Lately, I have been especially attentive to outbreaks, like a rash, of what I call to myself the “Hell dynamic.”
It is a spirit of domination and destruction, in that order. It begins with a struggle for power, exerted with greater or lesser straightforwardness. (This is “domination.”) It ends with a reckoning full of blame and punishment. (This is “destruction.”) It is a subtext underlying all sorts of trivial-seeming conflicts: a quibbling workplace disagreement; a cruel sport on a children’s playground; a face-off between mother and daughter; boasting and whispering at a family reunion.
The “Hell dynamic,” I believe, is simply the result of intelligent existence unmoored to God. It creates abusive hierarchies. Where God, the living water, is absent, ego needs are satiated by bids for control (among the strong) or bids for approval (among the weak). The result, taken to its end, is always Hellish. It is always an arena of shame and punishment.
The strong, unsatisfied by their conquests, externalize their self-blame onto the weak. And their victims, who have sought approval, quiver at what feels like negation. However, even as they are punished, these unfortunate victims are not “seen,” for their tormentors are (unknowingly) looking in a mirror.
This is Hell, well and truly. This is the day-to-day-life, I think, of the demons in their echelons, deprived of God’s presence and forever punching down to slake their misery. When we mimic the demons’ twisted dynamic—which is any time we sneer, judge, shame, or dehumanize—we amplify it through resonance, expanding the reach of deepest Hell.
Jesus said that “the kingdom of God is with us,” and so it is. But Hell—with its abusive “principalities and powers”—is with us too. Hell has been with us since the Fall in the Garden.
And Hell is really, truly everywhere. It is embedded deeply in troubled families—maybe even in every family, a little. It is embedded in whispering high school cliques and scheming workplace factions. It is embedded in gossipy huddles of soccer moms, invitation-only societies, back-room dealings, and gangs of youthful bullies. It is present in the judgment and self-righteousness even of the pious, who brandish rules like a whip. (And secretly gloat that they are better than those they ostracize.) I see it around the water cooler, at café tables, on “leadership teams,” and in Bible studies. I see it at neighborhood block parties, in doctors’ waiting rooms, and among parents at football games. It is everywhere.
And it is most deeply embedded, of course, in halls of power—frankly, everywhere power is sought: governments, the “ivory tower,” exclusive clubs, political parties. Even some (or perhaps many) religious spaces. It is embedded among the poor as well as the rich, if the poor seek wealth and influence before they seek the good. It is embedded among the weak whenever they shame or manipulate the strong. It is present especially when religious types scramble for power in God’s name, for this is an opening the demons love to exploit. They want to discredit the name of Jesus above all else.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these [other] things shall be added unto you,” Jesus said (Mt. 6:33).
It doesn’t work to seek power for the sake of God. God must always be sought first, the consequences be damned. It is only then that we allow God to truly have control.
Is our God so weak and unappealing that he needs us to coerce and manipulate potential followers?
Is He so helpless that He needs us to pull strings on His behalf?
Is He so passé that we need to cover Him with makeup and the latest fashions?
Yes, we are His hands and feet—but is He so hobbled that He has no other means?
It is pure grace that He lets us exercise His brilliant designs in our halting, childish ways. He does not need us. We desperately need Him. No, more than that—we are voids of bleak, screeching emptiness without Him.
The Art world (my own sphere), and I think academia as well, are realms of endeavor often populated by suffering souls with profoundly unmet ego needs—even in explicitly Christian spaces. Both the artist and the academic often have a deep-seated need to “perform.” And both can be tempted to stake their careers (and their identities) on the length of their CVs and the prestige of their platforms. In addition, the output leading to their “successes” is often intensely personal, idiosyncratic, specific, and “niche”—thus it can be identified seamlessly with the maker’s very being. With its acclaim (or lack thereof), the ego falls or rises.
Under such a paradigm, where it seems that the soul itself is being weighed and judged by juries, peer review panels, awarding bodies, and tenure committees, the temptation is immense to either seize control, scheming and dominating, or to abase oneself and seek approval in a way that decenters God. Despite the relative gentility of both the arts and academia, I think they are among the most morally hazardous spaces in the world—among the most prone to idolatry, deceit, vanity, and judgmentalism—though covered up in fancy dress.
I think the biggest challenge of our time may be this: How do we seek God first? What does that even mean? How do we detach our big and all-sufficient God from political positions, liturgical styles, mystical symbols, and cultural tropes that seem to cover Him like masks or smokescreens?
In the end, there is no other way except sacrifice. Over and over. Nothing can be left—no wish-fulfilling projections—that might screen out God’s face in our attempts to discern His will. Abraham knew it when he put his very son on the altar.
God guides and aligns, revealing Himself clearly, only when we hold nothing back—when we offer everything, everything, to the searchless darkness of providence: our careers, our loves, our families, our talents, our very identities—in the fearful knowledge that they just might be taken away.
If they are taken away, they were never truly ours. And indeed, our only treasure can ever be God alone.
When all is said and done—all the trial and error expended in our little quests for significance—God will accept no less than everything. He will accept no less than mind, eye, heart, spirit, speech, sinew, bone, down to the cellular level and beyond. And then He will polish it with merciless zeal, severe care, and excruciating tenderness, until it shines with a holy light identical to His own. This is the only way to escape the Hell dynamic.
May all of us open our clenched fists, maybe with cries of pain, and relinquish everything to His refining flame.