From Numbness to INTENTION
“A human being is a longing for God and nothing less than god will satisfy us; the seductive voices that would make us anything less than this are to be resisted.”
Social scientist Brené Brown made the observation that, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
God’s prayer for us in Ephesians 3:14-21 is that we would, “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” and “be filled with all the fullness of God.” When we experience this love in our hearts, we are able to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). When we do not experience this love, we live in a cycle of despair leaving our hearts hard and callous (Eph. 4:18, 19). This is the default state of a heart that has not been formed by the love of God.
For many of us, we have a theology that tells us that God loves us but we struggle to experience his love in a way that softens and opens our hearts. We find our hearts in varying levels of hardness. We might be hardened towards a family member or someone from work, or perhaps hardened toward ourselves, beating ourselves up for what we have or have not done in life.
When our hearts are hard, we are numb and we do not feel deeply. We live on the surface of life. As we move from denial to introspection, we begin to feel and experience what is really going on in our lives. We shift into viewing and holding life as it is rather than as we would have it. This shift is what leads us to notice that our hearts are not fully open to receive God’s love at the depths of who we are.
The reality is that we come into life with Christ with a heart that is not fully formed. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are given a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). But we often misunderstand what that means. Our heart is the core of who we are. It is the part of us that holds hurts and joys. It is the part of us that is capable of love and desire. Being given a new heart means that we have a new capacity for interacting with God, ourselves, and others. However, the old habits and patterns can continue to function alongside this newness.
Newness of heart means that the core of who we are is new, but we have to learn to live out of that newness. It is like being given a bicycle for transportation when all we’ve known is walking. We can leave that bicycle chained against a tree and keep walking everywhere. Or, we can try to ride, get discouraged, and numb ourselves to the possibility of new experiences.
This is why Paul says to the follower of Jesus who lives with a calloused, numb heart, “but that is not the way you learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). In Christ, we can experience a life in which our hearts are open to loving and being loved. But the reality remains that we can feel stuck, still living in old ways and perhaps choosing numbness so that we don’t have to feel pain and disappointment. Even in discouragement, the spiritual disciplines of confession and lament open us to full-hearted living. Then, we can begin to make the shift from numbness to intention, or desire. Our heart’s deepest intention is to love and be loved. All things fall into place under the banner of love.
In Luke 14:16-23, Jesus tells a story about the ways we can numb ourselves to God’s invitation to love and be loved:
“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”
When Jesus talks about what keeps us from experiencing His love, it is everyday things such as what we have (a field), what we do (oxen), and what others think of us (a wife). We can use these things to numb the pains and hurts of life. The movement from numbness to intention happens as we recognize that truth and repent.
Enlivening our Hearts Comes through Repentance
Repent is a word that sounds negative but is actually one of the most beautiful words in the universe. To repent is to turn around and trust there is something more. To repent is a gift from God for yet another opportunity to experience His love.
In Mark 1:15 Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” God’s kingdom is wherever He is ruling and reigning. So, Jesus could say that God’s kingdom was available in the midst of the kingdoms of this world because we can live in Him and live with Him no matter what our external world is like. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is “within you.”
His call for those who desire to experience His love is to repent and believe in the gospel. The gospel, or good news, is that there is a God who dances and He has made it possible for us to share in His life. This is why Paul used the word “but” in Ephesians 4:20. In contrast to the dance of this world, which is to numb our hearts and live lives that are alienated from God, we can live in His love.
In Ephesians 4, Paul continues to develop the contrast by saying, “the truth is in Jesus.” This is a revolutionary statement that points us once again to the Trinity. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. And, rather than truth being an abstract set of principles, truth is viewed as a person. As we observed earlier in our study, “At the center of the universe is a relationship.” (Darrell Johnson).
So, truth is relational. Ultimate meaning is found in the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit in which Jesus has always existed. When we repent and believe, we are choosing to entrust ourselves to that reality above all else. As we do, we move from the numbing existence of looking to anything else, into the delight of the Trinitarian dance. Repentance unlocks desire and as desire is stirred, we experience His love in deepening ways.
Examining the Trinity’s Dance of Delight
Throughout the Scriptures, we see the Trinity delighting and taking pleasure in each other. In Matthew 3, the Father says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus (John 16:14). In John 17:4-5 Jesus says to the Father, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me and now, Father glorify me in your own presence.”
One’s glory is their essence. To glory in someone is to take pleasure in them. At the core of the truth which defines the universe is a relationship of delighting in one another, enjoying one another.
Out of that delight, the Trinity created us. In Zephaniah 3:17, we see His delight over us:
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Consider this reality: He takes joy in you. He sings over you. He is excited about you and desires that you join in His love. A significant part of the shift from numbness to intention is seeing the core of our lives is about this relationship. Truth is not a list of rules. Truth is desire and delight.
Jesus made a statement in John 10 that the enemy comes to “steal, kill, and destroy.” One of the primary ways He does that is by convincing us that God wants us to be good little boys and girls who follow the rules to make Him happy. On the contrary, God desires for us to live life with Him and enter into the deep desire of being fulfilled in His love.
The opposite of giving ourselves up to “sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” is not conforming ourselves to a list of commands. Rather, it is enjoying Him.
The commandments of Scripture help define the boundaries of enjoying His love. The goal is not to avoid hitting the fence but to stand in the wide open spaces of His love. In the Message, Eugene Peterson translates the description of God’s grace in Romans 5:2 like this: “We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand, out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”
So, His commands are an expression of His love and desire for us. Rather than seeing them as controlling demands of a stern father, we should see them as passionate pleas to live in His love. We often define sin solely in terms of behaviors, but sin is living in independence. If truth is a person, then untruth (falsehood and sin) is living apart from that person. Sinful behavior is the result. However, we can miss the point if we focus on sinful behavior rather the relationship.
It is in relationship that He delights in us. He loves us. Sin is living independently because we have forgotten He loves us. We forget that His love is our created design (to receive it and give it). We forget that His love alone satisfies us. Actually, it might be better expressed by saying that we are refusing His love because we have forgotten it. Repentance allows us to turn once again to His love and surrender to it.
Engaging His Love Deepens through Intention
God desires for us to live from a place of delight and desire rather than duty. Moralism, seeking to do good and right things, can become another way to numb our hearts. Anglican pastor and spiritual director, Susan Currie, put it this way: “we can hide behind obedience.”
In Surrender to Love, David Benner writes:
“Christians often focus more on obedience than surrender. But while the two concepts are closely related, they differ in important ways … Surrender is foundational to Christian spirituality and is the soil out of which obedience should grow. Christ does not simply want our compliance. He wants our heart. He wants our love and he offers us his. He invites us to surrender to his love.”
So, how do we move away from living on the surface of our lives, either in lustful independence or dutiful compliance? How do we move away from defining our lives by a parcel of land, a team of oxen, or a spouse, and into the delight of the Trinity? The Spanish theologian, Ignatius of Loyola describes it this way: “Detachment comes only if we have a stronger attachment; therefore, our one dominating desire and fundamental choice must be to live in the loving presence and wisdom of Christ, our Savior.”
C. S. Lewis further develops this idea:
“Christianity leads you on, out of morality, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we shall call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.”
Rather than trying not to sin, our intention must be to enjoy God. As that attachment becomes the strongest reality in our lives, we detach from lesser things. As we do, desire and delight open our hearts to the fullness of God and we are able to share that love with others. So, how do we enjoy Him? By making Him the focus of our delight and desire.
A few years ago, I met with a spiritual director who said something I’ll never forget. She said, “God’s presence in this life is real, but He often comes dressed in thirst.” As we experience desire, thirst, and need, we direct those desires to the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Take a few moments and ponder Psalm 73:1-3, 24-26, 28:
Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.
Notice that our feet stumble when our desire is directed outward (“I was envious of the arrogant”). However, when our desire is directed toward God (“there is nothing I desire besides you”), we experience Him as all that we need (“my portion forever”). And, what do we need? To love and be loved.
Psalm 37:4 expresses this beautifully: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” As we enter His dance of desire and delight, he gives us what we desire. His love is what we truly desire and long for. Alan Jones writes, “A human being is a longing for God.” We do not just have a longing, we are a longing. It is our created design and our new heart makes it possible to live into that desire.
Take some time this week to get settled into this longing that defines who you.
Breath Prayer is an ancient form of prayer in which we repeat a simple prayer to the rhythm of our breathing. We pray a phrase on the inhale and another on the exhale. The beauty of this kind of prayer is that it slows us down and embodies our intention and desire.
Use the following phrases from Psalm 73 as a breath prayer:
Whom have I in heaven but you? (inhale)
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. (exhale)
Take a few minutes to memorize this prayer of desire. Next, set a timer for ten minutes to pray this prayer slowly with the rhythm of deep inhale and exhale. This prayer is the reality of who we are as human beings. As other thoughts or desires come into your awareness, simply return your attention to this prayer.
Spend ten minutes in quiet breath prayer each morning. Then, seek to pray this prayer throughout the day. Set a series of alarms on your phone or some other reminder to stop and pray this prayer. Each time, take a moment to direct your heart toward Him and then pray slowly. Another alert to pray this prayer might be an obvious temptation, worry, or obsession over some idea or thought.
- Prayerfully consider how you might be utilizing various attachments (what I have, what I do, or what others think) as a numbing agent on your heart.
- Do you ever feel stuck between desiring God and that old cycle of despair? Reflect and ask God for insight into what is happening in those times of feeling stuck.
- What is the true nature of sin?
- How does seeing sin as forgetting God loves you change the way you see His commandments in Scripture?
- How does focusing on enjoying Him rather than focusing on sin, change the way you think about your life in Christ?
- Brainstorm some practical ways that you can enjoy Him and find your desire in Him.
- Where do you see numbness in your heart?
- How does His desire for you open your heart to Him?
- Discuss the nature of sin.
- Why does forgetting that God loves us lead to sin?
- How does focusing on our desire for God shift the way we live?
- Share about the Spiritual Exercise.