This post started because I sensed my own resistance to the changes happening in my life. In the middle of prayer, I said right out loud, “You really don’t want to do anything today, do you?” I picked up a good book I want to finish and the first page was about the resistance a man felt to accepting a call he felt from God. I immediately put down the book and said, “I just can’t do this.”
I was becoming more aware of my innate resistance to my journey deeper with Jesus. To be honest, it seems like the deeper I go, the more resistance I face! So I got up to do some more research on the concept and experience of resistance in people who are going deeper into themselves and, more important, deeper with God – which always includes going deeper into oneself. After I wrote the first line of this paragraph, I impulsively flipped open a news aggregator website I like. I really didn’t want to concentrate on this issue! So if you are feeling similar things, I suppose this blog post might be hard to finish. You might be about ready to click the Facebook icon right now.
The resistance people feel might not be your fault
As a church, we often feel ashamed of ourselves when people leave one of our many expressions of our tight community. There are many good reasons people leave, no doubt — we do things wrong and their lives just change. But one factor we often overlook is that they leave because of their resistance. They don’t want to go deeper: with God, with others or in their own sense of self and mission. You can often see resistance brewing before they hit the road. Here are some symptoms: perfectionism, criticism, contempt, being self-critical, preoccupation with appearances, social withdrawal, need to be seen as independent and invulnerable, or an inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.
This resistance and its symptoms is a phenomenon psychotherapists have been talking about for a century. They kept experiencing the paradoxical experience in which a client who came for relief and help would resist their own treatment. A main reason is they were ashamed to need treatment! They wanted to change and grow, but the uncomfortable journey into health was hard to bear. This probably sounds familiar to you. The resistance your therapist is noting in your session is also happening in all our health-giving, loving relationships, — we even experience it in our families. Toddlers who love french fries inexplicably won’t eat them! Did you somehow taint french fries? I doubt it. Why did that person drift out of the cell, dismissing it as inadequate or annoying? Were you really that inadequate and annoying (perhaps!) or could they be facing the need to change and they are resisting it?
Motivation is not really enough
When people are facing resistance to their life of faith (sometimes displaying those annoying symptoms I just listed), they are often condemned (usually by themselves!) for their lack of motivation. Just tweet the picture above to one of them! They could easily read it as: “Why are you so uncommitted to Jesus and his people? Why aren’t you super?” But, for most of us I think, we are rarely consciously resisting anything. It is automatic. Want to hear Freud talk about it?
“The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain, and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it…If you succeed in persuading [them] to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, [they have] rejected, you will then have accomplished something towards [their] education…Psychoanalytic treatment may in general be conceived of as such a re-education in overcoming internal resistances”
Want to hear it from the Bible?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. — Hebrews 12:1-4
Hebrews 12 is often trucked out as a motivational jolt. “Come on, get over yourself! Get into the game! Look at all these great people who have already done it! You can endure your suffering and tirelessly move ahead. You’ve still got blood in you, don’t you? Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” The verses can can be made to sound like the Oprah channel, and it does have some overtones of good self-talk. [This Oprah moment is not the worst thing ever said, it just needs Jesus]
But it can also be read as very sympathetic to the resistance the readers are facing. I think it says, “The most dreaded thing in us is suffering and pain. Face the entanglements and sin you are discovering and move beyond them. Fix your eyes on Jesus, who so vividly faced the dreaded shame of dying on a cross! He certainly understands what it is like to face opposition, inside and out. It won’t kill you to do it, even though it feels like it, at times. Don’t let your resistance steal your rightful place by God’s side.”
Motivation or positive thinking are good to have, but they are not enough when we need to go deeper to go farther.
We need to look at our resistance from many angles
As I began to let my own resistance be noticed, I had a whole array of ways to resist noticing my resistance.
- I could repress it — suppress my thought and my desire to move with the change and leave the whole subject unconscious.
- I could redirect the feelings to a substitute – I’m just feeling blue because Gwen is gone, the cat died and so-and-so disappointed me.
- I could have called some therapeutic friend and got them to feel sorry for me so my resistance could actually get me something even though I did not really address it.
- I could get up and clean the basement or watch TV and basically get myself deeper into my resistance by repeating all the behaviors that always cause the distress I have come to think of a “just being me.”
- Or I could assuage the innate guilt I feel by punishing myself for my resistance or avoiding the shame I feel with inebriates, procrastination, comfort eating or worse.
It is no wonder Paul said in Romans 7
I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25
We have a lot of ways to defend our injured, tender selves against feelings of discomfort. We find it very difficult to attend to perceptions and ideas which we have disciplined our mind to avoid, or to acknowledge impulses we don’t want to admit we feel. It would be great if we could hear a motivational speech, change our minds and so change all our ways. But being deep takes a lifetime. Being saved takes a moment, but transformation is a slow process of working things through with the Holy Spirit by our side and God’s people watching our backs.
One of the primary reasons that motivation, of itself, does not automatically lead to change is that we fear that the demands involved may be too costly. We may have to see our own role in the problems we are having and do something about it. In addition, we worry about how other people will react when our behavior patterns change; the move toward health can be surprisingly upsetting to those who are used to “the devil they know” (a person’s usual defensive style). Their partner’s change challenges them to change and they might be uncomfortable with that. Finally, seeing our own role in our problems does cause some negative reflection about the past and how much time we have wasted in behaving as we have.
So be careful with people facing their resistance in the church
We might need to be careful with people who seem unmotivated, irritable, or wishy washy. They are undoubtedly dealing with their resistance to their own spiritual health. Surely you can’t be bad enough to deserve all the criticism or rejection such people redirect on you. Sometimes you even repent, don’t you? — and they still are not satisfied. It is probably more about their own struggle than you. Stick with them. You might even help them see what is going on by allowing them to explore it with you. But more likely, the Holy Spirit will be incrementally transforming them as long as they can stay close and not wander too far from the environments that help them.
There is something like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring Jesus-followers and the true self they desperately want to put on. When Paul talks about it, it could sound like a pep talk.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. — Ephesians 4:22-4
It could even sound like a scolding, “Why are you walking around in that old self?!” There is a place for that question.
But Paul’s letter is to people who are working with this new life they have and it is not that easy. When they get a glimpse of the wall they face, they can see how they have been corrupted and how deceitful their desires are. People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure over and over. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage. They know they have already been made new by Jesus, but living like it is a surprisingly difficult matter. We, like Paul, need to keep bringing it up and facing the resistance. It is crucial for our personal development. I need to admit that I have places yet to go. I am still developing “after all this time.” I think we should be careful with others too.
We are all facing the same kind of irrational fear. We prop up our resistance with a stubborn, largely unconscious determination to avoid the anxious or fearful feelings of being confronted with truth and reality. Our sense of self can be quite tiny. We may not want to feel disoriented by new self-knowledge. We might fear being overwhelmed by everything we’ve been holding back. We may have come to believe our own illusions and think we already know everything that could possibly be relevant or important. We probably think holding on to our conflicted self is normal and blame others if they don’t accept it as normal too.
The basic idea of going deeper with Jesus, even needing to be saved, asks people to acknowledge their ignorance and neediness. Resistance combines with furious non-acceptance to debunk this humiliating new idea that I don’t know enough and am not OK. We might even falsify reality in order to accommodate our defenses, as the President demonstrates almost every day.
All liberating growth takes time. So don’t be surprised if our deep-directed community frustrates people who aren’t willing to endure the long journey. The “old self” pops up here and there in all of us. Eventually, our perverse defense system will probably collapse. But the process takes time. We have to keep “fixing our eye on Jesus” and listen, really listen, to others when they tell us to “consider him” so that we “do not grow weary and lose heart.” Our transformation is not taking “too much time.” We are eternal, after all. Time is just living, not some kind of burden or obstacle. Once a person is pointed in the right direction, time is on her side.
Right now, I still feel the seeds of my resistance ready to direct my day. Writing a blog post did not automatically cure me. But it did redirect me. A small decision to fix my eyes on Jesus and dare to look at myself made a difference. It wasn’t that easy for me, even though I am kind of an “old salt” when it comes to spiritual discipline. It is not that easy for you or for all those people bumping up against stuff in your relationship with them or in the church, or even with Jesus. Let’s be understanding and gentle with each other. The suffering often feels intolerable.