Month: January 2010

From the wilderness to the promised land: The recovery of Dependence and Desire

The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire.”  St. Augustine

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C.S. Lewis

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Stumbling through the dark wilderness, there are moments when all hope feels lost, when Egypt’s old securities beckon our weary hearts, when the promise of new life and a new land feel like a tease.

But there are moments, every so often, when light seems to break through into the darkness, when hope awakens and a desire for more returns.  We recognize that though we’ve tried to find security and satisfaction in substitute gods at every turn, real life begins as we extend our heart forward into the great unknown, re-kindling our longing for something more, however illusive it may be.  The German theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), put it this way:

The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God.

Now, truth be told, a thousand things have happened in our lives to convince us that a desire for something more is futile.  The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Meaningless, meaningless, life is like a chasing after the wind.  Everything is futile.”  He looked for life in good things – work and love, religion and relationship – but in his pursuit he sought to possess. And in attempting to possess the good things God made him to enjoy, he became enslaved by them.

Futility characterizes life in the wilderness.  Futility describes our desperate attempt to speed up the journey through the wilderness.  It never works.  But we keep trying.

But it feels like one big setup, right?  Think about it.  If this is true, God actually expects us to experience life as futile.

Exactly.

In this New Exodus series, we’ve explored the many ways in which we cope with the insecurities and difficulties of life, particularly life in between Egypt and the Promised Land.  Indeed, our heart divides and conquers, seeking control by establishing elaborate inner mechanisms to regulate and manage our worlds.  Though God leads us down a wilderness road with the intention of fostering dependence and deepened Desire for Him, we resist at all costs, seeking instead to duplicate our Egypt-born control strategies at every stage of the journey.

We do everything we can to prevent ourselves from having to confess the obvious – that we are needy and desperate little children, longing for love but finding it in all the wrong places, hungry for the real satisfaction that comes only as we relax and trust.  We resist the first gift of futility – dependence.  We resist, as well, a second gift of futility – Desire.  For it is as we wait and trust, long and desire, that God satisfies us in a way that our wilderness substitutes cannot possibly satisfy us.

The late psychiatrist and spiritual writer, Gerald May, talks about how our substitute lovers (our addictions) suck the energy of desire.  He writes:

“Psychologically, addiction uses up desire.  It is like a psychic malignancy sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.”

When we renounce a life lived out of Desire for a life of manageable security-strategies, we actually find the energy we have for love of God and others used up, expended, and ultimately wasted.  May continues, however, arguing that our psychological strategies lead to spiritual catastrophe:

“Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry.  The objects of our addictions become our false gods.  These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love.  Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire.  It is, as one modern spiritual writer has called it, a ‘counterfeit of religious presence.’”

Though parts of us want to manage life, securing reputation and financial stability, optimism and efficiency, the deepest core (where the Spirit resides) within longs for more.  It recognizes a deep truth – that though we’re called to live faithfully, as good stewards of our time, possessions, and relationships – this urge towards faithful responsibility must never dupe us into thinking that we’re in control of our lives.  The life and mission God calls us to is much, much bigger than us.  In his fantastic short work – The Bible and Mission – Richard Bauckham echoes this, saying, “The church is never far from the insignificance of Jesus and his band of unimpressive followers.  It is always setting out from the particular in the direction of God’s incalculable gift of everything.”

Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that the times when I feel most drained and lifeless are the times when I’m expending a lot of energy on managing my life impeccably.  In these times, I find myself addicted to security, to people’s approval, to extreme control of my schedule so that unpredictable things cannot happen, to cycles of drinking caffeine and alcohol to regulate my moods, to sexual satisfaction on my terms, to reading as much as I can to manage people’s impressions of my intelligence, and much more.  Good in and of themselves, these things become addictions and idols as they suck energy, and demand even more fuel.  When I attempt to possess and control, my life actually becomes less controllable, less manageable, less satisfying.  And I find myself back in the same place…

…on my knees.

This is the only path to the Promised Land.

…on my knees….

This is the narrow way.

…on my knees…

This is the way of Dependence and Desire.

The great saint and mystic – St. John of the Cross – used a Spanish word that characterizes this dynamic.

Nada.

Nothing.

Can’t find it here.  Can’t find it there.  Can’t put God in a box.  Can’t find hope in a bottle.

The search for the eternal buzz is futile.

Nada.

We become more free as we become more dependent, as a deeper Desire stirs for more, as our wilderness attempts at control and satisfaction only lead to more nada.

In a way too mysterious for words, this is where God shows up.

In the mystery of Dependence and Desire, God actually fills us in the way we hoped we could fulfill ourselves.

We call this Union.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + +

– Have you experienced moments in your life when the attempt to find satisfaction on your own terms fails?  In these times, do you attempt to regain control or to relax your grip on control a bit?

– Some time ago, I counseled a couple who took a honeymoon to the Caribbean.  They came home, and told me they felt like God was calling them to move to the Caribbean.  I told them that it was no doubt glorious, but their desire to move back was an attempt to bottle up a temporary experience of joy, and that it would ultimately betray them if they sought to possess it.  Have you had an experience like this?

Shadows and Realities: How God Wants Us Whole

By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity. (St. Augustine)

+ + + + + + + + + + +

I used to think that spiritual progress looked like a straight line, aiming upward and onward, reaching toward a state of perpetual contentedness.

But then, life happened.

We’ve talked about the division within ourselves, and on those parts that are not often easy to face.  We’ve talked about the big bag we carry behind us, filled with parts of ourselves that no friend, nor Savior, could ever look upon (…or so we think.)  We’d rather not look at those parts, either.  Like a dark shadow, however, they seem to follow us.  And when the light shines, these shadow parts are particularly visible, haunting us with the memories of evil thoughts and cruel intentions.  Many of us, including me, would rather live in a fantasy where this shadow does not exist, where our quiet times and noble moments out-shine the shadow.

But then, life happens…

We see ourselves playing out a scene that we vowed would never happen again – a binge and purge episode, or a night of pornographic indulgence, or a bath in corporate greed, or an episode of self-righteous contempt upon our spouse.  And we see ourselves as the divided self we are – desiring faithfulness, but living conflicted lives.

How do we achieve what St. Augustine ponders upon?  How do we experience a unity amidst the inner divisions and utter contradictions that our lives present?

It is interesting to me that St. Paul defines unity with Jesus in the context of participation in both His death and His resurrection, in suffering and in Spirit.  The shadow has a place in God’s economy.  Maturity requires a descent into the furnace of struggle.  It does not come through a naive refusal to acknowledge our darkness, but emerges through the deliberate work of self-examination.  As we peer beneath the surface, we see darkness greater than our capacity to fathom.  And we find ourselves at the place of our deepest need, yearning to dive into the fearsome chaos waters in order to emerge cleansed, participants in the death and life of Christ Himself.

While we’d prefer a kind of unity with Christ that emphasizes the power of resurrection, the reality is that a fellowship in His sufferings can be a great encouragement, too.  It was Jesus who announced His Kingdom as the domain of the broken, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the mourner, the persecuted, and the prostitute.  It was Jesus, seeing how the Essenes, Pharisees, and Zealots had shaped the Abrahamic faith, who re-wrote the books and re-drew the lines, drawing in the shadow-members of the community.  Pretenders who acted as if the shadow didn’t exist would find themselves marginalized now, condemned under the very system they had erected, but saved if they could courageously admit the plank in their eyes.

Truth is, God didn’t send Jesus to save half of us.  He wants us whole, and saves all of us…those parts of us we present to the world, and those parts that we’d rather others not see, both the Elder Brother and the Prodigal Son.  Disowning the shadow amounts to discounting our need – our need for one another, and our need for a Savior.  We might as well say to God, “There are some burdens too scary to admit, and too great to be healed.  I’d prefer to carry this one myself.”  The world is full of strategies for fixing ourselves.  We’re a self-help culture with bookshelves filled with self-help wisdom as old as the Greek philosophers.  Yet, St. Augustine says, “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”

It is in choosing the wilderness that God is able to be who He is – Savior – and deliver us up into the Promised Land.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

What are parts of your self and your story that you’d prefer to edit out?

Imagine that these shadow parts of you are like little ‘selves’, exiles quarantined to a distant country yet in need a Savior to lead them Home.  Pick one exiled part of yourself.  Imagine having a conversation with it.  What are its fears?  What burden is it carrying?  How does it need Jesus?