Listen to that Existential Dread

In the Christian worldview, there is always a god.

In every person, there are desires and drives and values. Every person has purpose. Whatever most controls and compels you, that is your god. Whatever has the strongest hold on your emotions and behavior, that is your god.

In those with powerful addictions, this is easily seen. In others, however, and perhaps in yourself, it is not so easy to discern. But it is there, rest assured, as surely as there is a brain in your head if you are reading this. (Apologies to any brainless readers). This needs some nuance, as I recognize in myself the working of many different gods at different times, although I profess and strive to worship one God alone.

Speaking of the human heart, Thomas Chalmers put it this way: “Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.” This is from his excellent work, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” which lays this out about as well as I have ever seen.

How can I know what these gods are? Where can I find them? How will I uncover their hiding places? Often this is a good thing that we’ve turned into a god thing. This is a large part of what counseling tries to do – let’s find out why you do what you do and feel what you feel. Discovering the roots of your behavior and emotions can be profound, enlightening, and transformative. For Christians, this rooting out of false gods and replacing them with the worship of the true God is one way (among many) of conceiving of progressive sanctification – the lifelong stuttering journey towards maturity and Christ-likeness.

One sure way to identify such an idol is to find where in your life you experience what I call existential dread (apologies to any existential philosophers who feel they own this phrase). This is the feeling of the ground opening up to swallow you into darkness. We experience this when someone or something threatens one of our gods.

Falling into Pit

For example, as a young single man I took in a lot of solid teaching on marriage and developed a deep desire to be a good and godly husband. At some point this went from being a good thing to a god thing. It subtly became a part of my identity and hope. This was revealed over time as I experienced recurring existential dread when my wife would point out some obvious, glaring, usually minor shortcoming in me as a husband. These conversations would send me into the depths of despair and elicit unbidden a blizzard of dark emotions. Whoa. Touched a nerve, as they say.

This overly strong reaction was a flashing neon sign for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It took me a few years to develop those eyes and ears. As a child of God I know I am to root my identity and hope in God Himself, but I only do this partially. I couldn’t accept the truth that I was not the kind of husband I wanted to be because I HAD to be that kind of husband. My worth was tied to it. And when that worth was threatened, a dark pit swallowed my heart.

Armed with this new insight, I can now repent of absolutely needing to be a good husband. In fact, shifting my hope from this god to Christ frees me to listen openly to my wife’s constructive criticism – the very doorway that edges me in the direction of being a good husband. Which, by the way, I still want to be.

Perhaps for you it is being a certain kind of employee, or boss, or leader, or spouse, or parent, or musician, or writer, or pumpkin-spice latte-maker, or anything else under the sun. This is what Calvin meant when he said that our hearts are idol-factories. To quote Chalmers again:

[The heart’s] desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.

 

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