Thursday, April 20, 2023

On Getting Out of Bed, by Alan Noble {book review}

“What’s the bravest thing you ever did? 
“Getting up this morning.”

“Your life is a good gift from a loving God, even when subjectively it doesn’t feel good or like a gift, and even when you doubt that God is loving. Please get out of bed anyway” (Alan Noble, On Getting Out of Bed, Kindle location 40).

Book cover: An old-fashioned alarm clock fills the image. Red poppies bloom out of its midst. Black text on parchment background reads, “Alan Noble, On Getting Out of Bed, The Burden and Gift of Living.”


In the new book On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden & Gift of Living, Alan Noble addresses the universal problem of mental suffering with compassion born of experience and perspective born of bearing witness to many others’ experiences. This is not a memoir or a self-help book. Its discussion is not limited to officially diagnosed mental illness; Noble pans out to consider mental suffering in all its intensities and hues. Somehow, it comes across as both literary and comfortably readable; Noble is an English professor, after all, and that shows. His main idea is that in this earthly life, suffering is the norm and ease the exception, and at the same time our pain-marked lives are ultimately good, marked by God’s grace and love, and worth fighting for. And sometimes that fight starts with the courage to get out of bed.

Noble begins by normalizing and destigmatizing mental suffering. So much stigma and shame still surround anxiety and depression, though some progress has been made. The loneliness of that shameful silence compounds the suffering of the initial anxiety or depression. Noble comes alongside the suffering person and those who love him or her in empathetic recognition of how hard, how very hard, life in this broken world is. The tone of this book is that of a kind hand on the shoulder, a face inclining to make contact between his wet eyes and the sufferer’s, a gentle voice saying, “I’m so sorry. It will be okay. Hold on.”

Phone lock screen image: black text on light green text box reads, “I’m sorry. It’s okay. Hold on, from Alan Noble’s book On Getting Out of Bed.” Background consists of multicolored flower drawings on a cream field.

Suffering and the Culture of Technique

Noble recognizes that in times of mental anguish, simply getting out of bed is a monumental act of worship and testifies to God’s goodness. As he contemplates the divergent choices of two characters in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, he asserts:

To choose to go on is to proclaim with your life, and at the risk of tremendous suffering, that it is good. Even when it is hard, it is good. Even when you don't feel that it is good, even when that goodness is unimaginable, it is good. When we act on that goodness by rising out of bed, when we take that step to the block in radical defiance of suffering and our own anxiety and depression and hopelessness, with our heads held high, we honor God and His creation, and we testify to our family, to our neighbors, and to our friends of His goodness. This act is worship (Kindle location 352).

And again,

While it is terrible (and occasionally horrifying) to be under a cloud of depression or anxiety, you also have the chance to testify to God's goodness. By watching you endure, others will know that it is possible to keep going. (Kindle location 722).

I found many of his thoughts, especially in the section on our contemporary culture of technique, applied to my physical suffering due to chronic illness and breast cancer also. In brief, the concept of a “culture of technique” implies that suffering is the exception rather than the rule. If one finds the right technique of diet/exercise/money management/supplements/productivity, suffering is avoidable or at least fixable. This feels true because it is so pervasive in our culture, but it does not align with the Bible’s teaching or millennia of human experience.

The fallout from that myth is the insinuation that suffering people are at fault to some degree for their affliction and can get out of it through their own efforts if they just ___________. This adds to the shame of physical and emotional suffering and contributes to the felt need to keep one’s suffering invisible. This harms rather than helps. In reality, much suffering occurs independent of the hurting person’s choices and techniques. (See the book of Job.) The Bible affirms throughout that life is hard, and life is good, and God’s grace is bigger than our suffering.

The Myth of Utilitarianism and the Grace of God

Another section encouraged me with its particular relevance to my story as an immunocompromised cancer survivor at this point in the pandemic. Mental struggles common to chronic illness include the grief of lost capacity and activities and the depressing weight of feeling useless and burdensome. Given the stories I’m hearing from people with chronic illness, parents of high-risk children, and sufferers with Long COVID, the current season of marginalization and loneliness is making this much worse. Whether implied or stated outright, the message many of us are receiving from society is that we are expendable because we are not useful or productive.

Mental suffering also depletes productivity, slowing down and distracting mind and body, sometimes causing physical pain. A lie all too easy to believe in that space is that one’s life is a burden to others, that one is useless, that there is no point to keeping on keeping on. (Noble is forthright about encouraging sufferers to seek professional mental health assistance. Please call for emergency help if you are trapped in believing these thoughts. If you are in the US, please call 988 and tell a friend.)

Into that burdensome loneliness, Dr. Noble points readers back to the chief end of man, the only goal in life that is always attainable and will never fade away: the glory of God. He pushes back on the lie of utilitarianism with words like these:

the only reason to keep living is if you live before God for His glory. If His Word is true, then we were divinely created to glorify Him and enjoy Him always. And our creation was a fundamentally good act—good and prodigal. Neither earned nor necessary but a gracious gift. And when we live in gratitude, recognizing and delighting in this life, we honor God (Kindle location 864, emphasis mine).

The only other reasons to live are for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil, and they only care about you so long as you are useful to them (867).

Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can't. There is nothing He needs. You can't cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That's not why He created you, and it's not why He continues to sustain your existence in the world. His creation of you was gratuitous, prodigal. He made you just because He loves you and for His own good pleasure. Every other reason to live demands that you remain useful, and one day your use will run out (885, emphasis mine).

Even when you can't feel it or rationally understand it, life remains good. And while suffering is a normal part of fallen human life, it is not the essence of life. At the center of existence is not suffering but grace—the grace of Christ. The grace that created you, that cleanses you from all unrighteousness and provides all the blessings of this life (Kindle location 883).

The same God who sent His Son to die for you sustains your existence and created you—you—miraculous you, because He loves you. Whether you believe it or not. At the heart of being is grace, not suffering. ‘For nothing is real save his grace.’ We will forget this fact many times throughout our lives. The task before us is to hold each other up, to remind one another of the truth that is truer than our deepest misery, to attend to the gift God has given us, and to accept that our lives are good even when we do not feel that goodness at all (Kindle location 895).

Dear suffering saint, you are a miracle. God made you because He loves you. Your life is a gift. Suffering may be the loudest part of your present experience, but it is not the defining essence of your life. That is grace. Your life is good and precious even when you feel the opposite. Courage, dear heart. 

Do the Next Thing

Noble returns often to the concept, “Do the next thing.” Readers of this blog or of the writings of Elisabeth Elliot have heard that not infrequently. Sometimes we spin out trying to answer the Big Questions of life while ignoring the God-given task right in front of us. When enduring mental suffering, it is all too easy to turn all one’s attention inward, where the pain is. To become trapped in our own thoughts. One needful and helpful counsel in that season is to turn one’s gaze outward to the material world and the people the Lord has placed in our lives. Look around, and do the next thing. Do it slowly; do it crying; do it when you feel like it and when you don’t. Get out of bed. Smooth the covers. Make tea or toast. If able, walk into the backyard with the dog or children. Help fold laundry. Sit next to a family member watching their favorite show. Take your medicine. Drink your water. Rest if that’s the next thing. “It is never a good time to sacrifice for others, but it’s always the right time to sacrifice for others.”

“It is never a good time to sacrifice for others, but it’s always the right time to sacrifice for others.” From On Getting Out of Bed by Alan Noble; white text on wood background with old-fashioned alarm clock to right of image.

“Don’t do the next thing just so that you can keep doing the next thing. Do the next thing because it honors God and testifies of his goodness and the goodness of your life to your neighbor.”

“God asks only that we serve Him now. Choose you this second who you will serve, and then serve Him by doing the next thing.”

This section of Noble’s argument reminded me of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, not only her words, and of my first experience of brokenness and depression. Mom and I have been watching Elisabeth’s messages on YouTube during our Wednesday visits. More than once Elisabeth has said that obedience and “doing the next thing” got her through the grief of widowhood twice over. She had a baby she had to feed, wash, and dress; food to prepare; a house to clean; Bible lessons to prepare; translation work to carry on. In the third part of a series on loneliness, she said, “The most wonderful therapy in my deepest grief was obedience. There is no consolation like obedience. That’s where I found the transformation of my suffering.”

In my own young adult life, in a season when future plans and present community had been shattered and I was in the Slough of Despond, two of God’s instruments in bringing me back into the light were a puppy I adopted and the infant in my care in a job as nanny. The physicality and frequency of their needs, as well as the life-affirming knowledge that they were depending on me for the sustenance of their own lives, disrupted my melancholy rumination. The close personal contact with other living creatures helped too.

“Doing the next thing” is not a cure-all technique. It may not be enough to carry you out of your mental suffering, and that is no reflection on you. Even if it is not enough by itself, it is something, and it is an act of worship and love.

Your task is to be faithful: to do the next thing. And when you cannot get up on your own, let someone carry you, knowing that in due time you will be called on to do the same for others. And when you are blessed with the responsibility of carrying someone else, then your own experience with suffering, your own experience of depending on others, will give you the wisdom and empathy you need to love them well. Christ's body here on Earth is one of His greatest mercies to us. It's the only way we make it through (Kindle location 927).

Summing Up

Dr. Alan Noble’s new book On Getting Out of Bed offers compassionate, fortifying encouragement to those suffering mental distress, whether clinically diagnosed or not. The author affirms the goodness and value of life as a gift from a good God, even when we can’t see or feel that goodness. He affirms that life is worth living, even when it hurts. A lot. If the bravest thing you can do is get out of bed, then, please, get out of bed.

White text: “I’m so sorry. It will be okay. Hold on.” Wood-look background with an old-fashioned alarm clock to right of image.

“I'm so sorry. It will be okay. Hold on” (Kindle location 753).

A Trinity Forum virtual conversation with Dr. Noble is available to view on YouTube:

Note: I received a galley copy of this book for review purposes. Links are affiliate links which pay me a small commission at no cost to you. As always, my aim is to provide a true, kind, and helpful discussion of this book and my experience with it.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Joy of Jesus {Spring in Bloom}

"Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." ‭
Hebrews‬ ‭12‬:‭1‬-‭2‬ ‭CSB

Monday, April 3, 2023

The Lord Has Need of It

Chinese snowball viburnum in bloom 

As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying that colt?" They replied, "The Lord needs it" (Luke 19:33-34, NET).

For me the most phenomenal part of the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ royal entry into Jerusalem is not the procession itself, nor the crowds’ “Hosanna” shout; not the throngs casting their robes at His feet, nor the palm-waving benedictions. All that is splendid, to be sure, but I am most amazed and humbled by this little bit about the donkey.

Imagine with me, if you will, walking out of your house early on Monday morning. It’s not yet time to leave for work, but you thought you heard something unusual, so you go out to take a look. Lo and behold, you see two men in your driveway hot-wiring your new pick-up truck, the one you bought to haul the equipment and supplies for your lawncare business!

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing??!! Why are you taking my truck?” you demand.

With calmness surprising for thugs, they reply, “The Master needs it.”

The Master needs it? Oh well, in THAT case. . . “NO need to go to all that trouble. Hold on a minute, and I’ll bring you the keys and my gas card.”

Astonishing, isn’t it? But that’s comparable to what took place at the edge of Jerusalem that day. Which is the greater miracle, that an unbroken donkey submitted to its Creator to be ridden through a noisy crowd, or that these owners – like all of us, not without their own donkeylike tendencies – consented immediately and without further ado? 

“The Lord needs it,” was the only explanation they required.

What about me, about you? Do we have this simple trust? Often in my past the Lord has revealed something or someone I was clutching to myself, afraid to let go even after I had sensed His hand taking it away. May the Lord search our hearts – yours and mine: is there some area of life right at this moment where we have heard His, “The Lord needs this,” but have not yielded? Has He given us a cue to entrust this dear person, position, dream, treasure, ideal, or maybe even my own health to Him for now, but with no further explanation? Am I futilely resisting His touch on some tender spot in my life, fearful of the consequence of yielding all to Him who gave it?

If so, let us find both encouragement and challenge in the example of this colt’s owners. The safest, best place for our beloved is in the Lord’s possession. We are not told whether the colt was ever returned to the owners, but even if not, its giving constituted their role in the purposes of God and fulfillment of prophecy. God had a greater plan for this precious animal than simply their beast of burden; might it not be so with whatever I am grasping so tightly?

Indeed, we have His firm assurance in many places and no uncertain terms that His plans for us and ours far exceed even our wildest imaginings; that His purposes are better than anything that has ever entered our heads and hearts; that He plans to give us a future and a hope, free of pain and full of glory someday.

May we believe Him and prove the truth of these promises for ourselves by yielding quickly wherever we may hear, “The Lord needs this.”