Getting at the true root of a problem
Reflect on your confessions or your emotions. You can use your negative emotions as a red flag. They often indicate a time when our selfish or sinful nature is active and causing us suffering. If you can identify a time when you were angry, resentful, jealous, judgmental, fearful, or feeling another such emotion, that may be a good starting point.
For the very deep questions, asking ourselves why may be only one of many steps we should take. We may need to seek counseling, develop new skills, or establish reminders to help us make that real change in the moment. We may need to ask for accountability from our small group. But without understanding our true why and letting God heal us, these other steps are not as powerful as they could be in facilitating our transformation and getting out of or avoiding a coming crisis. We need to let God show us our inner self if we want to let him change us, heal us, and replace our brokenness with his wholeness. To get ideas on where to start, check out:
Give it a try!
With your journal handy, relax and breathe deeply. Invite the Holy Spirit into your mind to open your eyes to what you need to see.
Start to ask yourself the why questions about your emotions or difficult areas of your behavior. Allow the Holy Spirit to help you peel back those layers. Don’t settle for the first answer that comes to your mind or the one that defends you and places the blame externally. Let yourself look at your own thoughts and feelings where you may not have looked before. Journal your internal dialogue and observations.
“We must also find out the why of our feelings. Why do I have such strong feelings of despair (or fear, or anger) when this or that happens? What are the inordinate desires that are being frustrated? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? ...Whenever you see your heart in the grip of some kind of disobedience or misery, some temptation, anxiety, anger, etc., always ask, (1) How are these effects being caused by an inordinate hope for someone or something to give me what only Jesus can really give me? and (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere?” (Keller, Gospel in Life Study Guide, 2010, p. 45)
Timothy Keller identifies the things we find at the bottom of our why questions as idols (including things such as pleasures, security, power, control, and approval). He encourages us to name our idols and repent of them. For example, you might say something like:
“This _______________________[name your idol] is not my life – Jesus is my life. This is not my righteousness and worthiness. It cannot give me that – but Jesus, you can and have!” (Keller, Timothy. Gospel in Life Study Guide. Zondervan, 2010, p. 47.)
He also suggests that we recognize how dangerous these idols are to us. Perhaps you might say:
“Lord, why am I giving this so much power over me? If I keep doing it, it will strangle me. I don’t have to do so – I will not do so any longer. This will not be my master. You are my only King.” (Keller, Timothy. Gospel in Life Study Guide. Zondervan, 2010, p. 47.)
EXAMPLES OF "WHY" QUESTIONS
There are many things that I can ask why about. Here are just a few examples:
Why do I get angry? Sad? Resentful? Afraid?
Why do I like to talk about my kids (the good and the bad)?
Why do I like to talk about myself?
In fact, why do I say almost anything in conversation?
Why do I post on Facebook?
Why do I read Facebook?
Why do I highlight my hair?
Why do I buy things that are more expensive than I need?
Why do I eat junk food?
Why do I try to do two things at once?
Why do I talk about other people?
Why do I find people who annoy me offensive? (And if the answer to a question like this has to do with them and not me, I may not have found the core of the answer.)
Why am I driven to be so busy?
Why don’t I get the rest that I need?
ASKING WHY -
Asking ourselves why we think and do certain things can be very helpful in finding our true sinful nature. And seeing our true sinful nature is a great step toward real freedom from the crises of our lives and healing in Christ. Here is an example from my life.
I have had a problem with wanting to share ideas and advice with others a little too much. While I enthusiastically wanted to help them, I began to notice that perhaps they were not as enthusiastic about it as I was. In fact, those who were most forthcoming with me told me that they were sometimes put off by it (and occasionally even offended).
I made efforts to refrain from advising and helping and made some limited progress; however, in my mind, I still noticed faults and thought about suggestions I wished I could make. Just trying to stop wasn’t enough. The work was not done. Christ wanted to renew my mind; to truly renew my behavior at its source. And so he called me to a tough wrestling match. I needed to ask the hard questions about the deep motivations of my inner heart. Was there something that I had been unwilling to hear, something that I had kept subconscious and unexamined?
To explore my motivations with God, I used the simple question, “Why?” repeatedly. Each repetition was like peeling off layers of an onion. This is what a conversation between the two voices in my head sounded like as I let the Spirit help me examine this.
Why do I want to advise and suggest ideas to people?
Because I love truth and learning, problem solving, finding the best way, and helping people.
Why do I love learning and solutions and helping?
Because it makes me feel significant and meaningful to help others.
Why does it make me feel significant and meaningful?
Because I like to help people find a better way. They are clearly not getting it, and I could shed a lot of light on it for them.
Do I really like to help people?
Yes, of course I do!
Why do I say that? Is that what this is really about? Is this really about being so helpful? Because if it was, why on earth would I keep doing it when I know it is offensive?
Hmmm. Good question. I don’t know. Why would I?
Well, that is my question.
I guess it makes me feel good about myself to see where people are missing it and to have the right answers for them.
So it sounds like this might be more about me and what makes me feel good rather than about selflessly helping others.
Oh no… I think you’re right. Oh God, what is going on with me? Please show me my true self. I think that I might feel this way because I’m getting my significance from having the right answers and wanting to share those.
Why would I want to share the right answers?
To help people.
I think we have already covered that. Why does sharing the right answers make me feel like I have significance?
I guess I want others to see that I have the right answers more than I want to help them. It’s about what I want them to think of me. I want them to be impressed with my right answers. I want to be the one that shows the way. I get significance and meaning from impressing people and from being the one who makes a difference. I want people to think I’m smart and impressive. Oh God, I’m seeing that this has not just been about serving you. At a deep level this has been about serving me; about feeding my ego. I have been on a pursuit to glorify me, not you. I have pursued myself instead of you at the expense of others, even others that I love.
Jesus invited me to detach my need for significance from what others thought of me. I’d found myself looking to broken human beings like myself to validate me, when all the while the perfect, amazing, glorious God of the universe already loved me completely. It was insulting to God. As a result of discovering this, I found myself gravitating towards basking in God’s glory instead of trying to take a piece of it for myself. I did not need to be great; I needed to shout out God’s greatness. I began to appreciate that my meaning and significance came from his love and acceptance and goodness in my life.
At first these thoughts were mostly just in my head. But by the grace of God, as I returned to them and let them sink into me in moments of stillness with him, I started to assimilate them into my inner self. I started to actually feel a sense of deeper belief and release. I felt the tentacles of the desires to impress that have been so interwoven into me start to let go. In these moments with God, the need to honor myself was beginning to subside.
This process was not smooth and linear. It took many prayer sessions, and God revealed layers to me over time. But as I started to develop the habit of looking honestly at myself with the “why” question, he helped me become more effective at it. I also got to know myself better, which helped me arrive at the truth about myself in actual day to day situations with more regularity, fullness, and speed.
When I was new to this process, it was hard to access the truth about my own motivations. It was very difficult to see that which I did not want to change. But each time, as I started to approach the true answer, things would begin to come more into focus, and I would often feel as if I had struck a nerve. For example, I might feel a sense of shrouded doubt, powerful conviction, denial (perhaps accompanied by a nagging sense of uncertainty about my denial), or sometimes a ringing clarity that I had finally seen the truth about myself. This was productive discomfort. It was like the removal of a splinter or when the masseuse finds that troublesome knot in your back that you didn't know was there and goes to work on it. If the first answers seemed simple and did not have any zing of conviction and realization to them, then I probably needed to keep asking why.
Over time, as this process of seeing my true heart became a regular part of my time of prayer, God helped me start moving it to a more real time process. And even now in conversations, I sometimes feel myself start to get hooked by my own sinful heart, and I recognize it on the spot. I have an increasing ability to invite God inside me in the moment, accepting the significance he sees in me. He is helping me let go of my need for significance from the situation and people around me.
Still, often after the experience, I find that the work in my heart was only partially done, and I greatly benefit from returning to my thoughts with God in private prayer for a more thorough cleansing, release, and re-alignment.
God is developing a skill in me that I didn’t even know was lacking. This was a crisis I did not see. It ran below the surface. It motivated my thoughts and responses at a subconscious level. It was the evil demon of pride. It seems simplistic when I lay it out now. But it was so insidious, so powerful, so ubiquitous, and so deeply engrained.
God continues to free me both in the moment and in times of reflection from this dark force within myself. It is almost as if I were in a hot air balloon that has been tethered all my life. I have been limited from my true life by these ropes keeping me down. And now he has cut my cords. He lets me soar and find myself in him. Of course, I keep grounding the balloon and grabbing back on to the ropes. But he is always there to free me again. And so we go, with stops and starts, but over time, with more freedom, less tethering, and less crisis.