Neuroses . . . are the bonds that, though they restrict or enslave us, also secure our self-images in the world. As discomforting as they may be, we fear total disintegration if we were to let them go. – Gerald May
To be like Christ crucified is to be both most godly and most human. – Michael Gorman
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I’ve often observed two pathways at work in the human heart. One is directed back toward Egypt, that place of emotional and spiritual enslavement, difficulty, and division. The other is directed toward Home—toward life with God. The former clogs the spiritual arteries of our heart, preventing us from living and loving; the latter invites God to do heart surgery, opening us to life as it was designed to be.
The first is characterized by neurosis—anxiety, depression, shame, addiction. Clients will say, “I just don’t feel like myself.” This is practically a definition of neurosis—we’re not ourselves. Instead we’re captured by some thought, emotion, or attachment that enslaves the heart, cutting off our connection to self, others, and God. All of us have experienced this in one way or another. It doesn’t mean that we’re crazy; it doesn’t even necessarily mean that we need counseling. It means that we’re in need of rescue, release, and redemption.
The second is characterized by theosis, an experience of deep connection and relationship as it was intended to be, a life of union and transcendence. That’s what the apostle Paul was talking about when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Paul often talked of being “in Christ,” a mystical union with God Christians throughout history have described in many different ways. This phenomenon has been called union, participation, divinization, deification, christification, and, especially among Orthodox Christians, theosis—“a state or process of participation in God.” No matter what we call it, it’s an invitation to experience the spaciousness of our home in God.
Neurosis might be called the condition of the divided self. It’s when we’re not really ourselves, at least as we were meant to be. Our original design was for wholeness, unity, and harmony, both internally and externally. But as exemplified by Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden, we’ve engaged in theatrics. We’ve become masters at arranging our lives to hide the darkness and display our greatness. The great nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon characterized the phenomenon of the divided heart in a famous sermon: “Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade.”
Neurosis leads us back to Egypt, back to relationships and addictions and emotions and attitudes that offer a taste of satisfaction but ultimately disappoint. Theosis draws us up and out, beyond our false selves and into our full humanity.
Neurosis tangles up in a false gospel of image and appearance, where God waits for us to tidy ourselves up before welcoming us. Theosis invites us to recognize God running toward us, ready to welcome us, brokenness and all.
Neurosis tells us that our humanity is a problem, that our bodies just get us into trouble, and that real maturity manifests in a kind of hyper spiritual, “über-saint.” Theosis reminds us that God isn’t afraid of us; God’s Spirit dwells in us in order to make us fully human.
Much of what we call North American Christianity is entrenched in the trajectory of neurosis, leading to spiritual burnout, emotional exhaustion, and a faith that makes little sense to a watching world—a world that sees our hypocrisy better than we do.
Home isn’t a place where we have to put on appearances. Home is a place where God smiles on us, dwells in us, and embraces us. That’s a the real home, sweet home.
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This was an excerpt from my book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places