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  • Writer's pictureRalph Felzer

YOUR SECRET INSTINCT


Photo by TAN Erica on Unsplash

"Waybread" is food designed to strengthen travelers on a long journey.  This little weekly column is intended to offer reflections that will strengthen and encourage you in your own long journey in following Christ.


YOUR SECRET INSTINCT


Yes, I know, it's winter, but even in winter I love watching the birds in our backyard.  Because of the woods behind our house, we get a huge variety of them.  I made a list once of the birds we’ve seen just over the course of a single morning.  Before my pencil stopped moving, I had come up with 14 varieties.  They’re all so different.  Robins hop through the grass, looking for worms and small bugs.  Nuthatches hang off the feeder at weird angles.  are almost oblivious to people coming in and out of the house.  Others fly away when you reach up to scratch your head.


I often wonder how much of their activity is instinctual: nesting, feeding, foraging, mating.  And then I wonder about our own behavior, and how much of it is instinctual.  This is fascinating to think about because there are certainly behaviors that you engage in without ever thinking about them.  You do the same thing the same way all the time.  But were we born with those tendencies?  Not likely.  No one came out of the womb with an uncontrollable genetic urge to floss before going to bed.


You could go a little crazy sorting it all out, and it wouldn’t be healthy to try.  But it is a fascinating exercise to reflect on those things that make us uniquely who we are, not just the particular traits we acquired from our parents and grandparents, but as human beings.  (And a further thought in the same vein: What does it mean to be made in the image of God? A HUGE question, but alas one we’ll hold off on for another day!)


But here too, remember, I’m talking about instincts, not just habits or activities that we fall into “automatically”—learned behaviors that have become (almost) instinctual for us.  There is a difference, and I want to talk today about one that I think most people think of as something they’re just not “wired” for.


A while back, I picked up a book by Ruth Haley Barton called Invitation to Solitude and Silence.  The foreword is written by Dallas Willard who quotes the mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal as having said that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.”  We go to great lengths, don't we, to avoid that kind of solitude.  We go to great lengths to distract ourselves from ourselves.  I think everyone knows this to be true on at least some level.  And that distraction can take a myriad of different forms–scrolling endlessly through social media, flipping channels on TV, making sure we don't spend more than a few minutes in any room of the house without some kind of external stimulation.  Even, believe it or not, sleep–sleep!–can be used to distract ourselves from ourselves.  


In the past, when I've talked to others about going on personal retreats, one of the "dangers" I have to caution people against is sleeping all their time away.  The tricky part about this is that, as I talked about last week, the pace of our lives is abnormal and unhealthy, so when we get away from all that busy-ness the first thing we realize is just how incredibly tired we are!  In that sense, sleep can be deeply restorative.  But precisely because it is so necessary and healing, it's easy to avoid looking at our lives, our habits, our relationships, and our commitments because we're not only deeply tired, we're deeply fearful of how busy, small, ineffective, and chaotic our lives have become.  And quite frankly, we don't want to look at that and really own our responsibility for that.


So we go to sleep.  And sleep is not the same as rest.  Rest is in our DNA (literally–God made us to work and to rest; that's what sabbath is for)!


Willard also quotes Pascal as observing that we have "another secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature, which teaches that happiness in reality consists only in rest, and not in being stirred up.”


Hmm.  A secret instinct for quiet and solitude.  And yet we find ourselves clamoring incessantly for distraction from it!  What’s up with that?  What could there be that would be so fearful and intimidating?  Is it something in us that we’re afraid to see—some inadequacy, or sin, or fault, or weakness?  Or, worse yet, could it be nothing?  Are we afraid there’s really nothing there, and so we run as fast as we can in any other direction we can?


I don’t have any idea why it is that you run, but you do.  We all do.  What if we stopped running?  Is it possible, or even merely conceivable, that the life you’ve always wanted is right there for the taking, like an apple hanging from a tree?


Deep inside I think we know that after plucking this fruit our lives would never be the same.  And even if we know in our heart of hearts that life would be better, life would still be different, and different can be frightening!  The best, most godly people I know are better and more godly because they’ve gone to that frightening place. Because, even when they go through the course of their everyday activities and engage in the various casual and committed relationships, they carry in their hearts a peace, a confidence, a presence–the presence of Christ.  Even if all the clamor and distractions faded completely away they would still exist, they would still have life and meaning and purpose–and Christ, who frees us from the noise, clatter, and distraction that we, and so many, are so often trapped in.


Instincts are born into us. Viruses are caught. Habits are learned.  You were made for the kind of life that Jesus holds out to you. You can be a carrier of life into the world, a carrier of a more vital and powerful virus than malaria or the Bird Flu–or even COVID!  As Jesus said in the gospel of John, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  Christ's life can be a deeper part of you than any instinct, virus, or habit; it can be a deeper part of you than even your DNA (which is only biological).

Christ's life can be a deeper part of you than any instinct, virus, or habit; it can be a deeper part of you than even your DNA.

The yearning for that restful yet vibrant life is, as Willard notes, “a remnant of the greatness of our original nature.” We can only find it by stopping, never by searching (because in the end we’re not searching, we’re fleeing).  Only when we stop can it (He) find us.


Do you know someone, a carrier, of "that Jesus kind of life"? Someone who can or has awakened the “secret instinct” in you (or at least the desire for it)? Seek them out this week. Call them. Make an appointment with them. Find a way, any way, to get close enough to them to catch what they have and find the thing your soul craves.


Be encouraged, friend, for God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who spoke all worlds into being, is both with you and for you.



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