The religion of the broken heart

“Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.” –J. Gresham Machen

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A passion exceeding other passions: A review of Larry Crabb’s Finding God

Note: The following is a repost of a book review I wrote for the Philippine Navigators newsletter in December 2015.

 

I first read Dr. Larry Crabb’s Finding God during the semestral break of my junior year in college, after a few months of hanging out with a Bible study group mostly for the sense of fun and friendship (not to mention the cooking of our study leader, Ate Paping) than for anything else.

I was merely looking for something to read; it did not occur to me how heavy the book would turn out to be as I see it now. I can’t even remember if it was recommended to me or if I just happened to pick it among many other books in the shelf. But considering how there couldn’t be such a thing as chance if there’s such a person as God, that choice must have been divinely appointed.

You see, it’s one of those books that make you deal with questions you may not know you’re asking, but need to.

Like most people in a relatively religious culture, I was familiar with such messages as trusting God and resting in the fact that he is in control, perhaps so familiar to the point of it all sounding commonplace and unremarkable. But exactly how that trust plays out and what it involves—what it demands of us—is often lost in trite sayings and the platitudes of forwarded e-mails and memes. Dr. Crabb’s book, I found as I read along, is one of the most painstaking, rigorous, but realistic explorations of how that trust looks like.

The book is rich with insights from biblical examples as well as stories from his own life and from people he had counseling sessions with. Its unrelenting assertion is that our fundamental sin is doubting God, doubting that he is good. The world is full of pain—even for people who are walking in the way of Christ. One common way that we cope is to tend to become indulgers (like the younger brother in the story of the Prodigal Son), dulling the pain with entitlements and pleasures we believe we deserve. Another is to become conformists (like the elder brother), jumping the hoops, subduing all desire, and believing that we can get God to cooperate with us, but ending up angrier when life takes a bad turn or seems unbearably unfair.

Neither of these is the biblical way, Dr. Crabb says, because in both cases we seek desperately to make life work with the tools and talents God has given us so that we don’t have to deal with him. We are in fact actively arranging life so that we can make it “a satisfying experience without ever having to trust God.”

In this perspective, sin is therefore not just our breaking of laws but our effort to supplement what we think are limits to God’s goodness. In a number of different ways, the book asks the question: “Did the fact ever cross your mind that you are here in this world just to understand the Lord Jesus Christ, and for no other reason?”

We begin to find God when we start considering seriously that he is good even if we don’t get everything that we want. That God himself is enough, even if our pain never goes away. “We find God to the degree that we want to find him. Until our passion for finding God exceeds all other passions, . . . we will not find him as deeply as he longs to be found.” In other words, our primary purpose is not to use God to solve our problems but to move through our problems toward finding God.

Finding God is personally significant to me because it happened to be the book that introduced me to the world of authors who wrote on the same theme: Philip Yancey (Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God), John Piper (The Pleasures of God), Jerry Bridges (Trusting God), and later C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) and Frederick Buechner. (Consider giving these books a try as well for a wider perspective.)

Perhaps one criticism that could be made about the book is that it doesn’t seem to dwell as much on the glories of finding God as it does on the upheavals and “pruning” that one goes through in finding God. But maybe that’s just as well, because that’s an accurate picture of the Gospel—something that is “bad news before it is good news.” Still, the book does talk about what can be called initial redemptions in transformed lives, and it makes references to the banquet, the party, the wedding feast with Christ that the Bible foreshadows.

“The Christian ideal,” says G. K. Chesterton, ” has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.” Read this book for a soulful look at what it would be like if twenty-first-century people like you and me did try it. It will involve more than a little brokenness, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be beauty in it.

You could say it is part psychology and self-help, in the sense that you can assume anyone reading a book with this title would probably at least want to help himself to a better understanding of himself and of God. But the message in this book is one of the farthest things you will see from that of the popular self-help bestsellers on today’s bookstores—even the supposedly religious ones.

More than an academic work or your typical motivational guide, this book is a sort of biblical mirror, a journal of all the mess of coming face-to-face with ourselves, our sometimes misguided passions, our deceptively fallen foundations, and through it all a stirring invitation into a trusting relationship with our Savior that doesn’t sweep away our emotions but instead puts them in perspective in light of Who it is we are relating with.

 

Time and multiple personalities

When you come to think of it, time itself is something that somewhat causes you to have multiple personalities.

Every few years (and then every few decades as you get older), you become a different person physically at least, if not psychologically, although legally you remain yourself.

With all the ways in which your thinking, feeling, willing, and relating have varied over different stages, which version of yourself is the real one? Which particular photo, for instance, best portrays the you that you want to be most remembered–your high school or college graduation photo, the shot of your wedding day, the picture of you carrying your first child or grandchild?

If there is not something or someone that is unchanging upon which all reality stands, we will all be strangers to ourselves, doomed with incoherence.

On being fully known and truly loved

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
–Tim Keller

Right words on the wrong side

Words are keys. There is satisfaction in opening a gate by using the right key, in discovering that feelings have labels, and terms have meanings. Someone has a way with words, we say casually, often missing the metaphor: that to go through everyday life is to navigate in a jungle of things and ideas, and that the reason we are fond of people who use words well is that they help us find our own path.

But there are times when it feels like language limits us even as it liberates us. (Look up, for instance, the intriguing theory of linguistic relativity, brought to the limelight recently by the movie Arrival. Essentially it says that the structure of a language influences if not determines how we perceive or experience the world, the most well-known, or controversial, example being that the tenseless Hopi Indian language reflects how the Hopi have a different conception of time than that of modern people.) So there are limitations of a specific language and how we use it, and not only because of the presence or absence of a word in a certain language. “To grasp the meaning of the world of today, we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language,” says Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Language attempts to catch reality in a net,” writes Henry Christ, “but reality won’t be caught. No matter how one labels things or persons, they exist regardless.”

Words are currency. It’s as if the moment we are born, we are thrown into a marketplace where we could not buy or sell anything unless we had the right type of money. We learn early that if we want food, favor, or friendship, we pay for it with exclamations, gestures, and, most efficiently, words. You wouldn’t know what a person is like unless you spend time talking to him in a variety of contexts. But when language becomes too much a function of economics, it starts to restrict. Human language is a double-edged sword that limits and liberates, often at the same time.

It’s interesting to imagine how we could ever think without words. How would you? The Miracle Worker, a movie about how Annie Sullivan tutored Helen Keller, makes you pay close attention to the nature of language. Anger, awe, control, hope, and attachment, it turns out, are not at all foreign to a nine-year-old child who tragically could not see, hear, or speak, and who is unwilling to let anyone get through her. But how glorious it was for her to finally come to realize that there is a name for those emotions, the same way it finally occurred to her that the cold, flowing, colorless substance gushing out from the tap to encompass her hand is called water. Helen Keller was born a human being, but it seemed she didn’t become fully human until the moment she grasped language. And she didn’t stop with water or cake or key; she went on to become an honored advocate and a source of inspiration to many others.

rose by another name

So there’s probably more to the idea of words being currency in the marketplace called the world. The evolutionist says that we learn language simply because we need it: your mother feeds you if you cry a certain way; nanny changes your diapers if you cry another way; you’re a good boy or good girl if you say the “magic word”; people buy your product if you hire good marketers. But something compels us to go further. If we believe language is a gift, we are also drawn to believe that it exists because there are deeper needs than survival, getting what we want, or propagating our genes. A child may have been so deprived she looks malnourished for life, but that would not stop her from becoming a writer who talks about transcendence.

When we don’t use language in strictly economical ways, language, fallible as it is, can be a great means for fulfillment and flourishing. And as can be seen in the stories of people we know who overcome various kinds of obstacles, it is possible that there is a different, future world where infinitely better fulfillment is available, where language does not restrict but only liberates, where it is perfect aside from being useful. After all, according to Peter Edman, “the deepest things about us are in what we cannot directly express, what comes through in the spaces between the words.”

The linguist Edward Sapir once suggested that maybe language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove. If so, perhaps it means that our deepest need may not be so much for mere shelter from the elements as for transport and transformation, that somehow we were not supposed to stay in this place forever. Or at least that this place will not always be what it is.

Maybe, as in Helen Keller’s life, the purpose of language is not so much utility as revelation. Maybe we were not born into a marketplace after all, but into the wrong side of the Garden.

Happy New Year, Keep Showing Up

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What do we celebrate when we greet each other Happy New Year? In the language of modern business at least, it is that in the project of Showing Up—of keeping on and staying alive—you and I have made it. Congratulations.

Time ambles on, and while some have “stepped out of life’s procession” (including, notably, some music icons), here we are. We celebrate the fact that though we are not celebrities, at least we’re in the show, if not to be onstage, at least to be spectators of whatever the running story is. “Even a live dog,” the author of Ecclesiastes says, “is better off than a dead lion,” which is to say show up, keep on keeping on, and you’ll be rewarded for it, though not to say that the departed are less meritorious. I love this picture and this enterprise of showing up because it seems to be one of the few places not yet tainted by the disease of You Don’t Matter If You Have Nothing to Show for It. “Blessed are those who show up and stay on” would probably make it into the Beatitudes. “For those who allow time’s constancy and change to shape them and reveal ultimate reality to them will be delivered from the Cult of Hecticness and Oppressive Comparison.” Just show up, whether in your Sunday best or in your tattered, time-worn worst.

Happy New Year is always a milestone. In rolls another year, and for some reason it evokes particular reflection that is not normally occasioned by the turn of another month, or a quarter, or even a decade.

I’ve been thinking about time as that—a mystery and a gift. Time as gift seems easy enough; as mystery, it’s quite hard to describe. We all have the same number of seconds per minute, the time-management consultants would tell us, whether we tell time by the clock, the number of journals we’ve filled, the heartbeats or paces registered in our smartwatches, the cups of coffee we’ve consumed, or even the number of jobs we’ve let go of or were let go from. Or opportunities lost. The funny thing about time is that unlike money, your favorite drink, or your data credit, you don’t save it by not using it.

Hecticness is understandable. After all, as Oliver Burkeman writes, “Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice.” And let’s not for a moment presume that our problem is just quantity; it’s also quality. “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us,” says Annie Dillard.

And that is exactly one of time’s mysteries. We dwell in it, and the we part is itself teeming with mystery enough to fill volumes.

It’s borrowed time (there goes the capitalism parallel again), the operative word being borrowed. From whom? And on what terms? You get different answers. Some say from chance, from the Force, from the universe, from evolution, from the future generation. From God.

Time changes us. Or at least reveals that we are not really as constant, consistent, or in control as we think we are. If you’re into modern philosophers, you might have come across one of those French ones who said that the principal question in life ought to be “Why not commit suicide?” In your teenage angst you may have agreed, and maybe even published your agreement with a poem, or a tattoo. Now, perhaps singing a lullaby to a six-month-old baby in your arms, you might say, what nonsense!

Time as mysterious. You get the idea.

I’ve come to realize that whenever I see time as a minor gift of the bigger gift of eternity, it’s easier to wean myself away from the idea that the main thing about time is how to manage it. For whoever bothers about managing a gift? As Frederick Buechner writes,

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

Happy New Year. Keep showing up, and enjoy the gift.

When nostalgia isn’t helpful

“In nostalgia, one sacrifices the present and the possibility of the future as one squats in the past. Nostalgia implies that God is present in one moment and not another, or more perniciously, that one prefers to be in a previous, unlivable moment more than the one God has brought them to now . . .

Our participation in the renewal of all things requires remembering the past. When we remember the past, we let the past portrayal of the future inform our present. In other words, when we look to the past, we re-view the present and our world in light of the future. This affects our perception of and action in the present . . .

Christians are called to remember the past, not to live in it. A follower of Jesus is not nostalgic. We do not turn to the past to reencounter or remedy a personal wound like some do in nostalgia. Rather, we turn to the past in order to reencounter healing and reconciliation with the goal of remedying the wounds of others here and now. Incarnational remembrance is sacrificial, not selfish. It minds the past to draw on it; it does not fill the mind with the past in order to reenact or relive it. Incarnational remembrance renews, it doesn’t relive.”
–Kyle David Bennett