Monday, March 11, 2013

Repression Obsessions

I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32.5)

The hit musical The Book of Mormon is ostensibly about the comic—and cosmic—travails of a group of Latter Day Saint missionaries who have the bad luck of being assigned to a Ugandan outpost. But in short order, you gather it’s really about people of all walks who suffer from having their religion screwed on a little too tight. You know who I mean. They’re the folks who are terrified of God, terrified of temptation, terrified of Hell, and, most of all, terrified they’ll get caught doing something unseemly by people as terrified as they are. And the only way of managing the terror they’ve chosen to live with is to mask it with manufactured happiness. 

The show quickly dismantles its characters’ clean-cut, cockeyed (and cocky) optimism with “Turn It Off,” a hybrid show tune and Sunday school ditty that says:

When you start to get confused
Because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead
Turn it off, like a light switch
Just go click!

With every conflict a missionary confesses, the answer is, “Turn it off!” Feeling guilty about not protecting your mother from domestic violence? Turn it off! Troubled because you left your dying sister’s bedside to get in line for a new iPhone? Turn it off! Worried about being attracted to your own sex? Turn it off! But what if these gnawing emotions don’t go away? “Then you only got yourself to blame. You didn’t pretend hard enough. Turn it off!" If repression obsessions were unique to Mormons, this cheeky little number would be lamentably tragic. But haven’t we all, at one point or another, been told by someone—parents, ministers, teachers, counselors, you name it—to turn it off?

Repression is no help when confronting confusion and weakness. It’s a defense mechanism against guilt of both varieties, deserved and undeserved, and it’s completely ineffective in overcoming either kind. Repression feeds on guilt. If we stop feeling guilty, the thing we’re trying to conceal has no reason to hide. As long as we keep it hidden, we won’t come to grips with what it actually is. It may be something sinful and unhealthy and offensive to our Maker and those around us. Yet it may also be something holy and life-giving and essential to our God-given identity and purpose. As long as we refuse to examine it, we’ll never see exactly what it is.

The only way we can figure out what’s behind our repression obsessions is by turning the light switch on so we can see what’s really there. We invite God in and say, “Take a look at this. Here’s what worries me about it. If it’s wrong, show me the right way. If it’s what You want for me, grant me the grace to accept it.”

Psalm 32 models this prayer: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” Repression cannot lead to holiness. Pretending we aren’t struggling won’t open our eyes to truth. If what we’re struggling with is sinful, we need to see that and invite God to forgive our wrongdoing and remove the guilt it creates. If it’s something we’re afraid of, we need to overcome our fear and lead lives of dignity in keeping with God’s plan and purpose for us.

Lent is our great sifting season, when we search our hearts and lay all they contain before God. Whatever’s got us confused and feeling guilty is not to be hidden away in hopes it will go away. For repression to work, it needs the thing it wants to bury and it needs the guilt we carry because of what we’re hiding. None of that is constructive. None of it will improve our lives. “Turn it off” isn’t the answer. “Turn it on—like a light switch.” That’s the answer. If we can summon the courage to do that, we can boldly talk it over with our Maker and bravely heed God's direction for our lives.

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