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. 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.

The Synergy of Responsibility

A close friend who has known me from childhood recently told me that it was impressive to him that I was already a father, that I was married and taking care of my family – day after day putting my family’s needs and wants before my own.

Well first of all I certainly find many opportunities to put myself first. But I know what he’s getting at. Yes – as a husband and a father I regularly, even daily, put my family first. But my first internal sense was that this was not necessarily a praiseworthy thing, because deciding to take responsibility forces you to take responsibility.

I came to embrace some profound beliefs about manhood and responsibility a few years ago, and I have allowed these convictions to guide my life decisions since. So I got married at 23 and became a father at 26. I made some BIG decisions early on that have fundamentally determined what the next few decades of my life are going to consist of. In making those decisions I embraced the responsibility of loving a wife and raising a child (or children, Lord willing).

But those decisions, in a way, have forced my hand. Short of being a completely delinquent father and husband, I have to be responsible day after day. I think that’s a good thing. At the very least, it’s a good thing for me. It has the effect of pulling me out of my insular selfishness in which I would otherwise happily wallow. I would never say that marriage and fatherhood are the only ways to get boys to grow up and take responsibility. Lots of guys do a fantastic job of shedding boyish behavior and embracing responsibilities without getting married or having children, but then again lots of other guys don’t. So even if it’s not the only way, it does usually help.

One last caveat: without a desire for and commitment to responsibility, marriage and fatherhood will not create a man but rather burden a wife and child with an irresponsible guy, so that’s not a good idea if anyone is considering it.