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.       

Overcoming Chronic Sins

My twelve year old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my blasts of anger detonated at insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.

kidmad

I remember once chasing my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I do remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.

I hated my uncontrollable anger, and I memorized over fifty verses about the angry man:

  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
  • A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.
  • Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
  • But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

When I felt an outburst rising, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.

When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my temper. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t once lost my temper since his prayer. I hadn’t even had to fight it. My explosive temper had been defused.

It was a miracle.

Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.

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.

Should We Ever Wrestle with God?

In the movie The Princess Bride, the evil genius Vizzini repeatedly (and inappropriately) exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. I often want to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.

I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” arm_wrestlingChristians use it to describe an intentional long night of pleading with God for his help. The phrase refers to God wrestling with Jacob (Gen. 32:22-31), but we use it the wrong way; let’s “Stop saying that!”

I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When members failed to follow his messages, he’d insist on an upper room experience of battling with God.

My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot across God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast.

It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.

Our phrase may seem noble or heroic to us, but an African American preacher understood God better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”

The Hidden Secrets of Belief

Many years ago, I worked for a struggling company. Our architecture was outdated and sales revenue plummeted. Investments in new architecture meant expenses skyrocketed. We were hemorrhaging money with no doctor in sight.

And then our president had a heart attack.

Our parent company asked me if I would consider becoming president. I was flattered by their great offer (and impressed with their great wisdom), but when I prayed I sensed God say, “No.” His word felt clear and strong, and I declined.

Instead, I suggested a new vice presidentDemotion r1 that I had recently hired and who had become a friend. Our parent company agreed, and my friend became our new president.

The next day, my president-friend began to attack me. In the following weeks, he reduced my pay, took away my office, demoted me, and publicly belittled me. *

My friend’s blitzkrieg movements stunned me. I was paralyzed and bewildered. Each new day brought a new disappointment. Every way I turned saw ambush and embarrassment. All of this came from a friend I had helped promote.

And God seemed absent, at least silent. I felt abandoned by God to a betraying friend who appeared intent on my professional destruction. I had voluntarily obeyed God by declining a promotion. As a result, I was demoted, humiliated, discouraged, and scared.

What kind of God would do this to someone who tried to obey him?

What’s The Biggest Problem with Legalism? You. And Me.

I once belonged to a prayer group that prized ecumenical unity. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions. We sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Then we split down the middle due to ruptured relationships among our leaders.

We formerly prided ourselves on our exceptional unity; then our leaders attacked each other. We were embarrassed and a bit humiliated. Our highly prized treasure—good relationships in the midst of very strong differences—had slipped from our grasp.

Here lies Sam WilliamsonA fellow member heard of a Christian leader in a neighboring city who had committed adultery and raided the group’s bank accounts. Sitting next to me in a prayer meeting, my friend shared the story and then whispered, “At least we’re not that bad.”

“Great!” I thought, “that’s just what I want chiseled on my tombstone:”

Here Lies Sam Williamson

At least he wasn’t as bad as them

You Can’t Hurt My Feelings

Thin-skinned people irritate me. (To be fair, I bet I bug them even more.) You don’t “like” their every Facebook post, their feelings get hurt. In a casual discussion, you cautiously question an idea of theirs, and they are deeply wounded.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Forget it.” However, my sympathy grew last fall during one unpleasant week, when:

  • A long-term reader criticized my article as poorly written, irrelevant, and stupid.black-rhino-staffan-widstra
  • A close friend blatantly refused to help when I asked for the tiniest of favors.
  • I completed a two year service commitment, and no one bothered to thank me.
  • And those were the high points.

I thought I had the tough skin of a rhino. Turns out I have the thin skin of a peach. And my emotional life was in the pits. (Sorry. I didn’t even try to resist.)

Do you ever feel unwanted, see your ideas rejected, or get taken for granted? It ain’t fun. During that un-fun week, I felt used, abused, and confused. My motives were questioned, my ideas rejected, and my character assassinated. At least shot at.

I thought nasty thoughts about those villains; I considered them to be insensitive dolts. I was hurt. And a tiny bit pissed. I wondered if their parents had ever been married. As I pondered their questionable lineage, it struck me,

It wasn’t my feelings that were hurt—it was my ego.