Adam Lepak had a motorcycle accident, which left him with a brain injury. The injury affected his memory—of the accident, of events and parts of his personal history. It messed with his short-term memory, so that a therapy session reminding him of those key facts might have to be repeated every few hours.
But even more, the accident left Adam unable to process his concept of “self” – of his identity and how that identity is formed by relationships with the people who know him best and love him most—like his mom. On a recent day, things were particularly difficult.
Adam Lepak looked over at his mother and said, “You’re fake”. It was a Tuesday in July, late, and Cindy Lepak could see that her 19-year-old son was exhausted. Long days like this one—with hours of physical therapy and memory drills–…often left him making such accusations
“What do you mean, ‘fake’, Adam?”, she said. He hung his head. ‘You’re not my real mom”, he said. His voice changed. “I feel sorry for you, Cindy Lepak. You live in this world. You don’t live in the real world.”
Researchers consider this one of “the most confounding problems in brain science.” The sort of delusions Adam is experiencing are classified as misidentification syndromes. They are primarily marked by patients becoming “profoundly suspicious of their closest relationships, often cutting themselves off from those who love them and care for them.” It can be the result of brain injury or some other psychiatric disorder.
Why does this happen? Researchers have taken images of the brain as it processes information related to personal identity. It appears that “emotional centers are either not well connected…or not providing good information. Mom looks and sounds exactly like Mom, but the sensation of her presence is lost.”
Misidentification syndromes don’t just happen in the physiological world. It’s also in the spiritual world. Those who belong to Jesus have an identity shaped by creation, the gospel, the church and the mission to which we have been called. But there are times when the souls of people who follow Jesus are injured by the harshness of life’s pain. Call it disappointment or grief or pain or betrayal or conflict or loss or simply an unplanned detour of life. It could relate to marriage or finances or children or a job or ministry or most anything else we think is important. But suddenly, everything is scattered and nothing seems to connect any more. It’s just…confusing.
And at times, in that moment, the Lord we have always loved and trusted as good, strong, kind, loving, purposeful and compassionate seems to turn a stranger. We become suspicious that God may not really love us, after all. The soul centers we have depended on no longer provide good information. God may look like God when we come to worship and even sound like God when we read the Bible, but the sensation of His presence is lost. We feel utterly alone.
This is not all that rare. But it is often denied by Christians who feel that faith means we always have to be happy, smiley, and victorious. That’s where the Biblical language of lament is so very helpful. Listen to the song Heman wrote in Psalm 88:
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out to you by day.
I come to you at night.
2 Now hear my prayer;
listen to my cry.
3 For my life is full of troubles,
and death draws near.
4 I am as good as dead,
like a strong man with no strength left.
5 They have left me among the dead,
and I lie like a corpse in a grave.
I am forgotten,
cut off from your care.
6 You have thrown me into the lowest pit,
into the darkest depths.
7 Your anger weighs me down;
with wave after wave you have engulfed me.
8 You have driven my friends away
by making me repulsive to them.
I am in a trap with no way of escape.
9 My eyes are blinded by my tears.
Each day I beg for your help, O Lord;
I lift my hands to you for mercy.
10 Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead?
Do the dead rise up and praise you?
11 Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love?
Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
12 Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds?
Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?
13 O Lord, I cry out to you.
I will keep on pleading day by day.
14 O Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you turn your face from me?
15 I have been sick and close to death since my youth.
I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors.
16 Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me.
Your terrors have paralyzed me.
17 They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long.
They have engulfed me completely.
18 You have taken away my companions and loved ones.
Darkness is my closest friend.
You ever felt like that?
You ever dared to say it? Out loud? In front of other Christians?
This is not sub-Christian language or emotion. It is purely Biblical. And it may even be more full of faith than our constant happy-smiley silliness, because it dares to trust God with the worst of our feelings, confusion—and even our ambivalence– towards Him.
That cry of desolation begins with a simple “Oh, Lord”. Sometimes that’s all I can muster.
It is at that moment of utter, stripped-down honesty that I begin to recover my identity as a child of God and remember who my Father really is. And then I can breathe and live for another moment.