Most of us have some minor obsessions. Mine include the Kennedy assassination, which, as I’ve often said, I see as the most formative event of my generation. (When I saw that the Disney movie “Frozen 2” was coming out on November 22, 2019, I immediately wondered: “Was Olaf the Snowman on the grassy knoll?”) I am also fascinated by things that are unexpectedly named after people—like the Outerbridge Crossing (Eustasius Outerbridge), the Rockola jukebox (David Rockola), the Field Museum (Marshall Field), and the Bayard Cutting Arboretum (Bayard Cutting). I have numerous other minor obsessions, many of them musical (neo-honkytonk shuffle songs, depressing Christmas songs, Cajun music, Cuban music, Dylan, Sinatra, and Springsteen). You probably have some minor obsessions yourself. I don’t see such small obsessions as problematic. In a way, they are the spice of life. When we sit down and share our obsessions, we mutually enrich each other.
Sometimes obsessions become unhealthy, of course. Many people suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, which usually involves triple checking things, or compulsive hand washing, or pathological fear of making a mistake. (I sometimes note that religious rules seem to me like a form of obsessive compulsive disorder!) Most of us have OCD to some degree. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone back home to make sure the stove or the coffee maker was off! And when I mail a letter, I open the little door two or three time to make sure the letter actually fell into the box! But some folks have these tendencies to such a degree that it interferes with normal life. People who suffer from OCD often find relief in medication. There also are therapies that deliberately expose people to the things that they fear.
Sometimes, though, people fall victim to unhealthy obsessions that are larger and more consuming than the ones we’ve talked about. More than music or historical events…more than washing or checking…some people seem to be seized by obsessions that define their lives. One example in American literature was Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. The great white whale had taken his leg, and his entire life was focused on exacting revenge. He got his entire crew (save Ishmael) and himself killed in his obsessive search for revenge. Another fictional character ruled by obsession, one who is especially on our minds this time of year, is Ebenezer Scrooge. His obsessive love of money made normal relationships with others impossible.
Lives defined by obsessions are not confined to fiction. I think of William J. Sidis—whose parents were obsessed with turning him into a genius. They educated him so intensely that he could read by the age of two! He was admitted to Harvard at the age of eleven! And yet eventually, he devoted his talents to his own obsession—collecting streetcar transfer tickets! Even though it wasted a great intellect, Sidis’ hobby was at least harmless. But Adolf Hitler’s obsession with the Jewish people brought horror to the twentieth century. And James Angleton of the Central Intelligence Agency became so obsessed with finding a Russian “mole” in the CIA that he essentially crippled the Agency’s operations for many years.
Sometimes people become obsessed with some slight or wrong done to them by a family member or friend. They hang on to their resentment, and it poisons their relationships. I remember a story I heard at a previous church of mine. A man’s raincoat was stolen at the church in 1938. In anger, he stopped going to church. Fifty years later, he still refused to go to church, obsessing over that long-lost overcoat. I can’t even count the number of situations I’ve encountered where family members, or church members, allowed a single moment to fester for decades, and separate them from people they should have been close to.
Obsessions can be terrible things.
But it also can be a glorious thing! The great accomplishments of human history—did they not emerge from obsessions? An obsession to cure a disease…an obsession to make human communications more effective…an obsession to improve human life. We cannot look down upon such obsessions, because they have made the world a better place!
So the lesson is: some obsessions are minor, some are destructive, and some bring blessing to the world. We want to avoid the destructive ones—as Nietzsche famously said, “Be careful fighting monsters, lest you become a monster yourself.” But if God lays a positive obsession on our hearts, let us pursue it for the blessing of the human race!
To be honest, God is a little obsessive Himself. Obsessed…with us. We turned our backs on Him when we fell into sin. Yet He could not let us go. “How can I give you up?” God cries to His people (Hosea 11:8). We remain on His mind, and in His heart. His love for us is so total that “the very hairs on your head are numbered” (Matthew 10:30). His love for us was so all-consuming that He came up with a mind-blowing plan—He would become human like us. He would take our very nature upon Himself. Now that is obsessive!
And He carried out this amazing plan. He embraced our human nature—and in that human nature He died for us. A radical plan, the most radical plan in history. All because God has an obsessive love for us that cannot let us go. He would, as Christian songwriter Michael Card once noted, rather die than live without us.
So I am the beneficiary of a divine obsession. My sins are forgiven, my guilt is lifted, I am saved…because God’s love for me was so great that He could not let me go, but rather came into this world to save me. That’s an obsession! A glorious obsession! A “magnificent obsession!”