18. The Remarkable Link Between Suffering and Enthusiasm
Hi there. Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
So as I record this, I believe we Californians are entering month number two of shelter-at-home. How’s it going on your end? Our experience here has been that it’s gone in waves. Week one was full of stress and anxiety about what it all might mean. Then many of us settled in and, you know, even saw some positive things in the midst of the craziness. My wife, Grace, and I are praying together more, which we’d never been great at pulling off, and it has been bonding and centering. Some of our kids have been less stressed than before. I’ve discovered Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels, and where had they been all my life? And then by this point, with of course many ups and downs of stress and destressing, the next wave many of my friends are describing is weariness. Will this never end? So wherever you and yours are in that spectrum, God bless you and yours! We in the Journey On crowd are with you!
This week, perhaps in that spirit, we’ll talk about what strikes me as some of the deepest wisdom we’ve talked about yet which is that you and I were made to experience great stuff--daily enthusiasm, joy and love, for starters. But these great spiritual teachers have a profound explanation for why we can have such a difficult time accessing those encouraging things, not least in stressful times like we’re going through now--but, frankly, at all times. But they suggest that, with a few simple choices, experiencing this enthusiasm, joy and love turns out to be a whole lot easier than we’d thought even in times like we’re going through. The kicker comes from how we anticipate and experience possible suffering. Jesus, teaching us about death and resurrection, is all over this. Evidently all the power here boils down to who the actual you is. The great spiritual teachers, taking their lead from the Bible, have all sorts of practical things to teach us about how, once we settle into the right answer on that “real you” thing, the rest is Easy Street. It’s pretty great.
Before I launch in, let me mention as I do each week that I help lead some pretty delightful, encouraging online groups along these lines that perhaps you’d enjoy checking out. We have one on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and another on Sunday nights at 6:30pm Eastern time. You’ll have a chance to connect with great, like-minded people from around the country and beyond. For information about how to get connected, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay! Kick us off, Ryanhood, for The Remarkable Link Between Suffering and Enthusiasm.
The promise of the journeying spirituality we talk about here includes an important paradox that, like all paradoxes, is tough to tease out.
So these spiritual masters make a big point that our best tutor into the kind of spirituality that God has in mind for you and me is a daily experience of enthusiasm, joy and love, whatever the outward circumstances of our lives. A global pandemic that brings economic threats with it, for instance.
We’re encouraged to believe for a life that’s pervasively filled with this enthusiasm, joy and love. Which can feel like a prescription for a bunch of bad stuff. For, for instance, denial--lots of spirituality is rightly criticized for encouraging us to live behind a false front. Or it could encourage us to a fundamental superficiality--as if only focusing on happy things would lead us away from the real depth of what life is about.
And those criticisms take us right to the other side of the paradox. These great thinkers are also really into us walking into Jesus’s experience on the cross and how that led to resurrection, for him and for us. So they focus on suffering as a key road to everything good. Of course you can’t summarize all of their teaching under one verse from the Bible. But--if you could!--you could do worse than summarize it under Luke 9:23:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
So, for all their focus on daily enthusiasm, joy and love, they sure pick a gloomy central organizing principle!
Today we’re going to try to get right to the heart of that, with some stories and pictures from the Bible and practical advice from these great teachers. Let me foreshadow some of this with a quick anecdote from my shelter-at-home week.
Like everyone, my emotions and faith has had its ups and downs in this unprecedented current reality. I’ve had stretches where I’m able to put aside the circumstances that are entirely out of my control and focus on what is in my control and lean into my faith in a good God, and so have days which have gone just great even with all the uncertainty. And then I’ve had other days where I’ve done considerably worse than that, where I feel anxious or just in a kind of malaise that I devote a lot of I’m-sure-unconscious energy during the day to trying to shove down the bad feelings. So, doing my best to be a good contemplative and mindfulness person, where I notice and welcome whatever reality I’m in, I noticed this malaise the other day and I wished I could feel a little better emotionally.
So what are my options when I get that perspective? Well, I’ve got lots of clubs in my golf bag, as it were, that I could try. I can, as we’ve talked about on this podcast, praise God for my circumstances no matter what. I’m all over that. Sometimes when I do that it helps a lot, and other times it might be worthy nonetheless, but I don’t feel any better. That was true here. I liked having done it, but I didn’t feel better.
I can pull out a Pentecostal club from my metaphorical golf bag and can guess that some of the crumminess I’m feeling with has a spiritual root. And I can try to cast that spirit out, to take spiritual authority over it. I’m in if that can work! In this case, again while I’m sure it was worthy for its own sake, I didn’t feel any better.
I can pull a contemplative, mindful club out of my metaphorical golf bag, as I clearly did, and can hope that just shining attention on those emotions and thoughts can diminish them in and of itself, because I’m no longer wasting all that energy in my unconscious as I try to shove those difficult emotions down. But then there’s one final move which perhaps goes to the heart of things even more than any of those, which I’ll talk about today.
It’s interesting to think about this paradox of daily joy, enthusiasm and love that is married to an open-hearted embrace of suffering when we look at what Christians call “Holy Week,” the week leading up to Easter which gets something like a third of the word count in the gospel stories. It’s on my mind because I’m recording this just after Easter.
So Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday, the day where we’re told Jesus triumphantly enters the holy city of Jerusalem. Everyone except his enemies is so excited! His followers feel like they’ll never be unhappy again, because they’ve banked everything on this guy, and now the whole world is acknowledging they backed the right horse, as it were. Other people of Israel are also so excited because it seems like this Jesus guy will overthrow their Roman oppressors. Only Jesus’s open enemies are grinding their teeth, because it appears they’ve conclusively lost.
But Jesus then immediately tries to tell his followers not to get too high, because it’s all going to turn bad by week’s end. As he forecasts that he’ll be killed soon, he offers metaphors like “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just one grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces a lot of grain.” And he suggests not only that he’ll be that grain under discussion, but so will anyone who wants to follow him. So that’s kind of gloomy to suggest on a day in which it seemed like anyone who’d hitched their star to him would never have a bad day for the rest of their lives.
And then, if Palm Sunday represents a day that suggests there will never be another bad day, Good Friday, the day in which Jesus is crucified, suggests that there will never be another good day. On Good Friday, it’s all collapsed and everything is terrible and hopeless and depressing.
But then we get Easter, where Jesus rises from the dead. It might be tempting to think this means that the Palm Sunday side of things has won. It was right all along! There will never be another bad day because of the resurrection power of God! But that’s not the role of the Easter story. Instead, it’s a whole new thing that comes after Jesus has gone into the ground like that grain of wheat that has died and then, on Easter, has been resurrected back out of the ground into this great crop. As if this Easter stuff is offered to all of us as a promise if we follow him right down into the earth ourselves.
Let me, perhaps circling the subject just for a few moments, talk about what these spiritual dynamics look like to the spiritual masters, and how they think this can lead you and me into a life of consistent enthusiasm, joy and love.
Let’s start by thinking about our swirl of thoughts when we’re anxious or stressed— mystics say this swirl is unhelpful, but falsely makes us feel in control. Our chattering thoughts always have to have a problem—solve this one, they say, and there will be another.
Internally bracing yourself hoping something bad won’t happen—as with the events of Holy Week or perhaps a world pandemic—won’t prevent anything from happening. But journeying with God through Holy Week is amazing. Why resist reality, however unpleasant? So, hypothetically, if your best friend moves away, they’ve already moved away, however you internally resist it. Let your emotions about it pass through you. Stay open. Or perhaps your inner tumult will say, “I don’t like what that person said to me. Fix it.” But it’s already been said.
The great spiritual teachers point to a fascinating theme in the Bible about exactly this. They point out that what Paul in Ephesians 3 calls your “inner man or woman” is the you that is behind your thoughts or emotions— and that’s where God is with you. The great teachers call this “the watcher” within you and it turns out that this watcher, this inner man or woman, is the actual you, that you are not the swirl of your thoughts or fears or emotions. You are the watcher that notices all that tumult. And there’s a whole lot of power in getting in touch with this inner you.
Proverbs 23(7) reiterates that the inner man or woman is who you actually are.
Psalm 51(6) says it's your deepest, truest self.
2 Corinthians 4(16) says this inner man or woman is being renewed every day, whatever’s happening in your outer world.
Romans 7(22) says that by contrast to your outer tumult, this inner man or woman, by definition, loves God’s law--it’s not conflicted.
1 Samuel 16(7) says it’s the you that God knows.
Proverbs 20(27) says it’s the place where God guides you.
Your inner man or woman, with God, knows to relax and release. In most situations, there’s nothing to deal with except for your own fears and desires.
Spiritual growth—which Jesus calls becoming like a child—then is transcending your self-protective self and journeying with God.
By contrast, being “worldly” is not so much liking money or status or sex or other things we religious people might call “worldly” as it is believing the solution to our problems is in the outer world. If we constantly try to rearrange our outer world to feel safe, it will come to seem like life itself is against us. Getting that promotion, however lovely aspects of that might be, will not actually give us a lasting sense of financial security.
If you’re afraid—or whatever—rather than running with or trying to battle the swirl of fearful thoughts, take the Bible’s counsel and go to your inner man or woman and ask what part of you is afraid.
Don’t engage with your fearful thoughts, because again your thoughts have always been a self protective device. One mystic says that engaging with your swirl of thoughts is arguing with a maniac. So you release your mind from the task of fixing your inner problems.
Instead, you let them go. Your mind’s function is to drive you crazy over nothing. You relax and release.
Among the things you gain by doing this is energy. It’s exhausting to battle your swirl of thoughts or to try to tamp them down, to not be too unruly.
So in an earlier couple of lockdown days I felt not only burdened but also less productive, which added to my burdens as I tried to drive myself to do better. Then I realized I hadn’t relaxed and released the burdens I could spot from that watcher space. And I did that to great effect. My next several days were notably enthusiastic and productive. Energy is a key gift of all this.
So if a key to a joyful, enthusiastic, loving life is, from that inner man or woman, relaxing and opening our hearts, these paradoxical mystics tell us that the way to stay open in your heart is by never closing. Again, they insist that the only thing you really want in your life is to feel enthusiasm, joy and love. If you continue to have those things, who cares what happens outside?
So, on this theory, when you’re not feeling joyful, you’re holding onto something that’s blocking the joy. If lots of things build up, we store lots of darkness and negativity. It’s hard for the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow freely. It’s like going into a dark, dank, stagnant room and pulling back curtains and opening windows.
So let’s say you get into a rhythm of doing just great at this. You regularly get still and go to the you behind your swirl of thoughts an emotions, the true you, the watcher, the inner man and woman where God is, and you open up, relax your heart, forgive, laugh, let go. You keep your heart open and keep the energy flowing. You’ll discover, we’re told, that the trick is disciplining your heart so that it doesn’t convince you that this time it’s worth closing. You’ll learn in this that your happiness is not conditional on the behavior of other people.
In our current, unpredictable, overwhelming circumstances, openness might look like: “Gee, I wonder what will happen next and how God and I will walk into that?” Again, consider the ups and downs of Holy Week. Palm Sunday seemed to kick off a great new era. Good Friday seemed to kick off a desolate new era.
Again, we get blocked because it feels like we’re protecting ourselves against pain. But that false sense of control and protection, like an unremoved thorn in our foot, can become an organizing principle, a vicious cycle. If we don’t pull the thorn out--in this case, by watching, relaxing and releasing--then our whole lives are spent making sure we don’t step down on that foot. If we haven’t released the pain of, say, wanting to be married but it not happening, we might quit going places where we’ll see couples, which will press on that thorn. Or if we haven’t released the pain of feeling financial fear, it might be hard to pay bills each month or look honestly at our finances. Relax and release.
Now the reward for not protecting your inner self is freedom, is having fun seeing what comes next.
It’s remarkable how non-self-protective Jesus was about the intense suffering he knew he was going to experience. While he, in the end, had to definitively win this battle in the Garden of Gethsemane, it doesn’t seem like he spent the months before his crucifixion battling his fearful swirl of thoughts or emotions. So when Good Friday came, he intensely suffered, not having been self-protective leading up to it. But that was it. And then God his father resurrected him.
We’re encouraged to start with small things. So, back in normal life, someone honks at you.
Relax your shoulders and heart and let the emotion pass through you and be gone as you move into the next moment. Relax and release.
You don’t want to fight your thoughts or emotions. Fighting is engaging with their melodrama. You make a game of relaxing and releasing. Your emotions and thoughts are not you. You are your “inner man or woman,” the one who’s watching with God. Don’t worry about negative thoughts or feelings. They will always be with you and, in this mystic’s view of the world, are no problem at all. But start with the small stuff. There will always be something. You just relax and release.
This turned out to be the way forward with the malaise I mentioned earlier. I realized I could just observe how I was feeling. If I could let those feelings go, great. But even if not, it was no problem, having observed them, to move forward into my day with energy. In my swirl, feelings like these are a problem that needs to be solved, because I don’t want to feel them, and so my unconscious goes to work overtime. In my inner-man-watcher, they’re not a problem at all. Of course on occasion I’ll have up-and-down emotions! From the inner-man-with-God, I just note them and move into whatever I need to be doing next. And all my energy and anticipation is back.
When we haven’t relaxed and released, we can feel a need to get rid of all that pent up energy by venting at someone we love or, say, abruptly quitting an otherwise good job, all of which reinforces the things blocking us and creates a destructive cycle. Unless the person you’ve vented on is remarkably good at living in their inner man or woman and relaxing and releasing, they will take in the negative energy you’ve thrown their way and return it to you. As Jesus said, if you judge, you’ll discover that you get judged.
Let’s say you mess up, in this view, just get up, relax and release, resolve the situation as best as you can. Don’t try to rationalize, blame or perhaps even figure it out.
When you feel shame, just relax your shoulders and your heart. Don’t engage the shame. Notice it and let it go.
It can feel like this is a crazy way to live.
1 Corinthians 1(18) says "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." People who are perishing think that they are the swirl of their thoughts and emotions. To people living according to frantic self-protection—releasing all of that stuff in trust that, while suffering is inevitable, resurrection by faith is also promised—childlike faith seems unfathomable. The cross empowers us to go to our inner man and woman, as it offers us the power of the resurrection.
We so don’t want to suffer that we build up wall after swirling wall of self-protection. But what we realize is that our inner, self-protective swirl both doesn’t actually protect us, but that the swirl itself is suffering, is burden and fear and anger. It turns out that this swirl is what the Bible calls our “sin nature.” And the cost of not going quickly to our inner man or woman, where God lives with us in who we actually are, is that we cut ourself off from the energetic, joyful life we’ve been created to enjoy.
As the disciples discovered during Holy Week, you can’t protect yourself from some suffering.
It’s coming no matter what your swirl of thoughts or emotions is. But, like a grain of wheat, you can unguardedly follow Jesus into the earth and discover that God the Father will resurrect you, that you are actually a child of promise. And part of that promise, again, is that you are made for daily enthusiasm, joy and love.
Thanks so much for joining me! I’ll see you next time.