Liz Carter is the author of Catching Contentment and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about life, lament, writing, faith and living with a chronic illness.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to write the book?
I’ve been ill all of my life with a lung condition, and I struggled to cope with the reality of this in line with my Christian faith. All around me, I was hearing stories of healing and restoration, of lives turned to happiness and joy, and all I felt was a stark sense of disappointment. I wondered if I was getting it all wrong, if others were right when they told me I simply didn’t have enough faith. The word ‘contentment’ seemed far from me, an unreachable concept that only applied to those whose lives seemed more perfect than mine. For me, my reality was chronic pain, repeated infections and a career that I had to give up because I was too sick.
But when I read the book of Philippians, I noticed Paul talking about contentment which he had found in all situations, and I was intrigued, because it didn’t look like he was talking about the transient kind of contentment I’d associated with the word before. Paul wasn’t living an easy life, all mended and fixed by knowing Christ – quite the opposite, in fact. He was regularly in chains for his faith, seeing his friends persecuted and murdered.
How did you find the writing process? What were the best parts and the most difficult?
I’ve always loved writing, and there’s nothing better than those times the ideas flow, the words spilling out in a great exhilarating tidal wave. Some of the time it was like that, but much of the time it was harder work – especially at the editing stage, when I had to go back in and get rid of all that flowery language I loved too much! For me, the best part of writing this book came when I was crafting the third section which is all about being captivated by God. Writing about worship, yearning and surrender fired me and filled me with the contentment I was trying to represent.
I found a couple of the chapters particularly tough to write. The first was a chapter about being confident in our identity, because for so many years I thought of myself as nothing, useless, and hopeless. In this chapter I wrote about how I was bullied as a teenager, and that was a vulnerable place to write from – I found that as I wrote, some of the feelings came rushing back in, leaving me emotionally wrung out. And the other section I found more difficult to write was the chapter about focusing on God through our ‘dark nights’. When I first wrote it, I wanted to give all kinds of solutions to this problem so many of us experience – that of not being able to ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ God, of feeling almost like we have been cast out from his presence. But I found that the more I wrote about solutions, the more I realised that this was not the way to go – it somehow took any nuance away from the problem, without actually addressing the lived pain at the centre of it. So instead of taking this approach, I simply looked at Jesus in his dark night, and I found him right there in my own darkness.
What does contentment look like in the context of chronic illness?
It’s easy to think that contentment can only be for those who have perfect lives. But the biblical narrative offers something up which replaces this circumstance-based version of contentment, which can never go further than the next thing or the next relationship or the next holiday. In God’s story, contentment is on offer when we choose to chase it and catch it, because contentment doesn’t come in the form of a reward for things going our way, but as a result of looking to Christ in all we do. Paul says that he counts everything else as loss when compared to knowing Jesus (Phil 3:8), and talks about rejoicing at all times (4:4), whether things are going well for us or not. He then says that he has learned to be content, implying that it isn’t something that just happens, but something he is intentional about. So contentment in chronic illness doesn’t look like a shiny happy smile, a pretence of joy when there is pain, but a soul-level knowledge of a God who has gone through the worst of pain, and who sits with you in that deep pit, holding your hand. Contentment in chronic illness is a confidence in God’s nature and a courageous decision to pursue and love God.
You talk about a number of experiences being prayed for – some helpful and some less so! How do you think we can pray well for the healing of those with chronic illnesses?
I think that everyone who has struggled with chronic illness – whether physical or mental – has probably come across the kind of prayer which seems to lessen them as a person, and focus only on the presenting need. Instead of offering to pray for healing, I think it’s so often more helpful to listen to the person, to sit with them and understand their need, to ask what they would like. Imposing a loud healing prayer can be intimidating, or even aggressive, because it can be so very exhausting to sit through the same words, once again, and feel like you are somehow disappointing the person praying. The prayers which have blessed me most have been about praying for God to comfort me, to bless and hold me, to speak to me and to pour out the Spirit upon me, assuring me of his love and presence. Somehow, those prayers have been incredibly healing, even when ‘healing’ isn’t evident.
I love how you talk about the need for lament – how can we practice lament more fully in our churches?
I think that lament is so crucial, and it is grounded in scripture. Somehow, in our churches we have forgotten what it means to truly lament, and instead concentrated on the ‘Jesus helps me feel better’ narrative of salvation and Christian life. While this can so often be true, and Jesus has come to heal and save, when we leave out the weeping we are at risk of a very grey brand of Christianity which doesn’t speak to the pain in our communities. Many of our worship songs have ditched lament in favour of quite a self-centred brand of worship, praising God for all he has done for us. Yet the Bible is littered with lament – there is even a book named for it. We are given permission to lay out our agony in all its stark reality, to hurl out our pain before God, to scream out our disappointment and our lack of understanding as to where God is in it all. We have all this biblical material immediately accessible to us. I love that I am hearing more songs of lament now, such as Rend Collective’s ‘Weep With Me’.
The phrase “doubt needs room to breathe” really resonated with me; how do you think we can best make room for doubt in our faith?
I think that we all need to entertain doubt in order to build our faith. If not, our faith will be built on a kind of pretence, a shifting sand of refusal to question. Yet when we let our doubts surface and let them breathe in us, we will so often find that our faith is strengthened and underpinned with greater confidence. For me, allowing doubt room has involved voicing the doubt, perhaps writing it in my journal, and praying about it. Most of all, I find that reading – scripture and Christian books – has given me so much more of a firm foundation for my faith. I’ve become a big fan of apologetics books, and I am so grateful for the internet, when there is so much information and wisdom at the tip of our fingers. Often, through the doubt, God is teaching us so much more about who he is and who we are in him. And sometimes, those doubts will be unresolved, but they must be aired and examined in order to balance them in our minds. Sometimes, we must make a choice to live in ambiguity, always knowing God is holding on to us and knowing that God is faithful, unchanging and loves us passionately and unconditionally.
Liz’s book Catching Contentment is published by IVP and available online from Amazon* and other retailers.
*Please note this is an affiliate link.