feel the stability come into our souls.
“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge, [Proverbs says.] Surely goodness and mercy [that is hesed, true loyal love] will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Jesus often discipled his disciples in this kind of uncertainty. Let me just give you one example. Right after his resurrection, when they had come together, Acts 1:6,
“They asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’”
So, he died; he’s risen from the dead; and they’re immediately like, “Okay, tell us the plan. Give us the timetable. What’s going to happen?” And Jesus says the words many of us hate to hear. Verse 7,
“He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know.’”
Now just let that sink in. “It is not for you to know.” But there are things, contrary to many prophets online, that we don’t know, and we are being trained in our culture that if you don’t know anything, that is a reason to be upset or terrified. And Jesus is saying, “No, you don’t know everything, the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” See, he redirects us. It’s the greatness and the goodness of your Father that is your certainty, not that you know every timetable or you understand the whole plan.
But there are things you do know. Look at verse 8.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
So, part of hearing his voice of comfort is humbling our hearts to know the difference between what we can know and what we don’t know, where our certainty rests and where uncertainty is okay. Will you hear his voice of comfort and relocate your certainty on him?
The second application is will you share his voice of comfort? A few weeks ago, I was listening to the podcast Maverick, which is loaded with remarkable stories of gospel transformation among Muslims around the world, put out by Pioneer. I wanted to learn more about some of the stories, and a lot of them are based on the book A Wind in the House of Islam by David Garrison.
Dr. Garrison tells of meeting with a man named Rafiq in North Africa. Rafiq is Muslim, was born in North Africa, but lived many years in Paris basically as an atheist but was an extremely gifted musician. He worked for an international film and music company. His bosses one day asked him if he would write a musical, and as he was leaving the office, walking down the street, it started to rain, and he slipped into a doorway to escape the rain, lit a cigarette, and then suddenly realized he was in the doorway of a Catholic church. He had never been in this church before. So, he started looking around, and he noticed that there was a sculpture of Jesus on a cross, and below were the words “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
He began to wonder who does that? What kind of person would give his life for other people? And then he began to think, “That would be a great musical!” And so, he asked the priest for a Bible, and he came out with this huge … He said, “No, no, no. Something smaller, like just on the life of Jesus.” And he gave them the four gospels, and as Rafiq said,
“I took them home and read them over and over. I began to have dreams filled with Jesus and music. The music and the scenes began to pour out of my imagination. In one month I wrote the entire life of Jesus, a two-and-a-half-hour musical from Gabriel’s announcement to the virgin Mary to the resurrection and ascension of Christ to heaven.”
He wrote the scores, orchestral instruments, lyrics, everything.
“The more I gave myself to this life of Jesus, the more he changed me. My friends in the music business warned me, ‘Be careful!’ they said, ‘Do not lose yourself in this person of Jesus.’ I told them, ‘It’s too late. He already has me.’”
His bosses loved the musical. Can you imagine a bunch of executives sitting around for two and a half hours, listening to the entire thing? And they determined to produce it until, later that year, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” came out, and in some parts of the world, there were allegations of anti-Semitism because the Jews crucified Jesus. And so, the executives got cold feet. They pulled back, and they decided not to do the musical. Rafiq said,
“But it no longer mattered to me. Jesus had become my life. I stopped smoking and drinking. I no longer wanted to spend time in the bars or partying. Instead, I wanted to return to North Africa to tell Nora [his wife] and my family about the One who had come into my life.”
Eventually Nora came to Christ, and today they lead worship in the little churches hidden away in the Berber province of North Africa. Dr. Garrison asked Rafiq why he hasn’t gone back to Paris or flown over to New York to produce music with the big international companies, given his ridiculous amount of talent. And he said, you know, I’ve thought about that, and at one time I got, in his words, “sad.” But then I asked God to teach me. And he began to have a couple of dreams. Listen to what he said.
Soon afterward, I began having dreams in which an old man spoke to me and taught me. In one dream, I saw a beautiful meadow with sheep and a stream.
I heard the voice of the old man say to me, “What do you see?”
“I see a meadow and a stream and sheep grazing in the meadow.”
Next, I saw a little shepherd boy sitting on the hillside playing a flute. The old man asked, “Why is he playing a flute?”
“He is playing it so the sheep will know that they belong to him.”
The old man said gently, “You are that shepherd boy. That is why you must continue your music, so the sheep will know that they belong to him.”
“I awoke weeping,’ Rafiq said, ‘I knew I had my answer.”
You see when we hear the voice of comfort, we are called to share the voice of comfort, whatever way he calls us. For some people, it’s writing music, teaching school, doing accounting. There are countless ways in which he calls us to share his comfort.
The lies are all around us. This is why Jesus said in John 10:10,
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Hear his voice.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.”
That’s another way of saying “Behold your God.”
“And no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
So, will you hear his voice? And then will you share his voice of comfort? To help us with this, we’re going to partake of what is called the Lord’s Supper. And as we prepare to do that, if God has spoken to your heart this morning and is breaking down that resistance to his comfort or calling you from distractions and sources of comfort that will not truly comfort, please use this time to respond to his voice. Say “yes” when he calls you. If he convicts you of sin, don’t wallow in feeling bad. Repent and receive his forgiveness. We heard his heart. His glory is coming. His Word is continuing. His power is not coming on us to destroy us, but to carry us. What is causing you to wait? Come to him! Receive the comfort he offers you. So, use this time as we pray, as we sing, as we search our hearts. Give everything over to him!
And all who believe in Jesus, we invite you to receive this little piece of broken bread and this little cup representing what he has given that we might be forgiven and truly, truly comforted.
So, some people are going to come down. We’re going to pass those two elements out. We invite you all who are believers to participate, and then I will come back in a little bit. We’ll take that together. Let’s worship.