Lately, my mind has been my battleground.
My brain feels like a constant war zone: When I’m awake, when I’m asleep, pretty much all the time. I’m learning over and over again that the habits of our minds shape our character, our attitudes, and our behavior. They dictate the in’s and out’s of our relationships. The thoughts that I choose land on can create or destroy life. I’ve experienced it all my life.
And then there is this world mental illness: The brain is a complex organ, the least understood of the human body, and just as other systems can get sick, so can the brain. My brain is medically broken in so many ways. A homeopathic “healer” in a tiny town called Inman, Kansas told me after staring at me from across her desk that my main problem is a broken brain. Though I’m wary of her methods, I think she hit the nail on the head–my head.
In all honesty, my brain feels terribly, sometimes irreparably, broken. It feels broken when my short term memory fails me. It feels broken when it operates like a CD skipping when I turn my head to the left. It feels broken when I feel my eyes glaze over and I can’t seem to reset their focus on the person or object I have been looking at. If feels broken when I am engaged in a conversation, and all of a sudden I have no idea what we are talking about, even if I am the one who is in the middle of a statement.
My brain is broken because I have an actual brain stem that is malfunctioning. For whatever reason, my body’s Autonomic Nervous System–the thing that controls so many regulatory functions of my body–is terribly malfunctioning: Possibly because of cervical-cranial instability, also probably because of literal decades spent in “fight-or-flight” response.
In the realm of mental illness, my brain feels broken when I have a specific incredibly distressing thought that seems to beset on repeat, no matter what I do, no matter how many prayers of desperation I pray, no matter how many thoughts I try to replace it with, no matter how much scripture I meditate on, no matter how hard I fight voicing the thought out loud.
Do we choose our thoughts? Sometimes. But other times, I could swear that I have no control over the loops that whisper continuous words of torment in the back of my mind. Prayer helps. Rest helps. Medication helps. Support helps. And yet, there is still at least a low hum of distressing background noise that composes the anxiety and OCD.
The dysfunctional whispers in my mind ebb and flow. They are sometimes more deafening than other times. Sometimes, they are a nuisance, and in the worst moments, they are crippling. Some of them are anxiety based. Others are related to attachment issues. Still others are eating disorder related. My gut tells me that they are all rooted in the big T-word that I feel afraid to type on a public blog because, well, everyone can see this, and I am not out to cast blame. I’m not so interested in the “why” at this point as much as I am interested in how God wants to use this mess for His glory.
I have spent some time hovering in Romans 7 today, chewing on the Message paraphrase by the late Eugene Peterson. Check out the message version of Romans seven if you have time. I guarantee you will sigh with a sense of, “I am so glad I’m not alone in this angst.” Or maybe that was just me.
I am so thankful that Paul includes this snapshot of his internal struggle with sin in the life of a “New Creation” in Christ. I have great intentions. As a new creation in Christ, self-destructive behaviors and thoughts no longer fit in my redeemed mind. They feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and even torturous because the Spirit is at work in me, seeking to birth in my heart, mind, and body the fruit of the Spirit.
As I wrestle with my rogue thoughts of selfishness, pride, and condemnation of self and others, I feel exactly what Paul describes: I truly delight in God’s commandments, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight (v. 16). He says after that, “parts of me covertly rebel,” and for me, it often seems that they do so on an unconscious level. Sometimes, it takes months for me to look back and see my rebellion masked in some form of “righteous” pretense.
So what really seems amazing about Paul’s passionate diatribe regarding his battle between the agonizing tyranny of the flesh and the “New Man” made holy through the Spirit is the chapter that follows. Paul’s spiritual position is unchanged between the wailing and torment of chapter seven and the victory boldly declared in chapter eight. In this sense, Paul reminds me of David in the Psalms, as he honestly communicates painful emotions and follows them with celebration and rejoicing in God’s goodness, power, and love.
Paul communicates a level of bondage in chapter 7: Bondage to the mind that is still influenced by the flesh, though under the rule and conviction of the Holy Spirit. The flesh remains present on some level during our time on this earth, as we constantly seek to crucify self and glorify Christ, with one foot in heaven and the other on earth. Paul responds to his own plea for rescue with a declaration of his own rescue in chapter 8, as he declares:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. (8:1).
Wait a second: Didn’t Paul just cry out:
“What a wretched man I am! Who will set me free from this body of death!”?
He did say those very words of despair, and then he turned around and answered his own question. His status spiritually did not change between chapters seven and eight of Romans, but His focus shifted. And that was a choice. It’s okay to express despair and frustration. Hey, lamentation is a language used frequently in the Bible, often in some of the most quoted passages. It opens up space for redemption–a big gaping chasm that only God’s redemptive lovingkindness can fill.
It can be easy to get trapped in our own Romans seven. I was there last night. I had a massive, ugly, snotty, toddler-like temper tantrum, and I was extremely angry with God. I’m pretty sure I even used Paul’s word “wretched.” My tendency was to hover in that space of total exasperation, despair, anger, and soul-crushing agony. But when we bring our lamentations and pain to God, He graciously allows space for us to get out our frustration.
Heck, He gave Job like 35 chapters to process his loss, whine to his friends, rail at God, and cry till his eyes we glazed over with that foggy post-crying film that seems to cloud our vision for a good 12-24 hours after a really desperate cry. But Job’s story didn’t end there. Neither did David’s throughout the Psalms. Nor did Jeremiah and the various authors throughout the book of Lamentations.
And in chapter eight of Romans, Paul reminds us of the difference between a mind set on the flesh (my own self-indulgent pity parties, my own pride, selfishness, and condemnation) and the mind set on the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). The difference is the difference between death and life, between terror and peace. He reminds us that the Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead dwells within us, and the power that resides within our bodies, minds, and hearts is one of absolute authority, dominion, and ultimate victory. This Spirit that dwells in us is one of sonship and daughtership, not one of slavery.
The key to our Romans seven moments is that we not set them on repeat. We must move through them authentically, and follow them with the truth of our position in Christ, our victory through the blood of Jesus, and our ultimate victory promised in Christ’s second coming. I want to end this post with some verses from Psalm 42, as David cycles through authentic expression of despair followed by praise:
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore, I remember You from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:5-8
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him. Here’s the thing: Whether I intend it or not, when I bring any cries of agony or lamentation before God, I can’t help but at some point shift into praise. It is for me the natural flow of my process of crying out to God. It might start with white-hot anger or bitterness, but it almost always resolves into sweet, restorative and healing peace. I don’t understand how, but I know that it is often the path to freedom, or at least a sense of sweet relief.
God is faithful. My mind is like a ping-pong game much of the time, but God is still good, and He steadies my heart and mind when I turn it over to Him. And I’m so thankful that God can handle my honest communication of my mess.