“The Lord was always…trying to get my attention, but for some reason, I just ignored Him.”
So recalls author and speaker Gary Zimak about his younger years, when he struggled with chronic worry. Despite being a cradle Catholic who attended Mass every week, he felt determined to make it through on his own, never asking God for help. “He just wasn’t real enough to me,” admits Gary.
Certain experiences changed that, however, leading Gary to a deeper relationship with God – and a greater sense of happiness. He shares some of the wisdom he’s learned in his book “Journey with God: Finding Peace and Happiness,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Gary dedicates “Journey with God” to his parents, who planted the seeds of faith in his life that took a long time to flourish. He credits his mom and dad with getting him baptized, giving him a Catholic education, and making sure he got to Mass every week, even though he found it all a little boring. For years, he attended Mass simply out of obligation, calling on God only in times of crisis. But then, Gary would go back to ignoring God when the problems got resolved.
That changed in the 1970s, when a friend invited Gary to a Charismatic Renewal prayer meeting in Philadelphia. “I went kicking and screaming,” said Gary. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. And then I got in there. I was used to doing things the way we do it at Mass each week. [But here], people were praising the Lord, and they had their Bibles with them, and they were hugging me. [I thought], ‘Whoa, these people are weird…but they’re happy. They have something that I want.’ I kept going back…and I started to realize, ‘Hey, God is real and He’s bigger than my problems. And He loves me. Maybe I should ask Him for help.’ That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It’s something I’m still working on…Unfortunately, the problems that we face every day, they’re visible. He’s invisible. So there’s a bit of a learning curve involved.”
Once Gary accepted God as being real to him, he also came to a deeper acceptance of God’s love for him. Previously, Gary had the “head knowledge” about God’s love, but he finally came to accept it in his heart, which made a world of difference. The Holy Spirit plays a role in that acceptance.
Gary explains, “The Holy Spirit is the very spirit of Jesus…We now have that spirit because of our faith, our relationship with the Lord…I can only do so much, and the Lord knew that. That’s why He gave me His spirit, so that I can love with His spirit. I can have the peace and joy that comes from His spirit. I’m not a patient person. And it’s one of the fruits of the spirit: patience, self-control, all of these things. If I let the Holy Spirit work in me, I can follow the Lord, look at my problems…and with that joy and peace that flows from the Spirit, say, ‘I can handle this with the Lord’s help.’…The Holy Spirit’s main job is to transform us into the image of Jesus. For somebody like me, He’s got a big job, but little by little, the Holy Spirit’s doing that in me.”
To help that process along, Gary begins each morning with the words, “Holy Spirit, please inspire my thoughts, my words and my actions today.” He admits that he doesn’t feel any differently after that prayer, but he believes the Spirit is helping him regardless of his feelings.
There are also times when Gary doesn’t feel the presence of God and endures “desert experiences.” Experience has taught him to keep believing in those circumstances as well. He said, “I’m a quitter. By nature, if something doesn’t feel good or if I feel I’m not making progress, I just want to say, ‘That’s it, I quit.’ But with that help of the Holy Spirit – and with what little persistence that I can muster up – I’ve learned, you’ve just got to move forward. I’m going to pray whether I feel like it or not. It took me a long time to get to that point, but now when I don’t feel it, I know that the Lord’s trying to stretch me a little bit, because if I always went to Him and felt good, eventually I’d forget about Him and I’d just be after the feelings. We’re supposed to love the giver more than we love the gifts, and that can be challenging sometimes. So, yeah, that desert experience, we all go through it. It doesn’t last forever, and it does help us to grow in faith.”
Though it might seem counterintuitive, accepting our crosses in life can lead us to happiness. Gary acknowledges that this is a paradox and makes no sense in worldly terms. However, we create a lot of stress when we fight against them, so instead we should ask God to bear the burden with us.
“We’re all going to have [crosses], whether we’re followers of Christ or not,” says Gary. “We all will have some suffering in this life because we live in a fallen world. This life isn’t heaven, but our heaven can begin in this life. It doesn’t mean we won’t have problems, but it means the Lord is bigger than the problems and He can give us the peace to deal with them. That’s a hard message though, because people don’t think it’s possible. Once you give it a try, it works. He does give us peace.”
Another key to happiness that Gary points out in “Journey with God” is service to other people. Often, we may get sidetracked in nurturing our relationship with God by trying to make some big gesture. But true happiness is found – and spread – in simple, daily acts of loving. Sometimes it involves handing out donuts in church. Other times, it’s about helping your spouse with the dishes instead of reading your prayer book. We need to pay attention to our surroundings and circumstances and ask, “How does God want me to love Him today?”
Helping other people isn’t easy, however, when those people are annoying. Gary admits he struggles with this himself. The trick, he says, is asking the Holy Spirit for help: “I want to be able to look at people who drive me crazy and see them the way Jesus sees them. Part of it has to do also with His patience with me, the fact that He went to the cross for me. He’s put up with a lot from me. For years He waited for me. Yet I get impatient with other people. But I think this is an ongoing process…I’m a big believer in the sacrament of Confession. The grace I receive in Confession helps me to get better at this because, yes, people do drive me crazy sometimes. It’s easier to spend time with the Lord alone, but what are the two greatest commandments? Love God and love others. That’s what He wants.”
(To listen to my full interview with Gary Zimak, click on the podcast link):