My Own Personal Jihad (TDTCTW 9)

Some thirty years ago I was visiting the Riverside Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan one Sunday with a couple of friends. Riverside Church, along the Hudson River, has one of the five largest classical organs in the world. Being an organist myself I never got enough of it. The organist that day was Frederick Swann. He was internationally famous, with dozens of recordings.

When the worship service was over, I took my friends up on the platform to get a closer look at the organ. And since I knew quite a bit about such things, I began to explain some of the different features of the organ. As I talked about the organ, my audience began to grow. It was fun having a bigger audience. So I began to expand on the story a little. And the audience got even bigger. Then suddenly I began to realize that the people weren’t looking at me anymore. They were looking behind me. I turned looked around and was standing face to face with Frederick Swann himself. He looked me in the eye and said, “You’d better get your facts straight, Sonny, before you open your mouth.” He turned around and walked away.

I began to realize that day that something deep inside of me made it hard for me to be real, to be authentic. Instead of being honest and truthful I had played up to the audience in order to polish up my own image (which turned out to be a stupid way to do that). I felt humiliated, ridiculous and downright ugly! I wasn’t mad at Swann. How could I be? He was right about me! I was mad at myself. I hated whatever it was inside of me that was trying to hide my own ignorance and stupidity behind a facade of brilliant repartee. I didn’t want an incident like that to ever happen again on my account. So on that day I decided to make the struggle for authenticity my own personal jihad.

What does the Islamic idea of jihad have to do with my personal life? Historically, jihad is much less about killing people who disagree with you and much more about the personal struggle toward an authentic faith. In fact, the concept of jihad has at least three meanings within Islam. First, it refers to the struggle of all who believe in God to be faithful to Him and to live good lives. Second, it refers to the struggle to understand and interpret Islam. And third, it refers to the sacred struggle to defend and advance the cause of Islam. The root meaning of the word, however, is closer to the first meaning than the last.

I believe therefore that jihad, rightly understood, moves us away from terrorism and the mass murder of “infidels.” Jihad is about the battle with self to become a better person, not only on the outside, but also on the inside. Read in that light jihad is about battling the evil in one’s self before turning one’s attention to the evil in others. If we can defeat the terrorist within, there is some hope we can defeat the terrorist without.

The Bible addresses this same concept in the striking language of battle: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:3-5). Here we see a clear contrast between the two interpretations of jihad or holy war. The true holy warfare is not about fleshly weapons like AK-47 rifles or M1A1 tanks or F-15 fighters. The true jihad is a battle with self, a battle toward authentic living, a battle to become more loving and kind in service to God and others. I believe that the great of all jihads is the struggle to be real.

Just as there are natural defense mechanisms at the physical level, so there are natural defense mechanisms at the emotional and psychological level. If someone says something hurtful about us, we may react defensively without even being aware that we have done so. At a basic level, these psychological mechanisms of defense are self-deceptions. When things go wrong, when we fail at something important, or when we are under verbal or emotional attack, we move quickly to our own defense and craft an “image,” whether we intend to or not. If knowing the truth will make us feel bad about ourselves, most of us would prefer not to know the truth.

Inauthenticity in relationships means avoiding issues and failing to communicate. But that is a recipe for long-term disaster. When it comes to finances, inauthenticity means not making a budget, not keeping track of expenses, not planning for retirement, and borrowing without knowing where the money is coming from. Few people survive that kind of financial “planning” for long! When it comes to health inauthenticity means eating whatever you want, sitting around all day, ignore all the rules of health and still hoping to live to 100 without a single illness. But that’s not real life. Inauthenticity can kill you and you’ll probably be the last one to know it before you go.

So faking it is not a useful option, whether we’re talking about individuals or nations. But being real is not easy to do. First of all, as we have seen, self-deception comes pretty naturally to human beings (Jer 17:9). Through self-deception we craft an image, not only for others, but even for ourselves. But there is an even deeper issue, I think. The root cause of this “image-building” seems to be a deep inner perception that we are hopeless and worthless. We are afraid to know the truth about ourselves, because then we’ll feel even worse! In the blog to follow I’ll briefly share some steps I have learned to apply in my own personal jihad toward authenticity.

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