Downward Mobility and Ego

“I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so f—— special
I wish I was special.”
“Creep” – Radiohead

“And after each performance
People stand around and wait
Just to tell me that they loved my voice
Just to tell me that I’m great.”
“Opera Singer” – Cake

“If you do not control your ego, your ego will control you. If you do not have a plan for your ego, your ego will have a plan for you. You can be the master of your ego, or you can be its slave. It’s your choice.” (Vincent M. Roazzi in The Spirituality of Success)

Can you picture this: Three men standing around in the lobby after church talking about how “ego” sabotages our relationships – and even it’s impact on our conversation right then?! I was interested, but even more, I was convicted. So much so that God seemed to give me this prayer.* I wrote it down so I can return to it often (like daily):

“Lord, I come to you to confess that I am powerless over the domination of my ego. Instead of me controlling it, it controls me. Help me to subject myself to you first, and in doing so to learn to subject myself to others. Help me to be quiet before you first, and in doing so to learn how to be quiet before others. Help me to attend to you first, and in doing so to learn to truly attend to others.

Deep down I know that
… since you are in control, I don’t need to control others
… since you have heard me, I don’t always need to make myself heard by others
… and since I am loved and have favor with you, I need not strive to win the love and favor of others.

Help me to act according to the promptings of your Spirit instead of the compulsions of the flesh –
… waiting for permission from you before I act or speak
… and practicing doing “small things” for “nobodies” when no-one is watching.

I pray these things Lord, because in these ways I am “so far from the kingdom of God.”

“So what could I say?
And what could I do?
But offer this heart, Oh God
Completely to you?”
“The Stand” – Hillsong

*with special thanks to Steven and Vic, whom God used to minister to me in an unexpected moment at The Bridge Church

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Downward Mobility and the “Full Gospel”

People often say, “Everything old is new again.”, and today some prescribe ancient spiritual practices as a positive way to impact the deepest needs of modern people. Much of what I hear being said sounds like the “full gospel” more than anything else I’ve ever heard. By that I mean that I’m hearing “good news” for me as an individual (I can know God more deeply and increase the possibility of being changed by him.) and “good news” for others (since God can use me in the lives of those in my circles of influence to profoundly affect them in their relationship with God.) In other words, I can become a better human being, and God can use me to help others also “morph” in this way. These others would include my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, the poor, and other disenfranchised people that I seek out as I become a neighbor to them. (These notes reflect a logical approach, not a chronological one, meaning that they attempt to answer these kinds of questions: “If I’m hoping and praying for God’s kingdom to come into my life and circles of influence, how should I go about that? Logically, where do I begin? What are the priorities? What things depend on other prior things?”, etc.)

What follows is an outline of what I’m hearing, the full explanation of which would be a book.

1. You can’t control others or your own circumstances, so don’t waste important energy trying.

2. You are not responsible for the reactions and behavior of others. That’s their business. They have to attend to that.

3. Focus on yourself. That’s where you have some control. You are by far the biggest problem you have. Expending energy on this makes sense. Each of us must invariably start here.

4. When you change yourself, that affects all your “systems.” (marriage, family, work, church, neighborhood, etc.) You’re not giving up on change in the lives of others you love, you’re simply approaching it in a way that makes that change more likely – you’re addressing the need for person change. As you change, others will change.

5. The most important thing you can do is to change yourself, and changing yourself is the only hope you have of changing others or your circumstances. (Obviously, points #1 through #5 all go together.) This statement summarizes the first four points, but also holds out personal change as the most critical, wisest, most strategic commitment you can make.

6. None of these will be enough to change you: more information, more motivation, more accountability, or more serious effort. This may sound like bad news, but it’s really actually good news, as we see in the points that follow.

7. The possibility of change increases with new perspectives – a) when I see myself as loved and valued by God, b) when I see others as loved and valued by God, c) when I see exactly where I need to be changed or transformed (my ego, temperament, ingrained habits, signature sins, thought patterns, etc.), and d) when I see that God is bigger than my problems.

8. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new skills entailed in attending to God, for instance in learning a) to sit in God’s presence, b) to wait, c) to listen, d) to let go, e) to be mindful, f) to do without, g) to meditate (lectio divina), h) and to practice solitude and silence. (Practicing these things is the key to the new perspectives of #7 above.)

9. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new rhythms in attending to God, for instance in practicing a) the daily office, b) an examen, c) unceasing prayer, and d) keeping Sabbath. (These will be aids in building the new skills of #8 above into our daily lives.)

10. The possibility of change increases as I bring new attitudes and practices to my relationships – a) speaking truth in love, b) practicing loyalty and kindness (embracing managed conflict rather than running from it), and c) looking for and capitalizing on transformational moments in each day (Nouwen’s “full moments.”)

11. The possibility of change increases as I adopt new priorities – a) living out the great commandment, b) involving myself in the great commission, and c) seeking justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (These will be the measures of success of this “project” at all times.) If you’re not growing in a life of love for God and others, and if you’re not practicing justice, something is amiss. These are the Biblical measures of progress.

12) The possibility of change increases as I embrace a new kind of patience – applying grace to myself and others, and embracing the unique journey that God has for me and them – remembering that personal transformation is the work of a lifetime and cannot be forced in my life or the life of others.

In the end, I am powerless over my sin and when it comes to truly changing myself. Only God can change me. My job is hospitality toward him – welcoming him and creating space for him to continue the work that he has begun in me, no matter how daunting that may be. Seeking God’s kingdom first (his glory, his agenda) will be the only appropriate and most effective way of entering into personal transformation. Seeking after the good things he has for me must take a secondary place to these priorities of his. The foundation of all that I do in this regard will be my refusal to insist on my rights before God, and with others. (Phil. 2) The commitment to do this a central and intrinsic part everything above. (#1-12)

I don’t know if this sounds new to you, but much of it is revolutionary for me. It’s a lot of familiar ideas, but the words are all arranged in new ways. I hope you find this provocative and helpful, and as always, I welcome your reflections and contributions. In the end, it’s all about our greatest happiness, and God’s greatest glory (but not in that order).

Shame or Conviction? Choose Carefully

“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil

Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:

“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”

Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:

“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”

Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:

“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”

You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”

Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.

We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”

That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.

But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.

Fortunately,  we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.

* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.

* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.

It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.

It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”

The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?

First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.

Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgivenessbut doesn’t address the need for healing.

Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.

When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It’s the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.

Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.

What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.

So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.

And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?

In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.