November 28, 2014

Nervous Breakdowns and Existential Crisis

The medical profession calls it an existential crisis but at the time it felt more like a cross between existential crisis, identity crisis and a speeding Mack Truck. It is that unsettling and disconcerting moment in a person’s life when the individual questions the very foundations of their life and who or what they have become. Some call it a midlife crisis. It is when the  individual poses the question to themselves of  whether or not their life has any meaning, purpose or value. The person comes to a dead standstill ( I did) and is forced to reassess life from the bottom up and their place in life. Whether the person wants to or not they are forced into an existential mode that makes them deal with their mortality and the meaning or purpose of their existence.

They say people that have existential crises usually have had either some dissatisfaction with their life or a major psychological trauma. I can’t say either were that true. What I did believe was before the breakdown occurred I had started believing that life had no purpose or external meaning. For all intents and purposes I had become a hedonistic nihilist. Because of this I had begun to feel alone and isolated from the world. When one has no perceived meaning for their life…they end up going in search of one. Blaise Pascal understood this and expounded on it in Pensées
"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself" Blaise Pascal-Pensées
It is the age old question: What am I...and for what true purpose am I here. From a specifically biblical point of view it is better asked: Why was I created and for what purpose was I created for. If I was a nihilist I would believe I had no purpose but because I am Christian saved by grace, not only do I have a purpose, I was created specifically for that purpose. So as a dutiful Christian, I went in search of said purpose. So what was/is it?

Reality as I had understood it for 39 years had been shattered and I had to reexamine what I perceived as reality and truth. For all of 39 years I had essentially become a practicing Christian Atheist. I said and believed I was Christian without ever fully understanding or accepting what it was to be Christian. Intellectual accent is not Christianity nor is being a good person and doing good things. For all pragmatic and practical purposes I had acted and behaved as an atheist living life as if God did not exist. In hindsight I see that my worldview was devoid of God except as an affirmative claim I made to others when asked if I was a believer. In practice I was unrepentant and a condemned sinner. Saying and doing are two different things. When the Christian rubber meets the Christian road either the hot rod of the Christian life takes off down the line in pursuit of the will of God or it spins violently and catastrophically out of control into a flaming wreck. A true believer clings tenaciously to Christ and the Gospel, a false believer panders to their sin and their lives are an ever-shifting morass of spiritual fish-tailing and senseless burnouts. I had done a few fishtails and the Christian life had gotten off to a squirrelly start but with the aid of the Holy Spirit I have straighten out down the line.

Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The psychologists and the counselors said I had Chronic Depression. It was clear to them I had had a quintessential midlife crisis that culminated in the proverbial nervous breakdown. Regardless of what exactly "it" had become chaotic. It was a matter of,"Goodbye normalcy, hello antidepressants and Xanax." The immediate devastation to my life took a few weeks to recover from. The deeper damage took months, perhaps years. To a greater extent I managed a full recovery but my outlook had changed from the selfish materialistic now to something beyond. I recognize now that it may or may not have been psychological in origin but what I am certain of about the origin of it was this…it came from and had been allowed by God. It was a divine wake-up call. The weight of the air around me during this time was heavy and oppressive. Even as a pagan I sensed the presence of something bearing down on me, holding me in place. The fog of it all and the confusion did not abate until I took the steps to get to church. The clarity I once had did not return until the pastor of that church strongly recommend that I start reading the Bible at Matthew 1:1 (thanks Randy). So I began to read and immersed myself in Scripture. At first I started reading to convince myself that it was all bull manure but as I read I never did find the contradictions I was told were in it. Instead I found it had continuity and cohesive depth from the first word to the last.

It took me about 4 or 5 months to complete the New Testament and comprehensively understand the flow and general principles of those books. Once I completed that New Testament I started the Old. It would then take me another year and a half to complete the Old Testament and have a general comprehension of it. From there I bought and read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Theology. This of course set me on a journey for a degree in Theology.

The nervous breakdown was the literal spiritual hinge-point that would send everything in my life careening towards the God of the Bible. All the while, as I became more versed in the Scriptures I realized that all the symptoms that led to the existential change (unrepentant sin), the physical mental effects and the outcome all had a parallel in some of the Old Testament narratives and to some extent, in the demoniacs of the New Testament. All the people that had been through similar things had either not been walking closely with God, were demon oppressed individuals or were blaspheming pagan unbelievers summoned towards God. It is through dramatic turns of events that they would all come to know God was God and that they are finite and dependent on Him in some manner.

For me I realized that I was closer to the end of my life than the beginning and the prospect of an impending death set me on a course to analyze what I was living for and what I truly believed. Being the deep thinker that I am I pursued avenues that I hadn’t normally pursued in my mechanical, empirical past. I ended up turning towards the metaphysical because it was apparent to me that the scientific and naturalistic explanations hit a wall when dealing with deep philosophical issues concerning existence and mortality.

So what about the existential crisis that is often provoked by a significant event in the person's life like a psychological trauma, broken marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one, a life-threatening experience, psychoactive drug use, etc. None applied. It is because the Psyches and Counselors could find no trigger point or trigger incident that I began to formulate my own theory on what happened. Every path and every decision since that time has reaffirmed that my theory was correct. 

God had directly intervened in my life and that of my family.

It wasn’t so much an existential crisis as it was a spiritual reorientation. The breakdown was directly reminiscent of narratives like Nebuchadnezzar and the grass eating incident, Paul’s Damascus Road experience and Zechariah being struck mute. Because I had made my way of thinking my own God, God struck me. That strike had some unpleasant, profound and long-lasting implications.

What had happened to me had happened for all the same underlying issues in Nebuchadnezzar's, Paul’s and Zechariah’s life: Unrepentant sin, doubt and irreverence towards God.

Daniel 4:28-34 ~ “All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.”

Luke 1:20 ~ “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time."

Acts 9:3-9 ~ “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

I was being plucked from a life I had known and placed into a different one on a different heading with a different purpose just like the Apostle Paul. I do not believe God did this in my life in a way that closely paralleled biblical narratives because I am as important as these aforementioned me. He did it because God wanted the parallels to these men to be unmistakable to me. I believe now that He wanted it clear to me that it was Him that was causing these dramatic cataclysms in life and changing my destination. Furthermore, because He is sovereign, these things were happening for a specific and deliberate reason according to a plan.

I now understand that at their root all these events were to bring glory to God but at the time they were scary as Hell. They were scary because I didn’t trust God. To some extent I still don’t and that is a lack of faith. I believe these things will improve over time as my relationship with Christ improves. More so these events were to put me on a path to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were also to make me more holy like Christ. In making me holy I could then have a sanctifying effect on those around me in my life. This path of course has been riddled with potholes and detours but most are because of my own sin and digressions. But as I have learned through biblical narrative and my own life, God’s purposes will not be thwarted. I chose to do what I chose. My choices led me astray and farther afield of God. It wasn’t until god directly intervened that life turned around.

As it turns out, it is a life that has been filled with much more uncertainty, discomfort and heartache. At the same time it has had more rewarding highs and more meaningful pauses or reflections. Like a man rising from the dead, my life has come back from a destination firmly embedded in death and heading towards premature extinction. My life has been resurrected from death to life. In so doing I have been given an opportunity to escape slavery to sin into a life of freedom in Jesus Christ.

Praise God for His steadfast love and faithfulness.

[Addendum: One of the interesting things that I learned about Chronic Depression or what appeared to be mimics of these conditions was that it affected quite a few theologians, preachers and men of Faith. Not the least of which were Charles Haddon Spurgeon, A.W. Pink, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards to name a few. This condition seems so prevalent in preaching and ministry circles that Martyn Lloyd-Jones actually wrote a book on it: Spiritual Depression. Those that would say true Christians never get depressed, well, those people clearly haven't read the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Job]

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