I have had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of people over the past twenty years. I think I've come to one major conclusion about people's lives: Way down deep, people are different than what they appear to be on the outside. My conviction is that a quality of life is available to each of us that we know little about. It seems to me that if our Lord meant what he said when he talked about wanting to give us an abundant life, then we have some hard thinking to do. There are realities deep in people's soulswhere nobody else seesthat need to be looked at carefully.
I want to read one verse that our Lord spoke in the book of Matthew. In Matthew 23, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who specialized in looking good on the outside. They were people whose lives appeared to be doing fineno problems. They were religious people who never missed church. Our Lord looked at them and said, "You are like whitewashed tombs. You look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." His advice to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:26 was this: "First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean."
That's the topic I want to talk about. What does it mean to take an inside look to find the kind of joy and reality our Lord wants us to know in our lives?
I was talking with a 29-year-old woman recently. She told me how she was changing and how happy she was that her life was going well. She shared all the victories and good things. In the course of our conversation over lunch, she said she was glad to be alive as a person. Things were going her way for the first time, in a long time. She was a happy person. But as I listened, it became clear that she always referred to herself as a person and never once as a woman.
After about 20 or 30 minutes, I said to her, "You've been talking about yourself, and in every case, you refer to yourself as a person. Are you glad you're alive as a woman?"
When I asked that question, she began to tear up. That led to a long, tearful discussion of the fact that she had been sexually abused, and as a woman, she felt useless and dirty. As a woman, she had no joy, but on the outside she was doing super. At the core of her being, she was not the happy woman she seemed to other people.
I suspect when most of us have problems in our lives, we simply try harder. If we do what God says, if we live the way we should live, if we try harder to be the right kind of person, then enough moral effort is going to result in the quality of life our Lord promised. But I want to suggest that maybe there's more to putting our lives together, to finding the kind of joy and liveliness and reality that God promised us. Maybe there's more to it than just trying harder.
The passage I read to you earlier suggests our Lord's thoughts on the subject, and his thoughts are always authoritative. His thoughts are: I want you to look inside. There's something going on beneath the surface.
If we're going to find out what it means to know the life of the Lord, we're going to have to look inside, and that's a painful proposition. I want to encourage anyone who wants to know real life to take a hard look at themselves. To look can be painful, but the honest way is to look at the areas of life that are often ignored.
When we look inside, we'll see pain.
When you look at the deepest part of your life, you're going to see two major categories of problems. First, you're going to see hurt and pain. Would you agree with this rather gloomy sentence: When you look honestly at your relationships with your spouse, your friends, your children, your neighbors, would that look reveal something's wrong with everything? That's kind of gloomy, but I think an honest look confirms that something's wrong with everything.
Sometimes what's wrong is very obvious. I was talking just a week ago with a 34-year-old man who told me this story. He was born with a severe physical deformity. His parents were wealthy and prominent in their community and church. Medical doctors did their best, but their son's deformity was not correctable. He was going to be deformed all his life. The parents decided they wanted no part of this youngster. They took him to an orphanage and had no contact with him for well over 19 years. His brothers were told that the young man had died at birth.
When I talked to him just a few days ago, he said this: "If I were to face all the pain that I feel when thinking back on my life, it would destroy me. There's no way in the world I could face all that pain. It's just too much."
Some people know the pain they're staying away from. We recognize difficulties that are grotesque or bizarre. We all feel terrible for that young man. I don't have any horrible story like that to tell; I have loving parents. But each of us has a story to tell if we're willing to look at the subtle pain in our lives.
Let me tell you why I believe this to be true. God designed us with legitimate needs for certain things. You and I were built for things this world is simply never going to give us in full measure. I long for a perfect relationship, but I don't have one relationship that's perfect. I have some good, strong relationships in which I feel joy and meaning, but I don't have one relationship that provides me with every single thing my soul desires. I was built for more than what is now available. As a result, when I'm honest, I know I'm hurting.
Most of us work hard to stay away from looking at that kind of pain. We don't admit when we feel bad, and we keep busy, try harder, and find ways to amuse ourselves. The most reliable source of pleasure available to man today is food. Whenever we hurt, we eat to cover the pain at the core of our being. It may be obvious pain like that of the man who was left by his parents for 19 long years. It may be a much more subtle pain.
Another man recently told me he was struggling in his job. He thought his boss had dealt with him unfairly. He was angry and frustrated with life. He wanted to know joy and peace, but he had no idea how to get hold of it. In the course of our conversation, I said to him, "When you look down deep inside, what things bring you the greatest pain, the greatest hurt?"
He wasn't thrilled with the direction I was taking. His thought was that I should tell him how to handle his boss: "Tell me how to handle things differently, so I can make my life smooth again."
I told him my purpose was not to make his life smoother, but rather to look deep inside and see if something wrong should be dealt with, giving his life a sense of vitality, passion, and joy that very few people have. So he went along with my questions.
I asked him about his parents and his background, and he had no big, horrible story. But he did tell me a story about the time when his grandmother came to live with them. Apparently, this woman was not your classic, nice grandmother. When he was about ten years old, he refused to continue calling her Grandma. He began calling her by her last name: Mrs. .
Now suppose you were that young boy's dad, and you heard him refer to his grandmother by her last name. Do you think maybe Dad might have picked up that something was going on there? Had he observed some of the ways in which grandma had been mean to his son?
I said to this man, "Tell me how your dad dealt with that. When your dad came to you and asked why you were calling Grandma by her last name, did he ask if you were having some struggles with her?"
This adult man said, "Oh, Dad never approached me like that. Dad never would. He was too busy. Dad was a good mana wonderful manbut the kind that would never move into my life. He would never notice things that were happening inside of me."
I said, "Did you want that?"
He responded, "Dad's a great guy. He provided well, and we went to ball games together. Now my dad is older, with some health problems, and I look after him. I really care about him. We have a good relationship. Please don't mess that up."
I responded, "I don't want to mess anything up. What I want to do is encourage you to look honestly at the inside of your life, and that could lead to joy."
Something's wrong with everything. I was built to need what even the best parent, spouse, son, daughter, best friend, or pastor could never provide. Therefore, I hurt.
In a funny sort of way, that ought to be good news to us. All of us know deep down that there really is pain. But a lot of Christians feel guilty. They've been living for the Lord, reading their Bibles, and going to church. They've been doing the right things and being good to their friends and neighbors. They assume that after a few years, the hurts are supposed to go away. There's no longer supposed to be any pain left in their souls.
The Bible teaches us exactly the opposite. Way down in the core of my being, I'm to experience a level of hurt"groaning," Paul calls it in Romansa level of anticipation for someday getting what I painfully feel the absence of now.
It's okay to hurt. I don't have what I want. I want more meaning than I have. I want more love than I have. I want people to notice when I'm tired. I want people to care about me more than they do. I hurt. And it's okay to hurt.
When we take an honest look, we're going to see a lot of hurt, and we're going to see something that won't elicit sympathy from others. We're going to see something that won't make others run to us, hug us, and take care of us. I presume you felt like doing that when I told the story of the person abandoned by his parents for 19 or 20 years. You felt angry toward the parents. You wanted to hug that young man and tell him things are okay.
When we look inside, we'll see some anger.
When you look inside, there's something elsea certain disdain. The first look reveals hurt, but another inside look reveals a stubborn, angry determination to hurt less. Now let me explain that.
One thing the Bible makes very clear is that the real problem you and I havethe problem that gets in the way of all of our happiness and our joyis that opportunities for experiencing certain things diminish. That which gets in the way of the life our Lord came to give us is self-centeredness. This self-centeredness is not the usual form of looking after myself"I'm going to grab the piece of pie before you do." It might have involved that when you were a little kid, but once we're adults, the self-centeredness has a much more subtle form. Now we use other people for the purpose of feeling better; we're going to find some way to avoid pain by using other people.
Some years ago, a man came to see me for counseling. I said my typical opening sentence when I counsel folks: "How can I help you?" You never know what's going to happen after you ask that question.
He looked at me with intensity and said, "I'm here because I want to feel betterand quickly."
I said, "Your purpose is to quickly feel better. You want me to provide you with some means so that you simply don't have to hurt anymore. I understand that you don't want to hurt, but your demand that you want to quickly feel better is what you're wanting me to respond tonot the pain."
He said, "Well, yeah. I want to quickly feel better. Tell me how to do it. You're a psychologist. You're in the business of helping people feel better. And I want to do it quickly. I don't want to pay you so much money. I want to feel better in one session. What can you recommend to me?"
I said to him, "Sir, I think what I might advise you to do would be this: I would suggest you get a case of your favorite alcoholic beverage, find some cooperative women, and go to the Bahamas for a month."
He looked at me, and he asked, "Are you a Christian?"
I responded by saying, "Why do you ask?"
"That doesn't sound like good Christian advice to meto encourage me to get drunk and to be involved immorally and to spend money on a vacation. I haven't the money for a vacation. Is that what you're really telling me to do?"
"If your purpose is to quickly feel better," I replied, "I'm really not sure that I recommend following Jesus. If what you're really into is immediate relief, there's a better plan than Christianity. That better plan is going to cost you in the long run. There is pleasure in sin for a season, but the hook, of course, is that it's for a season."
Here was a man who was determined to quickly feel better, and I'm involved in the same enterprise. Deep down, all of us are determined to feel betterand quickly. That's what we want. We want to find some way to relieve our pain. How are we going about that?
If you look in your soul, you may see hurt from a father who didn't pursue you, sexual abuse in your background, or a parent who didn't care. You may see a lot of good things in your life, but just not everything you wanted. Deep down, you're lonely, hurt, and unhappy. Beneath the surface of your busyness, your new clothes, and the dinners out, there's something missing, and you know it. What I want to ask is this: How are you and I going about the business of finding ways to hurt less?
I had a very disturbing meeting about six months ago. Four of my best friends asked me to breakfast. When they asked me out, I presumed they wanted to enjoy being with me and have a good time. They're good friends; we like each other. We went out, and I was my enjoyable best.
Midway through breakfast, one gentleman said, "Larry, we're your friends, and we were talking about you yesterday. I guess it was behind your back, but we want to tell you something directly today. We know you as a good friend; we care about you. We feel you're a good person who sincerely loves the Lord and has been used in our lives. There is one thing we want to say to you. There are times we feel you don't care about us. There are times we feel you're more loyal to your jobyour workthan you are to your friends."
That led to a lot of self-examination, a lot of soul searching. I wonder if maybe way down deep, I'm a wounded person. I wonder if way down deep, I've been let down in certain ways, and I'm afraid to give that wounded person to you.
What are you going to do with that? You might not respond to me the way I want you to. When I give you my affection and tenderness, I'm a caring person. You're a caring person. But I'm sometimes scared to give that, because if I give you who I really am, I'm not sure what you might do. I've been trampled a time or two. I've given myself deeply and been let down. Maybe I'm giving the part of me that has worked the best over the years. If I'm good at my job, that becomes my preoccupation. Does the energy devoted to my jobas opposed to sitting down, relaxing with friends, and learning how to share my soul with themreflect my commitment to self-protection? I wonder if that reflects my self-centeredness. I wonder if that's what's getting in the way of my experiencing the quality of life that our Lord died to provide for me.
I'm saying this to youand to mebecause we need to hear this clearly. We need to realize that when we're not experiencing the life of Christ, when we're not experiencing the joy that God has made available for us, then ultimately, it's our fault. It ultimately means that somewhere in the core levels of our being, we're committed to finding some way to preserve our lives on our own. We're committed to finding some way to avoid that awful pain.
Our Lord made it very clear that if we're going to experience the deep joy of livingthe passion, the kind of life that so few people experiencewe're going to have to do two things. One, we're going to have to face our disappointments and pain. The route to joy walks through a deep valley sometimes. We're going to have to experience deep pain in our hearts. As we experience pain, and learn no one can touch it but him, we learn dependence in the meaningful sense of that word. As we give up our commitment to self-protection, we move toward other people, not for the purpose of protecting ourselves, but of giving ourselves.
The result of that kind of life could be the quiet development of joy. Joy is available. There really is more to life than most of us know. And I find those words encouraging to my soul. I sincerely hope they're encouraging to you.