“I Totally Despised You”

One of life’s great pleasures for me is discovering new music. Now, mind you, this is rarely new in the sense of being a new group which has just broken onto the scene; in most cases, I’m discovering music, artists, or groups which have been around for some time, unbeknownst to me.

One such artist I have recently run across is Jonny Lang. One of his songs, Lie to Me, caught my ear on XM radio, and I jotted it down and subsequently made a beeline for iTunes. Turns out, this guy is nothing short of extraordinary. He starts playing the guitar at age 12, releases his first album at 13, and his second album — his first solo and signature blues work, Lie to Me — is released at age 15, and goes triple platinum. He blows away critics with a voice which, at age 15, sounds like a hardened blues player three times his age. It’s gutter-grating gritty, his phrasing and expression incredibly innovative, and the guitar playing is evocative of such blues greats as Stevie Ray Vaughn, with exquisitely blended influences of soul, R&B, Motown, and gospel music. Before he turns 20, he’s touring as the warm-up band for Aerosmith, Sting, Jeff Beck, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and B. B. King.

Not bad for a kid with a guitar.

However, life in the fast lane is rarely kind. Many older and more mature troubadours than he have fallen to its brutal revenge — think Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones, and a host of others — to whom the Roman candle of fame proved both furious and lethal. Drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll often prove a highway to hell, and Jonny Lang was driving that freeway with pedal to the metal.

Then something changed — drastically, almost cataclysmically. In what can only be termed an extraordinary conversion experience, his entire life is transformed, bringing with it his music, immediately terminating his addiction to alcohol and drugs, and changing his very face and disposition.

I was not thinking about God, not at all. In the middle of our conversation, from that same spot that I felt something had hit me earlier, I just felt something start welling up, just burning in me, and it came up out of my throat. It was like I was throwing up, and the name “Jesus” just came out of my mouth. I just said “Jesus!”

Interviewer: Mid conversation?

Lang: Yeah. And when I said “Jesus,” my whole body started shaking. Haylie was looking right at me (laughing).

This is the part of my story where I’ve just said, “Lord, if I’m ever doing interviews, what should I say?” People are going to think I’m insane, you know? Nevertheless, it’s what happened. I knew it was Jesus immediately from the moment I started shaking. It was like he just came up and introduced himself to me. I remember him saying, “You don’t have to have this if you don’t want it.” And I said, “No, I want it.”

I kept shaking, and I knew when it was done that I had been completely set free of all my addictions, and I knew that I didn’t have to smoke or drink or do drugs anymore. All I could do was fall on the ground, and I gave my life to him right there. I was just in shock. I thought, “I totally despised you, and you just did this to me!”

Check out his music video for “Lie to Me”:
 

 
Now, take a look at his face, and watch him perform after his experience. It is almost like he has been replaced by another human being.
 

 
Which, in a very real sense, he has.
 

 

 
You can read about his rather extraordinary conversion and the changes it made in his life here. Check it out.

The Road to Grace: Honesty

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace
  5. The Road to Grace: Transparency

 
MaskHonesty.

Perhaps the rarest of all human virtues, treasured mostly in its absence, brought into focus most sharply in its antithesis.

If you ponder the subject for a moment, you may well find it surprising that we are anything but honest — that we do less than express exactly what we think, that we are anything but open and honest about our actions and motives. There are, after all, no dishonest dogs, no lying cats (though some might differ), no roguish raccoons or shady shellfish or mendacious mammals — save man.

So why, then, do we twist and torture the truth, crafting clever stories or deft deceits to cover our shortcomings and faults, smiling warmly while telling the most audacious prevarications concerning things both weighty and trivial? Why is this so often our default behavior?

What, exactly, are we trying to hide?

The answer lies in that dark angel of shame, that inner incubus engendered from a life spent divesting endless energy in the pursuit of the empty self. For dishonesty arises from evil, from the desire to hide that which must not be seen, from the need to present ourselves to others as something other than we are. Our ruptured relationship with God produces a perverse and unnatural self-sufficiency, driven by the desperate desire to fill the vast inner chasm thus resulting with a host of destructive desires, behaviors, and obsessions.

These fevered yet futile attempts to kill the existential emptiness and primal agony of life lived unnaturally, isolated from the life-source of God, prove highly toxic, causing yet greater distraction by their inevitable consequences. Designed to give, we strive endlessly to acquire; created to love, we engender hatred, exploiting others to fill our unquenchable needs, and detesting them when they prove unable to meet them. Our relationships become, not fertile beds of true intimacy, but vast webs of manipulation, abuse, resentment, and fear, as we suck the life out of others, seeking to satiate the insatiable void in our still-empty soul.

When we use the finite and futile to fill our edacity for the infinite, the invariable outcome of this manic miasma is a deepening conviction of our own guilt and growing awareness of our intrinsic unworthiness. Yet there remains a gossamer thread still tying us to the divine, an ancient truth near forgotten, a genesis of the God-life deep within, which says this can not, this must not, be true. And thus we craft another narrative of necessity, convincing ourselves and all around us that we are something which in fact we are not.

This pervasive dishonesty is the antithesis of transparency, and if we are to approach the ideal of being truly integrated — our inner self and outer appearances drawing toward unity — then we must come face to face with our own deceitfulness. This pilgrimage toward honesty must begin with the one with whom we are most deceitful: ourselves.

In our sophistry and sophistication this self-delusion is called by many names: rationalization; minimalization; justification; denial; projection. Though we often place such concepts solidly in the realm of science and psychology, they are in fact the attributes of a soul unwilling to face its inner abyss. They are, distilled down to their sordid essence, our unwillingness, our inability, to be rigorously, ruthlessly honest with ourselves.

Such a journey to the center of the soul cannot, indeed should not, be undertaken alone. The very strongholds we wish to conquer are such that they unite in their own defense: you will reason that you do not rationalize; you will deny your denial; project your fury at yourself onto others; minimalize your own responsibility for much which ails you. The mind is a dangerous neighborhood, best visited with another.

There is much to be learned from those who have undertaken this road to rigorous honesty through the crushing collapse of all of life’s props, brought about by the slavery of addiction and alcoholism. Driven to utter depredation and despondency by the scourge of a compulsion unbeatable and hopeless, they stagger into smoke-filled halls and church basements to seek what help they may from others of their kind. There they find kindred spirits — coarse in speech and common in appearance — yet victorious over the selfsame demons which shriek within their own dissipated minds.

They hear, for the first time, a startling truth:

Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Honesty: how peculiar, how unexpected, how self-evidently foolish as the solution to a deadly losing battle against booze. Yet those who triumph are those who become most willing to expose their darkest secrets, to face their shame, to lay it open before God, and share these hidden horrors which have enslaved them with another trusted friend.

Of course, you protest, you are not at all like those people, drunks and druggies, whose lack of moral character, hedonism, and enfeebled will must depend on such extreme and ridiculous measures to overcome their moral turpitude. You, on the other hand, a faithful Christian, have seen the light, and are walking the straight and narrow, secure in your own righteousness — err, the righteousness of Christ. The truth has set you free, after all — you know Christ.

Uh-huh.

And Christ knows you, and spoke about you often: something about “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind.

The path to honesty starts — startlingly — by getting honest, first and foremost, about ourselves. The dark heart of man knows no bounds — and the Christian is no exception, no matter how righteously we present ourselves to the outside world. Our hearts are filled with greed, lust, hatred, fear, pride, and extreme selfishness. Our one great advantage is this: when we are honest about our true nature, and act on that honesty, there is grace unlimited to overcome these inner demons.

So how then should we proceed?

We should, first of all, be systematic. Recovery programs use an approach which lists resentments, fears, and harms done to others — thereby covering a vast expanse of problems in human relationships which poison the soul — relationships so often devastated by the extraordinary self-centeredness so central to addiction. Other structured formats exist, based on lists of character defects, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the seven deadly sins, or other moral or spiritual principles. In a subsequent post I hope to expand on the recovery model, as well as provide a list of questions as a starting point to discovering core moral failings. The key here is not to achieve some legalistic righteousness, nor to engender guilt and self-pity, but rather to bring about conviction — that painful but healing knowledge of where we have failed, which is the commencement of a journey toward breaking the control of self-centered evil over our lives.

The second point is this: we do this to share with another. We should not strive to paint a rosy picture to impress, nor fill our story with a host of justifications, or endless whining about how life and its inhabitants have done us dirty. Surely they have in many instances — but we are responsible for our own attitudes and actions, regardless of the culpability of others. If we are rigorous and honest with ourselves, we will generally find we have brought much of life’s pain upon ourselves.

And lastly, we must pray. Unaided, our souls will drift and dodge, and find a million excuses for putting off this necessary work or justifying our ill motives and evil actions. Prayer empowers us to know, and in knowing, enables us to change. “I am the Truth and the Light” — both the ideal and the means to grasp and achieve it.

Everything inside you will rebel at this task, complete with procrastination, timidity, and our insane busyness whereby we avoid facing life’s painful truths and necessary reflections.

And of course, this self-examination isn’t really necessary, after all.

Unless, of course, you want to experience grace.

The Road to Grace: Transparency

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace

Hoh rainforest
We’ve been discussing some of the core principles of how the Christian faith works — not by adhering to a new set of moral dictates or rules to follow, but by undergoing a transaction which begins with forgiveness and judicial innocence, empowered by a profound inner change, a new inner man which draws us toward the fulfillment of new purpose and direction, aligned with God’s will. This inner transformation creates conflict, as the habits and strongholds of a lifetime of self-will do not die easily. While our course is being realigned toward a new direction, our free will remains fully intact — and often quite committed to the comfortable and convenient paths which, while hoary and familiar, still prove destructive and counter-productive.

Some of these old patterns change quickly under the assault of grace and the insight and changed motives of our new life. But many are stubborn — fortified fortresses, hewn from heavy stones, built up over many years as survival skills for coping with the pain and emptiness which is the hallmark of the self-centered life. These challenges take many forms: bitter resentments; irrational fears; addictions in their many forms; compulsive deceitfulness; rage and anger; arrogance, condescension, manipulation, and many other manifestations of our self-centered, self-serving dispositions. Many Christians falter while assaulting these lofty walls, throwing themselves repeatedly against their bulwarks in futility and frustration, only to fail yet again.

But not all meet these insurmountable challenges with frustration and failure. Some — almost ironically, those most profoundly defeated by these very assaults — find another way — a way which turns their very defeats into powerful, yet humble, victories. They find in their brokenness, wholeness; in their hopelessness, hope; in their shattering, salvation and strength. It is a victory not achievable by force of determination or strength of will; its power lies in utter defeat, sanctified and empowered by the embrace of grace.

One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is this: those who are most profoundly defeated are best equipped to help others suffering these same defeats. No one helps an alcoholic like a recovering alcoholic; no one can touch and comfort one mired in depression like one who has experienced that dark hell themselves — and transcended it through grace. We are afflicted that others may be healed.

There is in today’s culture a toxic strain of Christianity, a bastard born of a great faith incestuously whored with the shallow nihilism of obscenely prosperous materialism, which teaches that we should all be wealthy, all be healed, all be delivered from every difficulty by a simple word of faith or healing prayer. But quick-fix Christianity is a Golden Calf, an empty shell of a faith made great not by wealth and comfort but by the suffering of its saints. We are delivered to deliver others; it is our pain which purchases true freedom.

There is no easy path on the road to grace; indeed, we will never choose willingly those roads which lead to deliverance. The signs will point downward when we wish to go up; they will lead to narrow ledges and steep cliffs when the easy roads seem broad and safe. It is perilous to travel these pathways alone: Christianity is a journey of companions. The path will never be the same for any of us — but those markers which guide us have been placed by many pilgrims who have gone before.

Christianity promises to be the triumph of light over darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” But beyond this compelling imagery, what exactly does this imply? The Christian often conceptualizes this luminance as transpiring in the realm of the intellectual: we have, as a result of our recreated life, a deeper understanding of right and wrong, a fresh appreciation for the things of God and the destructiveness of sin. We “see the light,” in the sense of insight, thought, and moral compass.

But the light which casts its brilliance upon us is not merely confined to the mind, for the mind is quick to rationalize and deceive, all too eager to accommodate and justify that which is both dark and destructive. The true power of the light of Christianity shines most brightly in a most frightening place — the place of transparency.

At the heart of our displacement from God, our existential angst, lives the dark angel which goes by the name of shame. While often confused and conflated with guilt, shame is not about behavior which violates a standard — the essence of guilt — but about an inner worthlessness, an empty and terrifying conviction that we are unclean, rejected, contemptible, and hopelessly flawed. To gaze upon this terrifying truth is to stand face to face with destruction, to suffer the catastrophic rejection of any and all who might glimpse our ghastly secret.

This terror drives us, a vicious and merciless master, energizing and engendering a host of fortifications which shroud the secret while simultaneously lending power to its dark dominance. The engine of shame drives before it an endless train of ragged, wretched slaves: condescension and arrogance; fears of every kind; manipulation and control; rage; lust; obsessive and compulsive behaviors conscripted to distract from the death within and kill its ungodly pain.

When these feeble defenses are finally stripped away, as their utility spectacularly fails in some life catastrophe, sundering our lives apart, we come at last to the point of grace: our shame becomes exposed, a gruesome corpse no longer hidden in its shallow grave, its decaying limbs uncovered by the torrential storms of life. The alcoholic hits bottom; the marriage ends abruptly and unexpectedly; a child dies; financial disaster strikes. Whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances, we come to a point where there is nowhere to fall but into the arms of a graceful and gracious God.

It is at this moment we finally become honest with God, even while enraged at the injustice He has allowed to befall us. It is a severe mercy, a crucifixion not sought yet divinely ordained. Our rage at God is nothing if not honest — indeed, it may prove to be the first honest thing we have done in many a day.

Yet to be honest with God alone — whether in anger, or desperation, or fear, or faith — is to but glimpse the beginning of a transparency which transforms. If we are to seek out the fullness of grace, and find the redeeming and transforming power which grace alone can bring, we must do something else, something far more frightening: we must share our darkest inner lives with others.

Uncomfortable yet? You should be.

The recoil and horror you feel at this prospect is natural — it is the reflexive response of years of defending the darkness, pandering to its relentless demands as it strangles the lifeblood from us. It is the reluctance to have surgery though the cancer will kill you, the end of a deadly dance whose suffocating embrace is asphyxiating your soul.

Such work cannot be done alone. Transparency with God alone is not adequate to the strongholds which enslave us in ways both brutal and ruthless. We must expose our inner selves, our shame, our failings, our fealty to evil — and we must do so with another human being.

The Church exists for a reason: it is the body of Christ on earth. This is not merely a theoretical or theological construct, but a crucial fact: we are the hands, heart, eyes and ears of Christ on earth. Flawed, fallen, feckless, failing, to be sure — yet chosen by God to be very instrument whereby He brings healing and wholeness to its members. The Church is not merely choir members singing hymns, or liturgy, or sermons on Sunday; it is a hospice, a hospital, the tangible instrument whereby Christ, having touched our brokenness with healing grace, uses our very failings as the surgeon’s knife, the lenitive balm to restore and rescue others. Redemption — to be “purchased back” its core meaning — is not just about saving our selves, but salving the souls of others. In the upside-down, counter-intuitive paradox which is the kingdom of grace, our very diseases bring healing to others. The toxic illness which is self-will run riot is broken — and after it is hopelessly shattered and utterly worthless, only then is repurchased by God, at full price, and made into something of great wonder.

When we begin to open our souls to another, our agonized words find common ground in their experience, not only in the depths of our pain but in hope for our deliverance. Our secret shame finds not judgment, but understanding; not criticism but gentle correction; not rejection but relationship with another who has walked these same dark paths and found restoration and wholeness at their end.

Transparency: what you see on the outside is what resides on the inside.

It is, in its simplicity, terrifying yet profoundly liberating. It must be done with wisdom: it is not wise to cast our swine before pearls. Quite often, it will not be found in those who are most religiously righteous. If you look carefully, however, you will find those whose grace and humility bespeak the chrysalis of a new life arisen from brokenness.

Seek them out, and take a risk. You will never look back.

Getting to Grace

Fourth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace

 
mountain sunsetWe’ve spent some time recently on relatively heavy-duty topics — like justification, sanctification, and grace — as we’ve explored Christianity as a faith founded on grace and mercy rather than obligation and judgment. Most non-Christians — and far too many Christians, unfortunately — view the Christian faith as a set of rules to follow, a collection of obligations which must be met to “keep God happy.” But it’s not just laws and legalism, but rather a profound inner change of direction and orientation which radically changes the spirit — and leaves the mind and the will stumbling and fumbling behind as they struggle to do in their own power that which they are incapable of achieving.

How do we in practice, in the daily grind of sweat and swearing, facilitate the transformation of the whole being which is the ultimate goal in starting down this path?

For me, it comes down to a simple calculus: what makes me do what I do?

You see, if my goal is to have my thoughts and actions aligned with those of God — when they have spent life running hard in the opposite direction — then something quite essential has to change: my motivation. It has been my experience that the grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it! approach just doesn’t cut it. Sure, I can muster up will power to bludgeon down the gates of heaven, trudging on for a while doing the “right thing,” but that gets very old and very cold before very long at all.

I’ve concluded that, in essence, I do things in life for one of two reasons: I do them because I have to, or I do them because I want to.

Now, all the shrinks and psychologists out there may be excused, before they start bringing up Oedipus complexes, anal retentiveness, the Id, and a host of other Freudian mechanisms which, frankly, hold little or no interest for me — not because they may not have some influence on me (they may well, but color me skeptical that human motivation is so primitive, brutal, and simplistic), but because they are of no practical value in the day-to-day decision-making that makes up the brunt of life.

So let’s keep it simple: if I’m doing something, I’m doing it because I want to, or because I have to. And sure, there’s a lot of overlap here — I often enjoy many of the things which I am obligated to do. And, this may surprise you: I find that doing things I like is always easier than doing things I must .

This is why, for me, a faith which is all about rules and obligations is so very hard to follow, and ultimately doomed to failure. My natural gravity is this: I like doing the things which are destructive for me and which separate me from God — they seem to be rather hard-wired within. On the other hand, I really don’t want to do “good things” — things which draw me closer to God — because I don’t believe they will make me happy, or benefit me, or they seem too difficult: they are a chore and a bore, best avoided. To my way of thinking, I will be quite happy when I get what I want — and when this doesn’t satisfy, well, then I simply need more of what I want.

And herein lies the miracle of grace: the inner transformation of forgiveness and new life have the power to make me want to do the things which draw me nearer to God — the things I previously had no interest whatsoever in doing. And once I find myself doing such things, motivated out of an inner desire to do them, rather than a crushing obligation of rules and law, I begin to experience the rewards of acting in concert with the purposes of God.

And my life begins to get better, and happier, and a whole lot more peaceful.

It’s the damnedest thing. Really. But it really works.

What is going on in this process is not a repudiation of free will, a blind robotic submission to some nebulous deity; it is rather a confluence of wills. I freely choose to do that which I know to be the right thing, despite my natural reluctance to do so — and find in the doing that the choice opens to me a new experience of God, a new pleasure and satisfaction in doing those things which, despite my innate reticence and selfish reluctance, actually bring about a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joyfulness.

The process works, in my experience, through a series of steps:

♦ Insight & conviction: As I discussed previously, the inner transformation of grace occurs first in the spirit, then percolates up through mind and soul. There comes a rather sudden awareness that certain behaviors, thoughts, actions, and attitudes are no longer okay. Call this conviction, call it conscience, call it dis-ease, call it guilt if you will (a word widely ridiculed in a culture which glories in the shameful, decadent, and destructive). It is a sense of uncomfortableness which acts as as a warning sign, a guidepost which gently alerts you that you’re off course, and acts an inducement to change.

♦ Repentance: The dis-ease triggered by wandering off course triggers a desire to change, to correct the error and get back on track. The will kicks into action, determined to act, think, or speak differently.

♦ Confession and forgiveness: We acknowledge to God that we have wandered away, and offended Him — not because He is a jealous tyrant trying to spoil our fun, but because He is determined in love to draw us closer to Him, and our own actions have ultimate harmed us by separating us from His love and grace.

For many of our character flaws, this sequence brings significant change: the desire to pursue the destructive and hurtful behaviors intrinsic to our old way of life lessens, and often disappears altogether. It becomes easier and more natural to do those things which make our life more peaceful and purposeful, as the new way of living becomes normal and natural. Change comes from the inside out, and with it considerable joy and contentment.

Would that it were always this easy.

Before long we stumble upon the more difficult moral challenges in life, the strongholds which are deeply entrenched in our souls, the behaviors and failures which we seem unable to overcome, despite our growing awareness of how hurtful they are to ourselves and others, and how destructive to a deepening relationship with God. We run through the drill, repeatedly: failure, conviction, repentance, confession, recommitment. Wash, rinse, repeat — endlessly, with no apparent progress and increasing discouragement as the new life seems increasingly powerless and frustrating.

The power of Christianity, the new inner life which transforms, often seems incapable of overcoming such roadblocks. These strongholds may be many: excessive fears; inability to trust; anger and rage; greed and materialism; sexual addictions and compulsions; drug and alcohol abuse; compulsive eating, or gambling, or a host of other destructive habits and obsessions. Many of these arise from deep wounds sustained in life: abuse, abandonment, childhood or adult trauma; severe physical or mental disabilities. Some are even inborn or inherited, such as alcoholism or obesity. Their enslavement seems total, even insurmountable; the journey to wholeness which Christianity promises so often runs aground on their jagged rocks and shallow shoals.

Yet these, too, can be vanquished. These, too, can be not merely conquerable, but will become instruments in the hands of a gracious God to bring extraordinary change, not only within us, but for many others around us.

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was spoken, not only of Christ, but of us: our greatest liabilities can become extraordinary assets in the hands of grace.

But be forewarned: the journey over these jagged crags is a terrifying one — but it is the only way out of the prison. Be prepared to lose all you treasure, and more.

And be prepared to gain vastly more than you bargained for. Getting to grace is a hazardous path — and the most exciting journey you’ll ever take.