Each of us lives in two realities.
One reality is the external world in which we interact with each other, where we work, we go to school, and where objective things happen to us: we get a new job, babies are born, loved ones die, and so on.
The other reality is our internal thought life, which is the way in which we choose to understand and process all the events that happen to us externally. The way we perceive the world directly influences the meaning or lack of meaning we give to life in general and the quality of life we live.
I distinguish these two realities as separate because, while they certainly can directly influence one another, they also can in fact be completely contradictory and thus are not necessarily mutually inclusive.
We all, for example, know people who – by outside appearances – live wonderful external lives but are nonetheless internally miserable, and we know other people who have miserable external lives but are nonetheless full of joy.
People who live on either of these extremes we typically think of as deluded or just plain nuts, though we often long for the ability to be simple-minded (so we think) and thus joy-filled as the cynical refrain attests that “Ignorance is bliss.”
Growing up in a Christian environment but as an inheritor of a moody disposition, I was often flummoxed by other Christians I would greet on a Sunday morning who always affected that they were “Happy and blessed” – and seemed to genuinely mean it – when I knew they were going through horrible life circumstances.
It’s easy and tempting to write these people off as in denial or as grasping for something as a coping mechanism to deal with tremendous difficulties, but is that really all that is going on? In many cases, sure, that’s exactly what’s going on, but is that always true?
Scripture attests to several instances in which people found a joy to life within God that superseded circumstance; in fact, studying scripture closely, one is led to suspect that this type of behavior should be normative for a Christian.
Just one example comes from Acts, where one particular moment in the ministry of Paul and Silas is chronicled:
“The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison…in the inner cell and [their feet were fastened] in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:22-25, NIV)
This act of praying and singing is often drowned out by the next sentence in which Paul and Silas are miraculously set free, but I’ve always been stuck right there with the praying and singing.
On my bad days, often the last thing I want to do is pray or sing, yet I’ve never come close to being beaten or flogged. It’s always been hard for me to imagine how Christians can have such a trust and connection with God that they find joy in Him in the face of the worst life can throw at them.
Yet recently, it’s not as hard to believe as it once was. I am still working on doing a better job putting that belief into practice, but the idea itself is no longer impossible to grasp.
I’ve spent a lot of time chronicling my journey wrestling with depression and panic, something that’s plagued me since I was a boy. Fear in the form of panic was one of the primary influences that shaped my emotional development – it has subconsciously colored my perception of life, of God, of other people, of myself, and I’ve spent the last eight years (off and on) calling to surface all those hidden thoughts and lies and slowly healing from them in prayer and counseling.
It hasn’t been easy. At first, I had a ton of intellectual questions and stones to throw at God. I was angry. I’d been deeply wounded as a boy, and where was God?
I benefited from a loving church and community of friends that put up with all my questions. Funny thing is, I never really got a lot of satisfactory answers, mainly because my questions – though they were posed intellectually – couldn’t be answered by logic and argumentation, but only addressed through the heart.
Behind all our words are emotions, and as the emotions began to slowly heal, the pain behind my words began to fade, and the questions lost urgency in the face of the growing reality that God actually loves me.
If you’re hurt, those words – “God loves you” – can be interpreted as deeply cynical, meaningless, offensive, or in any number of negative ways. They were words I’d accepted as true in my head my whole life, but the difference began to be made when I trusted them in my heart.
But it’s frustrating because you can’t force your heart to immediately believe something. It’s usually a process unless God gives you a special grace. But even though I began to believe that God truly loves me, fear still held ultimate control of my life.
I’d experienced too much terror, too many physical bouts of sickness and misery, to want to stand up and fight against the fear that I knew had paralyzed me in the past. In a Christian environment that encouraged me to be a spiritual warrior, all I wanted was to be left alone – just to have some peace. I didn’t want to fight.
Yet there is no neutrality in the spiritual realm, once one is aware that there is a war. If one does not allow the Holy Spirit to fight on ones’ behalf, then the enemy in some way or another will dominate you, though that domination can take many forms.
A recent turning point for me hasn’t been the result of me sucking up my own inner strength and resolving to try my hardest to fight my battles against fear. Ironically enough, it came when I actually did give up.
I asked for God’s help in guiding me to whittle away at all the various fears I’ve had in life to the root – just what was at the base of my panic when I felt helpless? It became clear to me that, in different ways, the common denominator in my bouts with panic has been the feeling of being trapped.
As a boy, I felt trapped by my own thoughts – I worked myself up into a panic frenzy that made me sick, and I felt completely helpless and stuck in misery because there was no way to free myself from my own mind short of death.
In my early 20s after a brief but stressful venture in a ministry, I felt trapped by my own inadequacies and shortcomings and allowed myself to short-circuit and implode in order to escape.
In my mid-20s, I felt trapped when I was scared to death that I might lose custody of my daughter – I had no control over the situation and was completely at the mercy of the decisions of others.
In my early 30s, I allowed the subconscious fear of being trapped to prevent me from clearly walking down paths that God had called me to, paths that I wasn’t sure about likely at least in part because I didn’t want to know clearly whether God had called me to something that could lead me into feeling…trapped.
While I’ve wanted to be married and haven’t let my fears get in the way of seeking marriage in the past, part of me has been scared to death that I’d find myself in a relationship that – for any number of potential reasons – would leave me miserable, and yet, that whole “till death do us part” bit is something I take pretty seriously, so, hey, another way to possibly be trapped.
Even within the last month at my current job, I felt trapped by unrealistic demands and expectations that were made on me that I couldn’t possibly meet, which led to a brief episode of panic.
When I realized all these things due to God’s guidance, I had one of those moments of clarity you sometimes hear about, and it wasn’t a revolutionary thought at all (in my head), but it suddenly struck home in my heart:
The externals don’t matter.
Is Christ in you? The Holy Spirit, God Himself – is He in you?
Then the externals don’t matter. It’s impossible for you to be trapped.
But, sure I can, whe…
No. You can be in the most hopeless, painful, and despairing place in the external world, where you are “stuck” in all the ways a person physically can be. But YOU, David…in Christ, YOU can NOT be trapped. Because Christ is IN YOU, and your ultimate reality is IN HIM, you can not possibly be trapped by anything, no matter what the external circumstance.
That stirred something in me.
I don’t know if it stirs anything in you – you’re different from me, and God speaks to each of us in different ways and at different times.
But do you see, that has to be what the saints like Paul and Silas knew? Their reality, their true reality, is centered in Christ in them – what happens externally, it doesn’t make it meaningless or unimportant, but it puts it into context.
And I know I’m trying to explain in words what can only be grasped by the heart, but words are all I have to reach you with, and these are cliched words I’ve heard in different variations from several Christians my whole life: “My life is in Christ,” “My joy is in the Lord,” yadda yadda yadda.
The words are meaningless without a context, and that context has to come from your heart understanding something that words by themselves can’t express.
Because Christ lives in me, I can not be trapped. When my body physically reacts to stress in old patterns that would summon panic, I can remind it (“renew my mind”) that, no, that’s an old learned habit that can – that will – be changed: I can not possibly be trapped, because the Spirit in me means, truly, that I am free.
But what if in this freedom I venture forth and only stumble upon the same old failings I’ve experienced so many times before? I know how weak I am. I know how imperfect. I know my flaws, my vices. I know how I’ve failed doing God’s work before, more than once, and how I’ve failed just doing my own thing, more than once.
So much of that failure was self-induced, though, wasn’t it? I had expectations for myself that weren’t being met, or I let other people’s expectations for me become the way in which I judged my success.
The truth is that, as long as I am being the kind of person God made me to be, I can not be a failure.
Nothing else is a litmus test for success. Just me being who I was created to be.
And I know who that guy is. Mostly. I’ve hidden from him a lot, unintentionally. I let fear, failure and shame shut him up behind closed doors in my heart.
But there is no condemnation. No regrets. God will use all my failures, all my struggles, all my heartaches, and He will use them to help others be free, just as He is freeing me.