A Lonely Believer’s Story

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik summarized the dilemma of his faith in a three-word sentence: I am lonely. The kind of loneliness he wrote about does not come from being friendless or alone; it is the result of feeling “rejected and thrust away by everybody,” even by one’s most intimate friends. The Rabbi wrote that this experience of loneliness is a paradox: painful and frustrating but also stimulating and cathartic. I am only beginning to understand this loneliness myself.

Sometimes I feel like a stranger in this world. I am surrounded by people who are focused on the material world, striving for money and fame and success. I no longer share their ambitions. I don’t even understand the values of the millions of Christians who have a completely different take on the word of God. The lack of soul connection makes me feel lonely.

In Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,  he said that spiritual loneliness is the natural result of saying yes when all your friends say no.  They are defined by what they are against. I want to be defined by what I am for: the power of God’s redemptive love.

How can I explain my loneliness?

Imagine a four-story building. There is a beautiful chapel on the ground floor where believers gather every week. Many are good, righteous people who come to worship and learn about God. Some of them are here to be entertained and some of them are here to be seen. Although most of the congregants call themselves Christians, many cling to the laws of the Old Testament. They insist that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed both here and outside the building. Others call themselves Evangelicals, but never share the Good News. If you spend any time looking around, you’ll see that modern-day Pharisees have put locks on the doors and bars on the windows to keep undesirables out. They don’t understand that this is God’s house and the doors are open to everyone.

On the second floor, joyous believers gather, grateful for God’s love and forgiveness. They are eager to tell everyone how Jesus changed their lives. You’ll find reformed sinners of all kinds here, people who once had no hope, people who once felt imprisoned by their sins. It’s as if they have been born again! The people on this floor readily share the reason for their hope. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).

On the third floor, mature believers sit in groups of two or three having deep conversations about spiritual matters. You’ll also find individuals sitting in quiet, contemplative solitude – people like me. These believers have been humbled by life’s experiences. The concerns of the first half of life no longer have any appeal. They no longer feel the need to prove that they are worthy. They see the world with grace-filled eyes because they have experienced God’s mercy firsthand and know that we’re all flawed and in need of grace. Look around, and you’ll see the Jesus Creed prominently displayed: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

The fourth floor is a very busy place. Here, you’ll find servants and activists, people who were called to put their faith into action. Some are busy caring for refugees, or the sick, or the homeless, or the imprisoned. Others are advocates for social justice. They are the hands and feet of Jesus. In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. (Luke 22:25-26).

There are no elevators in this building. There is no easy way to climb from one floor to the next. It is a painful climb. The stairs are steep and unevenly spaced. Those who ascend do so stumbling and falling upward.

Visualizing the dilemma of my faith in this way helps me to understand the confusion and despair I’ve been feeling over the past year or so. I expected other Christians to see things the way I do because we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. Now I see that even if we share some common beliefs, we are not on the same plane spiritually and perhaps never will be.

When I gather with a small group of friends from my church, the difference in thinking is abundantly clear. My Christian friends are stuck on the first floor, building walls to keep other people out. They say ‘no’ to anyone who is not like them – gays, Muslims, immigrants, liberals. But I am on a different journey and my capacity for loving other people is growing. As Rohr says, “if your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second journey.”

Changing Expectations

Richard Rohr has some good advice for people like me. “Don’t expect or demand from groups what they usually cannot give. Doing so will make you needlessly angry and reactionary. ” Groups are often not receptive to change because they are focused on protecting the group’s identity and preserving the status quo. Rohr’s book reminded me of the parable of the soils. Seeds don’t grow on a busy path or in rocky soil. If the soil is not receptive, seeds won’t grow. I used to tell myself that I could influence my friends by sharing my perspective. But now I see, that if their hearts aren’t ready, I might as well be chasing the wind.

Embracing Solitude

Soloveitchik found something positive and stimulating about this loneliness. Rohr would agree. He said that the confusing feelings of spiritual loneliness are far outweighed by the happiness that comes from spending time alone. Soulful people like me need alone time to “unpack” all the stuff that life gives and takes away. I am naturally contemplative and thoroughly enjoy time spent alone reflecting. At the same time, I find myself wishing I had a spiritual mentor or a small group of friends who are at the same place in their spiritual journey.


Image credit, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art:

Joseph Pennell
The Times Building, 1904

Standing My Ground

2017 was emotionally exhausting. Everyday the news brought concerns about what would happen to immigrants or refugees or the poor or the environment or democracy or freedom of the press. It is no wonder that I ended the year feeling sad and depressed. But as discouraging as the year was, I learned some important spiritual lessons.

Live like there’s no tomorrow. My brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly last year. He was only two years older than me. His death reminded me that not one day is promised to any of us. Time and chance happen to all. There’s nothing like losing someone to remind you that you should not take this life or the people you care about for granted.

Trust that God is on the side of truth and justice. Sometimes it seems like people will get away with lying or covering up the truth. I find hope in what Jesus said: For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open (Luke 8:17). Jesus said that we will be held accountable for every careless word we have spoken (Matthew 12:34-36).

Trust that the good news is still the good news. No matter how many bad things happen in this world, the good news is still the good news. Jesus still loves and forgives sinners. He still comforts those who mourn. He still offers a path to salvation. He is still the most powerful example of love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, and humility that I know.

I will stand my ground where hope can be found. Lauren Daigle’s song O’ Lord reminds me that “until this race is won, I will stand my ground where hope can be found.”  I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I know that he will take all that is wrong and make it right. I will not be discouraged.

Lauren Daigle
Though times it seems
Like I’m coming undone
This walk can often feel lonely
No matter what until this race is won
I will stand my ground where hope can be found
I will stand my ground where hope can be found

Oh, O’Lord O’Lord I know You hear my cry
Your love is lifting me above all the lies
No matter what I face this I know in time
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right
You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right



Shadowboxing My Way to Maturity

Sometimes we feel so validated by our inner voice of conscience, so sure of our internal convictions, that we confuse our own voice with the very voice of God. In rereading Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, a passage about the deeper voice of God brought tears to my eyes. I hear a voice that sounds a lot like risk, trust, and surrender but I keep pushing it away because there is too much safety and security in my protective shell.

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self, of soulful “Beatrice.” – Richard Rohr

Discharging my loyal soldier

Rohr wrote about how Japanese communities helped soldiers return to civilian life after World War II. Faithful soldiers were first thanked for their service and then were told, the war is now over. We need you to return as something other than a soldier. The communal ritual gave the returning soldiers the closure they needed to move on to the next phase of life. Rohr called this transition process “discharging your loyal soldier.”

Similarly, to grow spiritually in the second half of life, we must transition from an egocentric to a “soul-centric” worldview. We have to let go of or “discharge” the ego-driven “loyal soldier” that served us well in the first half of life. While the loyal soldier plays an important role in early life, giving our lives shape and purpose and stability, at some point, he starts holding us back from the life we were meant to live.

Who is my loyal soldier? What persona has served me so well in the first part of life? I would describe my loyal soldier as a dutiful Guardian, the name David Kiersey calls the Sensing Judging personality type. “Guardians are the cornerstone of society, for they are the temperament given to serving and preserving our most important social institutions.” Guardians are concerned with rules and procedures and right versus wrong, with making sure that people do what they are supposed to do. Guardians police social behavior by laying out the should’s and should not’s.

In his book, Please Understand Me II, Kiersey used the phrase “preoccupied with morality” to describe the Guardian personality type. I am not flattered by that description. I see the sinfulness in myself and I see how much I have struggled to do what I know to be right. I see that when I try to attack evil, I produce an ugliness in myself – anger, impatience, condescension, hypocrisy. And most importantly, I see the beauty of forgiveness and grace.

I have learned to let go of my innate compulsion to control or dictate what other people do and to let God do the work of changing people.  I am free to be something other than a finger-pointing Guardian of morality. I am free to be the grace dispenser I was meant to be.

Shadowboxing with myself

Rohr said that your persona represents how you choose to identify yourself and what other people expect from you. But we also have a shadow self – the parts we don’t want other people to see and that we don’t want to see in ourselves. He said that we never get to the second half of spiritual life without engaging in the inner work of shadowboxing with this false self.

Growing spiritually means letting go of the false self. For me, the self that filters and censors herself is a false self. The self that protects people from hearing anything critical, even when it is for their own good, is a false self. The self that avoids offending fellow Christians when she knows that God is on the side of justice and mercy – this is my false self.

Unfortunately, the work of confronting our own faults never ends. I am learning to face my faults, my contradictions, my fears. Just as David did long ago, I’ve invited God to shine a light on my faults.

Search me God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

Getting out of my foxhole

Early in life, I learned to go into self-protection mode when I felt threatened by too much attention or too much social stimulation. I was socially awkward and easily embarrassed so I withdrew into my protective shell, my foxhole. If I kept quiet, I wouldn’t say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time. If I didn’t approach other people, they wouldn’t reject me.

In contrast to the analytical, thinking me, my Protector is the sensitive, feeling part of me. My Protector is considerate of other people. She has empathy. She doesn’t want other people to feel bad. She doesn’t like to criticize. She respects the fact that other people have a right to their own opinions so she avoids controversy and conflict.

Now, I find that the self-protective mode that served me well in the first part of life keeps me from being obedient to the deeper voice of God. No one can hurt me. I don’t have to prove that I am worthy because I know that God loves me just as I am. I have experienced the power of God’s grace. My protector has outlived her usefulness.

I no longer want to be silent about my faith because I am afraid of offending someone, whether it is atheists or other Christians. When I hear Christians complaining about welfare recipients, I want to speak out on behalf of the poor. When I hear Christians say that we should live in fear of gays or Muslims, I want to talk about God’s love for all people. When Christians say that we should turn our backs on refugees, I want to ask them, what would Jesus do? But instead of speaking up, I hide in my foxhole and avoid confrontation.

I hear the voice of God calling me to be a voice for justice and mercy, to be a voice for genuine Christian discipleship. He has shown me that my purpose in life is not accounting; it is loving other people as I love myself. My purpose in life is not making sure that everyone follows my rules. It is seeing to it that no one misses out on the grace of God. I hear the voice of mercy with tear-filled eyes.

I hear the deeper voice of God telling me to bravely, courageously, and gently speak up. He did not give me a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The thought of obeying this call is frightening. It means going against what feels comfortable and safe. It means stepping out of my foxhole and possibly into the line of fire, even from fellow Christians.

I will be honest, fear has held me back all too often. Rohr wrote, “once you have faced your own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore, because there is no fear of exposure – to yourself or to others.”

I’ve said goodbye to my loyal soldier. Now it is time for me to get out of my foxhole, to say hello to the voice of risk, to surrender to the voice of mercy and love.






The Container

FAfter reading A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man, my response to The Lonely Man of Faith, a friend recommended that I read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that we have two conflicting natures.  One part focuses its efforts on creating and achieving and the other part seeks spiritual fulfillment. In contrast, Rohr wrote that we have two major tasks in life. In the first half, we develop a strong sense of self-identity; in the second half we figure out “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.”

Rohr described self-identity as a “container.” In the first half of life, we develop a strong container by identifying and using our skills, establishing relationships, etc. In the second half of life, we “find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” But we often don’t work on the inner task of self-examination until we fail at the external task.

I like the container analogy. Some containers, like vases, are merely decorative; others are not much to look at but are incredibly useful for holding, carrying, or storing our stuff. Some are fragile. Others, like a sturdy suitcase, take a beating and still keep the contents secure. Containers are often designed for a specialized purpose but creative and practical people envision another use. Some containers are transparent allowing you to see what is inside. Others keep their contents hidden under lock and key.

Rohr’s perspective hit me where I am now, in midlife. For several years now, I have been trying to figure out what my container is supposed to hold. It was encouraging to see how closely my journey follows the path to spiritual maturity that Rohr describes.

First Half

Learning Self-Discipline

Children are naturally egocentric. The tendency to focus on our own wants and needs, as if we are the center of the universe, must be challenged if we are to live in harmony with other people. The role of the family, schools, and other social institutions it to put limits on our “infantile grandiosity.” Having to butt up against someone else’s needs creates a “proper ego structure.” So in the first half of life, a structurally sound container is built when we learn to control our impulses, to respect the rights of others, to respect authority, to honor traditions, and to obey rules and laws.

As Rohr rightly points out, if you want someone to do a job well with no excuses, you want a person who has dealt with limits. Living with limits leads to self-discipline, time-management skills, problem-solving skills, a cooperative attitude, perseverance and reliability. On the other hand, a person who has been coddled and told they are special no matter what they do does not learn these important “soft” skills.

Rohr explains that there is a “creative tension” between laws and freedom. After all, we only internalize values if we have the freedom to test them. Sometimes people have to rebel and mess up to figure out that there are valid reasons for the rules that seemed so meaningless and restrictive before.

Developing Self-Esteem

In addition to limits, building strong self-esteem requires positive feedback and encouragement early in life. If you don’t have enough self-esteem, you will spend years trying to get approval from others, even begging for attention. When you have self-confidence, you don’t have to defend or assert your ego. In fact, having self-esteem enables you to let go of your ego and think about the needs of other people.

Rohr also noted that we need to experience failure to build a strong container for the self. Again, families and social institutions play a role in protecting children when they fall, preventing them from making the most harmful mistakes. They teach them how to fall (e.g. how to be a gracious loser) and how to learn from falling (what to do differently the next time).

Second Half

Falling Apart

The premise of Rohr’s book is that the achievements of the first part of life have to fall apart or be found wanting in some way for us to give them up. Examples of falling apart are job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, money issues, loss of reputation, addictions, etc. But I don’t think the trigger necessarily has to be a dramatic loss or an epic failure. It may be a series of small disappointments or a sense of disillusionment that grows over time.

I will never forget how I felt when my accomplishments came crashing down into a worthless heap. I had a job I enjoyed and was quite good at. I was the employee who did the job well with no excuses, proud of meeting deadlines and producing perfect reports. Then I had to work with a young man who had evidently been so coddled his whole life, he never had to follow through on his commitments. Excuses always worked for him. Conflict between the two of us was inevitable. My need for accountability clashed with his need for laxity. To make it worse for me, our boss treated him like an indulgent parent.

One day, my coworker told me that I was condescending. I knew it was true. I was ashamed of myself and felt terrible knowing that I had the power to be so hurtful. In my desire to hold up one set of good values (e.g. responsibility and trustworthiness) I stopped displaying other good values (kindness and respectfulness). I was becoming a person I did not want to be. So I quit a job I loved. I walked away. Moving forward meant letting go  – especially of my desire to fix things – and starting over.

Rohr notes that failure and suffering are great equalizers. They show how vulnerable and weak we really are. After I quit the job with the irresponsible coworker, I had trouble finding another job. It was humbling. I felt like I had really messed up. And then I recalled the words of Psalms 51:17: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. I came to God with a broken spirit and threw myself on his mercy.

As bad as failure and suffering seem on the surface, they often reveal strengths that aren’t evident when everything goes well. We learn more and grow more spiritually by failing than by doing things right. Failure and humiliation force you to look where you might not otherwise look – inside yourself. When we fail, we see ourselves more honestly; we see our limitations. Until we find our current situation lacking or even unbearable, we will not reach out to God. We won’t admit that we can’t do it alone. We won’t admit that we need help.

This is the paradox of spiritual growth: “the way up is the way down.” Rohr calls this way of growing a “spirituality of imperfection.” The apostle Paul also understood how beneficial imperfections are for spiritual growth. He explained that “in order for me to keep from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” We don’t know what the thorn was but Paul begged God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Opening Up to Change

Many people my age or older are unwilling to change. In the second half of life, many people long to go back to “the good old days.” Familiar ways are comfortable and as Rohr says, “falsely reassuring.” So they fight to maintain the status quo. Instead of seeking growth, they stay stuck in a never-ending quest to protect the ego by attempting to prove their worth with what they have or what they do.

Many people don’t want to stop battling the forces of evil. Rohr writes, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” (I sure figured that out when I confronted my coworker about his poor work habits!) The person you attack or confront will meet you with a lot of resistance because the fight is nothing more than a battle of the ego.

Rohr says that people often do not go down the path to spiritual maturity willingly. Growing may mean using a different skill set. It may mean taking a risk or a giant leap of faith. Sometimes, as Rohr says, “God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push.” And some people feel a mysterious calling that leads them down a path they would have never taken otherwise.

Recognition of my failings and the desire to be a better person pushed me to seek spiritual growth. But I have also felt a pull at work too. Several years ago, I felt pulled to write, to use a completely different, undeveloped skill. And I found that the reflective practice I follow in writing kept leading me to God.

Surrendering the False Self

Rohr says that we each have a persona and a shadow self. Your persona encompasses other people’s expectations of you, how you choose to identify yourself, and the qualities that you are rewarded for having. Your shadow is the part of the self that you don’t want other people to see. We may not even admit the bad parts to ourselves. We work really hard to maintain and present the desired image of the self to other people – to pretend that we are something we are not.

As you mature spiritually, you figure out that your self-image is just an image. It is not worth protecting, hiding, promoting, or defending. Other people are good at pointing out or revealing our weaknesses. They see our shadow self no matter how carefully we try to hide it.

It is possible to find your true self if you engage in critical self-reflection. You have to surrender the false self to find the true self. Honest self-examination is a humbling exercise. It means facing your mistakes, failings, and contradictions. The benefit of facing your hidden self is that you no longer have to fear being exposed as a fraud.

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”
― Richard Rohr

Finding Unity & Inclusiveness

Rohr describes spiritual maturity as reaching a level of unity and inclusiveness. Quoting Ken Wilber, “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.” In other words, you start off with a superior attitude towards those other sinners, then you figure out that all people are equally deserving of God’s grace. While the spiritually immature person looks down on sinners, the spiritually mature person stops with the self-righteousness. A person who is stuck at a lower level continues to be motivated by the ego, dividing the world into winners and losers. They may be religious but they practice a “tribal” form of religion that excludes people who are not like them.

What does it look like to be more inclusive? It means that you don’t waste your energy trying to prove that your way is right. You use your energy to find unity – common ground – with people who are different from you, especially those who are oppressed. You stop trying to change or fix people. You learn to be patient and understanding. You try to see things from the other person’s point of view. What challenges do they have that you don’t? What would it be like to walk in the other person’s shoes?

You stop practicing dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinkers see everything as good or bad, black or white. The mature person can see the shades of gray. You recognize that not everything is clear-cut, either this or that. You also learn to accept the “not knowing.” You don’t have to have an answer for everything.

“Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt, and “unknowing,” and in such living, ironically resolves that very mystery to some degree.”

One of the ways I’ve seen the spirit of grace and inclusiveness grow in me is in the evolution of my thinking about a hot button issue among many Evangelicals. Those who signed The Nashville Statement are hell-bent on resisting the growing cultural acceptance of gays and transgenders, battling what they see as evil, “a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” I have wrestled with the issue because the Bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. But the Bible calls out many sins – murder, greed, dishonesty, adultery, cheating, slander, malice, etc. And I notice that Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for hypocrites, for the greedy and self-serving.

I see my gay friends as multi-faceted human beings, not defined solely by their sexual orientation anymore than I am. But I wondered whether homosexuality is a choice or a genetic predisposition. Then I had the opportunity to hear a gay Christian, Christopher Yuan, speak at my church. He did not answer that question. But it was amazing to hear how God changed his life. He was expelled from dental school and imprisoned for dealing drugs. God didn’t fix Christopher’s sexual orientation just as he didn’t take away the thorn in Paul’s side. God loved him just as he is. I left his speech with the joy that comes from seeing the power of grace.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. To love your neighbor as you love yourself, you need to be gracious, particularly if your neighbor is not lovable. It takes even more grace to love your enemies and to bless those who curse you. Egocentric people would rather base the way they treat other people on merit; your neighbor has to deserve or earn your favor. But when you are filled with God’s grace, merit and worthiness have no meaning.

As you grow spiritually, you figure out that we are all in this thing called life together. We each have our own signature weaknesses or as Rohr points out, “we are all naked underneath our clothes.” When you have forgiven yourself for your own imperfections and failings, you have the capacity to forgive other people for their imperfections and failures. When you learn to accept yourself – both the good and the bad – you can do the same for others. You stop feeling the need to hang onto old hurts and resentments. You don’t see the point in wasting your time and energy on stupid fights and disagreements.

Jesus likened hypocrites to a container – to a dish that is clean on the inside but filthy on the outside. A spiritually mature person will focus on what should be inside the container and stop presenting a false image of the self.

I have come a long way in my spiritual journey, but I am still falling upward. I am still learning to joyfully accept my ordinariness and to let go of my fear of being exposed. I am still learning to be what Philip Yancey calls a grace-dispenser.

Yearning to Be a Better Person

David Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character to save his own soul. In looking at his own life, he realized he was too concerned with “resume virtues” and not enough with “eulogy virtues.” In telling the stories of people like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Frances Perkins, he hoped to learn how they developed character after descending into “the valley of humility.” The people he chose to write about were interesting, but they didn’t inspire me that much, perhaps because we each have our own passions and our own heroes. I found myself more interested in the idea presented at the beginning of the book – that human beings have two selves – one motivated by ambition and one motivated to seek a higher, moral purpose.
The Two Selves

In the introduction, Brooks explained an idea that he read about in The Lonely Man of Faith – that we each have two conflicting selves. The author of that book, Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, described two sides to our natures, which he named Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the ambitious, achievement-oriented self. He seeks status and wants to be victorious. He follows a utilitarian logic, pursuing self-interest and the rewards we expect to get from our efforts. This self keeps busy building, creating, and producing. This self asks “what’s in it for me?” Adam I nurtures himself my cultivating his strengths and fiercely guarding his self-interests.

In contrast, Adam II, is the moral-seeking self. This side of us is motivated by a desire to love others just as we love ourselves, to do good and to be good. He wants to honor creation and his own potential, which means yielding to a “transcendent truth” and sacrificing the desires of the self to a greater good. Adam II lives by a moral logic that is completely contrary to the Adam I way of thinking. He wants to produce good fruits like kindness, love, and mercy. To nurture himself, he must confront his weaknesses. To fulfill this self, he must forget his own wants and think about himself less. For Adam II, achieving humility is the greatest success; pride is his greatest failure. This self asks “what’s the right thing to do?”

I see these two selves at work in me. I want to achieve my goals and have the things that make me happy. I pursue my own wants and interests. I see the world from my point of view. I think my own thoughts. I make my own choices about right and wrong because I have the will and the freedom to do so. But the other side of me recognizes that I don’t live in isolation. I am not the center of the universe; there are other people on my planet. Other individuals have their own wants and interests, their own ways of thinking and seeing and their own free will to make choices.

It is in my best interest to live in harmony with other people even though their interests compete with my self interests and even when it is not easy for me to yield to the wants of others. So I find a calling in me to look to a higher moral code that is above my self-centered ways. It may be in my selfish interest to lie or cheat to achieve the desires of the Adam I in me. But the Adam II in me sees that these behaviors are not good. Adam II sees that the best moral choices are honesty, fairness, respect for others and what rightfully belongs to them, kindness, patience and self-control.

When we truly desire for Adam II to be the victor in the battle within the self, it is hard to understand why Adam I continues to exert so much power over him. The apostle Paul attempted to explain the struggle for power over the self (from Romans 7). I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Paul recognized the warring sides of his nature – the inner being that delights in God’s law and the sinful nature that is always right there with him.

The Road to Character

I always liked the quote, life is a journey not a destination. It encourages me to savor my everyday experiences instead of worrying too much about where I’m going. It reminds me of the Harry Chapin song, Cat’s in the Cradle. The father was so busy pursuing the goals of Adam I that he missed out on the important things until it was too late. But when it comes to character, it is worth stopping to think about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

A road to character is a great metaphor for the process of developing character. It makes me think about bumps and potholes. Life can throw a lot of those your way and if you’re not careful, they can do some damage – damage that points out the need for repairs. On mountain roads, you have to drive slowly because of sharp turns, steep grades, and blinds spots. Other times life goes so smoothly, you can drive on autopilot or maybe take the slower, scenic route. But on the road, you must be prepared for unexpected detours and changes in weather. Nothing focuses you like driving in a blizzard.

Then there’s the issue of getting lost if you don’t know where you’re going. My pastor asked us the other day if we have ever gotten lost while driving and if we had, if we knew why we had gotten lost. He showed us the results of a survey that showed that 45% or so of people said they got lost because of bad directions. Almost the same percentage got lost because they missed a road sign. I’ve gotten lost for both reasons and I’ve gotten lost because I thought I didn’t need directions! I foolishly thought I could figure it once I got there. I found that I had to stop and get my bearings and get the directions I needed to continue on my way.

On the website for The Road to Character, Brooks wrote that he wants to have the “moral adventures” that lead to being a better person. Now, I wouldn’t call the situations that lead to character “adventures.” An adventure sounds like something fun and exciting. I would call the situations that develop character a refining fire that takes rough, impure material and turns it into something precious and beautiful.

Sometimes character develops from adversity, suffering or struggling through something difficult. In retrospect, you can see the benefits of the struggle, just as I learned to be a better driver by driving in less than ideal conditions. Romans 5:3-4 says “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Growing up poor made me a stronger person. My ambitious Adam I self became determined to overcome and succeed. I learned the value of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. The Adam II side of me learned to not think too highly of myself and to have empathy for others. Most importantly, adversity taught me that I am not defined by external signs of success – what I have or what I accomplish – but by who I am on the inside.

Adversity may lead to character but how we respond to challenges reveal our true character at that point in time. For example, I sometimes respond to frustrations at work with a lack of patience and a desire to vent my anger. But acknowledging and confronting this weakness in me leads me to think about how I might practice better self-control the next time the network crashes on me or someone derails my work plans.

Shifting the Conversation

Besides hoping to become a deeper better person himself, Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character because he wants to shift our conversation away from the cultural focus on external success. The hope is that we will relearn the vocabulary that past generations used to describe virtues and that we would focus more on “the internal confrontation with weakness that produces good character.” I agree. Many people don’t spend much time nurturing their moral side, confronting the weaknesses of their characters. But facing up to our weaknesses, though painful, produces moral growth – just as pruning a branch produces healthy new growth.

Indirectly at least, we are starting to have this conversation whether we want to or not. We’re talking about the dishonesty of political candidates. We’re using words that were not part of our vernacular before – xenophobia, narcissism, misogyny. We’re seeing an example of Adam I at his worst – pursuing selfish ambition, bragging about wealth and achievements while ignoring or denying weaknesses of character. Today, we’re facing cultural struggles that reveal the moral weaknesses of that culture.

Let’s talk about the kind of people we should yearn to be. Let’s talk about the seven virtues or the nine spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Let’s talk about our weaknesses and how we can learn to be better people.