The Saboteur

You find yourself in a deep, dark hole, with only yourself. You know full well how you got there. And you have only yourself to blame.

You’ve been here before, but each time you return the darkness feels more suffocating, the weight of guilt and shame heavier. Your first inclination is to lie down and accept it, to let it all just smother you. At least that way it would end. Something inside you, though, keeps telling you to get up. You’re not exactly sure what that something is. Your best hope is that it is the will to live. Your worst fear is that you are too selfish to give up on the awful creation you have turned out to be.

You fumble through the space around you until you find something you can touch, and then you begin the slow, arduous climb out. You’re not exactly sure how deep the pit is or if there is even a top to it, but you continue to dig your nails into the walls and make your way up, up, up. Occasionally, you imagine you hear a voice or two encouraging you, telling you that you can make it if you just keep trying. These voices are faint, however, and you don’t trust your senses enough to believe they are real, so you brush them aside and continue your ascent.

sabotageEventually, you see a light. At first, you don’t believe it is real. As it becomes sharper and more intense, you begin to move faster toward it, desperate to feel its warmth and heat. Suddenly, it is real before you. It moves from the world of abstraction to become an oasis in your desert, a shelter from the wind and rain that has pounded you senseless for so long. It illuminates you, so much so that the voices you thought you heard earlier become real as well. You begin to shine yourself, thanks to this amazing, saving grace.

As wonderful and light as you suddenly feel, however, you still feel the weight of your worst fears like an albatross draped around your neck. You know the terrible darkness which resides in your soul, and you know somewhere deep inside you that you are not good enough for this moment. You are not capable enough, smart enough, attractive enough, skilled enough, mature enough to maintain it. The light burns as brightly as it ever did, and it continues to reach out to you and beckon you, but in your mind you are convinced it will see you through you one day and withdraw itself.

You begin to try to secure it, to make sure it cannot abandon you. You begin to form constructs around it, essentially boxing it in and dulling its luminescence. You know you are effectively contaminating the purity of what exists, but your fear blinds you to all logical thought. You realize you need the light to survive, but you are convinced it will not choose you to receive its blessing, so you begin to crave it as an addict would crave a needle in his arm. You are fully aware of your selfishness, and you resolve to do better a thousand times, but each time you look at it you are overridden by one horrible, terrible thought: It will leave me if I grant it freedom.

Then, one day, you are confronted with the truth you knew all along. You really are selfish. You really did destroy the beauty that was before you. You really can’t change what you have done. Your heart begins to race, your thoughts begin to scramble, and you begin to admit your every sin and flaw. You are devastated when the light suddenly speaks to you and says, “You foolish, foolish man. I chose you all along, but you could not receive what I offered you.” You feel your grip loosen and the air begin to rush past your ears as you begin to fall, down, down, down. The light becomes more distant. In fact, you even notice it beginning to turn away, slowly, reluctantly. It wanted you, but you could never believe it.

Your fall is swift, much more rapid than your ascent, and it is not straight. You bump against walls that once seemed smooth, but now seem to be jagged and rocky, puncturing you as collide with them. You recall that you have felt pain like this before, but it seems more intense this time, as it does each time you fall. You wish at times that the fatal blow could be delivered, but it never comes, and you chide yourself because there is still that part of you that is selfish enough to want to cling to life with all you are worth. Then you feel the dull thud of yourself hitting the bottom. The light is gone. You are alone.

And you find yourself in a deep, dark hole, with only yourself. You know full well how you got there. And you have only yourself to blame.

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The Sacred And The Profane

I tried to be good. I really, really did. I white-knuckled the bar until I thought I would bend it in half. I looked around, formed an interpretation of the standard, and did my best to live by it.

And now I’m kind of tired.

rules-for-allBefore anyone gets alarmed, this is not one of those “Here’s Why I Left Christianity” posts. I am still very much a Christian. I still believe Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead three days later. I believe his blood washed away my sins and that he has made me a new creation. I believe the Bible is the holy word of God and that it contains the words of wisdom needed to live a joyful and fulfilling life. As the late Rich Mullins once sang, “I believe what I believe.”

The older I get, though, I’m beginning to realize the very real danger of turning Christianity into such a rigid, unyielding, methodical set of rules that it somehow ceases to be transforming, redemptive, or powerful. Such an emphasis can be put on “doing the right thing” that we begin to run the risk of never know exactly what we should be doing. Following the script becomes the most important thing, and the specter of self-condemnation is ever at the door. It’s not so much a falling from grace as it is simply giving it up in favor of an impossible standard.

I lived a lot of years around people who abused the concept of grace. They basically turned it into a license to treat people however they wanted and then turn the other person’s hurt back on them by accusing them on not extending grace to them. It was messed up, but it made me rigid as far as the rules were concerned. I sure didn’t want to be like that, so I adopted the hard line. The only problem was, I still sinned, and since I was so bent on keeping the rules, I beat the crap out of myself every time I broke one. That’s what the serious Christians did, I told myself.

I have literally lost track of how many times I have cleaned out all my “secular” music, only to replenish all of it within a couple of years. I purged all my movies I deemed unacceptable, but, you know, Marvel’s The Avengers was pretty cool, so… I stopped cursing … well, except for when I got really mad or when I wanted to make a point or when I was alone in the car or…

And I felt very, very guilty about all this for a very, very long time. No, actually, I felt ashamed of all this. Guilt would describe how I felt about committing these heinous infractions; shame would describe the loathing of who I was as a person who couldn’t seem to get it right.

I still believe grace can be carried too far, but I’m also beginning to believe the leash may be a little longer than I thought it was. I let a word go ron burgundyhere and there, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. I have the dialog from a large chunk of the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy memorized. “The Humpty Dance,” by Digital Underground, is on my iPod. Do all these items added up sound like a formula for biblical wisdom? Possibly not. Do I get a certain level of enjoyment out of them, though? Um, yeah. Yeah, I do. More joy than I got out of attempting to live like a pharisee, that’s for sure.

The question becomes, then, where to draw the line? Is this all a sign that I’m loosening up and living a little or am I gradually sliding toward oblivion? I’d like to think it’s the former more than the latter. One of the effects of depression is how it can paralyze your decision-making abilities, and two stone tablets carved full of rules on your shoulders doesn’t help this any. As someone recently said to me, whatever decision you make is yours. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to live with the consequences. But, in the end, it’s yours.

I am not a thrill-seeker. I’m not looking for danger. I’m generally a nice guy. I want to be a good Christian and a good parent and a good husband. I would like to do all that while I’m alive, though, and not some hollow shell that’s forgotten how to experience the joy of life. It’s a process I’m still walking out, trying to determine the line between the sacred and the profane. It’s probably a line more people are walking than would care to admit.

Out Of My Hands

extra_grace_1xIs there such a thing as “extra grace”? A good friend of mine who lost his mother to cancer discussed this subject with me one time.

“When I was going through the cancer stuff with mom, I just had such a peace about everything,” he said. “I just moved on with everything. If you throw something into the middle of my day that disrupts my schedule, though, I just about lose it. It’s like God gives us extra grace to get through the hard times.”

I’m not so sure if “extra grace” is a biblical concept or not, but a certain unexpected peace can arise in situations where we lose the power to control the outcome. Maybe it’s because when we know God is our only hope, we stop fighting so hard to make everything right. Once we stop fighting, we can experience rest.

Here’s an example from my own life. When my youngest daughter was diagnosed with a ventricular septal defect (medical jargon for “hole in sarathe heart”), I knew immediately that I had no power to rectify her situation. I wasn’t a heart surgeon, so there was absolutely nothing I could physically do for her. All I could do was put the situation in God’s hands. Then, miraculously, I felt a peace about the situation, even as we waited for her surgery to be completed, watched her lying unconscious in the pediatric intensive care unit, and saw the scar across her chest.

Put me in a situation, though, where I feel as if I have even the slightest measure of control or influence, and I will wreck it like a bull in a china shop. I always try to change it or turn it or fix it. Especially if it has to do with a relationship. I get so desperate to please that I lose all restraint, throwing everything onto the table and scaring the bejesus out of the unfortunate soul who happens to be on the other end of it. I really believe in my head that I have some sort of power, when, in reality, the end result is ultimately just as out of my hands as my daughter’s dilemma was.

Peace comes from surrender. In the words of author Richard O’Connor, though, “Depressed people generally are working too hard but not getting anywhere.” In other words, if I don’t feel as if I’m getting anywhere, I just keep trying harder and harder, when what I should be doing is easing off the throttle. It’s difficult to come to terms with powerlessness. It’s difficult to walk in trust when you’re not sure things will work out like you want them to.

“… Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.” It sounds so simple. Why do I always make is so hard?

The Righteousness Of Christ

0916141037In case you’re not familiar with it, this is the Personality Assessment Inventory, a 300-plus item survey designed to evaluate a person’s mental condition. Actually, it’s a little more clinical and technical than that, but the official definition of the P.A.I. contains enough psycho-babble to actually drive a sane person crazy, so I’ll stick to layman’s terms here. I’ve filled it out a couple of times, and I’ve been struck both times by the simultaneous depth and ridiculousness of some of the statements it contains.

The way the P.A.I. works is, a person is given a list of statements and then asked to rate them as “false,” “somewhat true,” “mainly true,” and “very true.” I’ve always thought the P.A.I. contained an excessive amount of questions concerning alcohol and drug use, but since I’ve never had a problem with either of these I may not notice their importance. There is one statement in particular, however, that always grabs my attention: I deserve severe punishment for my sins.

As a Christian, I feel as if I’m supposed to mark “false” based on the following reasoning: Christ died for my sins, and the punishment for them has been removed. I’m pretty sure, however, that both times I’ve filled out the P.A.I. I’ve filled in the circle for “very true.” To be honest, I’ve always felt like I was going to be one of those people who only got into heaven because I asked Jesus into my heart and God would therefore be required to begrudgingly take me in. When I saw the word “righteous” in the Bible, I knew it wasn’t talking about me; I was sinful, and I knew it.

Thinking this way can obviously suck a lot of the joy out of the Christian life. I constantly compared myself to others, judging my life based on what their lives appeared to be like. I didn’t know if they struggled with anything or not. They looked good on the outside, said all the right things, and knew all the right scriptures. I’ve always felt like an impostor, someone who would be kicked out and disowned if anyone ever caught wind of what was actually in my heart. Obtaining righteousness became a goal to me, and I could never quite reach it.

And then, for some reason, like a bolt from the blue, I realized something yesterday: I can’t reach it.

“For our sake, He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” I could never do anything to attain the righteousness necessary to stand before God. His mercy and grace is a gift, and I could never earn anything from Him. If Jesus’ righteousness is standing in for me, then, and I could never do anything obtain righteousness on my own, wouldn’t it stand to reason once I had it that I couldn’t do anything to lose it either? Is it possible that because of Jesus I am actually made righteous by him, no matter what I do?

I’m not advocating sin here, nor am I trying to give myself a free pass for any transgressions I may committed. What I am trying to grasp is that I … am … righteous. Those righteous people the Bible talks about? I’m one of them. “There is now no condemnation…” Even typing this, I’m fighting it. “I deserve severe punishment for my sins.” Thing is, I actually do deserve it. Someone stepped in, though, and took it for me, and when God looks at me He sees the sacrifice, not the sin.

I’m only sharing this because during the countless sermons and church services I’ve sat through and the hours of programs and CD’s I’ve listened to, I never thought of righteousness this way before. I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads and saying, “Duh, I’ve known all this for a long time.” Well, I haven’t. I’m still not sure I understand it fully. I need to get this in my soul, though. One of the hallmarks of depression is guilt, and not understanding righteousness produces heaps of it. I’ll say it again: I need to get this.

am righteous.

am righteous.

am righteous.

Just Stop It

“So, that’s my story. I really want to stop, but I don’t know how.”

“Well, the first thing you should do is stop…”

Ah, yes, the circular reasoning most of us apply to the addict. Obviously, what would help the addict most is to simply stop whatever it is they are addicted to. If it’s smoking, stop smoking. If it’s overeating, stop eating so much. If it’s pornography, stop looking at pictures of naked women (or men). I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science.

Right?

matthew perryConsider the following quote from the Psychology Today website: “When referring to any kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that its cause is not simply a search for pleasure and that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character.” Or consider the words of actor Matthew Perry: “A lot of people think that addiction is a choice. A lot of people think it’s a matter of will. That has not been my experience. I don’t find it to have anything to do with strength.”

What makes an addict an addict? Not being able to resist compulsions. In other words, what makes an addict an addict is the fact that they’re addicted to something. If it were as easy as just stopping, they would probably have stopped by now.

Do some people need a firm word or a swift kick in the pants to get their heads straight? Yeah, definitely. Not everyone is able to respond to that, though. Call it a lack of will power or chemical dependency or an addictive personality or whatever, but there are those who just can’t flick the switch and turn it off. They struggle.

And for years I’ve sat in the judgement seat and pointed my finger at them.

I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get how someone could be an alcoholic and still be a decent person. I didn’t get how someone could drift in and out of rehab and still have a place in society. I didn’t get how someone could look at pornography and claim to care about their marriage and family.

I didn’t understand addiction. And I didn’t understand mercy or grace.

I want to just stop judging the addict. I’ve been where they are, and most days I am where they are. I want them to feel free to come forward and ask for help without fear. I want them to be able to just stop hiding and get the help they need.

Sometimes “just stopping” isn’t that easy, though.

Running From Grace

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter…”

I am almost always the hero in my stories. Even if I am portraying myself as downtrodden, it is because I am being oppressed by forces conspiring against my good and just cause. For instance, I have never committed a driving infraction; I was always either cut off or tailgated or caught in a speed trap or something. More to the point, I will lie, cheat, and conceal facts to make myself look good. I want to appear innocent, even if I am not.

Therefore, it would stand to reason that if someone came along and said, “Hey, guess what? I can make you truly innocent. I can take away the guilt and shame of all the bad things you’ve done and make it as if you never did anything wrong. You will be put in right standing with most important force in the universe, the One who created you and knew you before you were even born – God.”

Why do I have such a hard time accepting grace then?

eddie chartI don’t seem to have much of a problem trying to cover my tracks. I don’t have much of a problem not admitting my struggles. I don’t have much of a problem repeating the same sins over and over and over again. It makes absolutely zero sense that I wouldn’t come running into the arms of grace every time it was offered. Without grace, I have no peace; all I have is guilt and shame. Without grace, I am nothing but a lawless rule-breaker.

I just can’t wrap my head around it, though. I mean, I did something wrong. Punishment should follow, right? Sure, the Bible says “all sins,” but what I did was really, really bad. I confess my sins to God, and sometimes I even get brave enough to confess them to other people, but it doesn’t feel like that’s enough. Every hit I take in life must be the retribution I deserve from a righteous God. It simply cannot be as easy as Him just saying, “I forgive you.”

I’d like to lay this skewed perspective off on depression, but the fact is lots of people think this way. We run from the very thing that can give us peace. And why? Because we don’t believe we’re worthy of it. I am guilty, guilty, guilty, and there is no way I should not expect the hammer to fall on me. I run from grace because I believe it is too easy. It is described as a “gift,” but I don’t feel as I’ve earned it … which basically defeats the purpose of grace.

I am not the hero. I am not the good guy. I am not always in the right. If I were, though, there would be no need for grace. So maybe it’s time to drop the act. Not that I’m going to start blurting out every bad thing I do to anyone who will listen, but maybe it’s time to stop caring about the image so much and start caring about getting better. Guilt is a vicious cycle; grace is the brakes. If I can only be half as good a driver as I think I am, maybe I can finally hit the pedal.