Wrestling with a Religious Dichotomy, My Ego in the Balance

Growing up in a religious household, in a religious community, among religious people, you learn certain things. One of the first things I learned was this: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

I don’t know if I heard that in a message from Leviticus or it was told in another form — the “be holy for I am holy” part is quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 — but the message was clear: you are to be holy. What does holy mean? Be obedient and do not sin. God doesn’t sin, Jesus doesn’t sin — so to be like them, don’t sin. If you do sin, you’re failing and you need to do better.

When I got to college, I eventually figured out, thankfully, that everyone sins and that’s just part of being human. So it’s OK that we’re sinners! We have nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sins, and the grace of God steps in to help us.

Wrong, apparently. Confession of sin was saved for one-on-one conversations, filled with religious platitudes like: “Thanks for sharing,” “I admire your honesty and transparency” and “We’ll pray for you.”

So simultaneously, it was holy and righteous to be a good person — to be obedient and righteous — and to confess how much you suck — to be honest about your failures and how much you needed Jesus. In fact, the more you needed Jesus and the more you confessed it, the more holy you appeared.

So which one is it? Or is it both? I’m not quite sure.

Doing an “About” Face

I listened to a message recently from Crosspointe Church in Cary about the first few verses of Matthew 6. Here’s the Scripture the preacher covered, in the words of Jesus:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Jesus Christ, in Matthew 6:1-8

The base of the message was this: Why do you do what you do, and who do you do it for?

So often, he said, we try to seek people’s approval by being certain things. We’ll stoop to any level to find satisfaction in what people think of us.

Not that it’s a bad thing to be loved and accepted by others — in fact, he said, it’s “normal” and “healthy.” We as humans — and Christians, specifically — have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in this world by loving others, particularly those who are looked down upon by society.

But we end up draining ourselves and others, our relationships, when we seek to be approved by others as the reason why we do certain things. That thought process made me think about my life as a Christian, made me ponder my life and what it looked like and does look like. And as I hinted in the open, it has relied both on being an amazing Christian and being a sucky Christian.

The Best Frickin’ Christian You’ll Ever See

When I moved from my small private school in fourth grade to the slightly-larger private school in fifth grade, I transitioned worlds. Granted, it was also an age shift, but the Montessori School of Sanford and The O’Neal School in Southern Pines were worlds apart, despite being 30-40 minutes away from each other.

At Montessori, “niceness” was the goal. It was the whole ballgame. We would be fussed at for picking on people. At O’Neal, at least among the students, it was a different scenario. I heard cuss words used by people my age for the first time.

So I became the “good guy.” People would come to me for questions on homework. They’d cuss in front of me, turn to me and say, “Sorry, Zach.” I tried to play it off as “I’m cool, do your thing” — most of the time at least — but inside I was deeply judgmental. That continued into college.

Side note: I had a wake-up moment early in my sophomore year when I was told by a friend of mine that someone else in our friend group felt judged by me for what they did or said. It was very enlightening.

Anyway, I began to feel like I needed people to know I was a Christian. Not necessarily outside Christian circles, mind you, but within the campus ministry I was a part of. The people that were cool and admired were the holiest — the ones that memorized Scripture, the ones that didn’t struggle with porn, the ones that did the most evangelizing, the ones that prayed the best prayers, the ones that confronted the most sin in other people’s lives, the ones that did the most mentoring.

“Christianity” became my calling card. I thought that was what it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t always a good thing.

Hyper-ness

I was in a group counseling session during my senior year of college — long story, maybe some other time — and the counselor asked us to draw pictures of what our lives would look like with X or without X, the thing we were struggling with.

I drew, not too artistically, what I thought it would look like.

Without X, I would go down a road that was winding and difficult, but had happy stops along the way: getting married to a good Christian girl, having kids, writing books for a living, just generally being happy. With X, I was alone, just sitting there.

But in the top right corner of the page, I drew a cross.

After we were all done, and a couple other people shared their pictures, I shared mine. The counselor leading the session asked about the cross. “Well,” I said, “God is always with me, right? Even when I sin, even when I X?”

The counselor did not dispute that claim. Instead, he said something to me that shook me. I don’t remember the words, but it was something to this effect: “Perhaps you’re wearing a mask of hyperspirituality.”

We had been talking about masks, the things we wear to hide our issues from the world, the coverings we have to protect our fragile selves from letting people know about our X. The counselor was right: I didn’t want to let people know that I was struggling, so “being a Christian” became the thing I did to hide my weakness.

I thought being looked upon as a “good Christian” was the right thing, that it was holy and righteous. But really, it was masking my insecurities, driven by my failures and many X’s.

I’ll always remember that conversation — maybe not the exact words, but the feeling I got when that was said. “But God will always be there,” I reasoned — can’t remember if it was in my mind or I actually said this. I probably said it. The response was something like: “But why is that so important to include in your drawing? Is it because you really believe that, or is that the image you want to give to the world?”

Sweetly Broken?

From that point forward, I knew I had to change. I knew there had to be something different. So I began writing, blogging and talking about transparency and honesty about personal sin.

I remember one time I posted a Facebook status that said something like: “Would you ever, unprovoked, confess personal sin in a public Facebook post?” Of course no one said yes, and I probably wouldn’t have said yes either. But that was the attitude I took.

I want to emphasize a couple things before moving forward: Believing that God is with you through your X’s is good and correct, because He is. Seeking to be honest and transparent about your life and your mistakes is good and correct, because it’s the way to healing.

But where I got confused is thinking that being those things made me an acceptable Christian in the eyes of people. I was hailed on one hand for being a “man of faith,” and on the other hand for “sharing honestly about your struggles.”

As I thought about this part of my life in the aftermath of the message I referenced earlier, I began wondering: Which one should I have been seeking?

After all, the song goes “sweetly broken, holy surrender.” To be broken down and ruined by your sin is considered a holy thing. To be sorrowed and mourn over your loss of innocence and failure to obey is “righteous.” But then, being obedient and a “good Christian” — whatever that means, that’s a whole other conversation — is what gets you book deals and speaking gigs and a good Christian wife and praise from people.

What the fork?

Being Yourself

Just be.

I’ve spent most of my life evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts and actions, trying to make sure they are the “right” thoughts and actions. And while that’s not inherently bad — of course we should try to do the “right thing” — if that’s the motivation, you’re sucking the life out of yourself.

Just be.

Know that who you are is loved by God, and you are enough on your own. We all have things to work on, things we struggle with, and of course we should strive to improve as human beings. But making it about impressing others or being considered the “most Christian” is not just incorrect, it’s harmful to yourself and others.

Just be.

Just be.

Be who God made you to be. Don’t be ashamed of your obedience or proud of your failings. Just be who you are, and know God loves you. Strive to improve, but don’t let that improvement or your quest for improvement define you or bring you satisfaction. You’re loved!

Just be.

Laziness and Idleness: They Suck

So I don’t like writing the words “suck” or “sucks.”

It has a lot of negative connotations, especially for the older crowd. And I get it. There’s a sexual meaning behind the work that leads to some people viewing it as a bad word in situations where it doesn’t involve a vacuum or a straw.

But when I say that laziness and idleness suck, I really mean it. I’m not just saying it casually.

A few minutes ago, as I was processing what I was going to write in this blog post, I did say it kind of casually. But as I thought about it more, I realized “suck” was the right word in more ways than one.

I’ve been looking for a job for a couple months now, and as such I’ve had a lot of time at home trying to fill up the hours. At first, it was fine because my wife was there and we had things to do to get our apartment set up or figure other things out as a newly-married couple. But now that she’s back working, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home by myself and it’s draining.

You’d think that having nothing to do would be the opposite of draining. Well, not entirely. I’ve been sitting around a lot, watching Netflix, reading and writing, sometimes doing something resembling exercise, some other stuff. I have been looking for a job, I promise, I’m not being completely useless. Sometimes I even see it as “rest” from the last year of working, wedding planning, getting married, all that.

But my days have been marked by idleness and laziness. And I don’t think I need to go too deep into how bad laziness. I’ll just share Proverbs 13:4 – “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”

Pretty straightforward. Laziness is basically ignoring what needs to be done and instead sitting around. Idleness is a little different. It means to do nothing that is beneficial. 

Lazy people can still do things. Lazy people can do meaningless things and still be lazy. But idle people do nothing. I’ve found myself being awful idle for much of these last few weeks.

And today, I realized how it sucks.

Idleness sucks because it’s wasting time.

This usage of the word “sucks” is more of the “this isn’t good” connotation.

Ephesians 5:15-16 say, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The Bible warns us, encourages us to make the best use of our time. When we’re idle, we’re not utilizing our time the best way we could.

I’m not saying we have to be using all our spare time in serious prayer and Bible reading and meditation. Those things are at the very least definitely good and beneficial time fillers and at the very most absolutely crucial and essential to living life as a believer the right way.

But we need to think, well, I need to think about how to use my time so much better than I have been until I get a job. Until God provides employment for me, I need to be doing things that benefit my mind, heart, body and soul.

Idleness sucks focus and purpose from your life.

This is what idleness does to me. When I’m not putting my mind to good use, it leads to me losing focus on what is important. Temptation to sin becomes stronger, particularly sexual sin.

When the mind wanders, as it what often happens when you’re idle, it will attach to whatever seems most appealing at a base level. Unfortunately, men’s brains are more wired to think about sex. So we as men must be extremely careful to watch our minds, be careful where they wander. We just might end up in a place we don’t want to be.

Christians are called to be people of purpose and direction. And laziness sucks that very purpose and direction from us.

Rest is good. Idleness is not. Find the difference. Choose rest, then get back in the game. Choose purpose.

Because laziness and idleness suck.

Don’t Give Up: Even When You’re Depressed and Anxious Like Me

Note: This is the continuation of a series on the idea of not giving up in different scenarios. Previous posts include entries on work and relationships. The previous posts have not had a particular audience, it can be applied generally. But my heart is for the Church, for the body of Christ. So the next two posts will be aimed at a Christian audience.

This post dives into the subject of depression and anxiety, something I’ve written about countless times. Please read my other posts on this subject for more of my thoughts and experiences. Just search “depression” in the search bar and you’ll find them all. This piece gives a brief overview of my story.

I originally wrote this for submission to an online magazine but it was not picked up, so I share it here.

The biggest problem with mental illness in the Church is not that it exists, but that we don’t talk about it.

If we do talk about it, it’s a passing mention, with an emphasis on “read your Bible” and “pray.” Oh, I wish that were true.

I’ve had depression for at least six years, probably more. And it nearly killed my faith.

When we think about depression, we often don’t associate it with the word “Christian.” When we think of “Christian,” the list of words that come to mind don’t usually include “depressed.” In a way, “depressed” often can seem anti-Christian to people who don’t understand it.

Depression implies that someone is down or sad, that it’s a state of mind that is hard to get out of. And that seems to go against what it means to be a Christian. We’re saved, let’s be joyful! We’re forgiven, let’s celebrate! God loves us, let’s be excited! Those are things to get excited about. Those are things to celebrate and be joyful about. However, when you’re depressed, it’s hard to join in that crowd.

The majority of my time as someone who has depression was spent in college at Elon University. I was studying print journalism and participating in a campus ministry. The campus ministry was a good experience and had an emphasis on evangelism and spiritual disciplines, things that were good. However, evangelism and discipline are two of my biggest “weaknesses,” if you can call not being good at those a “weakness.”

Within the context of that ministry, it felt like a weakness. It felt like I was not “good enough” to be a part of the group because I wasn’t as passionate about sharing the Gospel with the lost. I wanted them to know Jesus, but I would rather spend time at the house I shared with a couple guys playing FIFA or doing my homework (I was a bit of an academic when I wanted to be) than building superficial relationships with guys just to try to convert them.

For wanting that, I felt like I was less. And because I felt like I was less, I got depressed. Struggles with sin also depressed me.

I talked about this general feeling of depression every now and then, but it was not a comfortable thing. The guys I talked with, as awesome as they were as brothers in Christ, just didn’t get it. And they seemed to be quite happy with their lives. “What was wrong with me?,” I wondered. “Why didn’t I have the same joy, the same drive?” I chalked it up to that I wasn’t good enough as a Christian, and I had to get better. Then I wouldn’t be depressed anymore and people would think I was an awesome Christian.

That was my driving force in life for a long time, and to today still is to a degree: being the best Christian there is. I wanted people to look at me and see my spiritual life and see perfection. That’s what I thought had to happen. See, everyone around me didn’t act like there was anything wrong with them. Prayer requests usually revolved around sick relatives, hard business presentations and that freshman they had been “pouring into,” hoping to get them saved. I felt like there was no place for me to share the mental anguish I went through on a nearly daily basis. No one talked about their personal struggles in their head, and I wasn’t bold enough yet to share it and start the conversation on my own.

Now I feel a little more comfortable talking about my personal experience with depression, at least online. But bringing it up in person with people is still a struggle. I have a few times in my small group, and it’s been fruitful each time.

The problem comes when we think that being a Christian means you don’t struggle with anything like mental illnesses. Being depressed and being a Christian is not a contradiction. It’s just like being a Christian and being born in the South or being a Christian and being a journalist (I’m both of those things) – it’s just part of who you are. The key difference between those things and depression is that you can be a Southerner and a journalist and that often doesn’t seriously affect how you live as a believer. Depression does.

But I’m writing this to all of you out there who are Christians and have depression: it’s not a losing battle. It’s not a battle that you have to fight alone. You don’t have to be joyful all the time to be a Christian. Being a Christian simply means Jesus saved you. There’s no other prerequisite for being called a son or daughter of God. Don’t let the conversation, or lack thereof, about depression in your church or your local group of Christians make you think you’re all alone.

I’m there with you. I don’t struggle as much anymore, mostly because I take medicine for it and I’m engaged to a beautiful young lady who knows everything about me and loves me anyways. Just like Jesus.

What I’ve found is that the answer to depression is the Gospel. It’s the truth that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), fear of being rejected by God for our feelings, fear of being not good enough for the Father. It’s that God loves us throughout our struggles. The Gospel doesn’t necessarily heal us from depression, but it will help and guide us through it.

So be open about it. Share your story. Don’t be afraid to take medicine. Don’t let people discourage you. Find someone who echoes the love of Christ to you and build a friendship with them. You’re not abnormal. You’re just like me.

Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. It’s not worth it.

Don’t ever give up.

Sometimes I Hate the Church. And That’s Never Good.

We are a people of extremes. It’s very rare we find ourselves in the middle of something.

I think of the presidential candidates who try to work both sides of the aisle in Congress as one of the more startling examples of trying to be in the middle. It’s not going to work. At the end of the day, for the most part, we are opinionated people who love taking sides. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily.

As I’ve reflected on what I’ve written over the last couple months, I’ve noticed a pattern. I’m very critical of the Church. I’m very critical of people in the Church. I examined my heart.

Sometimes I hate the Church.

Sometimes I hate Christians.

And that’s never good.

As much as I write about giving grace and love to people on this blog, I very seldom do it to the Christians. Not just on this blog, but in my heart. And I’m sorry.

I won’t apologize for thinking critically about the Church or even being critical of the Church. There aren’t enough Christians who are willing to take a step back and look at ourselves, our people, and point out what we’re missing, how we’re failing at keeping the commands of Christ. I’ll keep doing that.

Initially, the reason for me doing that was wanting to see the Church change, was wanting to see us become a people who give the grace and love of Jesus not only to the world but to each other. I wanted to see us become more like Christ. And I think there’s part of me that still wants that.

But if I can be honest with you, there’s also part of me now that doesn’t want it to change. If it changes for the better, I would have less to write about and I don’t have as much of a platform to stand on anymore. Not that there’s a platform I stand on anyways – I have, on average, about maybe 15-20 visitors to this blog a day. That’s not much.

But this is a very vital part of my life. I pour out my heart on this blog. I’m sharing things I’m thinking through. What I write is very closely entwined with what I’m thinking. And I’m afraid that I’ve showed my hand on my strong dislike, sometimes hatred, for the body of Christ.

What is it that Jesus said to His disciples? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). If someone looked at my blog, would they be able to tell I am a Christian? I don’t know. I hope so. But I can’t say for sure. They might look at it and simply be like, “Well, that Zach guy, he sure is critical.”

Perhaps in my attempt to stop being so judgmental about the world I’ve become super judgmental of Christians. And that’s not honoring to God. That’s not honoring to Jesus. That’s not giving the grace that I would want for myself and that I know God desires for the world to receive, even though most reject it and miss out on eternity with Him because of that rejection.

So here’s to a change, hopefully. I’ll still be critical of the Church if I feel the need to. But hopefully I’ll grow in giving grace to my brothers and sisters in Christ. God gives grace to me. I hope I can reflect Him.

Wanna Know What Terrifies Me? Death.

I’m a pretty fearful guy. I’m scared of a lot of things. Bugs, taking risks, going into the unknown. But nothing scares me more than death.

I was reading the story of Lazarus in John 11 this morning and I began to ponder death, when it comes, how I’ll feel, etc. There’s a very real possibility that I won’t be able to contemplate my death before it comes. I could die in a car accident, in a murder, a surprising heart attack. But I could also die a slow, peaceful death, in which I’ll have hours or maybe even days to think about what is going to happen.

As a Christian, I’m supposed to have assurance of what is next: eternity with God, streets of gold, all that jazz. And that’s awesome! I love it. But am I the only one who gets freaked out when thinking about all those things?

Dying is something that we have no firsthand experience of until it happens. Unlike a first marriage, first kid and many other firsts we hear about from others, we can’t speak to someone who has died about the experience of death. And then when we die, we can’t send word back to earth about it. I’ve often thought about if it was possible for me to send a “message in a bottle”-type word to friends and family when I’ve died, but I don’t think that’s a real thing. Sounds like something out of a movie.

Because of this lack of firsthand knowledge about how it goes, death freaks me out. And then another puzzling question comes.

What if I’m wrong about Jesus? What if there is nothing when we die? What if I’ve believed the wrong thing? What if, what if, what if?

I’d love to be able to tell you that I’m consistently trusting in God’s plan for me after my life here on earth is through, but I can’t. I have doubts. I have worries. I have concerns. Trying to contemplate the afterlife gives me a headache, I think because it’s such a mysterious, complex thing our feeble brains can’t handle.

To be honest with you, I’d love a Defending Your Life-type heaven where we get to eat as much food as we want and it’s all good and we play mini-golf and ride trams and just hang out with people for a few days. It seems quite relaxing, except for the whole judging-you-off-of-what-you-did-with-your-life part.

Back on the subject: I know that I have nothing really to worry about. If you’re in Christ, your future is secure and you are safe from eternity apart from God because of the blood of Jesus Christ. And I think it’s necessary for me to remind myself of this truth because my doubt comes very often.

There’s nothing wrong with doubting every once in a while. Doubt is something that’s a natural part of life because, as we said before, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the end from firsthand experience.

But for me, the hope and grace of the Gospel gives me comfort unlike anything else in these moments. I won’t believe the Gospel every minute of every day, unfortunately. That’s just real life. I have doubt and skepticism that creeps up every once in a while, sometimes to a crippling degree.

Thankfully, there’s grace to explore that doubt. God doesn’t leave me when I doubt him for a minute or 60. And He won’t leave me when I die either.

Our Instabilities Aren’t Wasted. They’re Simply Magnifiers of God’s Greatness.

John 9 is an interesting chapter of Scripture. It’s dedicated solely to the story of a man born blind whom Jesus decides to heal. Verses 1-7:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

Let me key in on the bolded part because I think it’s quite revealing of God and His character and how He uses us.

One of the common evangelical statements is that God doesn’t need us, and it’s true. God has no need of man to accomplish His goals and display His power, but He chooses to show Himself through us, through changing our lives, through altering our futures, through working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28) whether we realize it or not.

You might say the man’s blindness was an “instability” to his life. It was something that made his life a little harder to deal with. I’m not blind, but picture for a minute that you are blind. Look around. All of the things that you see now, you wouldn’t be able to see. For example, I’m sitting in my office at work now and I can see my Bible, my phone, a photo on my desk, my water bottle, my laptop and a few other things. If I was blind, I couldn’t see any of those things. It would make life a little unstable.

Getting back to the blind man for a second…his blindness didn’t make him useless in Jesus’ eyes. He wasn’t disqualified from being part of God’s plan. He had been a beggar before (v. 8), he hadn’t been part of the community like everyone else. However, to Jesus, the blind man was a tool that God used to display His power. Jesus healed him, thereby showing the “works of God.”

It’s taken me a while, but I’m learning to see the instabilities in my life as an avenue for God to show His power in my life.

On this blog I frequently write about my anxiety and depression in my life, and I hope in the future to go into more detail about those things and how God has worked in my life. A couple weeks ago, I preached a sermon at my church on 2 Chronicles 14-16 and used it to talk about how our relationship with God can’t be based on feelings. Here’s an excerpt from the written part (I’m sure I said it somewhat differently):

I struggle daily with anxiety. Not just your normal stress about everyday things, but what’s been called a mental illness. An anxiety disorder akin to OCD. I’m also prone to depression. So prone, in fact, that I take medicine for it. Anxiety and depression affect the way I feel, the way I react to situations, the way I read things. I could go deeper into it, but I don’t have time here. Would love to talk to you about it on a separate occasion.

For a long time, my faith and my relationship with Jesus was based on how I felt. When you deal with anxiety and depression, you’re more prone to feel bad or worried about things. It’s a first instinct. I would live on those ups and downs of the emotionally spiritual life. I would wait for that next spiritual high. When I got to the latter years of high school, it became a daily thing where I would check how I felt about my relationship with God and that would be the barometer.

My foundation was my feelings. My foundation was not the beautiful Gospel truth in 2 Chronicles 16:9, that God is supporting me no matter how sinful I am, no matter how much I disregard Him, no matter how crappy I feel, simply because He calls me His and He loves me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more and more that Christianity is much more about thinking properly, and the basis for that proper thinking is returning to truth about God and what He’s already done in your life.

God didn’t let my instability go to waste. He used it to teach me the “beautiful Gospel truth in 2 Chronicles 16:9,” that “the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.” Just like God used the man born blind to display Jesus’ power, God has used my anxiety and depression to display the greatness of His truth and His consistent support of me.

Nothing is wasted. God doesn’t waste your instabilities, things that might even drag you away from God at times. He may simply just be using them to remind you who He is, that He loves you and cares for you and is desperate to help you. He doesn’t need you, but He wants you. He is powerful and mighty, and, child of God, He’s on your side.

Don’t let your instabilities scare you. Simply let them lead you to trust in a God so bold, so powerful, so brash, that He’d hang out with and heal those born blind.