When someone asks, “How ya doin’?,” my kids and I sometimes quote a great line from the film, The Italian Job. We say, “Oh I feel FINE: Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.” And most of the time it’s a joke, but only most of the time. Sometimes it’s a confession that no matter how smooth and cool we may look on the outside, we are rattled on the inside.
It’s sad to say but for many people that little acronym is more of a daily reality than an occasional joke. And for Christians, followers of the Christ who said, “My peace I give to you,” feeling “freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional,” is a contradiction. We of all people should know in daily experience the “peace that passes all understanding,” the strength that flows from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Why don’t we?
Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung noted that, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” We’ve all seen it, even if we didn’t know the definition. We know young men, subsisting on their parent’s indulgence, withdrawn into an online world of pseudonyms and elaborate games instead of enduring the pain of the emotional and mental maturation process necessary to live with real human beings. We’ve seen parents, so completely absorbed in the lives of their children that they’ve lost their own identities, because they cannot endure the complexities, the pain, of life in the adult world. This list could go on for many pages.
But the “avoidance of legitimate suffering” isn’t limited to the social / psychological realm. Spiritual neurosis happens too, when we fail to welcome the “suffering” inherent in the disciplines of the spiritual life, yet try to produce the results only those disciplines can bring.
We want peace. We try to pretend that we have it. But some of us are masking fear, terrible insecurities, and panicky, personal, instability. The fear drives all kinds of disagreeable behaviors: emotional manipulation of others, obsessiveness, hyper-controlling conduct, hypochondria, etc. If we really want peace, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace of the presence of Christ in our lives, we’re going to have to put ourselves in a position to receive it. We’re going to have to learn new habits of being and thinking, of releasing our lives and plans, and children, and jobs, and futures to God, and trusting him with the outcomes.
We can’t simply ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” in difficult or demanding situations. If we’re going to do what Jesus would do in those situations we’re going to have to live like Jesus lived in the day to day dependence and communion with his Father. There are no substitutes, no shortcuts to this kind of life. We need the legitimate “pain” of the spiritual disciplines if we are to avoid the phantom pains of spiritual neurosis. But as Paul told his protégé,’ Timothy, if we will “take pains with these things; be absorbed in them,” our progress will be evident to all.