When Joe was a young boy, his parents were preoccupied; they were both professors at the local university, devoted to their work and their students. Oh, they fed Joe and clothed him; they didn't beat him. But they were dutiful and that was about it, or so it seemed -- still seems -- to Joe.
One day, Joe hit a baseball through a neighbor's window. Or maybe he brought home a report card with -- horror of horrors -- a "B-" on it. Or he had a bicycle accident and scraped his knee.
His parents made some remark to the effect that "the trouble with you is you don't pay enough attention" or "you aren't careful enough" or "you're lazy" -- something like this. (If "Joe" were a girl, then some thoughtless remark about her appearance might have come out.)
Why were his parents just dutiful? Why didn't they give Joe the kind of love and affection and affirmation that every child hungers for? Was it because Joe wasn't paying enough attention, wasn't careful enough, was too lazy, fat, stupid, plain or ugly?
No no no no no! A thousand times no! That had nothing to do with it!
The parents were lukewarm, dutiful, etc. because they were, and are, sinners! They are broken, wounded, bent, imperfect. They have fallen and do fall short.
The other thing is that they are only human. They're limited. They aren't God.
But these ideas are painful for Joe, because they mean he has no chance of getting all he wants from them.
What Joe should do at this point, and maybe he actually could do if he has learned about God, is this: He should turn in faith to God -- because only God can fill that void in Joe's heart. Only God has the perfect love described in 1 Corinthians 13. (Parents, friends, lovers -- everyone else will let Joe down eventually, but God promises those who love him that he will never leave them or forsake them.)
But your average Joe doesn't do that; as a young child, his heart is full of folly (Proverbs 22:15). So he comes to this foolish conclusion instead, and clings to it for years: "I can love and affirmation from (parents, friends, lovers, etc.) if I can just _________________." The blank can be filled in with any of
- be careful enough
- pay enough attention
- achieve something noteworthy
- make myself beautiful enough
- be smart enough
- work hard enough
- pray enough (!)
- learn enough about the Bible
When something good happens, Joe looks for, and finds, some recent occasion when he paid more attention, or was especially clever, or spent some more time on his hair or whatever, and attributes his good fortune to his efforts. Conversely, when something bad happens, Joe looks for, and finds, some recent occasion when he was (or might have been) a little less attention, or was a little less careful, or spent a little less time on his hair or whatever. Naturally he attributes his bad fortune to his lack of diligence/care/effort.And besides that, as long as Joe hangs on to this mindset, he can retain the illusion (or "the stubborn insistence") of being in control. Of having the power to get people around him to meet his needs.
It's that, the idea of using people (or God) to make him feel good about himself, that is so harmful to Joe. It colors all his relationships, including of course his relationship to God, because part of Joe is wondering "How can I get this person to give me what I want? How does this person think? How can I create in them a sense of obligation to love me, admire me, affirm me, defer to me, whatever?" So as much as Joe wants to love and bless people, as much as he wants to love and worship God, there's a part of him that also wants to use people and to use God.
Of course, Joe isn't unusual in this. We all love imperfectly and with mixed motives, because we all have unrepented folly in our background.
What can we do? Here's a 30-year plan, which I just made up:
- Pray Psalm 139:23-24 regularly (Search me, O 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 everlasting way.)
- Be in a close fellowship group, where someone will feel free to practice Matthew 18:15 on you (If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother).
- Use periods of solitude to reflect and confess (1 John 1:7-9)
- If you're fortunate to be able to do so, raise children, and do it prayerfully.
If I come up with anything else, I'll let you know.