Have you ever heard someone say something when you were younger and it didn’t make the sense at the time, but over time it made sense to you? I still remember the sunny Sunday afternoon when I was driving in my hometown and listening to John Piper’s biographical sketch of Charles Spurgeon. He focused on how Spurgeon preached through adversity and shared an illustration I shall never forget.
He spoke of how the pressures of ministry can create a hall of mirrors in the pastor’s soul that causes him to not know who he is anymore. He said the morbid introspection pressure creates in us can push us to “the precipice of self-extinction.” Here’s the relevant paragraph. I can’t retell it better than he said it.
“I don’t mean suicide. I mean something more complex. I mean the deranging inability to know any longer who you are. What begins as a searching introspection for the sake of holiness, and humility gradually becomes, for various reasons, a carnival of mirrors in your soul: you look in one and you’re short and fat; you look in another and you’re tall and skinny; you look in another and you’re upside down. And the horrible feeling begins to break over you that you don’t know who you are any more. The center is not holding.”
I did not understand Piper’s words then but they stuck with me. It makes perfect sense to me now. What Piper said can be true of ministry is also true of any kind of intense suffering and pressure in life. Our difficulties can lead us to lose a true sense of who we are. We hear the negative voices in our head and pay more attention to the taunts of our soul’s enemy than we ordinarily would.
When we lose a genuine sense of who we are as followers of Jesus, what should we do?
Return to the Gospel
We need to see the Gospel as doing more than just saving our souls so we can go to heaven. In addition to that, the Gospel redeems us so that we might walk as the people we were meant to be in the beginning and given a new identity that rests in Christ and Christ alone.
The identity piece is so important in a culture where we tend to define ourselves based on what we do. Instead, we are defined by what has been done by another on our behalf. When we trust in Christ, we are united with him by faith. We share in his righteousness and receive the benefit of his death on our behalf.
Instead of finding our sense of acceptance and dignity by our successes or feeling rejected because of our sins, we look to the one who never failed. When God looks at us, he sees Jesus. He sees forgiven sin, perfect righteousness, and an adopted son or daughter. We spend entirely too much time allowing ourselves to be defined by something other than him.
This is much easier said than done. Our failures feel more real than Jesus does. We cannot see him, but the chaos brought about by our sins is right in front of our faces. Remember that Jesus, his righteousness, his work on the cross, his resurrection, and his return are as real as your sins. He took them upon himself for you. So, when you are tempted to look to yourself for your identity, take long looks at Christ to understand who you really are.
Return to the Psalms
This week I set aside a rigorous Bible reading plan I had been pursuing since the spring and decided to slowly soak in the Psalms for the rest of the year. The Psalmists wrote from so many of the places in which we often find ourselves. How they cry out to God in the midst of their pain and suffering provides a model for us to follow when we walk through a darkness that won’t go away.
Psalm 56 serves as one of my favorite examples of this type of psalm. David wrote this Psalm when he ran from Saul and hid in Gath. The King of Israel was looking for him and he was hiding in Goliath’s homeland. He was not spending time in friendly territory. He was alone, in danger, and afraid.
Few, if any of us have ever been in David’s exact situation, but we all know what it is like to be afraid. We all understand the experience of being scared to death. David said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?”
David does something here that we all need to see and remember–he looks to the Lord and finds his strength in him. We spend too many days in prayerless wandering, seeking to summon up our own strength and courage to walk through the day. This crushes us because we were not made to carry this weight. The Lord carries us, so when we are afraid, we look to him. The Psalms remind us of this when we have forgotten who we are.
Return to Your Good Friends
Our fears, failures, and sins thrive in isolation. This is an easy and destructive loop for us to fall into. We struggle, so we don’t want to be around people and don’t want them to know how bad things are. Then, the loneliness makes us believe no one cares about us and fall into self-loathing. No one is walking with us and holding us accountable, so we have no one around to call us on our sins.
When you walk through times of trouble that cause you to doubt your identity in Christ, surround yourself with people who love and follow Jesus. You need to be reminded that you are a child of the king. You need to be reminded that the Spirit lives within you. You need to be reminded that the Father is always with you.
Walking with other people also provides you with reminders that you are loved and the blessing of having brothers and sisters to speak into your life. When we surround ourselves with friends, we get to hear both the evidences of grace where God is working in our lives and the areas in our lives where we need to grow. This helps us to see who we truly are.
We all suffer from spiritual amnesia. We lose sight of who we are in Christ, we lose sight of God’s providential care for us, and we lose sight of the blessings of Christian friends. If that is where you are, come back. Come back to Jesus, dwell deeply in his word, and walk in fellowship with brothers and sisters.
“Living When You Know You Will Die“
For Further Reading:
When People are Big and God is Small by Ed Welch