I’ve been doing the work of extrapolating some of the key elements of my own personal spiritual journey from the last 8 years or so. The process has essentially been about going back through every aspect of my studies and mentorships, every book I read, all of my journaling, and going through my contemplative examination of my own life via counseling and meditation in an attempt to record the journey in its various stages.
I’ve decided to write a 3-part blog series on the 3 most critical (in my opinion) aspects of my own spiritual pilgrimage in an effort to transparently offer some of what I have found to be the most helpful and brilliant tools out there for Spiritual Formation.
The three crucial aspects that I wanted to share correspond to several books that have played an integral role in my spiritual journey along with millions of other people as well. These books compliment the Bible in the most beautiful ways because they offer an additional breadth and spectrum of wisdom that has collectively become a compelling ingredient for change in my life. That being said i’ve decided to categorize these 3 different parts of my journey as 1) An Inside Look and 2) Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and 3) Loving God with my Mind.
Each of the categories above apply the commandments from Jesus to ‘Love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength,’ and to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves’ to our real life experiences while living in a pretty messed up world that is marked by relational complexity and horrible violations of love. When anyone says that it is difficult to follow Jesus, I would agree and then point them to these 3 areas of study help to facilitate a discussion about why that is given our cultural moment. Additionally these categories and the books i’ll mention beg some really difficult but necessary questions of the follower of Jesus that have some interesting implications for our culture and for our future.
For example, “What does it mean for a follower of Jesus to actually change into a person whose life genuinely reflects a Kingdom order instead of mirroring the culture we live in?” These categories also respond to what many of us are asking ourselves, and that is, “How are people who profess to love Jesus and who may even dedicate their lives to ministry end up as a horrible and ugly mark against Christianity, drowning in their failed spirituality while hurting and dragging other people down with them?” What is going on there? What are we missing? What is our modern spirituality failing to address? Does the Christian worldview actually hold up with other competing worldviews?
I personally appreciate questions like that and I would feel the same way even if I weren’t a Christian. I have wrestled with the implications of all of those things in my own way for years, and I believe that there’s something for everyone to glean when talking about the gravity of these key aspects of life. I expand upon these three central themes in my book Identity and Calling.
I am incredibly grateful for and excited to introduce some super basic elements of what I’ve gleaned in the process of these 3 area of study. These 3 posts are by no means exhaustive, whatsoever. They’re dusting the surface of a much broader context and conversation that I believe to be worth every ounce of energy and time. I’m eager to hear about how any of these areas of study have also affected any others as well? At the end of the day and like anything else, my hope is that this could potentially add some degree of value to your own spiritual journey. Thanks!
-Jenna Randall Hays
An Inside Look: Skillful Denial and Moral Cowardice
RECOMMENDED READING: a) Inside Out by Dr. Larry Crabb and b) The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
With a deep passion humans long to experience what we were always designed to enjoy. We have God-given good desires within each and every one of us that reflect a good God who knows what truly satisfies. The idea of “Design” might be hard for you and perhaps you disagree with the worldview attached to that. That’s okay, maybe just set it aside for a moment? One thing that we could probably still agree on however is that we live in the most progressive, affluent, educated, privileged, and robustly dynamic civilization in all of history. Yet somehow devastating mental and emotional health rates are through the roof. Isn’t it fascinating to anyone else that given our unlimited freedom and our unprecedented knowledge that still over 85% of Americans depend on medication in order to function well emotionally and mentally from day to day? (Please do not read that as shame from me. Please read that for context.)
As you know those rates are an indicator or a metric that measure and reflect the overall health and well-being of a society. So what does that say about us here in the late modern West?
Just as you probably have, i’ve heard plenty of plausible reasons for those paralyzing statistics and yet I think that as of yet, the rationale is an insufficient explanation for the severity of the wound. I don’t have to tell you that we live in a remarkable time in history for all sorts of reasons. As just one example we have more access to information than ever before, on demand. We also have at our fingertips the ability to access, obtain, enjoy, and indulge in that which promises to deliver happiness more easily than ever before. Comfort and safety and pleasure are available to any of us for the right price.
Yet those of us who are in-tune with and study the socio-emotional aspects of our culture recognize and sense that there is something not quite right, nonetheless. What keeps us from ever arriving at true contentment or satisfaction with our lives, with our spouses, our jobs, our income, etc? Or better yet, when we do actually arrive at our ideal job, or we land the ‘perfect’ spouse, or we make more money than we’ve ever dreamed, then why do those rates for emotional and mental health still exists? In fact, why are those statistics at their height amongst the most affluent?
Incessant complaint marks our society. Why is that? We complain about our relationship’s shortcomings, about politics, about our kids, about the education system, about our unsatisfying jobs, and about our annoying neighbor. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with a life of examination and measuring quality and cause and effect. And yet what we se in the media, on social media, in the streets, amongst your friends and neighbors and in corporate life is that for all of the good we absorb as Americans, we cannot help but remain unsatisfied and we need to let people know about it.
All of those things above do not give off the vibe that we are a people who have actually progressed to the point of the theoretical Utopia that we still idolize. We have yet to arrive at inner peace, let alone world peace.
The majority of the things that we desire in the late modern West are easily economized. Everything is just one click away. We can be in more than one place at once at any given time and we can be connected with any person or business in any other part of the world since 2007 because of the brilliance of the iPhone. We can have food, drinks, entertainment, sex, shopping etc on demand with just one click. Pick your filter, pick your airbrush, pick your app or pick your plastic surgeon and you can look like, become, and define for yourself who and what you wish to be and who or what you wish to look like. We literally have every thing.
In a similar manner we place Politics and Education in the same sort of all-defining category as God. We worship them as though they will be what can ultimately save us from the mess we’re most certainly in. We view them as the means through which human flourishing will evolve and yet for all of our economic and social theories, our country’s hyper-polarization reveals that even those good and powerful things are still far too small of a box to suffice as the catalysts to bring about true human flourishing, peace, and progress.
The point is that for all of our success and for all of our advancements in society, technology, in education, in economics and in politics, all of us are prone to subtly acquiesce to the whims of our culture’s metrics for success and progress. We buy into a one-stop instant gratification fix for everything but the results are still lacking. We actually believe that some of those things can deliver in full what we hope for, whether it be for eliminating poverty, for progress, for beauty, for popularity, for approval, for status, and for who/what dictates “the good life.”
Don’t hear me incorrectly. I believe in education and in government. I also would love that poverty be eliminated and that abuses would cease. The institutions we have are wonderful for what they offer. They are brilliant developments of the cultural mandate to go and build a flourishing culture and world. But they are still not ultimate.
No God = No Sin… right?
We are living in a post-christian secular moment in history which means that essentially cultural Christianity (what used to be taken for granted) is mostly dead and God has been removed from our notions of relevancy. The implication in America now however is that there is no longer any all-mobilizing or coherent moral order. The tension we all see and feel on a daily basis speaks to that. “What’s right for you isn’t right for me, but you do you and i’ll do my life however I want. Don’t tell how to live, after all morality is relative. So as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, your truth is truth and my truth is truth so manage yourself.”
I assume (hope) you can see how the conflict natural arises from that since no one can actually live that way in practice because some people have terrible desires that do in fact hurt other people and society. So who or what is the judge of what is good and what is bad or evil, now? How do we take into account everyone’s truths while not infringing upon other people’s truths?
Additionally since we do not conform to the Biblical notions of the value of the human person or of the sanctity of life as beings who are made in the image of God, we are by way of science then nothing more than a product of chance and time, a stimulus-reaction mechanism. We are then a very Descartes-esque brain on legs. That should not feel demeaning at all – that is a very plausible option if there’s no God.
Likewise/or if we are a mere product of natural selection and if we are just animals with instincts that govern our behavior down to the details, we have to fabricate some sense of dignity and meaning because it is not otherwise inherent or bestowed to us as a mere byproduct of chaos that randomly evolved into order. So one way that people find dignity and meaning is through the barometer of happiness or the pursuit of pleasure.
If there is no broader stroke and if everyone is pursuing their own happiness, it’s bound to collide at some point with someone else’s definition of happiness and that tension is the nature of the complexity I’m discussing. Likewise if there is no larger coherent narrative with God assigning dignity and worth to the human person, the ‘self’ is the God and whatever makes the self happy becomes the purpose and meaning of life. The self is then easily monetized and marketed because it lacks any sacred or innate dignity. We see this happen everyday. It is no wonder then why humans value themselves and each other in such low esteem and why we’ve come to measure the quality of someone’s life by how profitable or beneficial they are relative to our own plans for success and happiness, as revealed in our choices. (Think sex/human/child trafficking, the sex industry, war, pornography, addiction, abortion). Again do not hear shame from me. I’m articulating data points.
We could even for the sake argument say that i’m completely wrong about all of that. And yet the statistics remain and reveal a harsh inward reality that something is still very much amiss in the soul. We’ve figured out everything else, right? But we as a race are unable to produce truly content humans who do not violate love and who are able to relate in healthy ways to each other. For that reason, isn’t it curious to you why evil and anger, and rape, and lying and abuse have not been dealt with by Natural Selection given it’s certain harm to the human race?
Denial of the internal reality that something is still amiss in the human condition is a top priority for the self-sufficient culture that we live in, evidenced in our insatiable desire for distraction.
I can’t help but wonder if all of those things in our culture that promise so much are actually just a far cry from what we genuinely long for in our truest and most honest moments of our lives. We desire more but no matter how hard we try find meaning and fulfillment, even subtly, it doesn’t present the quality of results that lasts a lifetime. That’s what those statistics are all about. They represent the ache and the desire for more that nothing on this side of heaven is able to contend with. So we cope with life instead of thrive.
Okay, so let’s say that i’m wrong about everything. But… What if God has been right since the beginning? What if God weren’t irrelevant after all? What if the story of God and man were in fact at the height of its relevance at this very moment?
The desire for more is in fact a good and holy desire. From the Biblical worldview lens the desire for more than this is a clear byproduct of living in a world or a Kingdom that was never meant to be our home apart from the King. Our desires reflect that we want what is supposed to satisfy and that is good!
If there is an eternal reality at play, such as the Bible speaks of, then the void and the ache that we feel but can never seem to satisfy is actually rooted in a good and holy desire for a relationship with the Creator God to be infused into every part of who we are and into every part of the world that we inhabit. On this side of heaven, that desire cannot be filled apart from the living God. Wouldn’t we have come to that point by now if this weren’t true?
Whose brave enough to be honest?
Many of us eventually come to a point in our lives where we refuse to play the rat race game any longer. We are willing to sit still and quiet for long enough in order to confront the implications and the cause of those unsatisfied desires. Those whose integrity makes the pretense (that everything is ok within us) difficult eventually land in a fork-in-the-road where we either decide to address what lacks in our lives even after all of our best attempts at happiness and success. Or else we keep doing what we’ve been doing for years while hoping that eventually we will nail down a different outcome that will be the recipe for true happiness and wholeness.
One of the most beautiful places that myself and many others have come to is this point of recognition that produces an inability to conform and acquiesce to what cannot actually feed the soul:
Beneath the surface of everyone’s life, especially the more mature and self-aware, is an ache that will not go away. It can certainly be ignored, submerged by a torrent of distraction and activity, mislabeled, and disguised, but it will not disappear. And for good reason. We were absolutely designed for a better world than this one and until a better world comes along, we will ache and groan for what we do not have. The sensing of the ache and the lack that we feel is not evidence of neurosis or of spiritual immaturity, but is instead that of realism.
There is so much that pulls at our attention on any given day. Additionally we all have self-protective coping mechanisms that play a powerful role in our inability to actually grapple with hard things and with our real life experience. Therapy, self-help and counseling are wonderful tools but if they do not press us to uncover deeper layers and get healing for the wounds that lie beneath the surface, all the therapy and self-help bandaids in the world will not suffice. Doing so would require us to look deeper within our lives and enter the hidden inner regions of our soul where emptiness and where an honest look reveals the self-serving motives that stain even our noblest deeds. Digging deeper is one thing, but taking a relationship with Jesus into those places is what makes the difference.
Even in Christian spirituality we’ve missed the mark on this, though. We’ve become a theologically diverse community of powerless people who penetrate and effect very little of society because we refuse to plunge into the disturbing realities of our own lives. We can pinpoint what is wrong with everyone else which is easy, but very few of us will actually do the work of introspection with the goal of change in our own character. Our lives mirror everyone else’s and so no one believes the God that we rant about. We then misapply God’s truth and apply it to everyone except to our own inner life. Other times this shows up as doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Is this perhaps evidence of a trust issue with God?
Do we actually believe that we could emerge from a closer look at our internal mess with a renewed confidence in God and a deeper thirst for Him? Or are we still believing the lie that somehow God doesn’t know what is actually inside of us and if He did, that He would punish us? Or conversely, that if we are “good enough,” that God will reward us. Getting to the heart of those matters is at the core of taking an inside look at ourselves.
Peeling Back Layers
In those moments, in the fork in the road I mentioned, retreat into denial does not seem cowardly — instead it actually seems smart and necessary. In fact think of how attractive it is to believe that we know what to do (or can easily find a way) to make things better. We love to feel in control. In secular culture that denial takes shape in our self-protective coping mechanisms that appear as distraction, shopping, entertainment, sex, pills, etc. Control issues alone effect every one of our core relationships and the quality of how we relate to each other.
In spirituality it might be those things too but it also might sound like this in your head as you self-rationalize like i’ve done many times when things go terribly wrong:
“Just keep going, Jenna. Get your act together. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Renew your commitment to trust God. Get more serious about obedience. Things aren’t really as bad as you intuitively sense that they are. You’ve simply lost your perspective and you must retain it through more time in the Word and an increased moral effort.”
Of course (most) of those things are good things in and of themselves. My perfectionism is obvious there but the real problem is that each and every one of those lay the entire burden of controlling the situation on my own shoulders.
There is not much that is more terrifying than looking at a problem that we have no solutions for under our immediate or direct control. We want relief from anything that is uncomfortable. Yet nothing is more humbling and nothing offers the breakthrough that acknowledging A) our deep ache which makes us entirely dependent on someone else for satisfaction and B) the depth of corruption that stains everything that we do — even our best efforts for reform — are marked with selfishness.
To recognize and realistically face what is true within us puts us in touch with a whole new level of helplessness that none of us generally care to experience. The preference would be to deny that any of the above us true and to furthermore mask that we are in fact in need of anything at all. So we live on the surface.
Don’t take my word for it. Just get real with yourself for a minute.
Am I the only one who has this nagging sense that something within me is badly twisted? Is no one else struggling with the quality of their relationships, aware that despite their best efforts their own love and others is still pretty shallow? Does anyone else feel the crushing weight of something so hurtful to them that it robs the desire to go on? Do you not wrestle with the ability to handle tough decisions? Do you not question whether you’ve got what it takes? Do you actually not care what people think of you, like you say? Are you really as calm and confident as you make yourself appear to be? Or, are you like the majority of the rest of us who are actually very out of touch with ourselves and unaware of how we may impact others and how others experience us. So we too, cover up deep pain with pleasure and activity, distraction and achievements. These things are the symptoms of a deeper issue.
We feel discomfort when we’re put on the spot. We sense pressure to play it safe when someone’s tone becomes critical of us, or we get full-blown defensive and we get really ugly. We’re aware that we shift conversation to a topic that we can handle. We only involve ourselves in things we know we can be successful in. We feel defensive and offended at the drop of a hat and then blame how we are feeling on someone else. We feel compelled to make sure everyone knows what we think about everything. We look for opportunities to modestly share information that will make us look good. We pretend to be more spiritually minded than we actually are. We avoid subjects that put us in touch with unpleasant emotions. We keep a distance from people to manage our discomfort maintaining relationships that come easily – until someone asks too much of us. We operate more out of our fears than we do in order to fulfill another’s desire for love for love from us. We wish we were better than we are, but we’re not. We find something about someone appalling when truthfully it’s the very same thing that we detest within ourselves. Self-hatred is a fierce and formidable foe which happens makes grace all the more beautiful.
That stuff (above) makes some of us want to hide and makes others want to mask it with filters and surgery and isolation. I personally LOVE isolation. I’m an introvert and a Type One on the Enneagram so it works well in my favor where I can insulate myself from others (self-protective). Isolation certainly however rubs against my calling as a follower of Jesus so at some point I have to wax on and wax off.
We live for the purpose of self-protection, clinging to whatever it is that brings us happiness and security at the expense of our vulnerability. Without Jesus, the options available for an identity must come from things like our career, education, status, a spouse or a new lover, our resume, our appearance, our noble accomplishments, sexuality, approval of others, materialism, sex. The problem with all of those things is that they can and will eventually all be taken away. And then who are you?
Are we as logical and mature as we’d like to believe?
It is frighteningly easy to become deluded about our spiritual and our emotional maturity. We are incredibly capable of believing we’re doing far better than we actually are. The human capacity for self-rationalization is astounding. In order to maintain our happy convictions we must however insulate ourselves against the honest feedback of others who would surely find us to be unloving if we allowed them to see us clearly, and we must stubbornly deny the evidence in our soul that something more is wrong than we know how to handle.
We (myself included) have such a difficult time getting it through our heads with a nature that is marked by sin (that which violates love), that the pathway that leads to joy always involves the very worst kind of internal suffering that we can imagine. It’s the same idea behind why a diamond is coated in a rough and ugly exterior and why roses have to die before they bloom. There’s a process.
We cringe at that thought. The truth is that we weren’t designed to hurt. The physical, the emotional and the personal capacities to feel what God designed within us were meant to provide pleasure such as close relationships and good health. When relationships don’t perform as swimmingly as we had expected and when our hearts are broken by rejection and when our heads ache with tension, we want to relieve the pain. Yet underneath all of that, we long to experience the things that we were designed to enjoy. That is a good, holy longing.
How do you cope with failed expectations that you had as a parent? How do you deal with the agony if your children want nothing to do with you when they’re grown? What do you do with the heartache of a son’s unplanned pregnancy with a complete stranger who wants nothing to do with the baby or with him? Or how do we manage our emotions and the ache that was provoked by a daughter’s abortion, or a husband’s coldness? How are we supposed to go on in life with a wife who looks for opportunity to be mean while convinced of her own righteousness? How do we cope with disfiguring illness, or the bitterness that is felt by caring for elderly parents with an income that doesn’t allow you to get ahead?
The typical message of modern Christianity is that relief is available! The chaos in your world will either settle down when you increase your faith or you can enter into a new level of spirituality that transcends your experience where coping is replaced by a fullness of soul. Either option is a prescription that says that it is within your power to arrange for your own relief. Bring on the pills and the you fill in the blank. The appeal is obvious and it is great.
We begin to believe that something that we can do will bring us to a level of spiritual maturity that eliminates pain and our struggles as ongoing, deeply felt realities in our lives. So we dig our own wells through striving but the energy that we use to dig them is far too often supplied with the expectation that we will discover water at the end that will end all thirst. No more struggle, disappointment, or heartache. It is heaven now that we want.
Of course not everyone teaches this theology, clearly, but this is certainly a popular option for many evangelicals who love God but who also keep walking right past Jesus at the well with their shovel in hand, intent on digging their own well when Jesus has already done all of the work for us.
Our Real Life
The failure to deal with life as it is leads to an over-simplification of the complexity that is our real lives. We have to hold both our own inner beauty and our own inner darkness in hand and live in that tension. Rather than penetrating our lives with the liberating power of truth, we easily maintain a pretense that things are better than they are or ever can be until Christ returns. We render ourselves and our children then unprepared to live but certainly strengthened in our denial.
Our deeply-ingrained passion for independence which is our legacy from Adam coupled with a legitimate desire to enjoy perfectly whole and healthy relationships (for which we were meant to enjoy) make us eager to respond to the hope that heaven’s joys are available now, and even on demand!
The problem with all of that besides it’s theological error is that when God doesn’t act like our genie in the lamp and produce the type of circumstances that we demand, we allow ourselves to become the victim and use that moment as “proof” that there is no God and that even if He were real, He could not possibly love us while allowing us to suffer so much. If we, like our secular culture, remove God from the picture and there is no larger narrative, what an exceedingly hopeless state for anyone who suffers because there is no ultimate reason and no ultimate solution, and certainly no one to blame.
We are so deeply committed to our own well-being that anyone who blocks our path to joy becomes the enemy, while we just suffer with such noble grief. We think things like, “How could he treat me like this? I guess i’ll just press on while I hurt.”
Christian growth and maturity requires that we bring to the surface our tendencies to demand from God what we think He owes us. It must be identified, brought into the light to expose all of its ugliness, and left behind in true humility. That is the only way that real, lasting change can occur.
That sort of attitude is abhorrent to God, the Scriptures make that clear. The more that I understand what love actually requires, the more I realize how poor my capacity is to love well but also the more in awe I become of Christ’s love. The guy who washed his friend’s dirty feet.
So yes, maybe those good desires are not fully within reach on this side of heaven, but is it perhaps possible to be anchored to something stronger than relief?
What if the way that we are empowered and able to endure life’s storms and grow through them is through a deepened gratitude for what happened at the cross of Jesus and a robust confidence in what will take place at His second coming.
What if our real source of stability (that does not require a weakening of our character through denial) is appreciation for the past and hope for the future. Perhaps the presence of Jesus now through his revelation in his Word and through the Spirit can be enjoyed only to the degree that it causes us to take both a backward and a forward look at our lives.
“Faithful are the wounds from a friend.” Proverbs 27: 6
The point at which I was finally able to receive feedback from those closest to me (who happened to be farther down the path of self-awareness than I was), brought to my attention some really crucial aspects of how I related to others that were harmful to others, harmful to myself, and harmful to my relationship with God. They straight up called me out on my mess, the inner below the surface stuff that is blatantly obvious for someone in tune with the Spirit and with their own shortcomings.
Exposure and encouragement is what they gave to me in the most beautiful humility i’ve experienced yet. They helped me to see clearly the ways in which I sincerely believed that I was doing quite well spiritually, while my style of relating to significant people in my life was far more self-protective than it was loving. In a humble spirit of restoration, I could finally receive that from my closest friend Tiffany and from my Grandpa Don.
Did I feel offended at first? Yes! It’s horrifying to look in the mirror sometimes.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
The subtleties of self-protective sin or rather the ways in which our determination to stay away from pain leads us to refuse vulnerability. Instead we compromise all sorts of things but primarily it compromises our calling as followers of Jesus to be involved with others in powerful ways – not shallow. Christians either remain comfortably at a distance or else open the can of worms. The can of worms for me was the very best and most healing, most difficult part of my spiritual journey.
If we don’t approach the good news of Christ in this way, we are prone to live powerless lives in denial and in a cheap and fabricated joy that blocks the deep transformation of character that is available now in the present.
What’s available to us now is the ability to enter into a richness and awareness of being alive as a Christian. This is fundamentally different than surviving life. That is a special place in our journey where we can taste His goodness in gratitude in a way that makes our appetite increase for more of Him but without demanding from God that our aching end before heaven.
I love the word surrender when Jesus is the object of my vulnerability. God desires for us to be courageous people who are deeply bothered by the horrors of living in a broken world, and as people who can look honestly at every struggle. It’s okay not to have all the answers and it’s permissible to feel overwhelmed by what we see and yet emerge prepared to live: scarred, giving ourselves permission to feel troubled, but deeply loving and willing to go scared. That requires a degree of surrender that is uncomfortable at best. It is certainly not normal to surrender control of our lives, but it is possible.
Only those who are not consumed with finding satisfaction now and alleviation of ache in the present are able to love God, others, and themselves deeply. That takes committing our desires for perfect joy to our loving Father through trust. In doing so, we are free to live for others despite the reality of an ongoing disappointment and ache that relationships and life will always produce. It’s far too cheap just to say something like, “Nobody’s perfect,” because that still does not adequately deal with what our response needs to be while living in a relationally and emotionally bankrupt culture.
The objective then for spirituality is not relief, it is change.
Our character transformation is the heart-change that only comes through the testing and refining in the fire. Our character determines who we do and do not become and what we do or do not do with our lives, so the quality and the depth of our change is directly tied to our spirituality. It’s through this change that we are able to taste enough of God now to increase and whet our appetite for more of God in the time to come.
This kind of change in the Christian life requires a surgery of the soul, removing the malignant aspects of our soul that do more harm than good. It frees us to groan and wrestle with life without complaint (to still feel it deeply), to love others in spite of our emptiness, and offers a renewed ability to hope for and to wait for the complete satisfaction that we desperately desire.
The kind of change that does truly transformative work requires an inside look, beneath layers and layers of protective walls that we build up to shield ourselves from disappointment, loneliness, and rejection. There’s several beautiful tools to help unveil some of those things for us in genuinely helpful ways. But just know that the transformation from who you are to who you can be is so, so worth it.
The 3 most helpful tools that I can think of for this particular process outside of Scripture itself are 1) The Enneagram (the personality test) and 2) Inside Out by Dr. Larry Crabb and 3) Keep Your Love On by Danny Silk.
Dr. Larry Crabb is perhaps one of the most brilliant and helpful writers on this precise topic. In his book, “Inside Out,” he said this: “The good fight is fought with a sweaty passion that develops only when the evens of our soul is upset. God wants to change good disciples into powerfully loving servants who leave an indelible mark on people they touch. But His method of chasing us, from the inside out, can be disturbing. Be open to new levels of struggle. Be willing to be deeply known for the sake of helping others…He intends to change us into people who can more deeply enjoy Him and represent Him well to others. The surgery required to make that change is always painful. But God will not settle for anything less than a deep change in our character, radical transformation and reconstruction of how we approach life.”
I am personally well-underway in the work of discovering more layers within myself that need to be changed from the inside out so that I am able to love myself, others, and God in healthier ways. I have come to a beautiful point of which I am extremely grateful for where I’ve realized that God wants to actually partner with me on this journey. When we invite the Holy Spirit into those crevices of our lives where we are otherwise hard-wired for independence and self-protection, He begins to usher in healing and wholeness.
The Spirit of God has placed something alive and good and clean and pure and healthy and whole in the heart of every single Christian. We are His image bearers and we are meant to bring life with us wherever we go. Through Jesus, his actual life and power are infused into the core of who we are. Yes we are impossibly foolish, self-preoccupied, and arrogantly self-sufficient but to deny that ruins the wonder and the weight of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Yet we are much, much more than our sin. It is very possible to actually go through life without meeting our full potential in identity in Jesus Christ. Few of us actually find it because we lack the courage to face the stuff that hides the good from view.
If you, like me, long to discover the energy of Christ within you that allows for and validates both your disappointments and your longings, there are three things that we have to do for change to occur:
1) We have to surrender our lives in humility to God, 2) we need to take an inside look at ourselves in the context of a loving community, and 3) develop and grow the spiritual sensitivity required to recognize the whispers and the promptings of God’s Spirit as He stirs up the godly desires of your new heart. When you feel those, nurture them and let them grow. Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and a few solid people in your life will help you keep from giving up cynically on the hope of finding a life-changing reality in Christ.
The Holy Spirit has demonstrated His power and His ability to reach into my soul with ruthless exposure of all that I am (and am not). He has been the comforter and encourager, convicting me and stirring me. I have felt what it is to catch a glimpse of the reality God that overwhelmed me with His holiness, with His grace, and His love. Precisely in the middle of my most ugly and difficult times, I have tasted the goodness and the richness of God – without my circumstances necessarily changing. The goodness is now inside of me, more defining of who I really am now than all of the yuck and the bad and the hurt that still remains. I am in the process of becoming more like my true self and that has involved shedding ill-fitting layers.
I’ve had several of my close friends deeply encourage me with their integrity. I am able to sense the reality of God when i’m around them. When they speak, the words come from deep places in their souls and I am so grateful for their courage to speak into my life. Their love is not perfect, but it is sincere.
The role of scripture, the role of the Spirit, and the role of a few integrity-rich believers have led me on a fundamentally transformative path to knowing God in the midst of any and every circumstance. If you’re someone who also wants to walk that path and how actually wants to change, recognize that at some point you have make a choice to live honestly. It will likely cause deep disappointment, confusion, and reveal unfulfilled longings. But it will also reveal a proper conviction of the inevitable ways in which you also violate love. We are both the victims of sin and we are also culpable.
If we simply limit our awareness of sin to things like obvious moral failure and undisciplined living, all that we can hope to become is a rigidly good person who remains stiff and unapproachable. We will not learn love to the degree that Jesus promises is possible through him. But when we become sensitive to the ever-so subtle violations of love that stem from our self-protective styles of relating, we’ll feel overwhelmed with our own personal sinfulness that should not produce shame properly understood, but will instead actually open us up to a whole new dimension of love.
When you take the long and hard road towards self-discovery in this light, you begin to see yourself clearly, you see others clearly, and you see God clearly. All of a sudden, it’s not an option to take Him for granted and His work on the cross becomes more necessary than your breath. This is an opportunity to develop faith (it does not come naturally), to hope, and to love – and ultimately to experience a depth of unshakeable joy that is unprecedented on this side of heaven. Your truest self thrives on holiness, that is your original disposition. That desire is somewhere within you, still. Let that become your truest thirst that cannot be quenched outside of the living water from Jesus’s hands.