I had an “Aha!” moment the other day while listening to my bishop’s sermon.
It was one of those times when something you’ve heard several times before suddenly hits you in a different light.
The realization was that there actually are moments and experiences in life we can’t force into being (who’da thunk it?).
I’m not sure why I’ve never viewed the Christian life – or emotional and relational maturity in general – in this respect.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve viewed my relationship with God and other people as a checklist or equation: spend “X” amount of time doing “Y” and a mature, healthy relationship will result.
The thing is, that view is true. There are basic and fundamental practices and disciplines required for all relationships.
But while those are absolutely necessary for relationships to flourish, they aren’t sufficient. Going through the motions does not ensure that our hearts are invested.
Now, I do strongly affirm that maintaining discipline in praxis can be incredibly effective in helping one develop and maintain a healthy relationship: “fake it till you make it,” if you will. Through praxis, we can be transformed into the persons we want to be (how that actually works, I can’t explain).
I have tended to become frustrated with Christians who downplay the importance of personal discipline and praxis in lieu of having a heart that has been transformed in love by Christ.
Because, YES, that’s the point – for our hearts to be transformed in love. BUT YOU CAN’T FORCE IT.
And this is where I have been wrong.
To be clear, I am not now the same man I once was: Christ has changed me and worked on me in love. I can’t claim to know nothing of His love and mercy, because I certainly do.
Yet, I have enough honest and mature friends and am myself aware enough in this regard to recognize that some massive switch inside my heart has not totally flipped all the way…
And it isn’t my fault. Hallelujah!
I have implicitly blamed myself for the mutedness in my heart: for not being disciplined enough or praying enough or trying hard enough to delve deeper into relationship with God. And, well, true enough, I haven’t done these things perfectly; but I have done and am doing them. And this is good.
The answer isn’t in throwing in the towel and saying “to hell with it” or in slavishly beating myself mentally and emotionally to force God’s hand on the matter. The answer is in carrying on, staying the course. Knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened, because it will eventually open.
But it is infinitely frustrating. Because I can’t earn it and I can’t make it happen – it’s an act of God, this ability to fully feel, embrace, and live in His love and strength.
And it isn’t “fair,” because I have known and had a deep relationship with God for many years; I am by grace able to worship Him and understand many of His subtleties and mysteries; and I have an intense desire to know Him and serve Him better as my life ensues. Yet the hearts of many who have a less refined and mature relationship have nonetheless been far more deeply transformed.
I once saw only condemnation in myself for this reality, seeing it as analagous to the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, but – as often as that story does apply to me – I am now able to rest in knowing it isn’t true in this instance, because I haven’t hardened my heart or done or left undone anything I was “supposed” to do.
So how does the heart learn to rest in knowing it is loved?
I don’t know.
In part it has to do with being able to perceive God’s love in our everyday lives, but it’s also more than that. I can see how God has directed, guided, and been kind to me, but it doesn’t really move my heart that much.
I think a lot of that has to do with how my feelings were hardened in childhood due to my experiences with depression and panic. There’s surely more to it than that, but deep within me there is something that remains unmoved even when I will its movement.
I empathize with those who have fury against a God who seems silent, even silent to the point many conclude He must not exist.
To some extent, I have felt that anger. I have screamed without reply; I have begged for mercy only to be met with harder trials; I have cried at the end of my wits to only be pushed more.
I’m not trying to be presumptuous: so many people have had infinitely more difficult and painful existences. I’m just saying I’ve had a small taste of what it’s like.
We’re lonely, each one of us, looking to be loved and accepted.
Some of us only ever exist as zombies, sucking the life out of one another, vainly trying to fill voids within us that another human could never fill. It’s one reason why so many marriages fail and we tend to jump from relationship to relationship.
Our society is an existential wasteland without recourse to any actual hope. Thus our cultural inheritance in the West presents each of us with an uphill battle to fight concerning meaning, truth, faith, trust, hope, and ultimately love.
Perhaps the starting point for those who struggle like me is choosing to accept that we are loved as we are without condition by the Creator of the universe.
Our ability to intellectually buy into that view of course comes into play, but intellect / motivation / will to believe are all intimately connected to our emotional health and learned perception: what has your life taught you to want to see?
Is it a healthy vision? Or is it, in the final analysis, bleak?
Maybe if we all start wanting to be healthy, the truth will become more evident.
Maybe if we begin to try to believe the seemingly impossible – that God could actually love you and me without condition – our hearts will begin the journey to transformation.