A friend of mine in a distant city lives with mental illness. For the sake of confidentiality, we’ll call him Dave.
Dave is doing pretty well now. Proper treatment has helped him to get on his feet and to muddle through his days more or less like the rest of us. But a number of years back life had gotten pretty rocky.
While he was in his early twenties, Dave had had a promising career. His bosses had praised his work. Raises and promotions had come along regularly. He and his spouse started a family, bought a nice home, and generally seemed to be making the American dream into a reality.
As thirty drew nearer, Dave’s life started spinning out of control. He became obsessive about perceived threats to his health and dangers to his family.
Coworkers were puzzled by inappropriate and disjointed things he would say, and they were put off by his erratic behavior. His bosses became disappointed by his increasingly frequent absences from work.
Dave will tell you now that his disease process was kicking in. Maybe it had been there in small measure before. Or perhaps the disease had lain entirely dormant until he got close to thirty. Eventually the mental health community diagnosed his condition and set him on a path of recovery.
But initially, Dave and the rest of his family were baffled. He knew that things were flying apart at the seams. So he started grasping at straws.
It occurred to him that a move to a bigger, nicer house in a safer neighborhood would solve all his problems. So the family quickly bought a lovely, spacious place in a wooded, more serene part of town.
They packed up all their stuff and transported it to their beautiful new setting. The furniture arrived. The plates and the flatware. The pictures and the small appliances. Everything moved with them. Including Dave’s steadily disintegrating condition.
The new setting offered no relief for Dave’s inner turmoil. On the contrary, his decline accelerated in spite of his tranquil new circumstances.
Recovering alcoholics and addicts recognize Dave’s strategy as the geographical cure. He mistakenly sought a remedy for an internal disorder by changing his external circumstances.
Dave’s life turned around when he recognized the need for inner transformation and sought help from the mental help profession. He maintains his mental health by following a daily program and by remaining accountable to others for sticking to that program. It never occurs to him now that he could just change his address and all would be well.
Our mental health and our spiritual condition are not precisely the same thing. They intersect at various points, but the one is not reducible to the other.
Nevertheless, there is at least one important parallel between maintaining mental health and pursuing spiritual wholeness. Both involve our inner life. And a surprising number of people mistakenly believe that changes in our external circumstances will redeem our inner life.
Lots of people follow Jesus so that they will go to heaven. They picture heaven as paradise, and I suspect that their picture of paradise looks something like this.
Everyone you like is there. So you don’t have to embrace someone that you don’t like or that disagrees with you or that irritates you.
Everybody acts the way you think they should. So you don’t have to forgive anybody or learn to accept ways that seem foreign to you.
Everybody there treats you just how you like to be treated. So you never have to worry about letting go of grievances and getting rid of resentments.
Everybody there is already perfectly comfortable just like you. So you don’t have to show compassion or to make sacrifices for anybody else.
You get to just enjoy your life. Forever.
There’s just one problem. A life devoid of the ability to forgive, to show compassion, and to forget yourself for the sake of someone else actually looks like hell.
The late Dallas Willard once said somewhere that hell is about as good as God can do for some people. What he meant is that heaven and hell are not places. They are states of the soul.
If a soul is devoted to God and committed to its neighbor, no external circumstances can diminish its joy and peace.
Conversely, souls driven by self-promotion and self-preservation will be in torment even in the midst of the most perfect setting.
Following Jesus is not about where we go when this life is over. Walking the Way of Christ is about who we are becoming for eternity. Jesus does more than change our external circumstances. He transforms our souls, our whole person: mind, body, and spirit.
Jesus can make us forgiving and compassionate when we are hurt and when we encounter another’s suffering. Only when we confront another’s hate for us do we learn to love an enemy. Unless we have strangers to welcome, we cannot learn to be genuinely vulnerable.
These are trying circumstances. They present serious temptations: temptations to hold grudges and to grow indifferent. Temptations to respond to hate with violence and to exclude and even to persecute those who are not like us.
The human Jesus faced trials just as we do. Even though we say this at the beginning of every Lent, I suspect that many don’t quite believe it.
Since Jesus is divine, we often assume that he didn’t have any soul work to do. But remember that Jesus is also human.
Fully divine. Fully human. It’s a head scratcher. He’s the omniscient God. Simultaneously, he has all the limits of knowing that any human does.
As God, Jesus is perfect and complete. As a human, Jesus grew not only in physical stature but in spiritual maturity.
Those forty days in the desert tell us that Jesus learned the ways of God the hard way, just like we do. He had to be wounded to learn what it’s like to forgive. He had to be hungry to learn that life is not about self-gratification. He had to be hot and tired and sore to learn that life is about more than creature comfort.
Wandering through the desert wasn’t about getting through it to the other side. That time in the wilderness revealed to Jesus who he is. Where he is does not define him. Who he is will transform his circumstances.
In the desert. On the the dusty roads and humble villages of Galilee. At the Temple in Jerusalem. And on the cross at Golgotha.
Jesus is shaping who we are as we face the trials and challenges of our lives. And through us, he is changing the shape of the entire creation.