Healing from the Disease of Introspection: A Testimony

Like all MPC prayer ministers, Jim Server can personally witness to the God who heals. He’s written his story for you here, and you can also listen to this recording of Him sharing at the Green Lake school in 2022 (recording begins with worship music).

Sarah asked if I would share about one way I fell into the disease of introspection and how I was healed of it.  In a sense, I almost feel as if I were born into it and didn’t start to recover until I became a Christian in my late twenties.

Looking back, I can see how my entire family was made up of “introspectors,” beginning with my parents.  In their own way, they were wounded, unaffirmed people who brooded over the hurts and disadvantages that had limited their lives.

My father, in particular, held on to an anger and self-hatred that he medicated with alcohol and often projected onto the family.  He preferred spending time at the local tavern to being with his wife and children.  A boy who questions, as I did, if he’s really loved or wanted isn’t likely to develop a very favorable self-image.

My mother, on the other hand, did what she could to make a home for us.  But she was an emotionally frail person, a victim of severe misogyny with low self-esteem.  Her own fragile sense of being made it difficult for her to nurture a healthy sense of being in her children.

The best thing she did for us was to take us to a church where we heard the good news of the Lord’s love and forgiveness.  Although I wasn’t ready to accept it at the time, perhaps partly because I had trouble relating to God as a loving Father, it remained dormant in my heart until I was open to receiving it at a moment of great need later in my life.

I wasn’t an orphan in the usual sense, and yet I believed I was on my own by the time I was ten, if not earlier.  I somehow knew I couldn’t share my fears and struggles with my family.  Generally speaking, my father didn’t want to hear it.  My mother couldn’t handle it.  And my older brother was in his own world.  Siblings who grow up in a stressful family environment sometimes cling together for mutual support, but sadly, we tried to manage our lives mostly apart from each other.  Children will model themselves on their parents in good ways and in not-so-good ways.  We didn’t have much in common with that loving television family you may remember, the Waltons.

My tendency was to become more withdrawn as I got older.  I didn’t have boundaries so much as fortress walls around me.  After I became aware of my same-sex attractions, which were yet another source of shame and anxiety, I was even more guarded.  I preferred to soothe myself with fantasies of idealized relationships.  If anyone ridiculed or rejected me, I’d try to get back at him by belittling him in my imagination.  I can remember replaying a scene over and over in my mind to exact the sort of punishment I thought he deserved.  I’m afraid I had very little mercy for myself or for anyone else.

Incredibly, I came to believe that the only safe place I had was inside my own head.  I was so lacking emotionally, socially, and spiritually that I was elated, at least at first, to discover I could excel academically.  There was one part of me, anyway, that seemed to work.  I began focusing all my energy on my studies.  In high school and beyond, I was driven by anything but the joy of learning.  It became, in fact, a grim daily exercise in which my sense of self-worth was constantly at stake.  I was a highly competitive kid who displayed his knowledge to earn the praise of teachers and the envy of classmates I had sometimes envied.  My overachiever lifestyle was a coping mechanism, a survival technique, to compensate for the chronic dysfunction at home and the unhealed trauma in my heart.  At bottom, it was really an attempt to fend off a kind of despair, and I was running hard to stay ahead.

But after a while, the “life of the mind” wasn’t enough.  By itself, it was a narrow, lonely type of existence which couldn’t possibly satisfy my other needs.  So, I looked around and eventually decided to join the student anti-war movement going on at the time.  My role as an activist drew me out of my isolation to a certain degree.  Our operation provided the sort of camaraderie I could be comfortable with—relations that were based on our political goals, with no personal intimacy involved.  All the drama and passion of those days could incline even a cautious introvert like myself to feel a little less inhibited and somehow more alive.  When that era ended and the crowds dispersed, I had an empty space to fill and I was running out of options.

It was only a matter of time until my long-neglected issues would catch up with me.  The hurts and deficits I hadn’t wanted to address, or hadn’t known how to, were showing up in some very troubling behaviors.  I was subject to bouts of depression interspersed with anxiety attacks.  I didn’t leave my apartment any more than I had to.  It was all I could do to get through the long days and dark nights.  In retrospect, I should probably have been under a doctor’s care.  I was so accustomed to living inside a bubble that I can’t say it ever occurred to me to seek professional help and I wasn’t about to open up to some stranger in any case.  I wasn’t tempted to medicate with drugs or alcohol, if only because altering the mind with substances was a risky proposition to someone who only felt safe inside the head he was familiar with.  Suicide was never an option, regardless of the pain.  In words from the song “Ol’ Man River,” I was “weary and sick of tryin’ … tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’.”  I still preferred clinging to my pitiful little psyche to suddenly standing before a God who, for all I knew, was like my earthly father, distant and forbidding.  I was filled with fear and confusion.

In the midst of my turmoil, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that God was reaching out to me.  I got a strong impression He was urging me to relax my grip and let Him take control.  One very bleak winter’s day—to be exact, a Saturday, January 12, 1974, at about 3:00 in the afternoon—I was finally willing to say yes.  I was at the campus library trying to work on a paper I couldn’t seem to finish when all at once I was overwhelmed by a sense of futility.  It’s meaningless, I thought to myself.  It’s ALL meaningless.  The God who reads the heart saw that I’d forsaken any hope of saving myself.  The next moment, a warm sensation settled on the top of my head and flowed throughout my body.  As I was being enfolded in an indescribable sense of peace, I whispered my first prayer as a believer: “Put your arms around me, Jesus.”  And He did.  He had come to take me to my Father.  I saw with perfect clarity that there was not only a God, but a God who loved me.  Earlier that day, I had trudged out of my front door like a dead man walking.  When I fell asleep that night, I was alive as never before and enveloped in a light the darkness can never overcome.  

I seem to be one of those individuals who have to come to the end of themselves before they’re willing to surrender to the promptings of grace.  I’ve often wondered if I would have ever turned to Christ but for the pain He allowed me to suffer.  I’d been living in a prison of my own making for many long years.  It was a “severe mercy” that brought me out of it and into an abundant life with Him and eventually with His other children as well.

As I began my new life in Christ, I felt a bit like the Israelites returning from exile—like “those who dream,” whose “mouths were filled with laughter” and “tongues with songs of joy.” (Ps. 126:1-2) I was hungry and thirsty for more.  I couldn’t get enough of Scripture.  Things I remembered from my boyhood church were falling into place.  I started attending a nearby congregation which eventually became my spiritual home.

While I dearly wanted to be part of my Father’s family in every way, I had a longstanding practice of keeping others at a distance.  I came to see I’d have to repent of my prideful aloofness and replace my make-believe friends with genuine relationships based on openness and trust.  The Lord helped me get my feet wet in the warm, inviting waters of a charismatic prayer group.  I’d never met Christians who expressed their love of God so joyfully or moved so freely in the gifts of the Spirit.  I remember thinking, What right do these people have to be so happy?  For someone who had been so painfully self-conscious all his life, it was wonderful simply to forget myself and to lift my heart and hands to God in praise.  So very different from my old striving to justify myself in my own eyes or to elevate myself in the eyes of others.

To some extent, I was still struggling with my old fear of exposure, but I meant to obey a word the Lord had given me from Isaiah 54:2: “Enlarge the space of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back.”  I’d heard of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a good way to connect with other believers and I developed lasting friendships with people I met there.  A group of us lived together in a household for a while.  I was impressed by how easily and naturally those young evangelicals spoke of their relationship with the Lord.  It wasn’t unusual for someone to start a conversation by saying, “So what did the Lord show you in your quiet time this morning?”  It was like a home where I could share my daily life with brothers without the strife and tension I’d grown up with.  

As I would hear Leanne Payne say later on, “We know who we are only in relation to others.”  I would benefit greatly from numerous prayer partnerships over the years that would both affirm me and challenge me to keep growing in my newfound freedom as a child of God.  When I joined a support group for men and women dealing with gender confusion, I could be open in an even deeper way with folks who understood what I was dealing with.  I wasn’t at all concerned about being judged or rejected.  I could let go of more of the remnants of shame, anxiety, and self-pity I had carried around for much of my life.  

I’ve learned it’s important to be intentional about our healing but also to be patient with the process.  If we’ve practiced a habit like toxic introspection for many years, we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re still prone to fall back into it, especially in the beginning.  I was encouraged at my first PCM school when Leanne told us not berate ourselves if we regress periodically (which would be merely another form of introspecting) but simply to look up to the Lord for His objective truth and to practice His presence instead of our own.  Like the bent, disabled woman who joyfully stands erect when Jesus heals her, we straighten up and praise the God who continually renews us. (Lk. 13:10-13) We are called to be recovering introspectors who keep choosing to love the Lord, ourselves, and others in the light of His truth and by the grace He gives us.

Knowing I’m boundlessly loved has enabled me to love more freely in return.  I once read that learning to love is similar to learning to speak a foreign language.  It’s best to begin when young because it comes to us more easily then.  If we wait until we’re older, we’re more likely to talk with an accent.  I expect that I will always love “with an accent,” but my Teacher, my Abba Father, is wonderfully patient and kind.  He tells me to listen attentively to Him, to be compassionate with myself and others, and to persevere in my journey homeward.

From Psalm 40:1-3: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.  He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.  And He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.”

Artwork:

Bernard Vaillant, 1632–1698, Socrates Looking in a Mirror

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526, Christ as the True Light (Christus vera lux)

Author unknown, 1873, Jesus ascends to heaven