These last two years have been emotionally quite challenging for me. This was especially so this past March when, as the result of a violent auto accident, my mom died and my father developed dementia due to a lack of oxygen to his brain. As painful as this has been for me, my parents’ accident is just one example of emotional difficulty I’ve experienced this past year. It seems I have been impacted where I have a significant relational connection.
During the summer I began to realize that dullness had pervaded my spirit as a result. With each emotional challenge, I had been moving deeper and deeper into a place of non-becoming—a place where I was no longer becoming the man that God has called me to be. Consequently, sources of personal connection, which normally would bring me comfort, now only increased my growing sense of alienation. I felt detached from community, even when I was in the midst of it.
Having read Josef Pieper’s book On Hope two years ago, I knew my feelings of non-becoming were connected to sloth. With each emotional challenge I experienced, I allowed portions of my heart to become frozen. Sloth is often poorly defined as being lazy. It’s not. It is becoming stagnant, being unable to continue becoming God’s image bearer.
I am well versed on Leanne Payne’s teaching about the dangers of diseased introspection, so I knew not to become lost by turning inward into endless, self-focused introspection. However, I did slip into what I will call a state of heightened emotional subjectivity. By this I mean, I was constantly aware of how I felt (especially of how my environment was affecting me), but I was doing little to resolve my emotions with the Lord.
In this article, I’m hoping to share with you three important insights:
1. How perilous it can be to become lost in the subjectivity of being defined by our emotions;
2. How looking up and out of ourselves to the risen Christ awakens us to both experience our emotions while also not allowing them to define us; and
3. How the Lord objectively affirms our true selves, empowering us to rise up to walk united with Him as the men and women He calls us to be.
Slipping into Subjectivity
There is a time and a place for deeper introspection, for examining ourselves in the light of the Lord’s truth. However, the greater our subjective self-awareness, the more our capacity to be other-aware may diminish. If my heightened self-awareness blocks my relationships with others, I can become stuck in a diseased state of subjectivity. My thoughts become fixed solely on how I am feeling, and I lose the capacity to be transfixed on the One who calls me to stand in true relationship.
During the summer, the music I listened to, the movies I viewed, and the TV programs I watched heightened certain emotions within me. I can see now that I was seeking those emotional stimuli that enhanced my malaise by evoking feelings of sadness or loss. The movies I was drawn to, for instance, were ones into which I could escape into unrealistic romanticism. I sought that which I could emotionally identify with but that did not require any action on my part to bring resolution to my emotions. As a result, I became deeply passive and complacent. I’d wake up in the morning planning to have a quiet time and go to bed that night realizing that I never did. My days and weeks were a blur.
During this time, I admit that my self-depreciating humor sometimes prevented others from realizing how disillusioned I really was inside. Behind my exterior, I had a diminished sense of joy and hope, and I was growing increasingly more depressed. Conversations with others about my situation and inner turmoil elicited a range of responses from different people in my life. Some were unable to discern the significant inner turmoil I was experiencing because they saw no problem with my situation. Still others counseled me to simply get over it and have a “just do it” attitude. Interestingly, these two responses reflect two extremes we can fall into: The first is a level of passivity, being lost in emotion and ignoring the good of the cognitive; while the second is a restless activism, trusting in “doing” and cutting off the good of the intuitive heart. What we need is a combination of the two: to be able to discern and name the hurt in our hearts and then to rise up to do whatever the Lord indicates to bring focus and resolution to our situation.
Beginning to Awaken the Sleeper
The Lord is aware of our need and condition. He is always speaking to us! When I would make the time to truly enter His Presence, His healing words began to address my condition. First He began to reveal how my emotional subjectivity had consumed me. For example, my involvement in ministry had become a “job” to me emotionally instead of a calling. My focus was on my emotions, only aware of how my daily experiences made me feel or not feel! I was not other-aware, and so could not be aware of the One who was with me each moment of the day.
I began to see how drawn I was to subjective worship songs—songs that focused me on how I felt rather then on who God is or His calling forward my true self. A line in one of my favorite worship songs confesses being sorry for turning worship into something besides truly worshiping God. I began to ponder if this line applied to me, and the Holy Spirit showed me that I had become attached to the emotions I experienced during worship. It was just like those programs I watched which heightened my emotional awareness.
Two prayers became a key part of my quiet times during this period. In the first prayer, I asked the Lord to help me be an “adult son,” not one acting out his brokenness but one responsibly choosing to put away childish things. In the second prayer, I asked God to awaken the sleeper, to help me be like Samuel—able to hear the voice of the Lord to wake me out of my lethargy. In this prayer, I needed to confess my sloth as sin! He who is faithful hears us (Hebrews 10:23).
In my prayer journal, the Father spoke very clearly for me to rise up in my present circumstances. I knew that He was not asking me to enter into restless activism, but to rise up in my true self. In my sloth I had forgotten who I am in Christ (Acts 17:28). In my passivity I had lost the capacity to tell myself the truth. It took time, but eventually I began to allow the Holy Spirit to empower me to rise up.
Once again Josef Pieper’s book On Hope confirmed something about which the Lord had often warned me. In my years of journaling the Lord would admonish me not to despair. Josef Pieper showed me that despair is a sin! Despair doesn’t simply rise up within us; we actually choose to embrace despair. We choose to despair in the face of the One who has redeemed us! This truth helped keep me from turning to diseased introspection and losing myself in despair.
Another truth that helped me not despair is that nothing catches God by surprise. He is never caught off-guard (Psalm 121:3). He has an exact plan for every circumstance I experience. I can place my trust in Him no matter how dismal my life appears. I look up and out of my earth bound, limited vision and see the bigger picture of which I am a vital part! I tell my heart His truth regarding the emotions I am feeling.
Our lives are already laid out before Him! Our areas of brokenness comprise only a portion of our personhood. All life’s experiences are part of the process of sanctification which is transforming us into the men or women we’re called to be. We’re okay because as people in process, God accepts us right where we are. However, He loves us too much to leave us in that place, and beckons us into greater
In my case, the Holy Spirit began to strengthen me to turn off those sources which lulled me into non-becoming. I turned off my TV for a week, not viewing programs or DVD’s! I was amazed how sensitive I was again to hearing His voice beckoning me to come away for a quiet time. My prayer journaling increased my focus and provided the direction for which I had been longing.
The most significant thing the Lord did was to reveal again my heart’s deepest desires. During a time of counseling and healing prayer, the Lord spoke very clearly to me: “I know your heart.” The grief, sorrow, and two surgeries I had this summer left me unable to remain focused and function efficiently in the office. I was very vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. I agreed with his “critique” of my poor performance and heaped condemnation on myself, furthering my feelings of alienation and pain. I turned to addictive behaviors which confirmed my feelings of condemnation and the lie that I was shameful.
One morning I began to weep heavily and cry out to the Lord about the state of my being. Up through the tears rose the deep desire I had to be an adult son. I expressed how much I longed to once more be intimately connected with Him. My heart yearned to be free to minister again with joy and compassion. I knew again that beneath all the emotional turmoil in my heart, these deeper desires were still present and He indeed knew they were! It was I who had forgotten, not Him. Immediately my heart was filled with renewed hope.
The Saturday following this time of prayer, I was driving to the office for two appointments when I realized that not once had I bemoaned the loss of “my” Saturday! Within me welled up an excitement and desire to truly enter into what God had in store for those two appointments. He was renewing my passion for the ministry.
Have I fully “risen up”? No. Like all of us, I am still becoming. But now, my eyes are no longer cast down (Psalm 34:5). The Lord has given me the capacity to use His divine objectivity, rather than my emotional subjectivity. As I write this article, I anticipate the beginning of our Northern Virginia Living Waters program where we sing some of those incredible hymns which cause us to look up and out of ourselves to see Him, the Victorious One who calls us forth to stand in the true self united with Him.
By Rev. Bob Ragan
Originally Published November 2004