Monday, March 18, 2013

Believing Isn't Seeing

Having just published a post about hope and the power of the imagination, I think it's apropos to follow it up with thoughts coming from the other angle. You see, much as I think hope drives us and allows us to do things we didn't think were possible, I also don't agree that "believing is seeing."

The belief that something could be (or the hope of it, which is not quite belief, but more like the desire to believe when our mind tells us that to believe is insane) is the force that overcomes many of the evils in life which, at first look, appear unconquerable. But I say appear unconquerable. To a fearing person, their phobia may appear insurmountable. And in some sense, it is insurmountable, because they are so chewed by fear that they will never try to conquer it. They believe their fear is justified and true. But once there is hope that perhaps your fear is not telling you the truth, that the spider is not going to bite you after all, you can begin to overcome your fear of spiders. (I speak as one who intimately knows what it means to fear the small black creepies.)

But the thing is, it was always true that spiders won't hurt you. That is truth whether you believe it or not (and I don't). Hope and belief just give you the freedom to overcome the untruths you used to believe about the matter. Hope is what makes possible that which was already possible but we didn't believe was and so would never have tried. Hope doesn't make possible the impossible; it only appears so to the one who hopes.

As such, you can't make the impossible happen just by believing in it. Crazy people will try, but we all know how that ends up; history and the news are spattered with their stories. Truth is truth; you can't change the rules of the world by the power of your mind alone. Imagination is important because it helps us to expand our mind within the rules of the world, breaking past the untruths--such as that spiders are hurtful--and being more capable and functional in our world. Imagination helps us come up with creative solutions to problems. It helps us better work with what we have. But it doesn't help us violate the laws, like gravity. I'll still fall off a cliff, even if I believe with all my heart that I can fly. In some ways, it is people in the hard sciences who need to be the most creative, for they need to be constantly rearranging their expectations of reality so that they can understand what they see.

Believing is not seeing. You cannot claim as real that which is imagined, no matter how powerful your hope is.

This has important implications for mental and emotional health and the way we face our lives. In light of some of the terrible experiences people face, it is important not only to keep in mind the power of hope, but to realize that hope is not all-powerful. In the wake of a tragic accident, it is important and even necessary to learn to hope that one can rebuild a new way of life. But one must also realize that hoping won't bring back what was lost; it can only help you move on.

My experience has an example of both. During the darkest period of my life, I ceased to believe that people truly loved me. I didn't believe that I was lovable, and any friendship where someone claimed to care about me must, I thought, have ulterior motives lurking within it. My dungeon of self-doubt and depreciation was based on deep foundations: the belief that I was not loved, and, deeper still, the belief that I wasn't good enough to be loved.

The root of it all was a sense of being unworthy. And the fact is, this is both true and untrue. You may be leaping to say, "No, it's not true; you are lovely and wonderful!"* But I know the truth. I can be stubborn, ill-feeling, trivial, spiteful, and piously selfish. Ultimately, even if I wanted to make good change in the world, I think the bad I would instigate accidentally, misguidedly, self-protectively, and purposefully would outweigh it. I was right in feeling that I was not worth ruining the potential good in the world and not lovable to any just, good-feeling power.


But if you still see the flaw in that logic, it is because you are aware of this simultaneous truth: there is something beautiful about each and every person; something good in their existence; potential in their being. This is true. And it is that kernel of what could be, of what is but has not sprouted or blossomed yet, that Jesus unlocks and unleashes. There is true cleansing in the blood of Christ; the 'other things' are washed out, outweighed, and progressively destroyed, so that the good things can sprout without being choked out or half-grown.

But it is in Christ that this truth becomes so realized, and without him the old truth, the truth that one is ultimately eventually a blemish and inhibitor to the good and flourishing of creation, remains. Simply believing against it will not topple its truthfulness. I know. For a long while, I sought to fight it by believing in myself. I tried with all I could to believe that I was worth it, that there was a grand and noble purpose to my life, and that I was beautiful and needed.

But you cannot tell yourself something and make it come true. I was too aware of my sin, my erring, my flaws, and my mischief to fully believe that I was what I wished I could be. I knew I wasn't. I wasn't good enough. I had tried and tried to be good enough for Jesus--best grades, best behavior, fastest, most productive, healthiest, wisest, most athletic, strongest arguer. I even tried to be the best at soccer, as if that would be enough for God. But I knew in my heart it wasn't enough. I knew I wasn't perfect. I could see it, and I could feel it. I still lied, hurt people, and did the wrong thing, even if it was on accident or with good intentions. I wasn't good enough, and I knew it. I wasn't perfect, and perfection was what my heart longed for.

But I hoped, believed, that people at least loved me. Friends, family, leaders I looked up to--perhaps they would accept me as good enough. And without question, they did. Even when I messed up. People forgave and loved me anyway. They thought I was kind, and pretty, and mature, even when they saw me at times when I wasn't. As I began to hope and believe, I began to see what was true all along: I was loved by people. They really did love me. For me, not for what they got from me. The first pillar of my dark dungeon came down and the foundations were shaken. I was loved! My hope for love had been well-founded; daring to believe someone might love me set me free to see the truth that they did.

But some things still remained: I still knew I wasn't worthy of love, even though I received it gratefully. And it was at this point that something else happened. I stopped having the time to loath myself so much, which was good; but instead I started trying to be good enough for the humans who loved me. I am stubborn enough that I did not become all-accommodating, but I did try to meet all people's needs, love all people, and downplay all my own problems, to the point of lying to people who asked.

This is where hope, belief, failed. I hoped to be all that people needed. I hoped that by ignoring my problems, by repelling them with my mind, and by believing hard enough that they were conquered, I would make them go away. I tried to destroy the last foundation, my unworthiness, with belief. I tried to believe I was good enough. But it remained unshaken, un-falsified; stubbornly true. My problems were still there, fears still lurked, insecurities nagged me, people weren't always satisfied. I couldn't do it on my own. I couldn't conquer life purely by the power of my own mind, for the mind plays tricks on us and reminds us of our own weakness. You cannot make yourself believe what you know is untrue.

And that is where Jesus came in. I couldn't believe it into being, but he could change it. He could change me and make me worthy and good enough. He could make my fears go away. I wouldn't have to believe; it would be true no matter if I had a good, believing day, or a difficult, unbelieving day. My disposition wouldn't matter; it would be his faithfulness on the line.

And so it was; at the end of my rope, unable to do it any more, I asked one last time for help. And this time I actually meant it. I had always asked for help but never really believed he would give it, so I never left room for him to help. It's like asking someone to give you a band-aid, but when they come back, you've already patched it up yourself. You'll never know if someone's going to help you, if they're faithful to their word, until you trust them once--if you put yourself in their hands.

But doing that takes risk, and the possibility of being let down and hurt a lot. I didn't want to take a risk on trusting God. What if he let me down? There was a lot on the line. Those who know great pain in life see dependence on others as a curse. I didn't think the potential blessings if God did come through were worth the pains of if he didn't. It took me being at last unable to do any more in order for me to finally trust him and reap the rewards of that trust.**

The final foundations of my prison fell down when I let God change me. He forgave me, loved me, and put me on a path of blossoming and flourishing. He undid the unworthiness, wiped it away, made me worthy. Whatever it was he did, it worked. It helped that I had learned that people loved me; if you had tried to tell me about a loving God when I didn't even believe in love, I laughed inside. Yes, I was a Christian, but I was a broken girl to whom the whole idea of love was esoteric. I had to believe in love first. But once I saw that love was real, once I believed in it and trusted it, then I could hear about a loving God with an open mind. God doesn't make sense until you've met people like him. When reality is so far beyond what you can even hope for, you'll never know the true, real, constant love of Jesus. You have to learn to hope before you can see. It was the people who loved me during that time, forgave me and laughed with me and wanted to be my friend--they taught me to hope. Maybe God loves. Maybe he offers what I need, what I so desperately want. Because of them, I finally had the courage to accept from God what I'd desired for so long.

Seeing God, seeing his love, his forgiveness, experiencing it, made a difference. My soul came home. My experience in the loving arms of Christ evoked the real and essential change my life needed in order to be what I was trying to make it. I couldn't do it on my own. Believing didn't heal me; my wounds still ached underneath it all. It took someone changing reality, not merely changing my beliefs. God changed the reality of my wounds and really, truly healed them.

Hope doesn't always save you; sometimes you need a good, old-fashioned hero. Sometimes even if you believe, it's still not true. If you're enslaved to yourself (of which there are many forms), believing can set you free, because the prison is in your own mind. But a slave in the third world has real masters they are harassed by. Believing won't change it. Someone has to come in, unlock their chains, and set them free. Someone has to go there and make that change reality.

May those in chains be set free, and the free unchain their brothers.


Post-Script

People put out all this crap about how Christianity is "a relationship, not a religion." Well, it's not really crap, because it's true. Partially. I believe wholeheartedly that this isn't about following religious rules. In my own story, following rules and trying to be good enough didn't work. I think life changes when we get to know the interpersonal Creator guy.

But at the same time, it doesn't end there. Relationship with God will define you and change you, but the change isn't for you alone. It's not about going somewhere nice when you die--I think most Christians I know are aware of that. It's about working alongside God bringing justice to the nations, help and hope to the brokenhearted, and an end to oppression. As we get to know God, we walk down a road with him that changes the world; and conversely as we walk down that road, we get to know God better, for there we see his heart.

We have to move, not just think; love, not just hope; act justly and love mercy, not just have faith. Life is about both hope and action. We live in the mind and in the body. Perhaps because of the idea of dichotomy of body and soul, physical and spiritual, that started with Plato (and is not in the Bible), we have split the world between people who pray a lot and do yoga and people who work for environmentalism or social justice. It shouldn't be one or the other. Body and soul make up one man, and the whole man is transformed by God. Believe and do. And believe again. And do again. Think, work. Imagine, act.

We are here to proclaim the freedom that is breaking upon the world. Jesus is at this very moment bringing change and justice and joy to the world. A new regime is taking over. A new leadership is coming to power, one that does not misuse its power, one with the power to set all people free. Who will believe it? Who will work with God to set the captives free?


Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform to the behavior and customs of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will learn to know what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 8:1-2


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* If you feel this way, I have to ask you if it's because you know that somewhere your own heart wants to decry you and say the same thing about you: that you are unworthy. You have hemmed yourself in with firm belief against it, and believe in the dignity of all humanity. And there is truth to what you believe. But we must also face the fact that we are not good enough. There is beauty, but there is also imperfection. We must stop supposing that the one denies the other. Our Western society is so determined to be individualistic and earn everything we get; but we are not worthy of the love that we receive, and we must be okay with that. Forgive, accept, be thankful; live on. It will change your life from the desperate bid to be loving and good-feeling toward others and to repay them for their good feeling toward you, to a true love for others and a grateful acceptance of their love for you.

** If you've ever been desperate, you might wonder why you had to go through that, being stretched thin and unable to do anything. When everything is against you and you feel like there's nothing you can do. Did you try to do something about it anyway? Throw everything you could against the raging tempest?
Sometimes I think God lets us get desperate so that we learn to rely on Him and on other people. He gives us lots of non-lethal opportunities, but some people (like me) are either raised or genetically predisposed to be stubbornly independent. It takes dire straits for me to depend on others. I'm getting better, though, bit by bit. (After all, I somehow ended up married... If that's not interdependence, I don't know what is.)

*** The sentence referring to an "old-fashioned hero" is an inference to Captain America. Though I never read any of his comic books, he's my favorite of the Marvel-movie heroes. He's good, kind, and strong. Ironman may be a lot more like our modern warriors, complicated with character flaws, but Captain America has the good heart that I think defines a hero. Don't squash my idealism; hope for a perfect hero might be the most true sentiment I ever have.