Running from Joy

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
— Ezekiel 36:26 (ESV)

I admit: I’m a glutton for self-punishment. Not in the bodily, masochistic sense, but I’m a prototypical perfectionist who sets impossible standards for myself and then proceeds to beat myself up when I inevitably fail to measure up. I was raised with the concept of total depravity — the idea that there is absolutely nothing good in me apart from God, and that anything good is from God alone (which I have no actual part in).

Growing up, I internalized this entirely unhealthily. The idea that I was nothing but a worthless sinner may have made the concept of grace easier to grasp, but that never sunk in. I latched on to depravity so obstinately that my self-perception erased most of my humanity. I learned to see myself as a monster beyond redemption, every prayer and every good deed a worthless attempt to earn the affection of the Father who would never love me. And who was I to question that?

Imago Dei meant nothing for me — it was everyone else who was made in God’s Image, and every person deserves to be treated with the love and respect that Christ has for them. That logic never applied to myself, the sinner beyond salvation. I truly thought I didn’t deserve love, that I was exempt from grace, and that was simply how things were. God predestined me for destruction — a vessel of dishonor.

So when I found out I was gay, accepting my status as “lesser” became my way of finding order in the chaos. It all made sense — I felt beyond the reach of love because I was never meant to have it, and of course in God’s wise plan it was my job to suffer for the good of everyone else. Total depravity combined with Confucian collectivism in a closet gay boy made for the perfect mess: the model self-loathing, self-punishing fundamentalist. 

It’s hard to put into words how much pain I carried around on a daily basis. It was a dull ache that pervaded all I did, weighed my entire being down, and warped my perception of reality so everything really did feel like it was against me. It’s difficult for me to even recall how it truly felt, but what I do remember is that it felt right. I didn’t know anything different. I bought the lie that life was pain, and I was comfortable in it. Sin had me for good, and if God chose to leave me there then so be it.

Above all else I remember feeling dead inside. It’s a wonder I was able to feel anything good at all during those years, but somehow I did — though, and I didn’t know it at the time, every emotion I felt was dulled because I had no room in my heart to allow them space. Over the course of my childhood and teenage years, I learned to close my heart, build walls, and convinced myself that it was better that way.

If you met me after the age of 10, one of the first things you may have noticed was how much of a thinker I was. Not quite an emotionless robot, but definitely someone who had no tolerance for “emotional reasoning” nor for otherwise being swayed by feelings. Emotions were too unreliable and complicated for me. Cold, hard logic was the only thing I could count on, and looking back on it, that was all I was capable of handling. What I couldn’t understand was that true strength is not the ability to suppress one’s emotions, but the ability to deal with them healthily.

Sometimes I wish my IQ were lower than it actually is; being intellectually gifted is both a blessing and a curse — without the ability to deal with my emotions, sheer reliance on logical reasoning became my trademark. I built my entire identity around it. I was the one who could explain things. I could think things through. And much to my chagrin, if there was any one (positive) thing my classmates remarked about me, it was that I was smart — not that I was kind, not that I was a good listener, and certainly not that I was patient. I solved my problems by rationalizing them, and for a time, it worked.

But humans are not purely rational creatures. There is no such thing as logic fully removed from emotion. We are feelers at heart, which means shutting down one of our main ways of processing information is a really, really bad idea. Disregarding my emotions was like playing tennis with my right hand tied behind my back — or like fighting a gun battle with a knife.

I have personal experience with hardening one’s own heart. By the time I went on my semester abroad, mine was basically stone: I knew what emotions were. I had them. But hardly ever did I teach myself to sit with them, let them be what they are, and feel

With the stresses of the semester pushing on me, new emotions emerging in ways I could never explain, I found myself lying in bed one day, half-feeling like I should be crying. But I wasn’t. Expressing this over text to my boyfriend at the time, something in me broke — a crack formed in the wall, the dam began leaking, and my body racked with sobs. For the first time since I could hardly remember, I made a choice to feel. It was wonderful and terrible and it made my soul take on the shape it was always supposed to. But my mind raged against what was going on in my heart.

Wrong, it said. Logic is the only thing you can rely on.

I thought I was done with this a while ago, but evidently I had much to learn about running from my emotions.

With the stronghold of pure rationality unraveling in a single moment, I felt my identity slipping through my fingers like the water bursting forth from my emotional dam. Who was I if not the one who didn’t let feelings get in the way? The one who could surpass emotional reasoning and explain everything? The smart one?

Who was I?

I was a mess for the next few days (or weeks) after that moment. Emotionally stunted and lost, I began a journey to letting go of who I thought I was. Everything I had once held in such high esteem about myself had been dashed to the ground, and I felt — felt the depth of emptiness I had so long avoided.

It was scary; I consciously attempted the very thing I thought I’d never do — emotional reasoning — and I didn’t die. It was like I was disobeying every order I’ve ever been given, and there was no lightning to strike me afterward. Either God approved or He didn’t care.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
— Mark 12:30 (ESV), italics added

It still felt like some theologian in an armchair somewhere was wagging their finger at me. But the heavens had opened and angels were singing a sweet, yet entirely confusing song of praise. The heart of stone had been taken from me, and it hurt. But the Father who loved me was stitching up the cut He made when giving me a heart of flesh.

I’m still new to this whole “having feelings” deal, and it scares me as much as it did the first time. What if I’m making a terrible mistake and I’m letting myself be deceived into being “morally lax”? Isn’t the heart supposed to be unstable and unreliable? Aren’t I supposed to hate my own desires — all of them?

The extremist legalism I trained myself to adhere to while growing up still rears its head in the most fearful and self-righteous ways. This is what I’ve learned: that as broken as I am, no amount of sinfulness can destroy the Image of God — that even I am deserving of love and grace just like everyone else. And that still feels weird to say.

It’s ironic how I thought the best way I could love God was to shut my heart down, when the first and greatest commandment clearly says we have to use it. We’re not Gnostics; Christians don’t believe that the body is bad. It’s the temple of the Holy Spirit — a gift from God to be stewarded, treasured, and enjoyed.

The kind of asceticism I had previously subjected myself to was, in the end, a prideful attempt to earn salvation apart from Christ. I thought that if only I pushed myself to “obey” that twisted order, God might change His mind and let me in. I was comfortable being saved by pity, because that’s what I thought I deserved, under the impression God would never stoop to the level of loving trash like me.

But the truth is that God is a mystery, and attempting to explain Him in His entirety is like putting a hurricane in a cardboard box, or nailing jello to a wall. It simply cannot be done, nor should it be. It took me a long time to realize it, but the heart was given to us as a means to experience and understand that great divine mystery. Mind, I’d gotten that down. But heart and soul? I hardly know how to begin what loving the Lord with those even looks like because I never allowed myself to learn.

I’m pretty sure it’s not with that awful piano piece everyone always plays in public.

Perhaps it’s by surrendering the need to think about absolutely everything in rigid intellectual terms. Maybe it’s by experiencing the full depth of emotion so as to be wholly integrated with the entire being that I was given.

Or, by some chance, it’s even by stepping out in faith and trusting that God is bigger than any mistake I might make. Being okay with being wrong sometimes, and resting in the inexplicable peace that covers a multitude of risks taken and limbs gone out on. Maybe it’s by accepting the gifts that He entrusts us with — to stop running from joy.

Because I wonder if, by some stroke of grace, God actually does want me to be happy. That would be news to me. The best news.

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