Hangovers really stink. Never having another hangover is one of the reasons I’m grateful that I don’t drink alcohol anymore.
Well, actually, I don’t have alcohol hangovers anymore. But from time to time I still suffer emotional hangovers. Sometimes I binge on what turns out to be toxic emotions. My overindulgence can leave me exhausted, dazed, and ashamed.
While I take sips of envy from time to time and take the occasional nip from the contempt bottle, my toxic emotion of choice is anger.
Now don’t get me wrong. Anger is not categorically wrong. Sure, you’ll find it on the list of the seven deadly sins. A list, by the way, that is not in the Bible. But if by anger you mean a passionate resistance to injustice—what Jesus called a hunger and a thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)—then you’ve got to admit that anger is actually a virtue.
But I’m not talking about righteous indignation in response to racism and sexism, poverty and exploitation. I’m talking about being so swept away by feelings of rage that I say things that I later regret or isolate myself from people I love.
Eventually, the passion subsides and I find myself mired in a swamp of self-loathing and melancholy. In other words, I have an emotional hangover.
By the grace of God—and I really mean that, by the grace of God—my emotional hangovers are very infrequent. And yet, I have them from time to time. And crucially, I now see that I’m not alone in this. Pundits and essayists and counselors argue that America has a rage addiction. Many of us are so angry with such frequency that we struggle to live peaceably with our neighbors and to sit comfortably in our own skins.
Something’s got to give. And that something begins with each of us. It doesn’t end with the individual soul. The world has to change. But we cannot change the world with hearts shaped by the very world we seek to change. A world built on division, coercion, competition, and exclusion.
A selfish heart will construct a selfish world. Only unselfish hearts can mend this world. Shape it into the place we long to dwell. A world that upholds the dignity of all people and recognizes the inherent worth of each individual. A world of justice and peace.
God’s love creates these loving hearts out of the very messy stuff of our real lives. That’s what Jesus was getting at in his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.
Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3) Some Christians base their understanding of conversion on this passage. They hear in it the idea that— at one specific point in time—you have to confess your sins and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. They call this being born again.
For his part, Nicodemus wondered how you could clamber back into your mother’s womb for a re-do.
By contrast, I think Jesus was saying something more like this. Sometimes you get to a point in life when you say, “Something’s got to give.”
Maybe you’ve hit your bottom as an addict, suffered one too many emotional hangovers, or simply admitted that your habits of over-functioning are robbing your life of joy. Maybe you need to leave a dead-end relationship or quit a dead-end job. Stop watching so much TV or curb your social media activity.
Whatever it is, something’s got to give. And that something starts with you.
In American today, we still struggle with the legacy and enduring effects of slavery, mounting suicide rates, and mass shootings. People suffer from food insecurity and go without necessary medical care. We’ve been at war for most of this century, and that violence is spilling over onto our streets.
Something’s got to give.
Jesus recognizes that we need a new world. And only as a new self can any of us join him in birthing this new world. A world in which each of us sees the truth that our personal good cannot be separated from the common good. My own dignity and freedom and well-being extends only as far as everybody else’s.
My old, false self—the one who always asks what’s in it for me—must die. Only then can my true self be born. The self who asks, “Where and how can I add the most value?” The self who no longer seeks to make a better place for itself in the world, but the self who seeks always to make the world a better place.
Something’s got to give. So that something new can be born from above.