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Getting to the Root of the Problem

Getting to the Root of the Problem

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. ~ Author unknown, but sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein

Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong. I mean, you know in a larger sense that your world has been turned upside-down, like pink koalas and purple kangaroos should be hopping outside your window, or like big, fat snowflakes should be falling and sticking to the sidewalk on a sweltering summer day.

Somehow, in the throes of trauma, the wildest upendings seem acceptable.

As if you’ve been expecting this theater of the absurd to roll into town. (After all, it was absurd that this hospital bed was now a fixture in the living room along with the strangers and syringes that accompanied it.) But when it really comes down to the minutest details, can you articulate why this loss hurts so deeply? I mean, what exactly is the problem?

Jesus knew how to cut through the marshmallowy fluff and reveal the real villain. To pluck the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. To tease out the splinter instead of just applying a Spiderman Band-Aid over that dark sliver in your thumb. Jesus drilled down to the heart of the matter by calling out the heart of the asker. Like a hot knife gliding through your best chilled cheesecake.

Enter the Pharisees, Scribes, and Sanhedrin. Let the ancient rendition of Truth or Dare begin, in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7.

“We’ve got a problem here, Jesus. Your crew of misfits doesn’t wash their hands before they eat. They’re just pawing at the picnic — passing out loaves and fishes willy-nilly. We do have a rule about that, as you should know — ahem — that is, you should know if you really are a prophet.” (I mean, these Hebrew Mensa members traveled long, dusty miles from Jerusalem and that’s all they’ve got? That’s their best shot?)

Jesus brakes.

“Whoa. Hold on a minute. Aren’t you the ones who deny your mother and father support — won’t give them a mite — because your money is already cinched up in that ‘Devoted to God’ pouch? What law could be more devoted to God than ‘Honor your father and mother’? You trade the Word of God for your traditions. You trample God’s intentions. You say that the problem is handwashing. I say you need a heart-washing.”

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. — Matthew 12:34

That’s what you call exactly the problem.

And the followers of Jesus were not immune to His laser focus.

The earliest teachings of this unorthodox Galilean are exactly that — unorthodox — and feature Him excavating the root problems of surface sins.

Jesus’ take on the old laws confounded His listeners. Consider these lessons from Matthew 5:

It’s not just that murder is wrong. It’s that unresolved anger toward your brother or sister is wrong. (vv. 21–22)

It’s not just adultery. It’s lust. You know how you looked at that neighbor’s wife? Yep. That one. (vv. 27–30)

Yes. It’s divorce all right. But more than that, underneath divorce, it’s like your hardened heart forces a wife into adultery in future relationships. It’s condemning her. Compromising her. Casting her aside as collateral damage. (vv. 31–32)

It’s not just revenge. It’s stinginess. (vv. 38–40)

Time and again, He calls out the problem underneath the problem.

My friend understood that well. Sitting across from the always elegant and eternally wise eighty-two-year-old grande dame, I spilled my guts. Florence Littauer, an accomplished author who had ministered to women for four decades, owned an aura reminiscent of the tulle-wrapped, very pink, and very glittery Glinda, Oz’s famed Good Witch of the North. And I, a trembling Munchkin, was counting on her kindness. The imaginary wand she waved would undoubtedly reflect that kindness, but I was still nervous. Although I had known her for years (or perhaps because I had known her for years), I suspected an edict was forthcoming.

Florence listened, speared the last grape in her chicken salad, dabbed the corners of her mouth oh so delicately, and with her index finger wagging, distinctly opined, “Your problem is, you think you have no value apart from that man.”

Ouch. There it was. That was it. Bull’s-eye.

You feel worthless.

More specifically, worthless without him, a phrase that fits as perfectly as your best little black dress.

That’s not a match for your particular situation, you say?

You’re probably right. It may not be. Perhaps our losses don’t resemble each other’s in the least little bit. But see if completing this sentence with your words offers clarity. Imagine Florence speaking to you. (Side note: it’s helpful to throw in that finger-wagging thing too.)

“You think you have no value apart from _____________.”

That job? That bank account? That relationship? The success of that superstar child? That home? That car? That title? Those dusty trophies lined up against the window ledge? That perfectly beating heart that pumped you through two elite marathons? Those long-awaited and longed-for Louboutin shoes?

Recalibrating your worth when you lose something temporal you’ve attached it to proves debilitating. And it doesn’t really matter which temporal thing becomes the object of your devotion. All will fail because all are, by definition, fleeting.

Working in a local “stone soup” homeless shelter, I recall a day I manned the clothing trailer. I struck up a conversation with a chatty middle-aged client, as we called the visitors, who took his time poring over the donated jackets hanging on the rack. He pulled out a rather natty plaid coat, propped it up for me to see, and announced, “I wore one like this when I was somebody.” My soul tore a little for him as I helped him into the sleeves and reflected on the lesson he was teaching me at that very moment, as I was still stuck searching for that old relationship that I’d worn when I was somebody. Neither of our garments fit.

These spiritual misappropriations and misplaced self-assessments in light of loss happen in all stratas of society — rich or impoverished, privileged or marginalized. I think the marginalized just may be more honest about it. Hence, natty-plaid-coat-man with the easy confession rolling off his tongue, unknowingly calling out the got-it-all-together volunteer hiding her spiritual snags behind a laminated-lanyard ID tag and rows of hand-me-down coats stuffed into a double-wide.

The movie scene running through my mind cuts to Jesus gathering the children to Him, deliberately corralling the littlest littles and placing them center stage while the disciples, clueless, strut around in the wings, jockeying for position and elbowing each other out of the way, so as to avoid tripping over their extra-long egos.

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. — Matthew 18:3

Well played, Jesus.

The upside-down Kingdom of this tough-but-tender Rabbi never fails to flip social structures on their haughty heads.

Excerpted with permission from I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore by Carole Holiday, copyright Carole Holiday.

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Your Turn

Do you know what the problem under your problem is? Fill in the blank: “You think you have no value apart from _____________.” What is Jesus telling you about that? Come to Him like a child and ask Him to deal with the root of the problem! ~ Devotionals Daily