New Heart, New Mind, New Year

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the last of a seven-part seriesRecruiting Alma the Younger that began on Millennial Star and expanded to Meridian Magazine (earlier pieces explored competing ways of making sense of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and the impact of The Church of Jesus Christ – along with considering the implications of socio-political views on faith and an appeal to come back to one’s spiritual home for Christmas). 

“It is never too late to be who you might have been.” -George Eliot

I didn’t always feel this happy.  Or carry with me a peace that rarely goes away.

For many years, I lived life in a cloud, surrounded with a palpable fog of regret, despondency and gloom that seemed to follow me – like Charlie Brown’s Pigpen or Little Abner’s Joe – wherever I went. 

My life for a long while.

After carrying that weight for so long, I know what it’s like to start believing – really believing – that underlying sorrow and fear is “just going to be my life.” 

Faced with this kind of internal angst, no wonder people like me numb out – finding something to push away what we’re feeling.

Anything but this. 

Not feeling what we’re feeling. While avoidance is sometimes appropriate and even crucial, when it becomes a constant feature of life, things starts to hurt a lot more.       

That’s what happened with me.  On top of the sorrow I carried was layered a secondary pain that came from attempts to make that pain stop. 

Food.  Internet.  Work.  Anything to not have to feel what I was feeling.

Despite all the longer-term consequences we know come from junk food and junk media, there is a kind of tangible “comfort” they provide…at least in the moment. No matter the inner pain, here is something that can make me feel different…and right now

These kinds of things have become so normal – Sugar in a thousand varieties, videos in a thousand varieties – that we hardly think about them. I myself didn’t realize the degree to which I was orienting my heart and mind towards these sources for the relief and consolation I needed – coming to trust and yes, even love that occasional reprieve…more than other precious things in my life. 

And when that path ended up hurting even more, I simply did what confused human beings do:  doubling-down on everything I had been mistakenly trusting-and-loving to that point:  numbing out even more, pushing away the pain even further, and grasping anything that could take my mind off the mounting ache. 

What an awful way to live. 

Let me say that more strongly:  A life of incessant distraction, avoidance and indulgence is a miserable and desperate way to be alive. 

Period.

That’s the dirty secret that rarely comes through all the pop-culture propaganda that dangles alluring party-life euphoria in all our faces.      

Given that kind of a relentless, persuasive pitch, why wouldn’t any of us go after the Good Life?      

Because it’s not good. Like a twinkie or a cigarette, there’s really nothing (at all) of any value that life offers us – not even in the short-term. 

The peace and sweetness of His Spirit at our core is better than all of it combined.

That’s why we keep after the unpopular and priceless path of “overcoming” the world, like He did.

Competing plans of salvation. Every once in awhile, a friend who knew my heartache and efforts to find more healing would say something like: “hey, you just need to just stop beating yourself up!”

It’s become wildly popular to believe that if only we could stop feeling bad about ourselves, our lives, our choices – if we would overcome “shame” or “stigma”– we’d find our suffering fade away and real happiness emerge.   

One of my friends grappled with a pornography struggle for years, before finding the 12-steps and beginning to make some progress in the inspired Addiction Recovery Program of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Then he met a counselor who convinced him the 12-steps was an unenlightened approach that (due to a fourth step invitation to carefully examine your life as a whole) made people feel too bad about their past. 

So, he stopped attending. And all the tangible progress stopped too. And to this day, he’s right in the middle of the joy-draining, soul-sucking experience of addiction.  

I’m so glad I didn’t stop. Though my own journey of healing and freedom ended up taking longer than I anticipated, its fruits are as real as any image of Lehi’s dream I’ve ever seen. 

“And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy.”(1 Nephi 8:12)

The path that leads to that kind of sweetness – the real deal – starts with honesty at the degree to which our own actions and attitudes contribute to our suffering. Then, we have to admit that it’s not a self-help program that will get us out of this, making a profound shift in where exactly we place our deepest trust and love.

The war on shame. None of this, by the way, involves “shaming” ourselves – as much as simply opening our eyes to what’s actually happening. Rather than “beating ourselves up,” this is about turning to Someone else who got beat up so we could find the relief of lasting healing and freedom in our lives.    

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink(D&C 19:16, 18)

Without the mighty change repentance allows, there is no ultimate healing and freedom to be found in so many cases. That’s why I would argue the great war on shame being fought in our society has some immense, albeit unintended casualties. It’s true that overwhelming guilt and self-loathing is a problem – and not the desire of our Lord.    

But to take people in the middle of spiritual bondage and convince them to just “not feel bad” might well have another effect: cutting them off even more from the redemption they need, convinced that the real problem is feeling bad about the very actions most likely fueling their bondage. 

Betraying God hurts.  Betraying our promises to Him hurts. And betraying people around us hurts. 

And no amount of shame-reduction will remove that kind of deep pain…it might even distract us from where to find that real relief.       

It’s not more shameless men and women that America needs, then, but those who have discovered the catalyzing transformation that yielding their hearts to God can bring into life – any life.     

To well-intentioned brothers and sisters who, out of sincerely held desire to comfort and show love, tell people, “You are perfect exactly as you are” – please realize:  that’s not what Jesus taught or how he offered comfort. 

His love, like the Father’s and Their prophets, points towards daunting-and-dazzling possibilities ahead for those who give themselves to His ways.    

And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (3 Nephi 11:38)

A new morning – for real.  Whatever it takes to get there, it’s worth it. Oh, my goodness, brothers and sisters – the joy of this path is better than anything out there that tries to compete. Once again, no food, or drink, or relationship, or experience is better than receiving the peace of God in your core – and the presence of the Holy Spirit right there beside you. 

Nothing beats it. Nothing beats Him.

This is why I cannot help but reach out to others who have stepped away – and why I could never do the same. One dear friend who has found freedom from alcohol problems said, “I’m so grateful for what I’ve had to face – because while other friends of mine are walking away from the gospel and somehow seeing it as irrelevant…I never, ever could.”

The contrast between my previous and current life is as different as Dorothy finally seeing the colorful land of Oz – or Scrooge waking up and realizing he wasn’t yet lying in his grave after all, but instead taking a new breath on a new Christmas day. 

“I haven’t missed it! … God forgive me for the time I’ve wasted.”

That scene where Ebenezer opens up the window and cannot help but expound on the “delightful” boy helping him deliver a present is my favorite. I love every version (except for the Kelsey Grammar Hallmark one…trust me:  Don’t do it).

This old man is giddy not simply because it’s Christmas and he’s still alive. 

But because he’s alive in a new way. A joyful, abundant, effortless way.      

And here’s the real point:  That new life is not just available to Alma or Scrooge – and doesn’t have to come only through visitation of Spirits or Angels in some extraordinary, exceptional experience. 

It’s right there for all of us. 

Not because of some mystically benevolent “universe.”

Because of Him. 

That’s my favorite way to explain Jesus’s message to the world:  tomorrow doesn’t have to be the same as today. 

“Marvel not,” Jesus tells Alma on the dawn of his own fresh morning, “that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.”

However well-loved these words are to Latter-day Saints, I don’t know that we often appreciate how profoundly, ridiculously exciting a message they represent. Instead of fathoming the possibility of a New Life Jesus places in all of our hands, I’ve seen how this – like the rest of the gospel path – can be experienced as yet-another-thing-I-haven’t-done-yet. 

Prophets plead with us to see and experience more than that. I’ve found other Christian teachers opening my heart to these same possibilities – my favorite example being this amazing woman who kicked off a Christian Conference in Houston back in 2014. Trust me, you won’t regret watching her message from 3:45 to 8:00. Especially this part: 

Don’t look back…It’s not important where you’ve come from.
What matters is that Jesus will meet you here – and you can begin again.
This is what the prophet says, God’s messenger to His people:
“Don’t be afraid. I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name.  You’re mine. 
Because I am God – your personal god.  The holy one of Israel–your Savior. 
So, don’t be afraid, I am with you.”

God knows your name. Nothing is hidden from him.
Yet – he is great enough, and kind enough to erase your sin.
He is strong enough to cause hard and dried up hearts to beat again. 
There is no stain or blight, no shame or scar, no mess or guilt that Jesus cannot repair. 
“Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.
Let us throw out everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus

Welcome to a new day.  Welcome to a fresh start.[1]

Once again, this is not a message for a select few who happen to share a similar faith (and maybe feel “in the mood” to make a change). This is for everyone, and applicable to everything. President Boyd K. Packer, who has been caricatured over time by critics in a way that deforms his loving, powerful ministry, once similarly taught: “There is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.”[2]

If that is really true (and it is), it’s a message we should be shouting with joy to the world

This is your answer! You don’t have to be carrying that weight forever.   

Ironically, it’s precisely that weight that seems to often get in the way of people being able to embrace this freeing message. 

Beaten down.  For any of us who have faced long struggles in our personal lives, close relationships or physical/emotional health, we know what it’s like to feel exhausted enough that it’s hard to hear anything new. 

If that’s where you are, please pause long enough to watch this song and then this video clip.  If you’re feeling the weight of mental/emotional problems, watch this. And if you’re feeling the weariness of conflict in your own marriage, take a minute to watch this one too.

There is more comfort and solace available for you – far beyond these videos. This doesn’t have to be your life forever. 

And to those who feel stuck in an addictive-compulsive pattern of any kind, please hear me out:  I know how discouraging it can be to fall back, especially after a period of starting to feel sweet freedom. More than just physically hard, these setbacks can feel emotionally devastating. 

Thoughts of “didn’t I just blow it?” and “you’ve gone too far!” can keep us from even considering getting up again. We can feel hopelessly off track – and desperately lost…with each day of struggle feeling like another day wasted: far off course from the real purpose or meaning of our lives.

But rather than a distraction from your true journey, what if this is the journey? What if there is deeper meaning and purpose not just far ahead in your life – but right here in this very overcoming of this very struggle? As the insightful Pema Chödrön once proposed, “Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime.”

Just like our heroes.  Realize that overcoming excruciating difficulty is built into the fabric of not only “life” generally, but into the stories of the greatest lives in history. 

Try it – pick any single individual who you consider a hero or role model throughout history. Examine his or her life and what do you find? Almost always, amidst and around and before the triumphs, there are intense moments of darkness, fear and discouragement, where it seemed for a time (to this person) as if all was lost.

But it wasn’t. Not at all.

Because they kept moving forward. They didn’t let the darkness overwhelm them for good.

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy?” Samwise Gangee

And they did end happy.  Because they found their new moment. Their fresh leverage.  And their turning point.

And once that happened, the rest was (literally) history.  What would their lives have been without the excruciating wrestle? Would these people ever have achieved such stirring accomplishments without having to face such terrifying odds?

The answer is no: Not for them. And not for you.

Great things are ahead for you.  Or at least, they can be if you’ll persist – and not let the darkness overwhelm you. 

Not for good.

Rise and rise again.  I’ve been lucky to be involved over the last decade working with Clay Olson and the Fortify team in helping encourage people seeking lasting freedom from pornography

Do you know the #1 indicator of whether or not a person will quit porn for good?

The number of times they’re willing to keep getting up. 

As Babe Ruth once said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”  The average smoker tries to quit as many as 11 times before ultimately succeeding. In whatever struggle you’re facing, are you willing to keep at it? 

It’s worth remembering that Thomas Edison had 1,000 different failures in his experiments, before inventing the lightbulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Your own healing and recovery may be an invention of 1,000 steps as well. As Edison later said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Easier said than done, right? As we all know, that moment of “trying one more time” can be one of the hardest: that epic movie moment when the hero has been knocked down so many times that you see him or her vacillating…ready to sink into the ground for good.

What will you do in that moment?   

The next right step.  Lasing healing is almost always a journey – maybe even your own quest and great adventure. Rather than trying to “figure it all out,” one of my spiritual mentors once told me, “just take the next right step.”

Let’s admit: We love the stories of sudden change (like Alma the Younger himself): dramatic vision + dramatic change = a life forever transformed.

What if our own change isn’t so dramatic, though? Are we willing to keep going on a more gradual slope upward? Are we okay having to defeat lots of different monsters along the way?

On this kind of a longer path, it’s common for people to feel like they are going “back to square one” anytime they struggle – and having to start over.    

That’s just not true, though. Every moment of healing and freedom moves you in a new direction. Did you know that 12 hours after someone quits smoking the carbon monoxide level in their blood drops to normal? Even after many years of smoking, that very next moment of stopping has a dramatically positive effect on the body.

Every time you fall can also be an opportunity to grow stronger, especially if you ask yourself: “what am I not seeing?”    

Keep learning. Keep growing. And keep getting up. 

Come, come, come.  Whether sooner or later, those moments of micro-change over time can eventually bring you to a place of lasting change and freedom. And when you need another re-boot and fresh start along the way, realize that’s how it is for all of us. 

Thank heavens for a Savior and His sacrament of new beginnings – a beautiful reminder that God knows well how messy it sometimes is to be a human being. 

That same gentleness is evident in President Nelson’s encouraging message on repentance

Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind….When we choose to repent, we choose to change! We allow the Savior to transform us into the best version of ourselves. We choose to grow spiritually and receive joy—the joy of redemption in Him.

Does that sound like a heavy, fearful appeal? 

No way. And that’s precisely the hopeful invitation of Christ and His people: Not to ongoing shame – but to eventual redemption.  As the Persian poet Rumi puts it, “Come, come, whoever you are. [Wherever you are]…It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

The welcome is always there, no matter what the last moment has been for you.

The best news of all.  Bottom line:  Thanks to Jesus, no matter what has come before, then, there is always the possibility of something new…in the very next moment.

“Tomorrow is a new day…always fresh with no mistakes in it.” – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

And in that next moment, new adjustments are always possible – with everything depending on what we do next. As C.S. Lewis once taught:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

Rather than tremble at the enormity of each moment, we can celebrate what that reality offers us. As one character in a hit movie put it, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.”

Remember, though:  don’t simply wait for a dramatic moment.  Let each moment to be an opportunity to stop and start fresh. You could understand the whole gospel path an excuse to do just that all the time, as we point out in a new book on mindfulness for Latter-day Saints.

As long as you keep coming back, you’ll find your redemption one day.  Believe it!

All things new.  Eventually, something deeper will shift.  And the lights will turn on. 

For good.

new heart
new spirit
new life.

No matter where your heart, spirit and life are right now, try closing your eyes and imagining the Lord telling you personally what he told the ancient prophet-poet: “I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the [messes you are currently in].” I can do it! 

That day beyond our messes will come for the human family sooner than perhaps we realize. In John’s vision of the last days, we see a precious glimpse of a future moment that makes all cinematic splendors on the big screen pale in comparison: one with a “new heaven and a new earth” where the Lord lives among His people and “wipe[s] away every tear from their eyes” along with sorrow, crying, pain and death: “for the former things have passed away.”

In that incredible moment, we see an image of this God now dwelling among His people saying this: “Behold, I make all things new.”[3]

That’s what He can do for you.  I know. Because that’s what He’s done for me. 


Notes: 
[1] A fuller transcript:

Don’t look back – fix your gaze on Jesus.  He will lead us on from here. 
It’s not important where you’ve come from. What matters is that Jesus will meet you here – and you can begin again.

This is what the prophet says, God’s messenger to His people:
“Don’t be afraid. I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name.  You’re mine. 
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. 
“When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re in between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end. 
Because I am God – your personal god.  The holy one of Israel–your savior. 
So, don’t be afraid, I am with you.”

This is what God says – the God who builds a road right through the ocean, who carves a path right through pounding waves:
“Forget about what’s happened.
Don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert – be present.  I’m about to do something brand new. 
It’s bursting out.  Don’t you see it?
There it is.  I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.”

Maybe you’ve been in the lost lands. The dried-up lands. 
Good news – God knows your name.
He knows the very place you’re sitting – and the place you’re standing.
Nothing is hidden from him.
Yet – he is great enough, and kind enough to erase your sin.

He is strong enough to cause hard and dried up hearts to beat again. 
There is no stain or blight, no shame or scar, no mess or guilt that Jesus cannot repair. 
There is no sin that has not been covered at the cross. 
For God has said – “I, even I – am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake.
And remembers you sin no more.” 
And the Prophet spoke: “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

The Lord is the everlasting God.  He will not grow tired or weary.  And His understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary.  And increases the power of the weak. Even youth grow tired and weary. And young men stumble and fall. 
But those who hold with the Lord will renew their strength. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.
Let us throw out everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus. 

Welcome to a new day.  Welcome to a fresh start. 

[2] The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness.  Ensign (November 1995)

[3] That’s what is prophesied over and over to happen when Jesus returns as our Millenial king –  “all things shall become new.” Isaiah foresaw the same exact moment: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.”

4 thoughts on “New Heart, New Mind, New Year

  1. “A life of incessant distraction, avoidance and indulgence is a miserable and desperate way to be alive.”

    Dr. Bruce Charlton wrote a book on that: “Addicted to Distraction: Psychological consequences of the Mass Media.”

    Hard copy at Amazon:
    https://www.amazon.com/Addicted-Distraction-Psychological-consequences-modern/dp/1908684410

    Free online:
    http://addictedtodistraction.blogspot.com/

    One endorsement:
    Addicted to Distraction by Bruce Charlton is a brilliant, pithy, and incisive analysis and condemnation of the modern mass media and its semipurposeful agenda of permanent revolution, permanent hysteria, and permanent chaos. His comments are as cutting as the scalpel of a surgeon performing an autopsy, and his insights a bright and clear as the merciless lights in an operating theater. Can a fish drown? Can it even notice the waters in which it lives and moves? No more than can we notice the totalitarian relativism of the modern mass media. The Mass Media is a roaring, grinding attention-grabbing machine which operates with no set purpose; except the purpose to subvert, uncreate, mock and destroy. It does not matter what the media destroys. Pointless subversion is the point of the media, and the medium is the message. By all means read and understand this book … and then go out by yourself into the calm and silent wilderness for a year. — John C. Wright, author.

  2. Thank you. There is no point to mortal life if not as a time and place to reform ourselves in the image of God with His help. We rightfully mourn for those who reject this chance, but their choice is ultimately not our stewardship except to pray for them and be ready to help when they are ready. This means our hearts must remain open even when that is painful.

  3. Jacob,
    Thank you so much for this meaningful message of hope. I am so happy for you and that you were able to emerge from the fog and find joy, and that you now endeavor to share that joy and hope with others.

    I am familiar with a couple who are currently “in a cloud”, as you said. They fit your descriptions in almost every way. They admit the precariousness of their situation, but fail to do anything about it as they compulsively seek out “adventures”. As you stated, they appear to be living “a life of incessant distraction, avoidance and indulgence” while their attempts to emerge from the destructive pattern paradoxically involve “doubling down” on the very behavior that led them to where they are. They blame anything or anyone for their difficulties in life – the government at any level, the Church, parents, leaders, teachers, and so forth – anyone but themselves. Appeals to enact the power of the Atonement are ignored and even scoffed at. What makes it even more tragic is that there are children involved who seem doomed to follow the path of the parents.

    You touch on the emotions of shame and guilt. This reminded me of the statement from Elder Bednar:
    Guilt is to our spirit what pain is to our body—a warning of danger and a protection from additional damage.

    I looked up practical definitions (from Brene’ Brown) for both guilt and shame since they are often confused:

    Guilt: the feeling that comes when we do something wrong. In spite of the discomfort it brings, guilt is a functional feeling. It nudges us to make positive changes in our lives.
    Shame: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. Shame feeds off of fear, fear that if we share our stories, we will be isolated or ridiculed.

    What I see with this couple is an inability to experience guilt. Everything gets translated into a feeling of shame because the undesirable behavior is internally accepted as a part of who they are. Thus, the rationalization is to continue the detrimental behavior and expect others to accommodate. How can someone engage in the process of repentance if they recognize the dangers of their path, but never feel that the path is inherently wrong?

    The trend today to accept our mistakes and faults as part of our personal identity seems destined to block true repentance, which would be a major victory for the adversary.

    I suppose the onus then becomes to try and show them a better Way, even though they are highly invested in the one they are on, and pray that the Savior is able to touch them through His Spirit.

    One last thought on the statement that, regardless of what I do, “God still loves me just the way I am.” To paraphrase Brad Wilcox, “Of course He does, but He does not want you to stay as you are. Certainly a parent loves their newborn baby just the way he or she is, but don’t want the infant to stay that way.”

    Cheers.

  4. In my scripture studies lately I’ve read Hel 5, the story of Nephi and Lehi who are imprisoned by an army of Lamanites and apostate Nephites. The army comes to kill them but a cloud of darkness and a ‘solemn fear’ falls on them and immobilizes them. Then a voice that seems to come from above the cloud pierces thru the cloud and invites them to repent. As the army cries unto the voice they develop faith and the cloud disperses. I love the imagery. I view the cloud as representing the power of Satan: distractions, addictions, fear, anxiety. God’s voice comes from outside the cloud and can pierce thru to find us no matter how deep or how dark. If we cry to the voice of God we can be freed from the cloud.

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