Of Interrupted Date Nights and Spiritual Pathologies

We had it all planned out:

A stay-at-home date.

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Put the kids to bed at 8pm sharp, dress up a little bit (as in something you could wear to an upscale mall but which would make you look only slightly overdressed at Wal-Mart), throw some product in the hair, get out the coffee and chocolates and curl up on the couch to watch a mutually favorite show; which, I don’t know about you, but that in itself is nearly a miracle – usually there is some measure of compromise from one party which will be leveraged later when the viewing options are discussed anew. In this case, we were watching the HBO Sports special series 24/7 NHL Road to the Winter Classic, the fourth and final episode. The reason we both love this show is that it happens to feature both our favorite teams: The Toronto Maple Leafs (hers) and the Detroit Red Wings (his).

Things were just lovely for the first while, and then we heard our 3-month old daughter crying continually for a few minutes. Finally Kaitlyn got up to go and get her, but as these things go, the girl quieted down at that very moment and my wife stood listening just outside the door and then we looked at each other and shrugged and she came back to sit down. About 37 seconds later our daughter was screaming again and Kaitlyn went to get her.

Sit. Rep.: Extraction successful, but child #2 still fully awake and witnessed the entire scene. Given the child’s current mental capacity for comprehension, logical inference, and imitation, we have only a few minutes before child #2 attempts a re-negotiation of bedtime terms.

We resumed watching the show and then about ten minutes later we heard the kids’ bedroom door open. I got up quickly to intercept child #2 before he could come out and decide for sure that he was going to join us, but as I thought about how ridiculous this date was already, I decided to throw in the towel and bring him out with us too, to watch the last few minutes of the show.

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We all had a good laugh and then after a while we chucked those kids back into bed. That’s when we shut off the TV and really started talking. What a thing. It really is remarkable how long the substance of life and relationships can be kept beneath the surface by the tag-team of responsibilities and distractions. Run around for most of the day caring for two kids with runny noses and dirty diapers and empty stomachs and then when the few spare moments come you turn to a book or a computer or a TV show to relax and before you know it it’s 11:30pm and the whole thing is slated to start again in less time than it takes to be rested enough to face it all. It’s enough to leave you out of breath and begging for more punctuation.

So that’s why it was remarkable to have long uninterrupted conversation with my wife on the couch. We talked about life, our goals for this coming year, and our feelings about where we’re at as a couple and as a family. We talked about faith and our relationships with God, the striking difference between the palpable intimacy we felt after our conversions and now. It was good, very good.

And then Kaitlyn said that she had read something yesterday on facebook that had been oppressing her ever since, and as she said this, tears came to her eyes. It was a quote from that venerable 19th century theologian, J.C. Ryle, that I had also read. It is basically a clarion call to fight against any spiritual apathy. It is an excellent quote from an excellent teacher and preacher of the Bible, but – and this is where I’ve been going with all of this – in my wife’s case it was being used to beat her down and condemn her. Here’s a woman who sacrificially loves and serves her children and husband from dawn til dusk and has a profound love for God and the Bible, but who is also seriously sleep-deprived, prone to processing things emotionally, has a tender conscience, and is still recovering from a severe burnout in ministry. All that to say, she is ripe for discouragement.

She shared with me that she had recently been enjoying a measure of peace, learning to rest in God’s grace, and that through this quote she felt she was being told that all that peace and grace she was enjoying was not rightfully hers because she wasn’t fighting enough. But as she told me this, she also realized that the voice was one of condemnation, not loving conviction. It was life-robbing accusation, not life-giving correction. And with that distinction clearly made, the source of it all was evident.

When I first became a believer, I devoured books, articles, and sermons like a Grizzly bear with a glandular problem devours salmon; or, apparently, like I devour White Cheddar Quaker Crispy Rice Cakes when I’m writing a blog post at midnight. I just could not get enough, and the more intense the better. My kindred spirit during this time was my cousin Joel, and we were always on the hunt for the next hammer-dropping, pride-shattering sermon to rock our worlds. After a while we came to see that there was an imbalance in our pursuit. He put a name to it and called it an addiction to conviction.

It was a pathology born out of a personal zeal for growth and a love for good teaching, especially reformed teaching which places a heavy emphasis on the holiness of God and conviction of sin (and rightly so, I might add, for these are the necessary preconditions for spiritual renewal). At that point in my life, one of the main ways that I felt assured of God’s working in me was when I felt convicted, guilty, and humbled. The problem was that I was exposing myself to so much conviction-inducing teaching that it was really impossible to even begin to process all of that truth, internalize it, and make the necessary course corrections in my heart and life. Make no mistake, that is hard work.

I can imagine that to many people this would seem like a strange problem to have, but from what I’ve seen it’s not as uncommon as we might think, especially among younger people.

There is something in the desire to have a teachable heart that can make us vulnerable to the evil one’s ministry of accusation and condemnation, especially if we have a lingering insecurity about God’s unconditional love for us.

Many a Christian has been brought low to a state of weakness and defeatedness that was neither born of the Spirit nor led to growth in grace because the whole thing wasn’t rooted in the gospel. If feeling convicted and guilty is a way to ingratiate ourselves to God, then there can be no fruit in it because in its essence it is works, it is meritorious, it is anti-gospel, and it calls for that searing insight from the apostle Paul: “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Let the seeds of conviction and zeal and sanctification be planted not in a dry bed of insecurity and doubt but in that fertile soil of a heart fully resting in the irrevocable forgiveness we have for all our sin and the unimpeachable righteousness which is counted as ours. 

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About Phil Cotnoir

I'm not so unlike you.
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