When we simply ignore all that is in the depths of us, duty and obligation will often be the only things that keep us afloat. But staying afloat is not the same thing as living from our depths. When we are not living from the depths, we are not living from our souls — we aren’t living out of our deepest desires. We develop an entire religion out of a system of “shoulds and oughts.” At our earliest stages of development, this is normal and even necessary. It’s the classic exchange between parents and children — “Why can’t I do that?” “Because I said so!”
But we aren’t built to live in this stage forever. If we do not deal with what lives in our depths, we will live as fragmented, repressed, and often secretly angry people. This is why bad religion often turns out to be more toxic for people than no religion. We cannot live our lives with no sense of order. But to replace a life without boundaries with a slavish system of “shoulds and oughts” will actually leave us worse off than we were before. Fear-based religion always leaves us worse off. It is exactly what Jesus describes in Matthew 23.15 when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
It’s heartbreaking when people feel they are forced or coerced into knowing God, or trying to love God — “you must love God…or else!” In the very act of saying “you must,” we virtually ensure that the person will never feel like they actually choose God for themselves. When we are not truly given a choice to know God, then choosing God is not truly possible. And when we cannot live from a place of authentic desire, we cannot live from our depths—thus ultimately, we live cut off from our very selves.
Saving the cable repairman
When I was a kid, I spent my summer days at my Grandmother’s house on the Church of God State Campground. Those were the most magical times of my life. She was a sweet, southern grandmother who made Tang and fried cornbread for me every day. We would sit on the couch and watch the Price is Right and play Scrabble. My grandmother was a woman who deeply loved me, and deeply loved Jesus. I still feel like a lot of the most important things I’ve learned about God I learned from her, though she’s been gone for 18 years now.
I remember one morning in particular when the cable went out. She called the company, and they sent a repairman. When the friendly cable guy knocked on the door, a thought seized me: I am supposed to witness to this man. I had been hearing so much about how I needed to tell people about Jesus. Surely this was my opportunity. And then the terror came. I was eight years old. How am I going to share my faith with an adult man?
I was suddenly paralyzed. I was terrified to talk to him, but even more terrified to not talk to him — because I did not want to be held responsible for his eternal soul. If I didn’t witness to him, then he would not hear the gospel. And he could get in a car wreck on his way to his next job, and would have to go to hell for eternity. And because he didn’t hear the gospel, he would not become the missionary he was supposed to become. Which would mean some kid in tribal Africa would not hear the gospel because the cable repairman did not hear the gospel, and I would be responsible for an entire village going to hell. After agonizing deliberation, I walked into the living room awkwardly where he was trying to work, and I asked him a handful of questions about his life. But I could not muster up the courage to ask him “if he knew Jesus as his personal Lord and savior.” I just couldn’t do it.
So when he left, I burst into tears. My grandmother came into the living room and asked me what was wrong. I could barely even answer her through my tears. Finally I sputtered out, using words formed from the prophet Ezekiel, “I didn’t share the Lord with the cable repair man — and now I know his blood is going to be on my hands!” It was intense for an eight-year old, but that is how I lived every moment of my life — always afraid of Jesus coming over the horizon at any second to call me into account for my sins. My grandmother was, as always, tender and wise. “Oh, Jonathan. That’s not how God works! The way I see it, when I get an opportunity to tell someone the good things the Lord has done in my life, it’s always a blessing. And when I don’t do it, sometimes I feel like I miss out on the blessing of telling my testimony. But that is all — God is not mad at you for not sharing your testimony with the cable repairman!”
But that was the system I internalized, and that is how I always interpreted anything I thought God might be calling me to do. It wasn’t an invitation, but a threat. I grew up feeling sure that God was holding a gun to my head, saying do this or else. Everything I did for God, even when I grew much older, was still out of a sense of duty and obligation. No wonder I was so stuck in my head. When you are living in constant fear, there is no way you can choose to live out of your depths.
pancakes and epiphanies
One of the beautiful things I picked up in my Pentecostal upbringing was an openness to hear or see the Spirit at work in all times and all places. It made me into a kind of accidental mystic. This has especially played out in my life through my love of reading somehow; it’s made me attentive to the possibility that the Spirit could show up through most any kind of text. There have been key moments where I felt like God somehow led me to just the right words in the right book at the right moment. I know this all might sound kind of tenuous. I’m aware “confirmation bias”, that we tend to go looking for things that will support what we already believe. And I certainly don’t think every coincidence in my life equates to some full conspiracy of the angels. But there is a kind of synchronicity at work sometimes in life I have just decided to trust.
So during the middle of my own descent, I had an especially strange moment in church. It was early during the 10:45am service at St. Peter’s Episcopal. There are four readings every week — one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament, then climaxing with a reading from the Gospels. That morning when the Old Testament text was read, it was about Joseph being thrown into the well by his brothers. This was before I had come to understand that the journey I was now on was a journey of descent. But somehow when the verse about him being thrown into the bottom of the well was read, I felt a kind of electricity in my soul. It was odd. The only way I knew how to recognize the Spirit in the text in a church service was if the preacher read one louder than the others! But this verse was read just as gently as the verses before and after it. Our rector didn’t even mention Joseph in his sermon — he preached from the Gospel text. But the image of Joseph being thrown into the well lingered.
The next morning, I went to the Cracker Barrel for pancakes. That is what I do when I’m depressed (and also when I’m very, very happy, incidentally) — I medicate with pancakes. On my way out the door, I grabbed a book almost arbitrarily off the nightstand by the poet Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men. It is an artful, elegantly written book about masculinity that at that point, I knew next to nothing about. Feeling somehow mysteriously drawn, I opened the book at random, near the middle of the book. I know this not a fool-proof method: hence the old joke about the guy who opens up his Bible and asks God to talk to him, and the first passage he opens to is where it says “Judas hung himself.” Then he flips a few more pages and reads where Jesus says, “Go therefore, and do ye likewise.” I don’t have an imitable formula, just an odd story of grace, in the way that all stories of grace surely are.
The page I flipped to was in a chapter called “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief.” And these were the first words I read on that page: “We remember that Joseph’s brothers put him down into a gravel pit — the Arab version says into a ‘deep, dry well.’” That is one of Bly’s images for the necessary path of descent men must go through. Remembering what I felt in my soul when that text was read the day before, the way the image of Joseph’s descent had haunted me—I freaked out in the middle of the Cracker Barrel. Every hair on my body stood up. It was not a place I would choose for a spiritual experience.
I still had no idea just how profoundly the book was going to affect me. The premise is roughly as follows: Bly draws from a Grimm fairy tale about a prince who finds a wild man in a cage. Inside the cage with the hairy man is a golden ball the prince wants, but he is afraid to unlock the cage and thus let the wild man out. The only way he could unlock the cage would be to steal the key hidden beneath his mother’s pillow. For Bly, it is crucial that the key has to be stolen. If the boy never passes through this part of the journey, he grows into a man who represses his zest for living under layers of shame, anger, and unfelt grief. He emphasizes:
The key has to be stolen. I recall talking to an audience of men and women once about this problem of stealing the key. A young man said…’Robert, I’m disturbed by this idea of stealing the key. Stealing isn’t right. Couldn’t a group of us just go to the other mother and say, ‘Mom, could I have the key back?’…No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it. Mothers are intuitively aware of what would happen if he got the key: they would lose their boys. The possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons — not to mention the possessiveness that fathers typically exercise on daughters — can never be underestimated.
Bly brilliantly exegetes this myth as a way of understanding the plight of many contemporary men. There is a natural rite of passage that takes place when a boy differentiates from his parents, when the key is stolen. The boy has to become in touch with the wild man if he is going to grow and develop. In other words, he is going to have to integrate the wildness — and that is not going to happen without making some choices of his own, and having to deal with his own consequences.
The deeper I got into the book, the bigger my eyes got. I’m reading this as a 36-year old man with my life in crisis, feeling like I’m finally dealing with the deepest issues of identity for the first time. And sure enough, Bly says that if a man does not have this kind of process when he’s young—if he tries too hard to mind his manners and keep all the rules and not disappoint any of his authority figures— then he has to go through this stage later in life. By the time he is 35, Bly contends, there is already a deep fracture in his true self that is going to come to the surface in a dramatic way. But the split just now happening on the top layer has already been years in the making. Dear God, I thought. I am reading about my life. It made me think of the moment inThe Neverending Story when the young boy, Bastian, realizes that he himself is a character in the magic book he’s been reading, and he hurls the book across the room. It was both holy and frightening, as I suppose most holy moments are.
But there was also great comfort in coming to understand something of what was going on within me. I had been the boy who lived his whole life out of fear of failure or rejection, the boy who always kept the rules. I had kept the wild man in the cage at all costs. I had lost touch with myself. There were rites of passage I had neglected that I was having to undergo now, at great cost. It was my moment of illumination.
Understanding something of the journey I was on did not precisely make itfeel any easier, then or now. That path of “ashes, grief and descent” is a long and often lonely one, however necessary it might be. So I was feeling especially low again a few months later, when the pain of the journey was landing heavy on me. Once again, I was in a restaurant eating alone. Once again, I had picked up a book on the way out the door I had been meaning to start but had not got around to. This time, it was Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. Once again, I casually flipped the book open.
This time, I opened immediately to a chapter where Lesser is talking about her own experience with Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book,The Runaway Bunny. She tells how different it was to read it to her two sons. The sweet little tale begins like this: “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’” So from there, the little bunny keeps coming up with wild schemes to get away from his mother. But no matter where he chooses to go or what he chooses to become, his mother changes into whatever she needs to be to get back to him.
One of her sons loved the book, and was comforted by the image of the mother who would not let her little bunny get away, no matter what. But her son Daniel didn’t like it. He was frustrated that the little bunny could not make his escape, and would cheer for him to actually get away from the mother, shouting “Run away, bunny!” He would even come up with new schemes of his own for the little bunny to use that might actually enable him to get away.
I don’t have children, so I don’t know children’s books—it was the first time I had heard of The Runaway Bunny. It was meaningful for me in a way I find hard to explain now, because (and I’m swallowing anxiously here—this is not a very masculine admission), I have always had a thing about bunnies. I love them. I think bunnies are somehow kind of superfluously beautiful. They always make me think of grace. They have kind of been my totem. At different times and places in my life, I will see a bunny, and be reminded in just the right moment of God’s beauty and faithfulness to me. (There. I said it.)
I was moved that night because I felt like a runaway bunny who could not find his way back home. I loved the image of God pursuing me at all costs, going wherever He had to go and becoming whatever He had to become in order to get to me. It made me think of David saying in the Psalms, “even if I take up the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, you are there.” And indeed I do think there is a beautiful picture of God inThe Runaway Bunny. I do believe that there is a way that the love of God pursues us no matter where we go, a love that will not leave us alone. I am humbled by that love, and ever grateful for that love.
But that was not the central message Broken Open had for me. Feeling the open wound of my own heart, I kept reading. And as Lesser goes on, she goes in a direction I could not have expected — she writes about her later experience with…Iron John!? She came to know Bly through her work, and fell in love with the book. But she said she choked on the part about the boy having to steal the key from underneath his mother’s pillow. That is until her own sons grew up, and their process of individuation meant they too had to have seasons of distance from their mother. Today she is extremely close to both of her sons. But she does not believe this would be possible now if she had not been willing to grant them the necessary space to make their own choices. She ends the section this way:
If you find yourself holding tight to your children long past appropriateness or helpfulness, perhaps it would help if you took down an old copy of The Runaway Bunny. Sit on the couch next to your stunned son or daughter, and read the book aloud. Only this time, change the words. Read it like this: Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will let you go. For you are grown now. I trust you to find your way in the world. Run away, bunny!’
I was stunned. I just assumed that the message I needed to hear—as it is one I have always struggled to internalize—was the message of God’s relentless, unconditional love. And in way it was, but not in the way that I presumed. God loved me enough to not hold the gun to my head, to not tell me what I should or must do from here. God loved me enough not to say, do this or else. God loved me enough to say, now you are at a place in your life where you are going to have to make some choices of your own. God did not want me to live in the shallows of duty and obligation anymore. It was time to learn to live from my true self, it was time to learn to live from my depths. And there was going to be no way to do that without the love that grants us terrible freedom.
Choosing one’s self
On the other side of that moment, I understand many things I had read in Scriptures much differently than I once did. In the Genesis story, when God tells Adam and Eve they can eat from any tree of the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit glistens with inevitability. How could they choose anything else? In order for them to live awake, for them to become fully human, they would have to make their own choice — even the wrong choice. Strangely enough, it is only in making the wrong choice that they will be able to return to their native state of dependence again—the only place from which we can know God. Partaking of the fruit is a necessary part of the universal human journey.
Rollo May articulated this brilliantly in Man’s Search for Himself. For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:
It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.
This is why moralistic religion actually becomes dangerous for us, how it makes “double sons of hell.” As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own ethical awareness and strength: “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”
Like Bly in Iron John, May understands many social problems as the end result of a culture where people do not have necessary rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of self:
The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.
It was by no means a happy discovery at 36 to see just how much I had operated largely from those “compulsive needs to be admired and praised,” and thus how much I often felt like I had “vanquished myself.” I had not, in some very fundamental ways, really grown up yet. I was being plunged into the depths of my own soul and my own life, and the sea was raging. I would have given anything to make the churning stop. And yet the more I came to see the necessity of this phase of the journey—even though it seemed to mean my unraveling—the more I started to experience fleeting moments of peace. I was starting to understand that being thrown into the ocean is not God’s way of abandoning us, but of saving us.
Love leaves the cage door open
I am not nearly far enough in any of these soul discoveries to claim to understand them well or clearly. But here is what I do know:
Love does not lock us in.
Love always leaves the cage door open.
If we don’t feel like we have a choice, then we don’t truly choose.
I lived so much of my life afraid God would punish me for doing the wrong thing. But what I’ve come to believe is that the consequences of our actions are intrinsic — thus “the wages of sin are death.” In that sense no one ever gets off easy, because we all live out the natural course of our choices, our own consequences. We do, in fact, reap what we sow. But God is not the cosmic enforcer of karma, making sure we get what we deserve. God is the One who interrupts this cycle with grace.
Sin does not keep God away from us — we cannot outrun His everlasting love. But what our own choices can do is blind us so that our vision of God becomes a distortion. The God we see through the lens of duty and obligation, through the lens of bad religion, is not the God we are actually given in Jesus of Nazareth. So many of the teachings of Jesus gesture toward this — that God is not who we have always presumed him to be from our place of guilt. In the story of the prodigal son, the wayward boy squanders his father’s inheritance, and thus has to live out the consequences of his actions — thus he finds himself working in a hog pen. Significantly, it is only when he “comes to himself” that he starts to remember his father for who he really is, and has in fact always been.
Even then, he sees through a glass darkly. He thinks the only way his father would allow him to come home is as a hired hand. He does not know yet that his father only wants to tackle him with his ferocious love, embrace him, and celebrate his return. But as much as the father wants his son home, the one thing he will not do is force him to stay there. Even though he knows his son will have to learn some hard lessons through his choices, they are yet very much his own choices to make. So the father did give his son the inheritance willingly, knowing it would be squandered.
The truth of this parable, and of the love that will not coerce us, is most clearly demonstrated to us in the cross of Jesus. The cross says to us there is nothing God won’t do to bring us home — except force us into choose Him. The cross is God laying down His great power, so that we might be compelled by the beauty of His heart. He will not coerce us, only woo us. But so long as we see Jesus through the distorted lens of bad religion, every invitation is perceived as a threat.
That night sitting in the restaurant after I read that section in Broken Open, I had a revelation that I don’t think I’ll ever get over: up until that point in my life, I had never really chosen God. I was still in so many ways the boy who thought the cable repair man’s blood was going to be on my hands if I didn’t share my testimony. I was still living a life motivated by fear rather than love. It was not God that was coercing me, but my own terror of God — which ironically enough, kept me from being able to truly love God. Because again when we feel like we do not have a choice — choosing God is not yet possible. I heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit, a scandal to my own ears: “You don’t have to choose me — but I would sure love for you to.”
By that point, I had preached countless sermons about the love, grace and beauty of God that is revealed in Jesus. And yet in my own deepest self, I still saw him as a punitive ogre. I still had not yet learned that my own choices did not change God’s heart for me, but my perception of God. Hell would be to remain forever caught in such a delusion, unable to see God for who and how He really is.
“When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things,” the apostle Paul writes. As long as we are caught in childish, infantile delusions of God, we remain trapped in the most primitive level of consciousness — that of law and fear: “Don’t do that, because I told you not to.” That is a life lived in the shallows, if it can be called a life at all—certainly not the kind of life where “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls,” in the words of Psalm 42.7. This is why it’s often only when we are at the end of ourselves that knowing God is truly made possible. Only there is the prospect of a relationship that is born out of desire—and thus out of the depths of us.