Emerging from the Wilderness: How We Get Change All Wrong

October 7, 2009

We’ve talked much about how the wilderness is a place of both great suffering and extraordinary promise.  It is in the wilderness that we’re stripped of every cheap hope to which we’ve clung, every alter-ego that we thought could help us save face, every manufactured identity that would win God’s approval (and that of our friends), every claim to control over our own lives.  When we fully recognize our addiction to Egypt, we pray for a wilderness.  It’s not that we’re masochistic.  Quite the contrary.  We’re hungry for life, and life to the full.  And so the wilderness provides fertile ground for the hard work of recovering our identity, the original imago, the true self once hidden behind a thousand masks.

shattered imageBut how? you ask.  This is where theologians and counselors alike begin becoming far too simplistic in their soul-remedies.  I recently read the draft of an academic paper by a well-known theologian writing on this very thing.  Like many in the psychological world who buy into the majority paradigm – Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – this theologian seemed to reduce change down to “telling yourself the truth.”  And so, the Christian platitudes follow.  We’re told to remind ourselves of our justification every day, and rejoice in our forgiveness, and preach the Gospel to ourselves.  Amen…but…

These remedies, if they really worked, would make genuises out of all of us.  We’d sell best-selling books.  And some do.  But they don’t work, at least not fully.  For many, they lead to more frustration and futility.  Telling ourselves that we’re justified doesn’t make depression go away.  In fact, it tricks us a bit.  After all, it’s true that we’re loved and forgiven.  But, other voices are at work within challenging that truth over and again.  We’ll get to those “other voices” in another blog, but let’s talk first about the complexity of human change and growth.

What is most troubling, in my estimation, is the idea that we’re capable of telling ourselves to feel better when the reality is that life, on this side of the return of Jesus, is still marked by struggle in the “wilderness” in large part.  We’re aliens and strangers (1 Peter 2:11), even still, looking for that “better country” (Heb. 11:16).  And if this is the case, at least in part, then life is still chock full of suffering and struggle.  Even the saints who have already gone to heaven know this, crying out, “How long until justice comes?” (Rev. 6:10).  It’s the loud voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the muted voice of a genocide survivor.  It’s the desperate voice of a middle-aged housewife struggling from depression and a 13 year old enslaved by a San Francisco urban sex-slave pimp.  Tell desperate people to just “tell yourself the truth,” and if they’re honest they’ll answer with the same contempt with which C.S. Lewis responded to his truth-telling colleagues after the death of his wife.

Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke once summarized the Old Testament Book of Job in a lecture, saying, “Job was honest and God commended him.  Job’s friends told the truth, and were scolded.”  Sometimes the truth does not set us free.  Sometimes the truth denies the God-ordained pattern of wrestling and lamenting that might actually lead to real freedom, and lived-truth.

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of this process, the process of lament.  I talked about how Old Testament scholars view Jeremiah’s lament as an acrostic, meticulously detailing every jot and tittle of his emotional storehouse.  All details must be heard.  All suffering must be acknowledged.  And frankly, this process is just too long and messy for most of us.  We’d rather clean up suffering, and we’d rather make change manageable – just change your mind.  Well, that doesn’t work, and it’s also oblivious to the reality that change, in the Bible, was extraordinary long and hard, and consisted of many failures along the way.  If change were that easy, St. Paul’s congregations would have been models of spiritual victory, as he told them the truth over and again.  Sadly, his congregations were a mess.

In the coming blogs, we’ll explore the details of lament.  What we’ll see is that change is, at the very least, a change of mind, but in actuality far more.  We’ll see that the recovery of identity, of the imago, demands a serious appraisal of our many false identities and the ways in which they operate within us.  We’ll see that St. Paul, himself, was a living contradiction, a man of competing allegiances.  We’ll also see that St. Paul was a panoply of identities nevertheless anchored in a core identity.  And we’ll see how this is true of us, too.  We’ll see how God accommodates to our own internal brokenness with a myriad of different voices and images, knowing full well that the body has many members, each needing care.  Stay tuned, because this is the part that gets both fun and controversial…and, in my estimation, tells God’s story in technicolor, the way it was meant to be told.

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