You only have to spend a few minutes on Facebook to know we are living in an epidemic of inner emptiness, complete with a cast of characters who escape in all kinds of “isms” or put others down as a path to their identity. But understanding the cast of characters in all of our stories—rather than blaming or dismissing them—can be a healing path back to one another.
The Character of Relief: Grief, Fear, Loneliness, and Longing
The entitlement to relief shows up best in the genesis story of us in the character of Adam. Adam doesn’t enter the potential tension of trying to dissuade Eve from taking the advice of the snake. He remains silent. When Adam comes face-to-face with God, after eating the forbidden fruit, he suddenly has something to say: “I ate the fruit because of the woman who you gave me” (Genesis 3:12, author’s paraphrase). Adam wants relief from any consequences, and so he absolves himself of all responsibility. It’s Eve’s fault. It’s God’s fault. Before we get indignant about Adam, it’s good to remember whenever we seek relief from the pain and stress of life, we reveal this same deeper problem in ourselves. We don’t want to get into the messiness of love.
The character who seeks relief may be an addict—addicted to drugs, working, sex, people-pleasing—desperate for relief from the reality of suffering. This character alternates between being oblivious and conscious of his or her pursuit of someone or something that will provide consolation from the longing for More. This is the character who looks for love in all the wrong places, the person who takes the easy way out (such as remaining silent or passive), the person who blames others or even themselves for their limitations to love or be loved and decides they are helpless to do anything about it.
This character is often tortured by that inner voice whispering of More.
We are all Adam. We all taste grief, fear, loneliness, and longing . . . and we all want relief.
Whether we are passive, silent, avoidant, or addicted, the character who seeks relief discovers something that can dull the deepest passions of the heart to love and be loved. This character, although it may look passive, actually opposes love. The pursuit of relief nails the longings of our hearts to someone or something—a person, place, substance, behavior, or belief—that promises a little relief . . . and then we want more and more of it, until we are imprisoned in emptiness and self-hatred. Our attention is kidnapped by a desire to escape, and when our attention is held hostage, we cannot love.
The Character of Revenge: Control, Manipulate, Satisfy
Eve feels the longing for More even in Paradise, and the demand for revenge energizes her. She knows there is more than she can control, satisfy, and contain, and so when the serpent shows up and promises a remedy that is better than anything God offers, Eve is ready to bite. When God confronts her face-to-face, she knows already that something in her heart doesn’t trust God. She knows that “something” is about more than wanting fruit. She knows that “something” promises god without God—and she knows the promise did not come from God. So Eve places the blame on the duplicitous serpent.
The character who wants revenge can look controlling, manipulative, driven, mean, and even murderous. This character often gets more press than the other characters because his or her actions are outrageous. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, these people live with “self-will run riot—driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity. . . . [They] step on the toes of [their] fellows.”[i] This character wants revenge for the pain of life, for human limitations, or even for the limits set by God.
We are all Eve, energized by the force Parker Palmer suggests results in “unbridled competition, social irresponsibility, and the survival of the financially fittest . . . [and] community [being] torn apart . . . and depression—an extreme form of the empty self syndrome, an experience of self-annihilation just short of death. . . .” As a result of these grim syptoms, Parker explains, we commit selfish acts that “arise from an empty self, as we try to fill our emptiness in ways that harm others—or in ways that harm us and bring grief to those who care about us.”[ii] We are all bent in the direction of finding life on our own, despising any vulnerability or dependence. We don’t want to have to deal with an economy of trust. We don’t trust what God says about us. We don’t trust each other. When we don’t trust God, we must become god—even if it means we get stuck in the hard clay of the mire of ourselves. We end up with hearts of stone.
The Character of Evil: Trapped in Pain, Fear, and Confusion
Adam’s desire for relief and Eve’s demand for revenge put them just where the serpent wanted them. Evil wins when our hearts grow wary of one another and of God. The character of evil delights when our hearts become hard and love cannot break through. He slithers behind the scenes and suggests that we can be the most important character in our own stories, and he has a glint in his eye as he watches us decide we will make everything about us. The damage may look wild and beautiful (we are addicted to drama) and appeal to our longing for More, but in reality, our hearts are whispering or screaming, “No, God!” (Psalm 14:1). And evil is satisfied.
Evil believes it’s won—the story is over—when we are trapped in our own pain, fear, and confusion. We may have lied or cheated, driven under the influence, or had an affair, and evil wants us to think that’s the real problem, so that we’ll keep lying, denying there’s a problem, or hiding our unfaithfulness. Adam and Eve’s biggest problem was not that they ate the fruit. It was that they were ashamed and hid. They couldn’t look at each other, and they couldn’t meet God when he came to the Garden for communion with them.
As a wise, teenage client reminded me when I believed that the character of evil was winning in my story, “Love will have the final word.” Evil does not have the final word. DUIs do not have the final word. Sexual abuse does not have the final word. Divorce does not have the final word. Our self-destructive choices do not have the final word. We can choose to reject evil’s power and lean into the most powerful character.
The Character of God
That brings us to the final character in our story. In the story of our genesis, Adam and Eve don’t trust God with their hunger for More, and then they blame God for their choices. They try to write God out of the story, and I have sometimes wondered why God didn’t just turn around and write them out of the story. Why didn’t he just start a new story? Maybe the second time he could write a story where he creates a man and woman without choice—that way they wouldn’t get into trouble. It astounds me that God doesn’t seem that concerned about our bad choices. In fact, he gives us the right to choose, because he wants us to choose. It’s almost as if he already had something in mind to make those wrong choices right.
It reminds me of a story a friend shared with me. William started feeling terrible. His chest hurt, he felt sick to his stomach, and he was having trouble breathing. His wife, Dana, drove him to the hospital, and that’s when his story starts to make no sense. Men and women in the hospital insulted him and told him that he was worse off than he thought he was. Then it felt to William like they assaulted him with probes and even knives. They knocked him unconscious, and they told his wife they didn’t know if he was going to make it.
Tears come to my eyes as I think about my conversation with William. William did make it, and he called me from his home. I’m so grateful for those insulting and assaulting doctors, but probably not nearly as grateful as William is. They performed emergency surgery; drained fluid from his lungs and heart; opened up clogged vessels that were producing a hard, life-threatening heart of stone—and William left the hospital with a steadily beating, living heart of flesh.
When you feel insulted and even assaulted, it makes all the difference in the world who is thwarting your plans and who is cutting you and why they are cutting you. In our genesis story, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Eve just takes a bite after the serpent lied to her and told her she could be god if she knew enough to make her own judgments—that she could save herself with herself from the sometimes painful and confusing longing for More. She could be her own creator rather than God’s creation. Adam is silent and passively agrees with Eve’s decision while trying to remain unscathed by any scandal. They both eat the fruit and hide in shame, for they suddenly know good and evil, and they realize they’ve allowed the snake’s lie to slither inside of them. Adam and Eve need something cut out of them. It’s not their longing for More. It’s their strategy to deal with their longing by being god without God. While looking for relief and revenge, Adam and Eve reached for a power that didn’t belong to them. They tried to be god and ended up knowing more deeply than ever they were not God, so they hid from God.
What if, as Max Lucado writes, God is like a heart surgeon, and he needs to crack open your chest and remove your heart—poisoned as it is with pain (seeking relief) and pride (seeking revenge)? But God doesn’t just remove your heart; he replaces it with his own.[iii] That would mean God wasn’t done making Adam and Eve in the prelude of the story when he designed them with a heart wanting More. He wasn’t done making them when the cast of characters started acting out in the story he was writing. That would mean that he’s not done writing your story, even if you’ve acted out of hurt or pride against God—even if you’ve decided he’s not writing your story.
Whatever page you are on, God is still writing.
Taken from Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another by Sharon Hersh. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
About the Author
Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs, a sought-after speaker, and the author of several books, including the acclaimed The Last Addiction: Why Self Help Is Not Enough, the popular Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love With Abandon, and the award-winning Mothering Without Guilt. Sharon lives in Lone Tree, Colorado and is finding freedom and adventure in the empty nest years. Sharon’s latest book, Belonging, releases from NavPress in August 2020.
[i] Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001), 62.
[ii] Palmer, Hidden Wholeness, 38, 39.
[iii] Max Lucado, “God As Heart Surgeon (EXCERPT),” Huffington Post, updated November 19, 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/god-as-heart-surgeon_b_1874927.