“Come, Let us sing for joy to the Lord;
“Let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1
Most of my childhood memories are quite happy. My sisters and I were gifted with wild imaginations and we enjoyed enacting dramatic events that we invented. I remember spreading a blanket under the elm tree in the front yard of our home in rural Kansas, and pretending that the blanket was the deck of a ship under attack by fierce pirates. With swords held between our teeth (lathe sticks) we would leap onto the ship of the desperate foe and utterly destroy the wicked villains. I think C.S. Lewis would have approved.
Then we would frequently be in our little country church because we were the preacher’s kids. Along with attacking imaginary pirates, we learned to sing real hymns. Singing became one of our great pleasures. We sang in church, we sang at family devotions and we sang riding along in the car on trips. I remember walking home alone at night down a dark dirt road on the Kansas prairies and singing at the top of my lungs to keep the coyotes at bay. I am convinced that this kind of singing is characteristic of those who believe God loves them. God’s love for us flows out of our heats in joyful singing as reflected in so many of the Psalms.
I believe that our singing was a key to our childhood happiness, far surpassing our involvement with those pirates. Not just singing any kind of songs but singing hymns, songs that celebrated our faith in God. In singing these songs we were being carried along by those “thermals of God” which I described in the first chapter. We soared together on the wings of those hymns which we had learned in our earliest years. Without even knowing what the word “covenant” meant we were celebrating together God’s great “covenant love” for us. I still cherish the memory of our singing together as a family. It is precious to me.
A Growing Sorrow
But our family also had its problems, problems that would bring us great sorrow.
There were six of us children and I was the second, born two and half years after my sister Georgianna. Georgianna was my favorite childhood companion. She taught me how to make mud-pies, climb trees and catch frogs. She taught me how to run through mud puddles and how to escape getting a spanking when I had misbehaved. She was my best friend.
But as the years passed, Georgianna began to have problems with a kind of moodiness that I could not understand. When she was 17 and a junior in high school, her dark moods led to serious maladjustments in social relationships and inability to cope with school life. She ate less and less, could not sleep well and seemed to lose all capacity to function normally. My parents had no idea how to handle this and we children were completely dumbfounded. She had been my best friend but now I was out of touch with her. I began to feel utterly unable to relate to her or help her in any way.
After consulting with our doctors and other friends, my parents decided that it would be best for Georgianna to be admitted to a mental hospital many miles distant from us. Under the care of psychiatrists she was subjected to the kind of treatment current in psychiatric hospitals at that time, the mid 1940’s. She underwent many hours of psychotherapy and periodic electroshock treatments as well as drug therapy with heavy doses of thorazine and other such anti-depressants. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic with periodic alternating episodes of manic and depressive moods. The doctors informed us that her prognosis was uncertain and that she would have to stay on the drugs they had prescribed.
About three months later, Georgianna seemed well enough to return home. She was genuinely delighted to be back with the family and we all enjoyed our reunion. She was able to return to High School, graduate, and then begin a college career.
But things were never quite the same after that. Georgianna had to stay on drugs, suffered the manic-depressive episodes the doctors had predicted and struggled hard with maintaining healthy relationships with others. About 3 years after her first episode in the mental hospital, she had to return. There was another round of psychiatric counselling, electro-shock treatments and strong drugs.
And there was deep consternation both in the hearts of my parents and in our whole family.
The Snake Pit
During this time of our sorrow, my father discovered a book entitled, The Snake Pit, written by Mary Jane Ward and published in 1946, shortly before my sister’s illness. Dad was captivated by this book and drew us into many conversations referencing the sad, even terrifying details of mental illness and the kinds of treatments psychiatrists were using with patients at this time in history.
Before writing her book, Ms. Ward had spent eight months at Rockland State Mental Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, where she had been diagnosed as a Schizophrenic. Though she denied that her book had been an autobiographical account of that experience, literary critics disagreed, seeing too many specifics reflecting the realities of her stay in the hospital. Ward’s references to scalding baths and electroshock treatments were the methods used in these hospitals at this time and my Dad’s description of these practices were most impressive, even terrifying. Wikipedia reports that Ward’s book became the basis for an Oscar-winning film The Snake Pit, starring Olivia de Haviland. A flurry of reforms occurred in state mental hospitals resulting from the book and film. A journalist, Herb Stein, wrote in the Daily Variety that Wisconsin had become “the seventh state to institute reforms in its mental hospitals as a result of The Snake Pit.”
Of course this was no comfort for our family. We continued to be deeply troubled about Georgianna’s perplexing problem and about the hospitals where she had to stay in search of relief and healing. Though we had been a happy family, we ourselves seemed to be sinking into a kind of “snake pit” of despair that allowed little hope. I believe it was true that our singing was not quite as bright and full of Christian joy as it had been before this sorrow came upon us. We still sang, but with nagging sorrow in our hearts. God’s Covenant love for us was not as deeply felt or as fully enjoyed.
My Own State of Mind/Heart
I must go back to Georgianna’s second stay in the mental hospital. It was January of 1952 when my parents called to inform me that she had been hospitalized again. I was a sophomore at Bob Jones University and had already known that her condition had been deteriorating. To hear that she had been incarcerated again in one of those “snake pits” was more than I was able to handle easily. I did nothing particularly demonstrative but was unable to concentrate on my college work. My grades suffered.
This was not just because of my sympathy for Georgianna. It was for fear that I would be overcome by the same conditions that were destroying her. I was from the same family with the same genetic makeup and the same environment. Why wasn’t I just as vulnerable to the mental illness “snake pit” as she was?
In a kind of despairing hope to find an answer for myself, I turned to reading psychology. I found a copy of Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipus Myth and Complex” (book now out of print) in the BJU library. The version I was reading included brief accounts of the writings of Freud’s early associates, Otto Rank and Gustav Jung. At first I was absolutely fascinated by what I was discovering in these early practitioners of psychoanalysis. It seemed to me that these men were uncovering the “mysteries of the unconscious mind” through their study of dreams and their speculations about “depth psychology.” My admiration for these men soon began to fade, however, as it began to dawn on me that there was so little evidence for their proposed answers to the problems of what they called “mental illness”.
The proposals of Freud himself seemed utterly outlandish to my untrained 19 year old mind. Suggesting, as Freud seemed to be doing, that every boy was born with an innate desire to murder his father and marry his mother was an outrageous proposal and I began to understand why both Rank and Jung soon abandoned their master to form their own separate schools of psychology and psychotherapy. It appeared to me also that this was an ongoing kind of divisiveness that was continuing to plague the psychiatric world and discredit its practitioners.
At the same time all this was going on in my mind/heart, I was struggling with a terrible uncertainty about my relationship with God. At one point I became convinced that if I, Paul Alexander, were to try to find hope in Christ by acknowledging Jesus as my Savior and Lord, this would be nothing more than an act of self-centered desperation which God would not honor. In other words, I could not become a new creation in Christ because a profession of faith from such a self-centered egotist as I was could not possibly be genuine. It would just be another selfish grasping after hope. God would not respect such selfishness and I would be doomed to die in my sins, mean-while deteriorating into schizophrenic madness in the process. This was a truly titanic struggle in my mind and heart. I would sit for hours in a dark room in the alumni building mulling over the horror of my condition, convinced that I was beyond any kind of redemption.
A Surprising Dawn
It was not much more than six weeks or two months that I endured this kind of Hell. But I felt like it was going to go on forever. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. How my hopelessness changed to hope is still a mystery for me, a wonderful mystery, a wonderful surprise.
To this day, I cannot understand how it began to happen, but for some reason the words of Romans 5:1 pressed themselves into my consciousness as I lay sleepless one night in my dorm room. It would have been about mid-March of 1952, around 11:30 at night when those remarkable words began to captivate me:
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is not a particularly personal text, full of evangelistic appeal, urging me to take action. Rather, it is a flat statement of fact about the doctrine of justification by faith. And the Apostle Paul is not using verbal pyrotechnics or fiery oratory in this verse, just stating a plain reality.
But it gripped my heart! I was astounded by what God seemed to be saying to me here. God by His Holy Spirit was using this plain old ordinary and familiar text to assure me that He loved me and was giving me peace in my heart “through our Lord Jesus Christ”.
As I said above, “I cannot understand how it began to happen”. But I am absolutely convinced that it was the Holy Spirit Who “pressed these words into my consciousness.” This was nothing short of an act of God. The Holy Spirit had performed a miracle in my heart against the determined resistance of my self-centered will. By that simple unadorned text in Romans 5:1 the Holy Spirit slew my sinful nature and created a new nature in me, after the image of our Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:10).
Outwardly this was not a dramatic event at all. I was lying on the flat of my back in bed, not going forward in an evangelistic meeting after an emotional appeal. I never got out of bed that night. I just lay there marveling at what I knew had happened in my heart. Finally, after all my struggles I had genuine “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was the kind of peace that let me sleep well. And I did.
I am not really sure my experience was a conversion. It may have simply been God talking to me to assure me that I had already been converted, I already belonged to Him and He just had to remind me. That fits better with my experience of those thermals in chapter 1. I had already known God and his love for me, but desperately needed Him to remind me. At any rate, it gave me peace, lasting peace that is still in my heart these 63 years later. I was wonderfully surprised and still am.
Dawn is seldom a loud event. The next morning was no exception. That morning came quietly, no fanfare. But it found me with new and deep peace in my troubled heart.
Call to Pastoral Ministry
This was a major turning point in my life. Though a quiet, private experience I was convinced that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me from Romans 5:1. Before this crucial experience I had been uncertain about whether I should study for medicine or for the ministry. That uncertainty vanished and I began to feel certain that God had called me to the ministry. It seemed completely certain to me that I now had an obligation to everybody I saw to tell them the wonderful reality which I had discovered in this great text: “ We can be certain that we belong to Christ who died for our sins and rose again to give us eternal life.” I was hearing God call me to proclaim this grand truth.
The fact is that God was calling me to a ministry that was also informed by my sister’s awful problem. During her worst times it was sadly evident that she had no hope in God. She had no awareness that God loved her or cared for her. She was hopelessly lost in a sea of meaninglessness and endless conflict. And I was becoming aware that Georgianna’s problem was no rarity in our society. From such a heart of hopelessness springs every variety of sin, every kind of pain and misery – alcoholism, drug addiction, pornographic involvement, sexual immorality, divorce, crime of all sorts – the list goes on and on. My call to preach the gospel was a call to tell poor sinners how to find their way out of this terrible darkness into the light of God’s love, the light of his Grace, the light of His provision for all of their real needs. It is a wonderful calling. My calling itself began to fill my heart with joy that made me want to sing.
From Sorrows Back to Songs
Yes! It is true! During the darkness of my time of dreadful doubt in early 1952, I nearly forgot how to sing. In this sad period of my life, I was barely able to open my mouth when the church stood to sing. But when the Holy Spirit assured me that I belonged to Christ, hymn-singing became a great delight to me again. I used all those grand old songs to vent my joy, celebrating the wonders of eternal life. I believe the Holy Spirit lifted me out of my dreadful sorrows and enabled me to “shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.” I have been singing joyfully ever since and hope to enter heaven “shouting glory.”
But why had this happened to my sister? Why was joyful singing left so far behind in her life? Why the many years of Thorazine, Zoloft, and psychiatric treatment of many varieties?
Through all my years in the ministry I have puzzled over the fact that Georgianna came into all her dreadful sorrows right while she was living in a Christian home. How could what psychiatrists call “mental illness” overtake her when she was hearing the gospel preached every Sunday and hearing hymn’s sung and prayers prayed every day of her life. My parents were faithful in habitually conducting family worship. How could first my sister Georgian and then my brother Jim both fall into the inconsolable miseries of schizophrenia?
I have lived with this question all my life and pursued the answer as faithfully as I know how. I have regarded this issue in a very personal way. It is as though God gave me a personal assignment to study preaching from the point of view of Georgianna’s particular problem, and my brother Jim’s almost identical struggles. Our Fall into sin is at the root of all such pain and struggle. I but for all those who struggle against sin and its consequences.
I am further convinced that God called me to preach his precious gospel in order to help deliver my fellow suffering sinners out of those miseries. But how do I do that in a way that really reaches the hearts and needs of the Jills and Carls out there? The Georgiannas and my brother Jim?
To get at this question has been a great challenge for me. And it has been very rewarding. The Lord has helped me “Discover His love” through my study of His Word, the Bible and through the study of the life that surrounds me. My next chapter is my best shot at helping you define God’s love, discover it in such a way that it becomes the key means by which we gain peace with God and enter into the eternal life He is offering us.
This may take a little work on your part. I am going to define God’s love in the light of His COVENANT OF GRACE. That is a theological term, but it is not complicated or difficult to understand. I am going to describe again as “theological short-hand”, a brief phrase that may help you get grasp on this beautiful and comprehensive way God offers His love to sinners.
Maybe you will struggle a bit with some of the terms and phrases, but you will discover that it will be well worth your while to focus on this key to understanding God’s love. My prayer is that my explanation will help you get a firm hold on the Love of God and then that the Love of God will get a firm hold on you.
So here we go.