When Problems Come in Waves

By Keith Miller | February 23, 2011

I feel like I’m drowning.  I’m over my head in conflicting problems.  I don’t know what to do,  and there is no one I feel safe enough to talk to about all this, yet you are able to write openly about some really hard problems, and how small groups have helped you.  How can a bunch of other screwed up people help me?  What is the spiritual process in such groups that has given you the courage to face and deal with the problems you write about?

You’ve pin-pointed a crucial question that I’ve heard from many people. There are groups whose primary purpose is to study together, discuss topics, or enjoy a common activity together (like square dancing, quilting, hunting and so forth).  So not all groups are helpful for dealing with personal problems.

A certain kind of group has not only helped me but led me into a way of living that has kept me from panicking so much when I realize I’m in deep water, fighting to stay afloat somehow while wrestling with some pretty serious problems.  But the kind of help I’m describing didn’t always happen right away.

For example, when I first stepped into a men’s group that dealt with compulsive behavior and addictions, I realized I was “in trouble.”  By that I mean I wasn’t sure I could be really honest—because I didn’t trust men much.  But these men didn’t try to change me.  They just said, “Welcome.”  Then as they talked about their lives, they brought their inner worlds out into the open,  including the terrifying, frightening and seemingly impossible situations that had driven them to the end of themselves.

They were very honest about themselves and didn’t try to fix each other.  Almost all of them said they felt like they were “in over their heads,” struggling in deep water and didn’t know if they could survive. and that they had ventured into the group only because their situation had gotten so scary that they became, after much resistance and struggle, willing to “come out of hiding” and talk honestly in this safe, confidential setting, even though most confessed later that they really didn’t believe the group could give them any significant answers or help!

Somehow, hearing about their fear of losing things they were not prepared to live without made me feel safe, which sounds strange.  But my sense of safety came from realizing I was with people that had been where I was.

I came to see that this was no study course you had to make a grade in.  These men had not accumulated a large body of knowledge.  It was more like a swimming school for people who had almost drowned in deep water and these men had learned how to “swim” in these deep-water situations, and weren’t so terrified of drowning in them.  In fact, I saw that if you learn to be a strong swimmer, it doesn’t really matter how deep the water gets.

Although this was not a study course, there was a simple program of steps described in one book, two-thirds of which is made up of  the stories of people who are dealing with the same kinds of struggles the members of the group talked about. The stories were about how God was helping them to trust enough to allow them to let the group help them to swim through deep water situations.

As I thought about what I might say about my own situation, I realized that I needed to learn to trust the group before I could learn this kind of swimming.  And I realized that talking about weakness and failure out loud took great strength and courage in a society in which many of us had focused on cars, houses, clothes, cosmetic surgery and super deeds to try to appear to be more successful, beautiful and adequate than we really are.

As I sat there listening to these men sharing their guts, I remembered I remembered a time many years ago when I was teaching some little kids how to swim.  This one young boy wouldn’t even put his face in the water although I was holding him up.  After I gave him a pep talk about how “you can do it!” he still was too scared to put his face in the water.  After many sessions, I was about to give up, but then I had an idea.  I told him that if he would  relax in the water, the water would hold him up, and he would not sink.  I added that I had had trouble believing this until I tried it.

Finally I said that at first I would have my hand under him to hold him up.  Then I’d slowly lower my hand down just about an inch below his tummy so I could catch him if he began to sink.  He asked me again and again to tell him what I would do if he started sinking.  Finally, I think his curiosity must have become a little stronger than his great fear, because he took a deep breath and tentatively stretched out face down on the water, trying to relax on my hand beneath him on his stomach.  When he had floated for a few seconds, he came up sputtering, and grinning from ear to ear.  The next session he began learning to swim.   And all the other fearful little boys I taught that summer began to catch on, too after they first learned that the water they were in would support them.

And in the same way, as a new person in the group, I had to learn to trust that the water (group) I’d stepped into would support me so I wouldn’t drown.  I kept attending the meeting, and when I could finally trust enough to risk trying to live a whole new kind of life, that was when I could listen to the message of grace about how God would really forgive even me, a man who had failed and hurt so many people.  And I began to learn to live a life of facing my problems honestly as they come up so I could swim through the deep water that all my friends in the group are swimming in—ready to hold out a hand if I start drowning again.

But if the scene of the real action of honest, loving and non-judgmental spiritual groups is evidently inside each person’s mind, then how can we learn how to keep learning, growing and facing new problems that happen in all lives and relationships?  Well, when this kind of group meets, every person brings his or her new inner failure,  and shares how the experience, strength and hope he or she is learning about helps the person to quit thrashing and start swimming again.  And before my eyes every week I see how God continues to work in our lives behind the scenes in our personal experience.

And if my twenty-five years is in any sense the experience of others, then I can tell you that wherever you go (these meetings have sprung up all over the world) and whatever happens to you even in countries where you do not speak the local language, you will never have to be alone again!

Lord, thank you that your Kingdom or Reign in people’s lives is broader and deeper than I had even imagined—even after many years trying to learn all about you.  Thank you that you came to turn our lives right side up—and then to invite us as we struggle to keep our heads above water to let you teach us how to swim with you.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

“But me he caught—reached all the way from sky to sea; he pulled me out  of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos,  the void in which I was drowning.   They hit me when I was down,  but God stuck by me.   He stood me up on a wide-open field;  I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!” – 2 Samuel 22:19-20, The Message

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“You’re blessed when you are at the end of your rope.  Because then there is more of God and less of you.”  – Matthew 5:3, The Message

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“Sometimes God calms the storm.  At other times, he calms the sailor.  And sometimes he makes us swim.” – Author Unknown

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“The water is your friend…..you don’t have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move”. – Alexandr Popov, Russian former Olympic gold-winning swimmer, widely regarded as one of the greatest sprint, freestyle swimmers of all time.

2 comments | Add One

  1. Wanda J. Fenner - 02/23/2011 at 1:00 pm

    Thank you for the encouragement of 2/23/11 in regards to keeping your head above water in times of difficulty re. my finances as a widow. “When Problems Come In Waves” by Keith Miller. It was most helpful as it hasn’t been easy financially, especially, for me since my husband’s death. My faith has alway seen me through, however, in every way. Thanks Be To God. Yours in Christ, Wanda

  2. Stephen - 03/28/2011 at 12:14 pm

    Hi Keith – this site is so refreshing – and encouraging. There are times I find where I have to just soldier on and know that Christ is in my heart and the Holy Spirit is there with me. The waves are not so big but as I look around I just see water – to every horizon – So I guess I am getting the swimming treatment. Actually there are big waves too – Ai – thanks for this work brother Stephen

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