It Can Take Over Your Life
I had an annoying habit my freshman year: I picked up litter. Not just mine. Everybody’s. I never felt very altruistic about it, though—only increasingly burdened.
It would happen on my walks up and down Science Hill, the urge to clean. First a gum wrapper. Then an outdated flyer, a plastic bottle—anything that lay beside the sidewalk. I’d hold the items, at first, between thumb and forefinger; then, as they multiplied, would clutch them in a fist. By the time I reached Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, I would have a heap atop the three-ring binder cradled in my arms, usually a dozen scraps of days-old paper toppling over, threatening to sail off in the breeze. I’d dump them into a wastebasket, thinking this was not the way life was meant to be.
It may have begun as concern for the environment: the if-everybody-does-a-little-the-world-would-be-a-better-place romance. Eventually, to saunter past litter seemed to telegraph an attitude about as apathetic as the one that tossed it on the ground. What an unglorifying statement, I would think, if a Christian walked by garbage and didn’t even try to clean it up. Shouldn’t one exert that extra effort, go the extra mile—in every part of his life, not just obvious or traditional or more convenient parts? Even so, as time went on, my inability to break the habit bothered me more than the litter itself.
I made rules. First was “no compromise”: I would pick up everything. If I saw a potato chip wrapper on the grass, I picked it up. In doing so, if the corner of my eye caught a torn magazine photo a few feet off, I picked that up, too. Then, the new angle would give me a glimpse of an empty Snapple bottle across the street. A glance at the bottle hauled into view a whole tract of trash stretching another half a block, which would no doubt require hours to remove.
Shouldn’t I pick up all of that? Or do I care more about getting to class on time, about grades and success, than I do about being a non-compromising Christian? Won’t I give complete devotion? And so I would stand there, taut in dilemma, as organic chemistry began.
The problem? I was seeing too much refuse, of course. Why, if I saw less, I would have to pick up less. And so I began walking to class with a reinforced rigidity of neck, a field of vision narrowed to the path before me. And whenever I bent over to pick up items, the nuchal-cranial angle didn’t deviate. This new solution reduced the load I brought to the top of Science Hill or, on return trips, to Woolsey Rotunda.
Yet, this still seemed a rather questionable way of going about life. The rule had to be amended.
Only pick up litter that’s on the sidewalk, I told myself. That way, I can get to class on time and still be reasonably Christian as far as litter is concerned. This worked except when a piece of litter lay on the grass only a few inches from the sidewalk. Too bad, I’d say, I’m not picking it up.
Am I so small of heart, so legalistic, that I can’t accommodate a few inches?, a voice inside me would say. I would walk on despite the voice—the spurned paper scrap more distant with each step. If in the course of this internal debate I happened to get far enough from the scrap, the very distance would bar me, I thought, from retracing my steps to retrieve it. The strategy’s very disingenuousness disturbed me even more, however. Rather than enabling escape, each step reinforced my duplicity and left me uncomfortably walking further and further from a scrap which, at this point, seemed quite easy to have picked up a block ago. Yet, I would press on, step after miserable step. Why, if I turned around now, I’d be more of a fool than I already was! But, then again, wasn’t there the greater issue of walking away from my conscience?
Sooner or later, I would spin around and return to that paper scrap—sometimes halting and turning again, only to halt again, and turn again, and halt, and turn. I would snatch the scrap up and ask, “Now why didn’t I just do that in the beginning?” Then I’d resolve to pick up garbage at first sight—a resolution which sometimes regressed to my original approach of picking up everything I saw.
So the habit flourished, particularly miserable after rainy days (which work terribly on the texture of refuse). Why, really, did I do this? I had never been compulsive before college. God had given me several responsibilities in life: as student, son, friend, to name a few. Why did I think that ad-hoc street cleaning was one of them? Why did I believe, at least sometimes, that it trumped my academic responsibilities?
Compulsiveness emerged in other areas of life as well. In bed, I couldn’t sleep unless I had prayed for the half-dozen or so members of my family who lived in America. If I didn’t pray long for any given member, I felt I at least had to mention his or her name. I also felt a compulsion to say the Lord’s prayer every night. I told myself that the authenticity of my intentions and my relationship with God mattered, not the observance of a ritual that could mask deteriorating motivations. Yet—and this is the striking thing—nothing I did, no intellectual argument I told myself, no chiding could dispel the sense of dread that stole over me if I was not devout in maintaining these traditions. Nothing could remove the sense of incompleteness or persistent and vague disapproval. Sometimes this voice, gesturing toward the wreckage that earnestness toward God seemed to leave behind, suggested that life would probably be better without it all, or without Him.
This heightened sensitivity made me vulnerable to any pressure that appeared to originate from higher moral ground. I assumed that whatever seemed more holy or more spiritual actually was. If a Bible study went over the time limit, for example, I presumed that staying to the end was always the holy choice—not allowing that obedience might mean returning to my room to do something as “unspiritual” as study. The first time I talked with my Jewish roommate about spiritual things, I assumed I needed to make clear how different our beliefs were—never thinking that God might have wanted me first to emphasize our common respect for the Old Testament, which describes the Man of sorrows. I assumed expressive prayers and raised hands during worship meant alignment with the Spirit, more so than silent prayers and recumbent hands. To be sure, fear of man or selfish inhibition may still us. Yet, I didn’t realize freshman year that spiritual activity does not always seem spiritual. In fact, fleshly activity can appear spiritual; and spiritual activity can appear fleshly.
When David and his men were hungry, Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, the future king entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which was lawful only for priests. Doing an unlawful act to satisfy hunger certainly seems more fleshly than spiritual, yet Jesus used this example to show the Pharisees that obeying the law’s spirit is more important than observing its letter.
In King Zedekiah’s time, when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, it might have seemed more spiritual for Jeremiah to tell God’s people to fight the enemy, as godly prophets had urged in past conflicts. Yet, God commanded through Jeremiah the most cowardly-seeming course: to surrender to the invaders.
Might it not seem more fleshly to keep the company of harlots and other sinners, as Jesus did, than to hang around the more ostensibly righteous, the Pharisees?
The devil used Scripture itself to tempt Jesus. Satan, after all, sometimes masquerades as an angel of light.
In these Bible examples, one couldn’t separate the genuine from the imitation by appearances.
My compulsive behavior freshman year may faintly echo some quirky spirituality from post-Biblical times. The Stylites of the fourth century, for example, thought to impress God by spending their lives on poles. In the deserts of Turkey and Egypt they would erect stone columns about forty feet high and sit atop them for decades, fed by baskets they would lower to the ground with rope. They would genuflect and stand and cross themselves again and again and again, giving advice to the crowds that came to them in pilgrimage.
There are other examples—like the Holy Fools of Russia a few centuries later, who showed their spiritual fervor by wandering around barefoot in the snow and tundra; the Anchorites of medieval England each of whom would seclude himself in a room by having someone lay a brick wall in the doorway.
In all these forms it may be hard to pinpoint the main motive. Yet, they all share the notion of obedience on their own terms rather than Scripture’s—a spirituality perhaps defined more by ostentatious makeover than by inner transformation. The root of my behavior wasn’t revealed to me until one day later that freshman year when I was resting before the Lord and adoring him.
It struck me without insistence or apology or hurry—with a depth and authority that stilled me, a gentleness that suggested unspeakable kindness, and its insight was thoroughly true. It was a realization of how far I had departed from and how much I had grieved the One who loved me most, in a specific area of my life.
I had been unwilling to submit my choice of career to Him. My compulsiveness and religiosity were attempts at compensation—a hypertangible, rather than authentic, obedience. This realization was different from the vague accusations of selfish ambition that came over me on Science Hill. This was about the choice of career, and even more specific: was I willing to leave pre-med and enter full-time Christian ministry?
It urged me to the Cross, not to depression or some facile, ostensibly good impulse. The truth was No, I was not willing then to enter full-time Christian ministry. My heart preferred the convenient obedience of picking up garbage and reciting certain prayers. Yet now, under the gaze of a benevolent and just Lord, all the disguises dropped away. I understood that worldly trophies and securities would eventually be burned like rubbish anyway.
I transacted with Him. Ready to enter gladly whatever life He wanted, I gave back to Him my entire self, including my career, and the network of constraints about me snapped apart. Some time later, I committed to medicine, not so much from guilt or compulsion, as from a willingness to do whatever He wanted, a sense of gratitude and freedom and celebration. The Christian life is not a tightrope, Oswald Chambers writes; it is a tableland.
The enemy had supplied the voice of a false conscience, one that could never be appeased, one that should never be obeyed. He had tried to distract me from walking in the Spirit through the vast expanse of God’s purposes and plans. The voice of the enemy and my flesh had me accumulate garbage instead.
The counterfeit conscience aims at far more than mere distraction, however. It produces worldly sorrow which, according to Scripture, leads to death. Judas Iscariot’s sorrow led not to the foot of the Cross but to a noose of his own making.
On the other hand, “godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” (2 Corinthians 7) After Peter denied Jesus, Scripture says, he went and wept bitterly. This sorrow, bearing the Lord’s signature, had the opposite result. Peter went on to write of the mercy that gives new birth, faith that is refined by fire. There is a note of hope when the Lord speaks His word.
Harry Yoon Berkeley ’93, Medicine ’01
© 1999 The Yale Standard Committee