The law always ended up being used as a band-aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. (from Romans 8, The Message)
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As I’ve elaborated on in this series of posts, the spiritual geography of the Israelites as they marched from Egypt to the Promised Land is much like our own. We find ourselves enslaved in all kinds of ways. So much of what I do in pastoral work and clinical counseling and spiritual direction and mentoring is getting people “unstuck” – freed from patterns learned in harder times, unblended from reactive and extreme emotional states, disentangled from relational patterns that frustrate them and others, and released from a narrative that defines identity in all the wrong ways. Getting out of Egypt, so to speak, is one big hurdle. But facing the tough questions of identity, of hope, of acknowledging our own patterns – this is the terrain of Sinai. It’s a major signpost on the map of our spiritual geography. And it is, as I’ve quoted before, an even greater roadblock to the Promised Land of life and freedom and joy than Egypt ever was.
Why is stepping out of our old identity and into a new one so hard? If we’re broken, why is it so difficult to get ourselves fixed? To be sure, not everyone thinks it is so difficult. I find myself terribly irritated by the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps moralism of patronizing pastors or political commentators who presume that this process is so easy. I was listening to a political tv host the other day who said, “If you don’t have health care, it’s your own damn fault. Stop whining, and get to work!” But is it that easy? Does this guy really understand people? I don’t think so.
Truth be told, our own hearts conspire against us in the process of growth, making the journey even longer and harder. While a part of us really wants to grow and flourish, another can sabotage us – “You surely don’t believe that you are capable of more, do you?” The hard work of rooting out these still-enslaved parts of ourselves is the art of soul care. And Sinai shines a magnifying glass on this part of the process.
C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved, we are…rebels who must lay down our arms.” Moralists who make patronizing comments, in other words, don’t take the depth of our sin seriously. They treat it as if it could be fixed by more effort. So afraid of over-victimizing people, they actually victimize them more by not helping them to see both the depth of their woundedness and wickedness, caring for them through it. As the feminist theologian Crysdale (2001) notes surprisingly well, we divide people into victims and perpetrators, never seeing that we are all both wounded and wounding people. And Sinai reveals just this. It shows us how deeply addicted we are to the slavish-patterns of Egypt, so stuck in the dead-ends it taught us, so prone to continue to sin not because we necessarily want to all the time, but because it’s what we know.
Now, it’s true that the first sojourners on the Exodus road thought it’d be a cake-walk. They missed how hard it would be to re-establish their identity and re-gain their dignity. This is why Jesus makes such a big deal of the law in his Sermon on the Mount. Re-telling the story, He teaches his followers that their half-baked, behavior-driven version of the law missed the point, and made the law a terrible burden (a heavy yoke) to people. His re-telling of the story doesn’t abolish the law or erase Sinai’s lessons, but amplifies it. He does this by telling us that we’re far worse than we think. Lust amounts to adultery. Hate amounts to murder. And suddenly we’re all guilty, and guilty many times over because our hearts are addicted to patterns of lust and hate and greed and self-centeredness.
Yet, for Jesus, the lessons amount to a profound soul-cure – Blessed are the poor in spirit (the “broken”), blessed are the mourners, blessed are the hungry. In other words, you’re best off when you’re in deep need, in-over-your-head. In that place, you can’t possibly try hard enough. You can only…break.
And so we come full circle, back to that great old teaching:
A disciple asks the Rabbi, “What does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? What does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in.” (from Parker Palmer, “The Politics of the Broken-Hearted”)
Sinai’s goal is a broken heart. Soul care, in other words, is not about better solutions, quick fixes, or 3 steps to a better life. Against my natural instinct to “help people,” I find myself becoming more and more able to let God do His sacred work of breaking hearts, so that He can put them back together again. This is how He restores identity, dignity, and hope. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Perhaps, to some it sounds mean. But this is about deep healing, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message:
The law always ended up being used as a band-aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. ( from Rom. 8 )
The Spirit’s heart surgery is the good stuff of soul care which emerges out of brokenness. From the dust comes new life. But not without a struggle. As we’ll see, the wilderness follows Sinai. God’s way of “putting us back together” isn’t an instant fix, but a long, hard journey of continual surrender. The question is: Do we trust the Great Physician enough to let Him put us under His surgical knife?
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Sometimes people get stuck at “Sinai,” relentlessly committed to fix themselves and manage their symptoms. Can this be said of you? In what ways have you lived like this?
When your own fixes don’t work, what do you do? How do you feel?
Many people, in these times, commit to yet another strategy – a new self-help book, better obedience, a stricter diet, etc. What is your pattern of self-survival?
What are you afraid might happen if you stop trying so hard to manage your life, to survive, to help yourself, to do it better? What might you do/feel?