I think this will pretty much be the exact opposite of what I wrote a few weeks ago.
I've written a lot over the years about My Desire To Be Rather Than Do. I understand that we are always doing something, even if it's just thinking. But when I am thinking I am usually still in doing mode - I am thinking about what I can or should do. Even going back through this blog - not to mention most of my journals over the years - it's obvious that I am always sitting in judgment on my own life. That's what being a self-improvement junkie is. It doesn't always feel negative. Every once in a while I am in a good mental place and I feel strong and I think it can only be up from there. So I make some kind of plan or goal for what I want my awesome self to accomplish. Then there are the more frequent times when I am not in a good mental place. I note all the areas of life where I am falling short, and I make a plan or goal to kick my sorry ass into shape. This, my friends, is pathetic and has also become so boring to me. And, pragmatically, it doesn't work. My self remains unimproved.
The main reason I respond so strongly to the new breed of grace preachers (which for me includes, but is not limited to Tullian Tchividjian and Michael Horton) is because, finally, I am hearing something that resonates with one of my biggest struggles in life. I've been a Christian for almost 18 years and in Reformed circles for about 14, and I never understood the law until I heard these so-called antinomians. I didn't understand the unyielding force of the actual written law of God, and I didn't understand how the principle of law and our conscience translates into the pressure we all feel to prove ourselves and live up to expectations - whether those are our own, our spouse's, our culture's etc. (I think it might be related to the distinction between Francis Schaeffer's "real moral guilt" and "psychological guilt", but I think Schaeffer was talking more about how people understand/deal with their guilt feelings and/or internal pressures in a therapy-oriented universe without God.) What I first heard from Tullian that blew me away (and it is not unique to him) was that all our efforts to be and/or appear (choose one or more that apply to you):
1) strong and competent
3) beautiful or sexy
7) moral or holy
are really ways that we try to justify ourselves - justify in the theological sense - even when we are unaware of that dynamic. We feel the weight of law and condemnation even if we are unbelievers. It is our natural tendency as fallen creatures to work to get it right, have it all together, etc. because it is in our DNA to feel shameful and inadequate. We don't like that and so try to cover it up with some kind of personal impressiveness. That conscience - even if it is totally secular or wrapped up in some non-Christian trappings - is what will allow God to debunk people's assertions on The Last Day that they just didn't know He existed, if He had just given more evidence, well, then they would have believed.
Thankfully, I won't have to defend myself because of Christ's work for me, but one of the points of this post is that despite being actually justified by that work, I still am almost constantly on the treadmill of self-justification a.k.a. trying to get affection, respect, praise etc. from other humans in order to make my feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, abandonment etc. go away. And while externally, my Control Freakiness in regards to others has gotten way less noticeable (it still goes on pretty much unabated in my head) I am still always trying to control my own life with the aforementioned plans for greater productivity, especially in the creative area. But truthfully, right now am doing pretty well if everyone eats and the neatness of the house maintains at DEFCON 2. More art productivity is simply not happening these days, no matter how well I plan for it.
Every time I try to overly control things or micromanage my own life, eventually (and it might take a little while) it gets more chaotic. I lose control, or rather, I never had it and that becomes evident. That was another Christian "thing" that I finally understood after I saw it in my own experience (spiritual and non spiritual) - the fact that the law doesn't "work". It doesn't produce obedience. In fact, it often produces the opposite, because we naturally rebel against the law (even if only in our hearts) because we hate being told what to do. Of course, we know that Biblically, God's law is good and holy and righteous and all that, and some human law is too (and in human law I am including not only judicial stuff, but all the dos and don'ts of life) But law itself doesn't give us the desire or the power to obey it. And it's a vicious circle. We see the law, we want to obey it or do what is right, yet we experience resistance or rebellion or just failure based in weakness. Then we feel guilty and try harder, fail again and feel more guilty, and eventually we are exhausted all the time and/or we fall into utter despair and give up.
I see that dynamic at work in all my plans and self-improvement schemes, which definitely have the character of law in my mind. I also see that any time I do something that seems good or beneficial, I immediately want to make it into a new law for myself. Like, it was nice to sit outside with my book and journal and coffee in the morning, instead of using the computer. Therefore, I SHOULD ALWAYS sit outside with my book and journal instead of using the computer. Guess what that does? It makes me a big fat loser failure the first day I use the computer in the morning, and we all know that big fat loser failures are bad and no one loves them. The whole grace mindset frees us from this, both with God and with ourselves. Even if I made a bad choice today (and the computer vs. book choice is actually neutral, but we'll stick with it for continuity) that doesn't mean I am either
1) destined to always make bad choices or 2) condemned or unloved from the point of this choice into eternity.
NOTE: I am absolutely not saying that it is inherently wrong to have plans or goals or quests for earthly self-improvement. I am saying that in my life, with my personal baggage, they have not been particularly helpful and have, in fact, been detrimental because I have not seen them as helpful tools for creating a life. Instead they have played into my unquenchable performance and perfectionist mindset, which (being unquenchable) will never let me turn off the water fountain. Even when it goes dry I keep turning the handle. Nothing comes out. I get carpal tunnel syndrome. I am left tired and thirsty.
Another problem for me these days is the social media tendency to think that every bit of every process needs to be "shared". I don't think that is conducive to my actually becoming a better artist or really, to help me in any way. I have never been an "accountability" type, in that it doesn't make me more likely to get something done if I have to report to someone that I did it (I'm not talking about "accountability" in being unwilling to admit my sins and failings) Supposedly that helps a lot of people, but for me it undermines my desire to do something for the sake of doing it, which is my ideal. I am also tired of the fact that so much of sharing art stuff just becomes a bunch of people saying how great one's stuff is, how talented one is etc. Believe it or not, that gets boring and it's actually embarrassing when I know that my artistic skills are actually only high beginner or low intermediate. Recently I started an art journaling group on Facebook and I asked that if anyone shared work they did, that there would be no comments about the work. That bothered people. Ever since I read about Natalie Goldberg having that rule in her writing groups, it really resonated with me. It allows you to get beyond the need for praise, which frees you to tell the truth and/or accept that some of your work is crap.
I noticed my mind was much quieter during the month I was mostly offline. I don't think that's a coincidence. I wasn't bombarded with other people's opinions or attempts at self-justification and I had one less outlet for my own.
All this boils down to the feeling that I need to relinquish all my identity-enhancers. This feeling has actually been boiling for so long that it is totally burned onto the pan. I may need to throw the pan away, although I might have time to scrub it if I spend less time enhancing my identity. To show you how many YEARS it has been boiling, I give you this article from my zine from 2007. No doubt the 17 readers of this blog will find it all too familiar:
Lately I have reminded myself of Abraham, scrambling in his own bumbling way to bring about God's promise. And what does he get? Basically a pissed off wife and the realization that it's stupid to try and force God's hand.
One thing that has stuck with me from the reading I did in my early Christian life is how in the first stages of the L'Abri ministry, the Schaeffers never made their financial needs known. They determined whether God wanted something to be done by whether He provided the resources for it without their seeking donations. Sure enough, time after time they would receive unsolicited checks from their many friends and supporters. This is not a hint for you to send me a check. It is a reminder to myself that if I'm supposed to do something like sell handmade books, make art journaling workshops, and all those things I say I want to do and yet struggle to actually accomplish - at some point I will have the energy and the opportunity to do it. I won't have to move heaven and earth to make the time or feel insanity coming on because I am trying to multi-multi-task. I won't find myself getting angry because my need for creative expression is being hindered by others. When I feel driven to produce, or am working/doing/acting in a way to justify myself, the fruit of the spirit are in short supply. I know there is a correlation there.