What does God see when He looks at you? That’s a main question Gregory K. Popcak asks and answers in his new book Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. Popcak, executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, talks below about the book and some of the prospects its raises for a beautiful life. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Do you want to be “perfect, whole, healed, and, yes, even immortal”? These seem high promises for a book!
Gregory K. Popcak: Well, of course! Because it’s a great book!
No, look, in all seriousness, I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I’m simply reiterating the promises Jesus himself made to all of his followers; promises that were echoed by every single one of the Church fathers. Jesus says, “Is it not written you are gods?” and “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:34, 10:10). What is that abundant life, exactly? Nothing less than our “divinization” — that is, the process by which we become “partakers in the divine nature” (Peter 1:4). As Saint Thomas Aquinas shockingly put it, “The son of God became man so that men might become gods.” Saint Justin Martyr said it even more jarringly: “He who listens to the Lord, and follows the prophecy given by Him, will be made a god going about in flesh.”
Of course it’s true that there’s only one God — and we’re not him. But early Christians were unanimous in asserting — up through the Reformation — that the entire point of the Christian life was to allow God to transform us into “gods” in the classic sense — perfect, whole, healed, and yes, even immortal — and destined to be loved by God and united to him eternally.
Lopez: How does this idea that we are “broken gods” change things?
Popcak: When Christians say that “we are broken and in need of salvation,” it prompts the question, “We are broken what?” Most people think we are broken in the same way that the occupants of the Island of Misfit Toys are broken — hopeless, absurd, and more than a little pathetic.
Of course, the appeal of this idea is lost on a lot of people, especially non-believers, who tend to reply, “What do you mean ‘I’m broken?’ Who do you think you are anyway? I have a good job. My family loves me. I do nice things for people. I’m fine just the way I am.”
From the beginning of time, God meant for us to actually be perfect and immortal, free from fear, utterly confident in who we were, what we were about, and what was our destiny.
What most Christians — let alone most non-Christians — fail to realize is that we are broken gods. From the beginning of time, God meant for us to actually be perfect and immortal, free from fear, utterly confident in who we were, what we were about, and what was our destiny. That is what we are called to become, and we can’t accomplish this on our own. We can never be good enough by our own efforts to effect this incredible change. Divinization is only possible through an intimate relationship with God.
Although divinization is our destiny, the Fall took all of this away from us, and of course, we aren’t going to completely achieve these goals this side of Heaven. But the Fathers of the Church affirmed — and traditional Christianity continues to profess today — that both through Christ’s Incarnation and by our lived response, the process of divinization (i.e., becoming gods through God’s grace) begins here and now.
Lopez: What made you write Broken Gods? Was it a longing you’ve seen in your counseling? On the news? In your life?
Popcak: As a counselor, my life is dedicated to helping people change. In that capacity, I am often struck by the strength of the human drive to better ourselves. Why? Why do we bother? No other animals “strive for greatness.” They’re happy to make it through the day having enough to eat and not being eaten themselves. Why isn’t that enough for us? Why do we have this inexhaustible, persistent ache for “more?” Where does it come from? What is its ultimate goal?
In Broken Gods, I argue that the human hunger for “more” — although it often manifests itself in truly horrible ways — is actually rooted in seven divine longings; deep, biologically hard-wired desires given to us by God that propel us to seek abundance, dignity, justice, peace, trust, well-being, and communion respectively. Each of these longings, when properly understood and harnessed to God’s grace, propels us to our ultimate destiny, which is nothing short of our complete perfection and the achievement of loving union with God, who is the ultimate desire of our hearts.
Lopez: This books isn’t for the casual reader. While quite accessible, it’s demanding. This journey is not for the lukewarm, is it?
Popcak: I wrote it in such a way that people could get something out of it wherever they are in their spiritual walk. The casual reader will gain powerful insights into why he does what he does and how he can live both more effectively and more meaningfully.
The more serious reader will discover new ways of really knowing himself and discover God hiding in some surprising places in his heart — the very parts of himself he likes the least!
Ideally, all readers will get a 30,000-foot flyover view of what it really means to say, “God has an incredible plan for your life,” and discover the map that 2,000 years of revelation have drawn through the rough terrain of the human heart straight to the heart of God. My hope is that readers will return to this book again and again to learn new things about themselves and how God is working in them.
Lopez: How can “your desires, even your darkest and most troublesome passions, expose the engine God intends to use to work” an “amazing transformation”?
Popcak: The process of divinization begins with a reformation of our desires. Traditionally, spiritual directors tell us this process evolves through three stages of our spiritual walk.
First, in what Christians refer to as the “Purgative Way” of the spiritual life, God teaches us to meet our earthly desires in healthy ways. Then, in the “Illuminative Way,” God shows us the deeper, spiritual significance of our earthly desires. Finally, in the “Unitive Way,” our desires propel us toward ultimate union with God.
Broken Gods seeks to reclaim these lost truths of Christianity. Namely, that Christianity isn’t about just becoming our “best selves” or about “being loved just the way you are.” Ultimately, being a Christian is about discovering how our deepest and even darkest desires reveal God’s plan for transforming us into the gods He always meant us to be — because He loves us so much that He can’t bear the thought of an eternity without us in it!
Too often we are afraid of our desires and our passions, and for good reason. Our desires and passions often lead us to some pretty dark and desperate places; most notably, pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. But hidden behind these desires are the divine longings I mentioned above; the longings for abundance, dignity, justice, peace, trust, well-being, and communion, respectively. The deadly sins are all distortions of these longings, but each of these divine longings points the way toward the healthy fulfillment of our desires and, ultimately, toward the fulfillment of our destiny to be “partakers in the divine nature” (Peter 1:4). In Broken Gods, I help readers identify the longings behind these common sins and show how, by addressing these longings, not only is our desire to commit these sins extinguished but also we experience the abundance Christ came to give us this side of Heaven.
Lopez: You write to any and every reader who picks up Broken Gods: “You are destined for a greatness beyond your wildest imaginings!” How is that not prideful to believe?
Popcak: It would be prideful if we claimed this destiny for ourselves. The truth is, on our own, we are worth nothing and deserve even less. We cannot accomplish any of this on our own. Rather, the destiny I speak of in the book is a gift that God wants to give us as a free and unmerited gift. We can only receive this gift when we overcome the pride of thinking we can achieve abundance on our own and develop the humility necessary to receive what God wants to share with us.
Lopez: Can we really live “abundantly in this life”? Isn’t it a valley of tears?
Popcak: Saint Augustine makes the distinction between what he called “the press of troubles” versus “oppression.” The press of troubles encompasses the normal challenges and hardships of life, which are largely inescapable. Oppression, on the other hand, is what we do to ourselves when the press of troubles causes us to be consumed with self-pity over the troubles we face. That sense of oppression represents our having separated ourselves from God’s grace. That phrase “valley of tears” comes from a prayer in the rosary that asks the Blessed Mother to pray that we would be delivered from our tendency to turn the press of troubles into a life of oppression.
Lopez: How did this concept of “divinization” come to be a “lost treasure”?
Popcak: Divinization is universally endorsed by every branch of mainline Christianity as the primary purpose of the Christian life. The Reformer, John Calvin, wrote, “The end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” and even Martin Luther said, “God pours out Christ His dear Son over us and pours Himself into us and draws us into Himself, so that He becomes completely humanified and we become completely deified and everything is altogether one thing, God, Christ, and you.”
That said, whatever good the Reformation brought to Christendom, it also gave Christianity a whopping case of poor self-esteem. The analyst Erik Erikson speaks to this in his psychobiography of Martin Luther, who Erikson asserts was plagued by terrible scruples and consuming guilt.
At any rate, divinization was still acknowledged by Protestants, but very grudgingly. Even the Puritans couldn’t get rid of it, but they also couldn’t keep it in the same room with their celebrated rigorism and Jansenistic self-loathing, so they stuck it in the back corner of the ecclesiastical closet where only theologians could find it (and then only when they really went looking) and the rank-and-file could comfortably forget about it.
Credit goes to the Eastern Church (both the Byzantines and the Orthodox) for keeping this teaching front and center, but even though many Roman Catholics don’t openly discuss it, phrases alluding to this doctrine are scattered all throughout the prayers of the Mass — especially all of the Eucharistic Prayers. And Roman Catholic theologians will tell you that this doctrine has never gone away for the West, it just gets overlooked.
Lopez: Why do you write so many books primarily on practical aspects of the faith?
Popcak: A mentor once said to me, “Whenever you write something, be sure to answer three questions every reader will be asking: So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?”
I don’t think faith is meant to stay on the shelf or the altar. It’s meant to be lived. Christianity is an incarnational faith. It isn’t afraid to get down in the trenches.
I don’t think faith is meant to stay on the shelf or the altar. It’s meant to be lived. Christianity is an incarnational faith. It isn’t afraid to get down in the trenches. That’s where I want to experience my faith, in the middle of the mess that is modern life. My intention is to write in a way that lets readers see the power faith can have in their lives if they have the audacity to take it with them when they leave church on Sunday.
Lopez: “Divinization is a gift that we receive as we run with abandon into the loving arms of the God who made us and who longs to complete His miraculous work in us.” What if this all sounds foreign or ridiculous or fantastical to someone reading this?
Popcak: Frankly I hope it does. Too many people — Christians in particular — read the Gospels and yawn. We think we’ve heard it all before. Well, Broken Gods is here to remind all of us that we ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Our God is positively full of surprises and salvation truly is the gift that keeps on giving. These ideas should be shocking! We believe in a God who became man and rose from the dead! What could be more foreign, ridiculous, and fantastical than that?
That said, readers need to understand that these ideas did not originate with me. Yes, I developed the concept that specific divine longings attend each of the seven deadly sins, but the doctrine of divinization and the idea that God is calling to us even through our sinfulness are as old as Christianity itself.
Lopez: Is there really “a hint of hope” “hidden within sin”?
Popcak: Absolutely. Classically, sin is defined as “a privation of the good.” In other words, sin is accepting less than God wants to give us. If that’s true, the fact that we have temptations to sin means that God’s alternatives to sin are so much greater, so much more fulfilling. Think about it: Given a choice, Satan would rather not allow us to experience any pleasures or benefits at all. He wants only our destruction by any means possible. The fact that sin is so often pleasurable can be nothing except Satan’s obligatory concession that the joys God has on offer are infinitely more satisfying. Satan has to allow some pleasure to seep into sin, otherwise he’d never be able to compete. Sin is so enjoyable exactly because the joy of God’s grace is so much greater.
Lopez: Could “every Christian” possibly be called to be a mystic, as you claim?
Popcak: I would argue that every Christian must be a mystic. A mystic is one who knows how to encounter God within the mundane and even profane moments of everyday life. Being a mystic doesn’t require one to live on a mountaintop or eat only honey and locusts. It simply requires us to tune in and listen to what God is saying to us in the here and now. All Christians must be disciples, but disciples must be able to hear the master’s voice. A mystic is one who is striving to master the ability to do just that. That’s why all disciples must learn to become everyday mystics; people who hear God’s voice and know that God is right there in the middle of the madness of everyday life.
Lopez: What does “COAL” stand for, and what does it have to do with anything?
Popcak: COAL represents the four qualities (Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love) that brain scientists tell us make the mind receptive to change. Too often, when we fail, we greet our failures with anger, judgment, shame, and self-hatred, but the brain actually locks down in the face of this kind of treatment from ourselves or others. It conserves energy in the face of what it perceives to be an attack, inhibiting its ability to make the new neural connections that would allow learning to occur in an attempt to maintain its integrity in the face of a hostile environment. Change can still happen under these circumstances, but it is a much more difficult and painful process and often any changes achieved come at a very high price, emotionally and otherwise.
We must greet our brokenness with a spirit of authentic curiosity (that seeks understanding of the real motivations behind our flaws), openness (to the insights that come from these reflections), acceptance (that makes peace with the fact that our starting point is not where we’d like it to be, and recognizes that that’s OK as long as we’re willing to grow from here) and love (which commits us to working for our greater good and doing so unconditionally). COAL is our fuel for change. It is the receptive state-of-mind that allows us to be authentically open to God’s grace.
Lopez: Why is kindness so important? How is it “love’s little sister”?
Popcak: Broken Gods argues that kindness is the answer to our divine longing for dignity. Each of us wants to be treated with respect, to be cherished, to feel like we matter. This ache is the divine longing for dignity. When this longing becomes distorted, we experience envy, the belief that in order to “really matter” I must have, be, and do everything that everyone else I know who has value in my eyes has, is, and does. But this is a fool’s errand that keeps us chained to the treadmill. The only way to truly discover our dignity is to practice kindness — that most underrated of virtues. I say that kindness is “love’s little sister” because if love is the commitment to work for the good of others, then kindness is the commitment to look for little ways to make each person’s day a little easier or brighter. To find little ways to cherish those around us. We often find that these little acts of kindness can make a huge difference in the lives of those we care for.
When we can make people smile just because we have walked into the room, it is impossible to doubt our dignity, worth, and significance.
Kindness is a kind of superpower. It enables us to have the power to make people light up just because we’ve entered the room. Pope Francis has this superpower. He does the simplest things and the entire world perks up. When we can make people smile just because we have walked into the room, it is impossible to doubt our dignity, worth, and significance. Have you ever made a child smile? Did you ever just walk into a room and have your child or your spouse or your best friend light up — simply because you were there? Do you ever feel better about yourself than you do in that moment? I can’t think of a better illustration of how kindness is the most authentic means of fulfilling our innate longing to know that we are worth something to someone.
Lopez: What’s so special about chastity? How does it help “us to order all our relationships”?
Popcak: Most people think of chastity as the “virtue” that keeps our genitals under lock and key. That is a completely wrongheaded view. In reality, philosophers and theologians have always viewed chastity as the virtue that allows us to be fully loving, in the right way, at the right time, and in every relationship. It is the virtue that allows me to consciously choose what it means to be fully loving in whatever situation I find myself in. Chastity is what allows us to be loving while maintaining healthy boundaries with friends, allows us to give ourselves fully to a spouse. Chastity is ultimately about the successful and complete integration of a person’s sexuality. And again, when I use the word “sexuality” I mean it in the broadest sense of the word; that is, referring to all the ways we make a gift of ourselves to the people in our life.
Lopez: What is this “God-shaped hole in our heart” business? How do you explain it to someone who thinks it is made up?
Popcak: A study in the journal Nature reported that it is virtually impossible to be a true, functional atheist because our brains are literally hardwired to seek transcendence. Research shows that even avowed atheists hold religious beliefs like belief in an immortal soul. In truth, there are few people more God-haunted than atheists, which you pick up after about 5 minutes of conversation with one. I don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I also don’t talk incessantly about it, blog about it, write books about it, and constantly warn the world about the dangers of believing in it. All of this is testament to the fact that we are biologically wired for belief.
Like an anorexic who denies her need for food, we can fight our drive for transcendence, we can live in denial of it, we can even get ourselves to the point where we’re consciously unaware of how deeply it is still impacting us, but in spite of our best efforts, the hunger will still be there, gnawing away. That isn’t just the wishful thinking of religious people. Those are the findings of neurological and psychological researchers. Augustine may not have had a Ph.D in neuropsychology, but he anticipated modern findings when he asserted that the human heart was restless until it found its rest in God. Broken Gods explores the nature of that void and gives readers a step-by-step process for responding to the ache for the divine that is represented by the seven longings of the human heart.
Lopez: Isn’t it a jump to say that someone who experiences lust is actually truly desiring “heart-to-heart connection with God and the people in your life”?
Popcak: It may seem so, superficially, but studies on sex addiction consistently show that sexual compulsives struggle to make meaningful emotional connections with the people in their lives, and they continue to struggle with problematic sexual behavior until they learn how to connect spiritually and emotionally with others. A quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton asserts that “even the man knocking on the brothel door is looking for God.” In Broken Gods, I demonstrate that even normal struggles with lust tend to be much easier to fight when a person feels truly connected to the person they love.
Lopez: “When we fail, as we inevitably will, God does not desire our guilt.” Is this the message Pope Francis is trying to get across with his year of mercy?
Popcak: No question. Of course, God desires our conversion and a deeper relationship with all of us. But we don’t achieve that by wallowing in our failings. While it’s important to acknowledge the times we disappoint ourselves and others, that’s exactly the time we need to connect with God’s mercy, which shows us how we can work with his grace to bring healing out of the hurt. In Broken Gods, I show how healthy change and transformation comes not by shaming ourselves, but by opening our hearts to receive God’s loving invitation to deeper union with Him.
Lopez: Is there really any way to reach a consensus today about what “the Good Life” is exactly?
Popcak: While there are many opinions about what it takes to be happy, our bodies don’t lie. A combined study by the University of North Carolina and UCLA found that people who pursued happiness by trying to live lives characterized by meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue exhibited greater gene expression that led to higher antibody production (decreasing the risk of infection) and lower inflammatory response (leading to less pain). By contrast, people who pursued happiness through mere pleasure, enjoyment, and the avoidance of conflict showed exactly the opposite. Living the good life means living in a manner that leads to integration and balance in every aspect of our physical, psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual lives. In Broken Gods, I demonstrate how people can work to achieve the balance that leads to true joy.