“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)
There are moments in public life and culture when the true human condition is displayed so visibly that the gospel can’t help but to shine more brilliantly than usual.
Last week was one such occasion.
When Chester Bennington, the 41-year-old piercing lead voice and angst-ridden front-man for the rock band Linkin Park, was found dead in his Los Angeles home — having taken his own life by hanging — it was the conclusion to a complex life marked by inner turmoil.
Known for his raw, emotional, and oftentimes gut-wrenching lyrics and signature powerhouse hard-rock screech, Bennington was surprisingly candid about the personal struggles with substance abuse, depression, and anxiety that had characterized his adult life and the group’s dark, driving tunes.
In February of this year, Bennington made the following remarks, commenting to a radio interviewer about the thinking behind the band’s album “Heavy:”
“I don’t know if anybody out there can relate, but I have a hard time with life… sometimes… No matter how I’m feeling, I always find myself struggling with certain patterns of behavior… I find myself stuck in the same thing that keeps repeating over and over again, and I’m just, like, ‘How did I end up…? How am I in this?’ And it’s that moment where you’re in it and then you can just separate yourself from that situation and you look at it and you see it for what it is and you’re able to then do something about it; you’ve now broken out of that circle, that cycle.
“I know that for me, when I’m inside myself, when I’m in my own head, it gets… This place right here [points to his head], this skull between my ears, that is a bad neighborhood, and I should not be in there alone.
“I can’t be in there by myself. It’s insane! It’s crazy in here. This is a bad place for me to be by myself. And so when I’m in that, my whole life gets thrown off. If I’m in there, I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down. And I find that, it could be… whether it’s substances or whether it’s behavior or whether it’s depressive stuff, or whatever it is, if I’m not actively doing… getting out of myself and being with other people, like being a dad, being a husband, being a bandmate, being a friend, helping someone out… If I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside all the time, I’m horrible — I’m a mess. And so for me, that was kind of where the ‘I don’t like my mind right now, stacking up problems that are so unnecessary…’ That was where that came from for me.”
Although Bennington was an unbeliever, the Christian more than anyone ought to relate to these sentiments.
I’d like to draw out two threads from Bennington’s comments which remind us of our immense need for the gospel — in stark relief against sobering headlines of suicide. Those threads are self and struggle, and they converge in Romans 7 and 8 with Christ standing as the only solution.
When Self Doesn’t Satisfy
The prevailing cultural narrative turns to the supreme self for satisfaction. Following Maslow’s hierarchy, if we can just self-actualize, we will be at peace. Self-expression is the highest form of good. But Bennington’s haunting words stand as a testimony that this line of reasoning is hollow:
“I know that for me, when I’m inside myself, when I’m in my own head, it gets… This is a bad place for me to be by myself. And so when I’m in that, my whole life gets thrown off… whether it’s substances or whether it’s behavior or whether it’s depressive stuff, or whatever it is, if I’m not actively… getting out of myself and being with other people, like being a dad, being a husband, being a bandmate, being a friend, helping someone out… If I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside all the time, I’m horrible — I’m a mess.”
Who has never felt the emptiness of remaining trapped within the ever-elusive self? Who hasn’t felt relief and peace come the moment we stepped outside of ourselves, whether spending time with family, doing something altruistic, or getting lost in a great story?
As Christians, we know why such experiences are so common. We were created not as autonomous selves but for relationship with God, made in the imago Dei. We are not meant to look within for meaning but beyond, to something more awe-inspiring than ourselves. The self is a vessel to be filled, a mirror made to reflect an object more glorious than itself. We are made for worship and awe.
This urge to get lost in something great is only satisfied in God. We were created to enjoy, relish, and reflect him (Genesis 1:27; Isaiah 26:8, 43:7). So when we settle for lesser sources of meaning — which we all do (Jeremiah 2:13; Romans 1:21, 30b) — we invariably end up discontent. Moreover, our insulting neglect of God’s wonder earns for us a sentence of eternal misery (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:9), placing satisfaction in God entirely out of human reach.
The self, then, is indeed an empty savior. We all instinctively know this. The deeper issues come to bear when we take up the arduous fight against the sinful self.
When Struggle is Cyclical
It is true that no one apart from Christ, dead in their sin and under the judgment of God, is capable of warring against their sinful flesh in a way that is truly spiritual and pleasing to God. (Which is, I suppose, is just a wordy restatement of Romans 8:8: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”)
That said, consider Bennington’s remarks:
“I find myself stuck in the same thing that keeps repeating over and over again, and I’m just, like, ‘How did I end up…? How am I in this?’ And it’s that moment where… you’ve now broken out of that circle, that cycle… I know that for me, when I’m inside myself… this is a bad place for me to be by myself. And so when I’m in that, my whole life gets thrown off. If I’m in there, I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down.”
Given the nature of Bennington’s death, the irony of the final sentence should not be lost on us.
Is it possible for an unbeliever to truly wage war against the flesh? No. But can an unbeliever wrestle with himself? Yes and no.
As good readers of the Apostle Paul we must conclude that there are two species of internal struggle: one, the losing fight blindly waged according to the flesh, and the other, the true mortification of the flesh driven by joy, through the Spirit, rooted in the knowledge of Christ.
Consider the latter type of struggle:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:15-23)
When the self fails to satisfy and the struggle within the soul turns cyclical, it seems that ultimately, in Bennington’s mind, the solution was for a death to occur.
This too is true of Paul’s struggle. He longed for deliverance from his own body of death. But far from driving him to take his own life, the death which solved Paul’s situation was the death of another. This is the gospel.
Christ’s death becomes our death. Our old self is crucified with him, such that through faith in him we have spiritually died and risen again (Galatians 2:20). This is not an exalted metaphor for life change; this is a real, invisible death and resurrection in the soul of a man.
No matter how much unsoundness fills your mind, the death you feel like you deserve has already been borne by the Savior.
Christian: if you have ever been dissatisfied by self, Christ saves you from yourself. If your struggle seems perpetually cyclical, Christ gives you his Spirit to ultimately “put to death the deeds of the body” and gain true life in him (Romans 8:13). He alone can deliver us from this wretched body of sin and death. He is all we need.
May this event in pop culture be a sobering reminder to this generation that our need for grace runs deep. Jesus alone can save.
Photo credit: Stefan Brending (CC 3.0)