There are times when, all too innocently and because we have not been mindful of what is before us, we give too much license to a dead past that cannot be changed, and then we lose our handle on things. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we conjure from the ether of our past a solitary-but-sharply-outlined idea, and then, one after another, memories begin to fall upon us, like bright orbs called from galaxies far beyond and much better kept in the distance. Our disappointing families and imperfect friends, our closely held secrets and sins and sorrows and regrets, given too much free reign, begin to dominate us. They wreak havoc on our emotions and then begin to drain our spirits until we have no willingness to fight but are just depleted and depressed—all trust, all hope diminished.
When we get to that place, we begin to hate everyone, or we imagine that we do, and to wonder about that Being we call “God.” We think if that Being exists, it’s probably worth hating too for permitting the free will we treasure, even as some of us try to control it in others; for permitting so much that is warped and and destructive to enter our lives; for allowing death and devastation; for permitting innocence to be stolen, hearts to be broken, and evil to flourish all too widely.
When we reach the point where God seems worth hating, we have also, unavoidably, entered into self-hatred. We can’t help it; we are fallen, and the same instincts to idolatry that cause us to make godlings of the things and circumstances and people that we love are also at work when everything becomes about our hatred and our hurts and where we believe our darker feelings may be safely expressed or projected.
How do we protect ourselves from falling into this accidental deterioration of our spiritual and emotional health? Clearly, we cannot erase memory, and even if we could, the price would be enormous—it would entail a shutting-down of self that fragments wholeness and seeks to deny much of what has helped to make us who we are—in our weaknesses, yes, but also in our strengths.
Train the mind toward optimism
To choose to think the best of a circumstance or of a person is no frivolous thing. To be sure, an outlook so sunny that it blinds one to real possibilities of harm or leads to reckless behavior is unbalanced foolishness. Determined optimism, however—the intent to seek out what is good rather than focus on the bad—has an element of subversion to it; it willfully admits into one’s thinking a level of vulnerability that can open us up to charges of naïveté and (even worse) of being out-of-touch with the prevailing winds—a deplorable weakness in our cynical age.
For some, that can seem downright dangerous.
It’s a danger worth dancing with, though, particularly if it leads us away from the shadowlands of despair.
So what helps to train the mind, steady the heart, and ground the soul? Psalmody. A regular praying of the Psalms, every day, helps to form the hopeful mind. It does that by exposing to us the simple fact that no matter how unique we believe our situation to be or how profoundly we are feeling something, the situation has happened before; those feelings have been felt before. The Psalms are the perfect reflection of the human condition; nothing works so potently to counteract self-absorption and bring buoyancy to hope than the realization that this song:
I have become like a pelican in the wilderness,
like an owl in desolate places.
I lie awake and I moan
like some lonely bird on a roof (Ps. 102:7-8),
Immediately gives way to this one:
It is he who forgives all your guilt,
who heals every one of your ills,
who redeems your life from the grave,
who crowns you with love and compassion,
who fills your life with good things,
renewing your youth like an eagle’s. (Ps. 103:3-5)
An email correspondent prompts these thoughts—a young man who is struggling, trying hard not to stumble into the dark holes, even as he feels their jagged edges through his soles, trips against them in his soul.
I can only tell him what I know, but it’s a thing I know deeply:
We do nothing to earn the love of God, and there is nothing we can do to lose it—we can only use our willingness to reject it.
We are loved into being
We did nothing to deserve that. Our whole being came about because the love of the Creator said “yes” to his own intention; the Creator assented to his own desire and brought forth you and me.
God’s gifts are never withdrawn. And his first and most fundamental gift to each of us is the love upon which our lives are initiated and formed, no matter what shape they take. The love is there, forever. Even in our rejection of that love, it remains.
So it is pointless to reject what we cannot stop; the fullness of our formation is rooted in our willingness to let this relentless love rain down upon us and fill us, imbue us, saturate us, until our fallenness is fallen away, until we finally know the fulfillment of God’s deepest longings for us and become ransomed, reclaimed, restored, healed.
The Creator has deemed us worthy of being created, and that brings us the only measure of worthiness we need worry about. The approach of God, and the acceptance of his love, has nothing to do with worthiness. It’s about willingness.
This is a great mystery, but it is true, and it is wholly trustworthy.
Everything begins with willingness. God said “yes” to his own willingness and all was created, down to you and down to me. Our willingness, in return, our open-hearted, trusting “yes,” is all that is required for our lives to become co-creative with God in whatever way he directs. Every day, “yes.” Every day, a constant conversio, a constant turn toward the very first of the commandments, which is all about “yes.”
God seeks out our “yes” because it is most like him; it creates more unto abundance. Within our faith communities—particularly if we are open to hearing the wisdom of those who have come before us, rather than insisting on our own notions—we come to understand this more fully. . . . To say yes to God is to say yes to the very essence of what is positive, expansive, and co-creative—and for anything creative to happen, there must first be space. A wonderful Anglican hymn begins, “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.” Both wideness and mercy are formed within “yes.”
What has “no” ever created, besides hell? (Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life)
This piece was originally published May 9, 2019 in the Word on Fire Blog.