I’m struggling as I write this. Some would say I’m in a bad mood. Others might simply think I’m down. I see it differently. I see my struggle as a difficult opportunity to take the next step in discovering and releasing who I really am.
I’d rather be up. I like feeling happy, and I often do. I was made to feel good. But I’m realizing something: it’s easy to miss joy in my pursuit of happiness. If I devote my energy and spend my time arranging things as best I can so that I feel up, I never discover myself. I never realize who I uniquely am because of Christ.
And I never discover life, at least not the real thing. I never discover the life I was designed to live, the life that is resilient enough to weather any storm and survive with hope of better days ahead. I never discover the life of Jesus in me that finds its deepest joy in loving. I remain caved in on myself, satisfied (sort of) with a kind of happiness that never releases radical love.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve noticed something. When I’m up, when I feel good, I’m often further removed from joy than when I’m miserable. I’m easier to be with, but I’m less likely to discover my capacity to be present with you. Struggles that leave me empty and hopeless tend to drive me to look even more deeply into my being to find the supernatural resources I need just to stay human, not to surrender to basic animal drives, and to keep diabolical urges—revenge, power, self-pity, and the like—in check.
And when I’m desperate, when my soul feels dead, when nothing I can easily envision brings hope, I’m confronted with the final existential choice—believe the gospel or give up. It’s then that I feel empowered to take the ultimate risk, to surrender to God and hope in his goodness no matter what I see going on around me or in me.
Desperation is my friend, one I don’t enjoy very much, but nevertheless a friend. It sets in motion a process that lets me see that my true self is neither beastly nor demonic. If it weren’t for Jesus, I’d be both. But thanks to Jesus, I’m neither.
To be sure, desperation puts me in touch with how much of the predatory beast and the scheming devil remain within me—when I hurt, I can justify the worst of sins—and it helps me identify what is within me that still requires restraint.
But I also see that the path to discovering my true self has less to do with restraint and more with release. Legalism is swept away by the gentle breeze of freedom. I can be me and still be good. And accountability gives way to celebration, but only when the Spirit moves. I can’t control his movement, but I can wait for it. And when it comes, we can party together and enjoy clean fun, the best kind.
It’s gospel. It’s good news.
The exact center of me is now eager, ready, and willing to love. I have an appetite for holiness that’s stronger than my lust for sin. The real me, my true self, is the product of grace, a creation of the Spirit by the power of the cross for the glory of the Father.
That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: there’s more hope of discovering my true self when I’m miserable than when I’m happy.
Hosea quoted God as saying,
“In their misery they will earnestly seek me” (Hosea 5:15, NIV).
Of course, that cuts both ways. Misery makes me either more self-centered, isolated, protective, manipulative, and grumpy or desperate enough to look for God on his terms, to let his light reveal all that is false in me, all my self-absorption in its thousand disguises, and to sit still while his love slowly burns it away. The process takes a lifetime. As David Benner wisely says, “The self that embarks on the journey is not the self that arrives.” The journey requires seemingly endless cycles of misery and release, but it’s a soul-restoring process.
When I’m feeling good, when my key relationships are going well and my body is functioning decently and I’ve got enough money to pay my bills, I’m just not as interested in honest self-assessment as when I’m feeling bad. During good times, it’s easier to be selfish and not see it. God’s doing his job, you’re doing yours, and I’m happy. Does something else matter? Things are pretty much as they should be. And all the while, my false self, that set of proud motives and independent choices designed to keep me safe and happy without full surrender, continues to masquerade as me. The imposter lives.
I look as if I’m loving, but I’m not. Only joy releases love. Happiness never does. Happiness, that pleasant feeling generated by favorable circumstances, is self-focused. It releases only the demand for more favor. The process required for me to discover the God-dependent me who is joyful because of God, whatever he does, can be miserable.
Happiness disappears, even when blessings continue. It’s a mark of maturity, not depression, to identify a core emptiness in my soul that no pleasure on earth can fill. It’s a good thing, a sign of discernment, to feel hunger even after a trip to the world’s buffet, and then to retreat to the desert where no food but God himself is available.
That’s what the spiritual masters called detachment. It involves a holy indifference to all that is good other than God, and a contentment in Christ that is unshakable by tragedy, injustice, or rejection. Paul talked about the secret of contentment, and he talked about it from prison. He was tasting God in the dungeon and salivating over the coming banquet.
My false self can do a decent job of keeping me happy, sometimes for a long season. I can make reasonable choices consistent with my autonomous spirit of entitlement, and, if I’m lucky, I can live with no sense of conscious threat to my well-being. I can dull the taste buds of my soul to the point where I actually think I’m getting everything I want, or could get, it if only someone would treat me better and a few breaks would fall my way. And I can socialize both my animal desires and my devilish urges to look acceptable, even religious, then live for their satisfaction and deceive myself to think I’m living for God.
But when I do, I never love. I may be nice; I may be patient to a point, I may even sacrifice myself for another with a pragmatic eye to my eventual benefit, but I will never love. I will never become the me Jesus died to create, that his Spirit longs to form and release.
I’m learning that to find me (an enterprise which Jesus warned is dangerous, one that is successful only when I give it up), I must relinquish my lust for happiness from any source apart from God. I’m not wrong for wanting happiness. I can’t stop wanting it. But I must relinquish all requirement that things go my way, that I get what I want from you, and I must do so in the hope that I want something deeply which only God can provide and is providing right at this moment.
And I must crucify the hellish spirit of entitlement within me that can smell so heavenly. Not only do I want something from you, but you’re wrong, you’re really wrong, if you don’t give it to me. You should respond to me this way, not that. If you’re married, reflect on your attitude toward your spouse when he or she fails to give you what you legitimately want. You’ll see what I mean.
When you don’t give me what I so reasonably want, it hurts, sometimes so badly that it feels like death. But it’s not death. You don’t have the power to kill my soul. What must die is my pride, my arrogance which believes it’s moral for me to demand that you treat me properly. Of course, I want you to treat me well, and I hurt when you don’t. But either way, I’m alive in Christ. And that means I’m indestructibly alive; my true self lives, and I’m able to love, just like Jesus. It’s then I discover that true morality is loving as God does; it’s the freedom to love people I think I have reason to hate.
And I must surrender all hopes of joy to the mercy and kindness of God. It’s a severe but kind mercy when we find ourselves in a place where we simply will not make it if God isn’t who he says he is, if he is neither present nor good. When we’re there, we’re terrified with a fear only perfect love can soothe. We’re empty with a void only union with the divine can fill. And we’re desperate with a very real despair that only hope in the next world can release.
Things are stacked against any of us discovering our true selves. If the Spirit within me were not greater than all that opposes me, I’d give up. I’d have to. The pressure to keep living out of my false self is enormous. Only a handful of people are willing to stay with me during the process of discovering my true self. Most people just wish I’d be happy, easier to be with, more satisfied with all the blessings I’ve been given, and less desperate to experience God in deeper ways.
Let me list, then briefly describe, three pressures I often face that work to keep me false. I list them for two reasons: one, you face them too; two, like me, you may be putting these pressures on others. And you really don’t want to.
Other people’s agendas for me
I was invited to join the faculty of a seminary. The invitation came at a time when God’s call on my life was taking shape. In the spirit of honesty, I told the inviting committee in a lengthy letter that I sensed no calling from God to devote my priority energy to the mission of the seminary. I stated that I respected the seminary’s purpose and believed I could pursue my calling within its framework, but I could not see my way clear to accept normal faculty responsibilities beyond the classroom, things like committee appointments and student advising. I therefore suggested that I was not a good candidate for an academic position and recommended the invitation be withdrawn.
They warmly agreed to my stipulations, I agreed to come, and within several months, tensions arose. I was assigned to several committees. I reminded them of my letter and said I would not serve. The dean responded, “We felt that once you were here, you’d get on board with our mission.”
My mission so easily feels more important than yours. I think I know best how to deploy your gifts, and if your unique gifting would further my call from God, I am stunned if you don’t “get on board.”
Under that kind of pressure, the temptation to comply is enormous. It can seem that the only way to resist is to get angry. Even in ministry, sometimes especially in ministry, the conflict makes us miserable. But the misery is an opportunity to dig deep, and to hear God say, “This is who I made you. This is what I want you to do.” And we catch a glimpse of our true selves.
A friend’s desire to be helpful
Best friends are sometimes the most difficult people in our lives. They want to help us. I most want to help the people I love the most.
Recently, I was sharing with a good friend about my unmanageable life. “It’s all so complicated. So many threads are pulling at me that I’m having a hard time knowing which thread is the Spirit.”He replied, “Maybe you just need to get away for a while, where you can be free of all the demands on your life and just listen to God.” I immediately went to work to handle the moment, with more than a trace of impatience.
Hear the difference between my friend’s sentence, which I irritably scrambled to handle, and a sentence that would have helped free me to discover my true self, such as this: “What’s keeping you from getting away for a while to hear from God? Are you sensing the Spirit leading you to a time for reflection? And if so, what’s getting in the way?”
What my friend said involved empathic advice. My reflexive thought was, “I have thought of that, you know. If you knew my life, you’d realize how naive and simplistic your counsel feels.” What he might have said would have moved toward me with transcendent curiosity. I would have felt respected, enticed, and encouraged to explore my inner world.
Empathy and advice can easily provoke defenses. Transcendent curiosity more often encourages a clear look at what the Spirit is saying to our souls and how we’re cooperating or resisting.
The ever-present risk of judgment
The desire to help is the parent of judgment. Here, let me help you.
What? You won’t do what I say? Well, why not? Do you think I’m wrong? Or are you just stubborn? Hidden beneath the most confident exterior is an insatiable desire to be liked, and its counterpart, the fear of rejection or criticism.
I feel entirely safe with no one. Except for God (and sometimes I faithlessly have my doubts about his love), I live with the fear that everyone might turn on me. They’ll find fault and want to back away from me. So I keep my distance. I find it difficult to live from my center as the beloved of God in a community of unsafe people.
But every community is unsafe, at least to some degree. And when I face that fact, I feel misery. But that misery loves company; it loves the company of a safe community. In my misery, I find the compelling desire to seek out the only safe community I know, the community of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The biggest challenge I face in my longing to become who I am is to know and enjoy each member of the Trinity to such an extent that I can remain centered in them when I’m with others. When I’m centered in God, alive to the Spirit’s rhythm, aware of the Son’s grace, and basking in the Father’s love, I no longer fear another’s judgment. It can hurt, but it cannot destroy. It’s then that I more fully discover my true self, and I’m empowered to enter relationships with real love.