The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

[Click here for an audio version of this post: The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness.]

Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.

sveit0499s

Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.

Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.

On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.

My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!

The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.

Our first two days in Rome were hell.       

How Christian is Modern Self-Esteem?

The Times of London once asked leading British intellectuals to write an article that answered this simple question: “What is the biggest problem with the world?” G. K. Chesterton submitted his essay on a postcard,

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely,
G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton I Am

Over the last thirty years, therapists have taught us to “like ourselves a lot” and to hold a “high opinion of our capacities.” They taught us that people with high self-esteem tend to be socially well-adjusted and those with low self-esteem tend toward social deviance. (Their teachings came in the form of proclamations not proofs.)

Yet cracks are forming in the self-esteem movement. Lauren Slater, a leading psychologist and writer, casts doubts on today’s self-esteem crusaders,

There is enough evidence from 20 years of studies to conclude that people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to people around them than people with low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems (The Problem with Self-Esteem).

Chesterton would whole-heartedly agree with Slater’s observation, that “Low self-esteem is not the source of any of our country’s biggest problems.”

Because we are.

My Ugly Remorse

Last Sunday night my mood turned ugly. I was talking with a friend and he said something that lit a fire in me. I ranted and raved; I said harsh things about someone not present, and the best efforts to silence me merely aggravated me.

I went to bed angry, and I woke up remorseful.

Remorse

Why had I said those things? I was embarrassed, contrite, and a bit ashamed of myself. I was in a mood to repent. Then I read My Utmost for His Highest,

 We trample the blood of the Son of God underfoot if we think we are forgiven because we are sorry for our sins. The only reason for the forgiveness of our sins by God is the death of Jesus Christ.

Chambers’ words aggravated me more. (Maybe my anger hadn’t dissipated completely.) Here I was genuinely sorry for my sin—in the mood to repent—and Chambers said my sorrow plays no part in my forgiveness. Not one tiny morsel.

How important is sorrow in our forgiveness?

Making a List of Our Sins

A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone who felt horrible about forgetting a commitment. She felt her accidental negligence caused unnecessary stress for a good friend. And it probably did.

deep sorrow

She felt bad (understandably) and kicked herself (metaphorically) for her mistake. She couldn’t shake the pain of disappointing a close friend. The oversight overwhelmed her thoughts and dreams. She couldn’t find a faucet to turn off the fountain of self-condemnation.

I suggested that her pain was triggered by an unrealistic expectation of her own perfection; that this one omission was possibly not an anomaly; and that she probably makes dozens (maybe hundreds) more mistakes every week. Her problem was a false, high opinion of her perfection.

I’m always good for a pick-me-up when you need it most.

I suggested that she make a list of every sin (and mistake) she had committed in the last week. A month would be better. I partly proposed a list to shake her self-punishing perfectionism, but mostly to help her recognize God’s unshakeable love of her in her imperfection.

That same day—literally a few hours later—someone sent me an email that condemned the “horrific practice” of listing our sins, claiming sin-lists are evils that rob us of freedom in Christ.

Who’s right? At the risk of making a mistake (that I could add to my own list later); I am.

The Ecosystem of Grace

Several months ago I wrote an article about the joy of pausing in the moment of confession; telling God about my total unworthiness, acknowledging my wrongs, and even admitting ways I acted wickedly. I suggested we stop right there in that moment.

Shrek

A Christian leader canceled his subscription and emailed me to explain. He said my suggestion that “we chronicle our wrongdoing” is “just wrong.” His approach in life is to remember he is made in the image of God and that he has been given a new heart.

Then he explained how he deals with criticism. When friends say he “seems arrogant,” he says that they confuse his confidence with arrogance; but they can have his high level of confidence if they would just realize their own goodness. He suggested I try it.

My inner response was a bit different. I thought, “What a jerk! Doesn’t he know the difference between gospel confidence and worldly arrogance? Can’t he examine himself honestly when others criticize him?”

The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that his approach is just wrong. And the more I thought of him, the more I became … arrogant.

Like my friend, and many before him, in my attempts to feel good about myself, I abandoned grace. I realized I often really misunderstand grace.

Many of us misinterpret grace, because grace is an ecosystem.  

Hearing God in Meditation

God speaks time and again—in various ways—but nobody notices” (Job 33:14).

Most people I know have an innate desire to hear God; actually, more than a desire, an intense longing. We want to connect with the divine, to somehow see the face of God, to touch and be touched. It’s inborn, an inherent ingredient of our humanity.

Scripture says God is always speaking, but we miss it. We don’t notice his voice because we don’t recognize it. Oh, sometimes he breaks in through writing on the wall or through a speaking beast of burden, but mostly he speaks in a still, small voice.

voices r2

We miss his voice because it is drowned out in the sea of other voices. The cacophony of sounds, like an orchestra tuning, obscures that still small voice. Stomachs growl their hunger, bosses bark their orders, and that insult from twenty years ago still shouts its condemnation.

How do we learn to discern God’s voice? In meditation. Christian meditation trains our ears to distinguish God’s voice—that one instrument—amidst the orchestra of others. And once we learn to recognize God’s voice, we begin to hear it “time and again, in various ways.”

To hear God’s voice, we need to learn to meditate. Unless, like Balaam, you have a talking ass.

How Do We Handle Betrayals?

Last week I woke up to an intensely vivid dream. In comparison, past dreams seemed like a hazy video on a scratchy black and white TV, while this dream felt like an IMAX theater with heart-throbbing surround sound and mountain-shaking sub-woofers.

I dreamt of a long-past betrayal, and I felt raw fury, pain, and shame wash over me. Again.

Saruman r1

Have you ever been betrayed? Few men and women I meet are unscathed. Sooner or later—and most likely sooner—we will all experience a betrayal.

I don’t mean a stab in the back; I mean a face-to-face, kiss-on-the-cheek treachery that leaves us reeling, bleeding, and bewildered; all this from the former ally who afterward smilingly asks, “What’s the big deal?,” suggesting, “Let’s grab a cup of coffee for old time’s sake.”

The depth of our former friendship increases the magnitude of our pain. The friend whose betrayal most brutalizes us is the comrade whose care most comforted us. As David once sang,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that; it is not an adversary who deals twistedly with me—even that I could bear. But it is you, my comrade, my companion, my close friend. We used to enjoy sweet intimacy. (Psalm 55:12-14)

It may have been a wealthy parent who willed you one penny, a callous gym teacher who called you a coward in front of other kids, or the partner who embezzled your retirement funds. Probably the worst is an adulterous spouse.

How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?