Why do things go so wrong when you try so hard to do what’s right?
SOURCE: Discipleship Journal/Larry Crabb as adapted from Inside Out
I am convinced that most of us wrestle regularly with problems no one else ever knows about. For most of us, things simply are not at all as they seem to be.
The fact is, a lot of things are going on inside me that I have no intention of sharing publicly. The same is true for most of us. One of the most common things I hear from people who have come for counseling is, “I know I have questions and struggles and hurts going on inside me, but I’m scared to death to face them.” We simply don’t know how to handle it all, and we have no real confidence that other people could handle it either.
Most of us try to forget the whole inside mess and just get on with the Christian life, which becomes an ongoing struggle to look good on the outside and to deny what is really going on inside. But I wonder how much pain and disappointment—how much real agony of soul—is going on beneath the surface that has not been resolved or taken away, but only covered over behind perfect church attendance or Bible memorization or doing all sorts of good things for your church.
For the thousands of people like me who so often wonder why things go so wrong when they try so hard to do right, the Lord has a radical message, a message that needs to be clearly stated and heard.
SEEING THE PATTERNS
First of all, God is not a cosmetic specialist. He has no desire simply to get people in our churches looking the way they are supposed to look. His desire is to get down to the core of my being where I wrestle with anger, where I fight sexual urges that shouldn’t be there, where I feel distant from others, where there’s depression I hide from everyone else—to get down to the real issues of life, and accomplish change from the inside out.
Some years ago my wife and I were shopping for a new home. We finally found one that had everything we wanted, though the price was a little higher than the limit we had agreed upon. “Honey,” I said to her, “what do you think?”
“Larry,” she said, “this house is perfect. We’ve talked about it and prayed about it. This is the home I think we ought to have.”
After asking more questions—”Are you crazy about it?” “Are you sure it has everything you want?”—I finally said, “Honey, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Since you love the home so much, we’re going to buy it.”
“Larry,” she responded, “do you know what you just did? You have just taken the responsibility for the decision off your shoulders and put it onto mine, so if it ever turns out to be a bad one you’ll be able to blame me.” (Married to a psychologist, she’s able to think this way.)
She was right. I’m not big on decision-making. As a counselor I can handle suicidal crises and people with bizarre sexual problems, but I can’t handle making decisions in my own family. “All right,” I said, “I’ll take my share of the responsibility. Let me think this through and I’ll decide.”
I called an elder in the church. “I want to talk with you about a major decision I’m making,” I said, and we talked at length. “Larry,” he said, “if you want to buy the house, go ahead and buy it. From my perspective I see no spiritual issues here that need to be addressed.”
“Fine,” I said. Then I called a financial consultant who assured me the monthly payments were within our reach. “Go ahead and buy it,” he said. I thanked him and said, “Let me think about it.”
Then I called my father. “Dad, I’ve got a decision to make and I need your help.” I told him all the issues—the money factors, details about the house— and asked what he thought I should do.
“Larry, I know exactly what you should do,” he said.
Music to my ears. “What?”
“Make a decision.”
So I did. Finally.
On another occasion I had a few free hours to spend on a Friday afternoon. Two options occurred to me: going to the YMCA to work out, or playing tennis with my kids in the schoolyard behind our house. I decided to go to the “Y.”
I got in my car to make the three-mile trip. After about a mile I said to myself, I think I’d rather play tennis with my kids. I turned the car around, got halfway home, and thought, No, I think I’ll go work out. I turned the car around again. Within sight of the “Y,” I decided I really did prefer to play tennis with my kids. I pulled into the parking lot and right back out. But on the way home again I reached the same point of indecision.
I pulled the car off to the side of the road and threw up my hands. What is going on inside of me? Why on earth can’t I decide? Why is it so hard as an adult male—a man who professes his willingness to lead his family as a husband and father—to make decisions when he’s supposed to? Why is there such a pattern of weakness in my life in this area?
Indecision may not be as big a trouble for you as it is for me, but as I’ve described it, what kind of struggles in your own life come to mind? Do you see any patterns that disturb you? Maybe it’s time to take a hard look—an inside look.
You may be feeling uncomfortable at the thought of such a close-up, beneath the-surface examination of your life. “Just like a typical psychologist,” you might be saying, “trying to make a big deal out of every little thing in life.” Taking such a deep look inside is seldom a pleasant endeavor (at least for me). But Jesus says taking an inside look is what He wants us to do.
In Matthew 23, Jesus encountered the kind of people who seem to specialize in doing everything right and making sure you notice it. You know the type: the person who looks at you with a condescending warmth when you admit a problem. The person who never gives a hint that he has struggles too.
To such externally religious people, so respected in their community because of their careful attention to do everything they were supposed to—Jesus had hard words:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. —Mt. 23:25–26
No message is clearer from these words than this: Our Lord is not terribly impressed with people who look good on the outside, but haven’t dealt with their lives on the inside. Jesus encourages you and me to search below the surface—to see something deep in our lives that needs attention, something not very pretty.
Change—real change, the kind Jesus wants to make in my life and yours— involves far more than trying harder to do all we should. It requires what is so difficult for most of us in this fast-paced world: a hard look at our insides. And that takes courage.
FEELING THE PAIN
It’s so much easier to just live life on the surface, particularly when our situation is relatively pleasant. For when we look inside, what we see is usually painful. We were built to live in a nonfallen world, yet we’re living in a fallen world as fallen beings: I’ve sinned, you’ve sinned, there are problems all over the place—and I’m disappointed that I’m not experiencing what my thirsty heart craves in full measure now. The more I’m aware of what I long for, the more I realize the disappointment I feel in my soul.
For example, real change—the only kind Jesus will settle for—requires a courageous look at the quality of our relationships. Christianity is a religion about relationships, and God, in His ultimate existence, is a relational being. He designed us to live in relationships, and the measure of whether I can change to become what He wants me to be is whether I am living in relationships in the way I should.
But in my own relationships there are painful failures that, frankly, I don’t have the courage to face on my own. Maybe you have them too. All my relationships in some measure disappoint me, just as I disappoint everyone who has a relationship with me. Yet most of us constantly place pressure on other people to never disappoint us—to always understand our struggles, to always respect our efforts, to always support us, to always come through.
Deep in our souls, down at the core, we desperately long for this understanding from others. Not having it is painful. Our insides scream with the pain of loneliness and rejection and failure. It hurts so much that we try to relieve the hurt through our own efforts—often by withdrawing from others so that they won’t have the opportunity to disappoint us further. In every relationship we try to keep from looking and feeling bad, from being embarrassed, from reliving old disappointments—in short, we strive to avoid pain.
But feeling that pain is a first step, driving us to a new level of dependence on Christ. The only way to admit there is no real satisfaction apart from Christ is to first feel the disappointment in every other relationship. Once we admit our hurt—and admit that nothing and no one on earth really satisfies our longing—we can begin to fully depend on Christ to satisfy us.
DISCOVERING THE MORE
There’s more to what it means to know Christ than the most spiritual person around you knows anything about—there’s more! But we’re not going to discover the more until we acknowledge our thirst.
In Jn. 7:37 we read about an appearance Jesus made in Jerusalem on the final day of the Jewish harvest festival. He stood in their midst as an uninvited preacher and cried out, “If you’re thirsty, come to Me; and from your innermost being, I’ll cause rivers of living water to swell up!”
If you’re thirsty, He said, then come. The condition for the invitation is an awareness of thirst.
You and I are thirsty people. We long for a deep satisfaction, the kind that makes our insides very alive, that makes us rich people. We thirst. Deep in our souls, down at the core, we desperately want something—and want it legitimately—that we don’t have and really can’t have until Heaven—to be respected, to be deeply involved with someone who truly accepts us.
Jesus does something about this deep thirst. But it’s our responsibility—and our opportunity—to trust Him to produce the kind of change that way down we really want for ourselves.
To trust Him includes having the courage to face your sadness, knowing that one day the Lord will make everything right. For now, let the full impact of what it means to live in a fallen world really get to you. Let yourself be torn up. To be a strong, stable Christian does not mean you neither hurt nor weep. Face the fact that you long for a better world and for what you do not have and cannot have now. Groan over it . . . because it’s the route to joy, and to real inside change.
Trusting God also means trusting His forgiveness—which is the basis for change. When I come to the point of realizing I’m a sinner and that Jesus died for my sins, at that point He forgives me of my sin and He says, “Larry, I have given you life. Don’t try to go out and find it; rather accept it. Don’t try to preserve it; trust Me to take care of it.” Accepting God’s forgiveness allows the change process to begin.
Finally, trusting God means obeying Him by giving up that style of relating to people that really has our own comfort and protection in view. It means trusting God with our deepest longings and moving toward people in love—even though it’s risky and uncomfortable. Jesus leaves us in a disappointing world with the commandment to get more involved with people who are guaranteed to disappoint us further. The Christian life requires taking risks.
So the hurt doesn’t end. But trusting Christ with our pain and obeying Him by loving others leads to a deep sense of wholeness, a deep sense of intactness. There is life in Christ, and we begin to experience the reality of that life when we do what He says, when we give up our futile efforts at self-protection and allow Him to change us from the inside out.