Terror and security-strategies: Our inner obstacles to transformation

”As soon as I start a dialogue with my self the reality of self as a kind of society becomes apparent at once… I experience more selves when I become aware of inner conflict around decisions… The Holy Spirit of God dwells in your heart and is no stranger to the diversity and conflict there.  The Spirit dwells with and among and between all the selves of your self… There is no secret place where the Spirit has no access, nor any inner person excluded from the Spirit’s presence… The Spirit will bring the selves of the self into a unity around the center of the indwelling Christ.  The New Self will be a kind of inner community based on the principle of love in which there is room for everyone.”

“What chance is there of loving and respecting others if I refuse to meet and listen to the many sides of myself?  How can I be a reconciler if I shut my ears to the unreconciled conflicts within myself… Now I begin to see that the spiritual life is based on a basic honesty which enables me to recognize that everything I find difficult to accept, bless, forgive, and appreciate in others is actually present within myself.”

(Quotes from Martin Smith – Anglican priest, spiritual director, and author)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (from Matt. 5)

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We live in a black and white world.  It’s a world of good guys and bad guys, saints and sinners, the privileged and the pitiful, the righteous and the unrighteous, the Elder Brother and the Prodigal Son.

And with a great sense of justice and righteous anger, we rise up when the unjust persecute us.

Yet, those whom we hate, we secretly fear.

What will happen if we give them an inch?  Will they take a mile, or perhaps much more?  Perhaps they will overtake us, and even consume us.

Much of our extremism is born of this fear. And this extremism often breeds an inability to see what lies beneath a nation or even a person we call ‘evil’, a behavior we call ‘sinful’, or a part of us we deem ‘bad.’  Think about the black-and-white extremism behind the war on terror.  Indeed, the real terror exists in our hearts, fearful of being consumed, desperate to be right at all costs, and often unable to see the plank in our own eyes.

Ask a young Muslim boy who the terrorist is and he’ll describe a white male Christian man who works on Wall Street, who lives in a home 10 times bigger than what he really needs, who scoffs at people who apparently choose not to be as wealthy as he is, and who believes that his Bible justifies an American Empire that can nation-build at will.  Ask a young Christian boy who the terrorist is and he’ll describe a dark-skinned man with a Koran in one hand and a bomb in the other, whose only motive is hate and the destruction of the American way, who despises freedom and would prefer to eliminate anyone who does not look like him.

I’d rather not argue about who the real terrorist is.  I’d rather suggest that both are full of terror, terrified.

This same principle works inside of us.  The man who comes in to see me struggling with an addiction to pornography and masturbation secretly fears it- “what if it consumes me.”  Yet, rather than engaging his fear, he turns to rage – “if only I could cut the damn thing off!”  He hates this part of himself.  And in his hate, his internal world becomes black-and-white.  To counter the terrorist within, he develops a radically extreme security strategy – at all costs, do not let it take over you! He exhausts himself managing his inner terrorist, protecting his inner borders.  But, sometimes, late at night, the terrorist strikes back, surging with a death strike of self-terrorism in the form of pornography, fantasy, and masturbation.  Petrified and ashamed, he vows to re-double his efforts in the morning in an attempt to protect his internal borders from evil.  Both parts of himself – both the terrorist and the righteous security guard – become even more extreme in their inner war.

Here’s a principle:  transformation cannot take place in a context of extremism.  Or, as Steve Brown, a former professor of mine, likes to say, “Sometimes we need to kiss the demon on the lips.”

I find Martin Smith’s words (quotes above) very, very helpful.  We cannot begin to deal with the conflicts outside of ourselves (and even between nations) unless we first deal with our inner conflicts.  And in dealing with our inner conflicts, we need the courage to step into places of great terror and fear, places inside of us that we have build walls to protect us from.

Have you ever wondered why some of the most self-righteous preachers and politicians fall?  Inevitably, this conflict I am describing exists within them.  Along the way, the walls they built inside to protect themselves from places of great darkness and shame show a sign of vulnerability, and an inner terrorist sneaks out.  They re-double their efforts to conceal the vulnerability.  But, our hearts are not made to thrive in this kind of inner cold war.  Eventually, the Elliot Spitzer’s and the Bill Clinton’s and the Mark Sanford’s and the Bernie Madoff’s violate internally the very principles they espouse publicly, giving the terrorist an inch.

Perhaps, the most honest response we can have is:  this is me, too.

I’ve seen healing and transformation when men and women begin to love their enemies, even their inner enemies.  These unreconciled parts of ourselves which live in extreme conflict cannot thrive.  Truth is, the enemy is both the inner terrorist and the inner security guard.  And like the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother, they need to be invited to a feast of reconciliation and redemption.  You can only thrive as you become the Father in the great story, as the new and redeemed self led by Christ races out to both the Prodigal and the Elder Sons with an embrace of love and compassion.  Transformation begins when you kiss the demon on the lips.

Martin Smith suggests that the spiritual life is built and grown on a basic honesty which admits the truth about ourselves.  When this happens, not only are we transformed, but the communities in which we live and love become places of transformation.  And like yeast in bread, the Kingdom of God becomes an ever-expanding reality.  However, where honesty is lacking, we not only create walls within our hearts and between ourselves, but we create a great divide between ourselves and God.  This is why the Christian Gospel takes as it premise that men and women are basically sinful, in need of a reconciling love that cannot be manufactured and managed, that cannot be won by wall-building self-righteousness.  Sadly, many of us who claim the name of Christ live unreconciled in so many ways.  Put me at the top of that list.

Yet, part of the honest admission required for real transformation confesses that all of this ‘real transformation’ talk, too, is but a feeble attempt to put words around big mysteries.  Perhaps, this is why Henri Nouwen found that an image of hands opened, surrendered to God, conveyed what words cannot.  When we become exhausted of our dogmatic certainty, and relax the fists which clench our extreme postures motivated by real fear and terror, perhaps the reconciling love of Christ can do something that security strategies and self-management techniques cannot.  Perhaps, then, a cynical watching world, divided in so many ways, might even desire to be reconciled to us and to Christ.

Security-strategies for the soul, and the invitation to rest

In Susan Howatch’s great novel, Glittering Images, Charles Ashworth is an Anglican priest and canon who is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to do some investigate work on a controversial Bishop is suspected to be living a double life.  His journey into the seductively powerful world of church politics, however, exposes a deeper seduction within – an inner conflict which prevents him from seeing his world clearly, and compels him to live out of a false self – a “glittering image” committed to protecting him not only from the pain of his external world, but his internal pain as well.  In a moment of crisis, Ashworth meets Jon Darrow, a spiritual director who dares to ask about the self behind the glittering image.  Darrow sees Ashworth for who he really is – a man burdened by the world’s demands and his own internal demand to be successful.

Speaking to Ashworth’s hidden, burdened self within, Darrow says, “He must be exhausted.  Has he never been tempted to set down the burden by telling someone about it?”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Who’s ‘I’?” said Darrow.

“The glittering image.”

“Ah yes,” said Darrow, ” and of course that’s the only Charles Ashworth that the world’s allowed to see, but you’re out of the world now, aren’t you, and I’m different from everyone else because I know there are two of you.  I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets.  I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”

“He can’t come out.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”

“Charles, when a traveller’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is.  He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load.”

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The words of Jesus I find more comforting than any others are these: Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.  No words may better summarize his priestly mission.  No words may better expose our self-righteous hearts.

Prone to manage our own burdens, we develop sophisticated strategies to cope.  Our psyche is so wonderfully complex, and yet so quick to participate as an accomplice in our self-redemptive strategizing.  Perhaps even more disturbing is that so much of this takes place subconsciously.  Most of us don’t wake up one morning was a commitment to develop a sophisticated mask, a false self that rejects Christ’s invitation to give our burdens over, and stubbornly commits to managing life alone.  I’ve never seen anyone for counseling who has confessed, “At age 7, I recognized that what people liked in me was ‘The Joker’, and that I’d be accepted if I was the funny guy for the rest of my life.”  Yet, with some time and reflection, many people do remember a subtle shift, a pull from within to hide their baggage and show their best image.

chucksillyI was a skinny kid with big ears, and a huge burden of fear within.  No one knew of this fear, of course.  My parents did their best to tell him the right things.  But they, and everyone else, did what he all do as adults in a child’s world – accentuate the good, and deny the bad.  I do it with my kids all the time.

“Daddy, I can’t wear these baggy pants to school, everyone will laugh,” my 7 year old says.

“No they won’t,” I say.  “You look great.  Just hang in there and it will be ok.”

Did I just set my child up for a lifetime of therapy?  That’s a complicated answer.  As a kid, what I learned was that my fear was never justified, that it was some silly thing that could be handled by just getting over it.  In time, I learned more sophisticated ways of doing it.  I became good at things – music and academics, and of course, people-pleasing and strategizing my life in such as a way as to maximize my feeling of achievement and minimize, even eradicate, the inner voice that said, “I’m scared.”  Being fearful was not alright.

Like the Israelites on the first Exodus journey, we suspect that burying our burdens under a thousand different security-strategies will save us.  We respond to Jesus like a Pharisee – “we’re managing our burdens just fine, Rabbi…in fact, we’ve created a whole system of security maintenance that we think you’d really appreciate.”  Yet, like Jon Darrow to Charles Ashworth, Jesus says, “But you look exhausted.  Let me carry the load.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the difficult recognitions in my own life is that while I had an expansive theology that claimed that God was Sovereign, that Jesus was Lord, and that I was in need of grace, my life did not match my theology at all.  In fact, I’d be lying if I said it does now.  There are parts of me that refuse to relinquish control.  In fact, they love control.  They stand alongside me whispering, “All of this New Exodus talk about taking the wilderness way is fine, Chuck, but you’re not going to do it.  It’s way too dangerous.”

Progress along the New Exodus way requires listening to that voice of Jesus, like the voice of Jon Darrow to Charles Ashworth, acknowledging your exhaustion and offering not a pat on the back, but a load off of your back.  There will be many other voices within and without, however, fighting this, enraged that you’d trust anyone but yourself to navigate life’s rugged terrain.  A spiritual discipline required for this stage of the journey, therefore, is listening. Through the noise, you’ll recognize the voice of Jesus, and it will slowly grow to become your own voice.  From that new place, you’ll be able to speak again, not from the glittering image, but from the new self, emerging out of the wilderness of shame, venturing on to the promised rest for weary souls…

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When you read the dialogue between Darrow and Ashworth, do you recognize yourself in it?

What is your version of the “glittering image?”

What burdens does the “glittering image” refuse to let go of?