I’m a couple blogs into a series exploring some of the signs of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality & how I’ve seen them manifested in my life in the past. For a refresher, here’s the list again:
- USING God to RUN FROM God.
- IGNORING anger, sadness, & fear.
- Dying to the WRONG things.
- DENYING the impact of the PAST on the PRESENT.
- Dividing life into SECULAR & SACRED compartments.
- Doing FOR God instead of being WITH God.
- SPIRITUALIZING away conflict.
- COVERING OVER brokenness, weakness, & failure.
- Living WITHOUT limits.
- JUDGING other people’s spiritual journey.
Today, I’m tackling #3 – “Dying to the WRONG things.”
I’ve always loved the simple invitation Jesus gave to those who were considering following Him… He just laid it out there, no frills, no exaggerations, no promises of glory, fame, &/or gain:
“If anyone would come after Me, let him DENY HIMSELF, TAKE up his cross DAILY, & FOLLOW me. For whoever would SAVE his life will LOSE it, but whoever LOSES his life for My sake will SAVE it.” Luke 9:23,24 English Standard Version
Straightforward. To the point. Easy to understand, right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I used to read & interpret this passage, personalized for me, like this.
IF I want to follow Jesus:
- I must deny myself (repress, ignore, reject my wants, my hopes, my dreams, my plans, my ideas for fun & celebration, & all enjoyment;)
- Take up my cross every day (be prepared to suffer, to be persecuted, to not enjoy life, to be somber & serious about the tasks & mission at hand)
- Follow Jesus (go where He goes, do what He does, knowing that the road will most likely be lonely, the existence bleak, the pain & difficulty close...)
For a big chunk of my early life with Christ (my teen years) I associated following Jesus & the Christian life more with things that I DID NOT/COULD NOT do (lots & lots of rules & lists of things to avoid & stuff not to do,) vs. embracing a loving, caring, compassionate, kind, generous, merciful, & hospitable way of living. I couldn’t tell you WHY I thought the way I did – I wasn’t overtly TAUGHT by anyone “Don’t have any fun, don’t enjoy your life, don’t pursue your own hopes, dreams, or goals because God does not approve of such a selfish lifestyle,” but those beliefs did shape my outlook on life, my behavior, & how I viewed & valued myself & others.
At the same time, I could never really reconcile that mindset/lifestyle with another one of Jesus’ declarations:
The thief comes only to steal, & kill, & destroy. I came that they might have LIFE & have it ABUNDANTLY. John 10:10 English Standard Version.
I tried not to think about this too much… because I just KNEW, I KNEW that what I was experiencing was not even on the same planet as abundant life. Chalked up my experience to some sort of sin &/or failure on my part… Jesus was TRYING to give me abundant life, but someway, somehow I was missing it.
Things really came to a head when my view of the world started to impact my marriage & my family. We didn’t go on vacation. We didn’t spend much time doing hobbies we enjoyed. We didn’t hang out with friends for no good reason other than to have a good time. (Hanging out for church reasons didn’t count.)
It got more & more difficult for me to reconcile the message of the joy of life with Christ that I was trying to share with the living, breathing example of ME trying to live that life in my own strength, & failing miserably… & taking my wife & kids into the abyss of despair with me.
Around the time I was exposed to EHS for the first time, theBean & I were on a 17 day mission to Frankfurt. It sounds like it would be great (& some of it was,) but it was really hard for me to actually enjoy being in Europe with my wife, spending time with friends (new & old,) & not having something tangible, something productive to show for it. To make matters “worse,” on this particular trip, a dear German friend, (Claudius Paul, now with Jesus,) who thought that theBean & I “worked too much” & “didn’t take time to enjoy God’s good things,” chose to hijack our mission trip with a 4 day all expenses paid trip to Rome. Rome, Italy. Yes, that Rome.
It almost felt wrong to accept the gift, but I couldn’t say “No,” especially after seeing the joy of a possible Roman Holiday in myBean’s eyes. So we went. (Thank you, thank you, thank you again, Claudius. So grateful for your kindness that was instrumental in helping make a change in my life direction & outlook.)
There was nothing to “do” in Rome. No lists of activities that had to be accomplished. And so we slept in We wandered. We ate at little hole in the wall restaurants with red & white checkered plastic tablecloths, drank some of the best red table wine ever (they had it in jugs! on each table,) & sampled gelato from the Gelato shops that seemed to dot every corner of every block. It was incredible. And SO. MUCH. FUN.
Upon getting back to Frankfurt, Claudius took theBean & I, along with a couple of friends, out to dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant on the Main River, under the pretense of inviting us to “compare the German version of Italian food to the real thing.” It was another wonderful experience with dear friends, great food, beautiful views (lights on water are theBean’s favorite thing) & life-giving conversation.
I will never forget Claudius’ encouragement to me that night. He said something like, “Louie my friend, God intended that we would ENJOY our lives, that we would EMBRACE His good gifts: friends, food, celebration, community, rest, & vacation. It is not GOOD to work all the time while taking no time for rest, for enjoyment, for pleasure.”
Back at home, over the next couple of months, I wrestled with WHY I felt guilty when we’d vacation, WHY it was so difficult to do FUN things, ENJOYABLE things that had no (seeming) direct or productive purpose. I had more & more difficulty maintaining the belief that I lived the way I did because God wanted me to; instead, it became clearer & clearer that the path I was walking was more one of my own making as I attempted to engage discipleship & the Christian life on Louie’s terms, in Louie’s way. Ouch.
I wish I could say, “And then everything was all better, & there was never again a struggle that I had when it came to embracing & enjoying the things that God MADE to be embraced & enjoyed.” It took several more years to get to the spot where rest, rhythm, vacation, time away, nights off, & the like became a part of our regular lives. But that time in Frankfurt & Rome was definitely the start of me learning to stop equating self-driven self-denial & asceticism with being a mature disciple of Christ.
Today, 15 or so years later, I feel like theBean & I are truly experiencing abundant life; it’s not perfect, but it more closely ties in with 1) Jesus’ invitation to follow Him & 2) Living out the purpose that He came… that we would have LIFE & have it ABUNDANTLY.