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?

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O why, o love, have thou such darkness strained

O why, o love, have thou such darkness strained
in this our earth where hot seeks cold, up down?
Your right seeks right, and thus forsakes its crown,
for left is Right, and right is left as stained.
Yet conflagration bright still burns as white as first of day;
and passion laid to waste, self-spurned, cannot imprisoned stay.

You ask me much, o love, this price to pay,
of crosses borne alone with no respite,
with rusty thorns to add to sorry sight,
and yet expects to steady, come what may.
What good is faith when trials come? when brothers shake their feet
and spit on those to thirst succumbed? How fragile this conceit.

Or hast thou, love, seen brokenness so sweet,
that comfort overcomes your wish to live?
That desperation surely shall forgive
the broken soul so joyful in defeat?
When gentle tethers turn to chains that on the heartstrings fray,
all heaven’s mercy does contain the jury’s cold dismay.

And wilt thou, love, press on and seek to pray
for God to be your only evermore?
Since witnesses betwixt thee wage their war,
what hope is there to down their weapons lay?
If murderers and whores shall find their company with Christ,
then friends among the outcast bind their hearts together thrice.

O love, your conflagration seeks no ice;
it burns to be contained by equal flame.
But Nature’s heralds turn such warmth to shame,
as if for every fire shall snow suffice.
The blaze alone, they say, shall raze the paradigm set forth
in Eden, when in Adam’s gaze good eros showed its worth.

How tragic is your face, o love, to Earth,
whose soil feels the wretched sting of sin,
and groans to be redeemed as once had been;
and loveless love, you mourn your day of birth.
How different should your hope appear had ice been your desire?
Would grace still quell your fearless fear, still tame your fireless fire?

For years to come, o love, shall you yet tire;
how long to still believe in rest at last?
If barely crawling through the race, surpassed
by all, then love, will you so soon expire?
If goodness comes to those who seek the will of God divine,
then let me hear the ones who speak out life from Christ the vine.

And as the deer who pants for streams and longs for fall of rain,
my pining soul cries out; it screams for balm to ease the pain.
O thou, o love, in darkness will you shine?
Will doubtless doubt be yours to still contend?
Will unto hope you hang until the end?
So long as Jesus’ righteousness be mine.

The Tantalus Effect

Always just out of reach.
Painting by Gioacchino Assereto, ca. 1640s

In Greek mythology, the gods punished Tantalus by banishing him to a pool of water beneath a tree with low-hanging fruit, but cursed him so the branches would rise when he reached for them, and the water would recede when he bent down for a drink. To most of us, the first part of that deal doesn’t sound too bad at all; it’s the second part that makes it sheer torture. Having something you want, always dangling right in front of you just out of reach, is painful — but its presence makes you only want it even more.

This is something I like to refer to as the “Tantalus Effect.” Humanity has always had a fascination with the forbidden: we need look no farther than the first few pages of the Bible to see it happen. Adam and Eve had the entire Garden of Eden, any tree to pick from — except one. And yet, the very next event recorded after the creation of Eve is them doing exactly what they aren’t supposed to (see: Gen. 3). Our penchant for the profane comes literally right after humanity is created. We saw something metaphorically “out of reach,” and our interest was piqued. Eve could have walked right by and ignored the serpent, but instead she decided to have a nice chat under the shade of the tree, admiring the fruit and contemplating its beauty. Eventually she caves, and you know what happens next.

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