I’m self-diagnosed as an anxiety sleep walker. As a kid I used to sleepwalk for any and every type of dream. I remember trying to convince my mother to come to a concert in my bedroom once and being mightily offended when she told me to go back to bed. Who was she to question if there was a concert happening in my room? It’s lent itself to some good stories, but I’m thankful that in adulthood my midnight antics have dwindled. These days, romps around the house in the middle of the night are saved only for particularly anxious seasons of my life and always focused on one thing – my endless search for… “The Manual” (dun dun duuuuuun).
It’s not difficult to uncover the true meaning behind my sleepy restlessness. Some people’s dreams contain deep and complex metaphors. Mine’s more of a one-to-one correlation, I’m afraid my brain just isn’t creative. Basically if, during my waking hours, I’m in the middle of a situation where I feel uneasy, unsure of myself, unequipped, or fearful, then in my dream world I create the solution. Clearly the problem is that I’ve lost the manual and all I have to do is find it. Sadly though, the manual is always just out of reach and I can never quite get it despite my best efforts. It feels like the formulaic plotline for some cheesy drama on tv.
Over and over again I sleep poorly and fret about my inability to find this magic manual. In my dreams I feel guilty that I’ve lost it, foolish that everyone else has their manual and I can’t find mine, fearful of what people will think when they realize I don’t have it. I wake up the next morning and get a good laugh out of it when I remember searching under couches and through drawers, but I also know that my dreams lay my heart bare. It is a stark and telling picture of something I believe will save me. I truly do long for the manual. Deep down in there I do want to solve my own problems and believe I just need to know what step to take, how to behave in order to do so.
The obviousness of my dreams is laughable. Though it’s not lovely that I often get very poor sleep during these seasons of sleepwalking, there’s also something merciful about being able to see it so clearly – of course there’s not a step-by-step how-to guide for all of life’s complexities. When I awake the next morning I can see the silliness of searching endlessly for something that doesn’t exist. But as I consider this concept in my life I’ve come to realize that I do this very thing when I’m awake, just in much more nuanced and creative ways. The manual in my waking hours isn’t a book, it’s often a set of expectations I place over myself – things I must accomplish to be ok, ways I must act to be who I’m supposed to be. Or to put it in biblical language – laws I must live by to be righteous. Yikes, if you see where I’m going we’re starting to talk about serious stuff here.
Let me slow down and give you an example.
The setting: Financial insecurity
The response: Fear and anxiety
When finances are uncertain my fears can be complex. The easiest to identify is the worry that I will not be taken care of. That’s a real and legitimate fear but if I’m honest with myself it’s just the tip of the iceberg. When I push into it I realize that I don’t fear starvation or homelessness, I have a loving family and community. What I’m more worried about is that I won’t be taken care of the way that I want. Being financially secure holds more for me than just physical care, it’s an identity. I am NOT the kind of person who fails financially. I am NOT needy. I do NOT want to have to ask for help. (Imagine those with the intensity of a 3 year old’s temper tantrum…. this is serious business!) What will others think? What would that say about me? Are you starting to see how what is at stake for me is masked behind a physical concern but really is a fear that I’ll lose my right standing before myself and others?
The solutions: I have a choice here: How will I respond to that desire to be righteous before others?
The manual: If I jump immediately to actions I will take to fix the problem – saving more, spending less, I’m setting myself up as my own savior. My problem now becomes twofold. Not only have I erected a false standard for righteousness (right standing before others), now I also have an inadequate savior to rescue me from it. It’s no wonder that anxiety begins to consume me here.
Christ: Turning to Christ at this point involves rejecting and turning away from the false standard. My life before the Father is the only standard I live by and that standard is fully satisfied in Christ. Any other standard and any other savior are what the Old Testament identify as idolatry and the consequences of that are dire. Psalm 130 comes to mind here. I begin to cry out to my Heavenly Father pleading that he hears my voice, I cry out for mercy (vs. 1-2). I know he is with me and I know that forgiveness of my sin is the greatest need that I have. Repentance comes, a turning away from a craving for a right standing before anyone but him (vs. 3-4). I know fully that he’s satisfied the thing I need the most and a hope in his steadfast love builds in me, my heart learns to hope in the Lord (vs. 6-8).
The manual: My actions and behaviors will begin to carry the weight that only Christ himself could carry. Any infraction no matter how small will lead to self-condemnation in the form of guilt and an increased fear of failure. As the tyrant of my false standard persists I’ll be more and more likely to turn to other things to fix it, the temptation toward more false standards amplifies as does the lure of methods to escape. I turn inward, my ability to be generous decreases and my thoughts about money and saving begin to consume me. I may cry out to the Lord for help but his help to me in these moments is the growing awareness that I must reject the things that I have come to love, the standards I want to fix me. And when it’s gotten deep enough, I will begin to sleepwalk.
Christ: Money begins to lose its grip on me. Tithing feels less painful. Freedom to be generous returns. Financial planning brings freedom instead of guilt. I learn to embrace my neediness instead of fighting against it. I can feel weak and needy because Christ is strong within me. Failure loses its power to condemn because Christ has been victorious and he will finish what he’s started.
It’s interesting that from the outside each of these responses may look fairly similar. Both involve making financially wise decisions. Life might look fairly hum drum in either situation. Even if I am living by the manual it’s not like I’m spiraling out of control (though sometimes this is what people experience). I might just be feeling a little more sensitive in my relationships (for me, a symptom of other false standards) and watching a little more tv (escapisms). Both may even involve a conversation with the Lord. I know I’ve prayed that I might trust that he’ll provide for me even while I continue to live in submission to a standard outside of him (praise the Lord for his mercy!). My heart left to its own devices is sneaky, it’s amazing to me how I can easily convince myself I’m autonomous, self-sufficient, strong on my own, and wise within myself. Added to a propensity toward blindness is a hiddenness from the outside. The kinds of effects you begin to feel from living under a false set of standards starts internally. Though you may start to see negative effects in your relationships most often you can manage those through discipline. You don’t feel generous but you give anyway. But you can’t manage the inside. You can’t manage guilt and condemnation. When the gospel begins to feel trite, when Christ’s death on the cross doesn’t touch the guilt you feel, it’s a tell tale sign that false standarditis has set in. Christ’s death only satisfies one standard, the Father’s. It will not ease the guilt of rules it was never designed to fulfill. The beauty here is that while it will not rescue you from false rules, it does bring the grace and mercy we need to come to the Father in our lowest and most rebellious moments.
Finances is just one example of this. To be honest it’s just the least vulnerable example of it in my own life. I can think of 2 more right off the top of my head that would be far too scary to post online and those are just the ones I’m aware of. We do this at every turn – beauty, academic achievement, parenting, business success, professions, relationships, health. Goodness, we even turn the right standard into a false standard when we remove Christ from the picture…but that’s a post for another day. In some ways I think we’ve grown so accustomed to the burden of living under false standards that the negative effects of them somehow feel normal. They’re easily excused because everyone everywhere does it all the time. But to a life abundant you were called. In Christ is a freedom your heart can barely imagine.
Today I’m repenting of my false standard and experiencing the joy of living, in this moment, before the eyes of my Father whose love is unending, whose mercy is deep, and whose grace is extravagant. Help me Lord Jesus in the rest of my moments as well!