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.

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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.       

The Inner Captivity of We Who Are Free

. . . and what we can do about it

We’ve been remade through a re-birth; we’ve become new creations and given new hearts; and the walls that imprisoned us have been bulldozed. And yet . . . we still fear our bosses, speak harshly to friends, dwell on anxious thoughts, and obsess about ourselves. Why is that?

Years ago I read an article written by a counselor who worked with concentration camp victims shortly after World War II. The sheer breadth of the war’s destruction restricted the Allies’ ability to help feed and shelter people, so refugee camps were built for the victims.

The counselor noted that many of the victims in the refugee camps acted as though they were still in prison. While they had been freed from the camps, they asked permission for the smallest liberties, such as a nighttime stroll outside their dormitories. The therapist made this observation:

We took the victims out of the camps in an instant,
but it may take decades before the camps are taken out of the victims.

Their story is our story. God has opened the prison doors on the outside, but we still need him to free us from the prisons walls within.

The Stench of Human Sweat

Last week I experienced a tempest in a teapot, and I failed to weather the storm with grace. On Monday afternoon, I discovered that my blog’s subscription sign-up form was broken. It accepted the entry of an email address; everything looked fine. Except it didn’t actually update the subscription files. So I began a sweaty scramble to fix it.

Sweat

I worked from 3:30 Monday afternoon until about 9:30 that evening. At that point, the tiny-tempest sank my site: everything stopped working. I went to bed. I woke early Tuesday morning, coordinated communication between four different help centers, got the site running, temporarily jury-rigged an email signup form, and published last week’s article.

Phew! It took me nine hours, but I got it done. Afterward I took a prayer time, beginning with My Utmost for His Highest. The devotional ended with:

Is there someplace where you are not at home with God? Then allow God to work through that particular circumstance until you increase in Him, adding His qualities.

I immediately felt convicted (in a good way). I hadn’t really repaired my website “in God.” Sure, I had asked God for help, but I had been “at home” in my skills rather than in God.

My work had the stench of human sweat rather than the fragrance of the Father.*

Shame is Nothing to be Ashamed of

Popular, secular therapy proclaims the evils of shame. It’s wrong. Sure, shame is misused and abused, but deep-shame—deep shame alone—offers our only hope of grace-based healing. As J. I. Packer once suggested, “Seek the grace to be ashamed.” (This is a response to the anti-shame rant in the world around us.)

Shame

Scripture tells two stories of boatload catches of fish, the first at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 5:4-8) and the second at the end (John 21:2-7). In both stories:

  • Professional fishermen fish all night.
  • Their night of fishing is fruitless; not a single fish is caught.
  • The following morning, an amateur offers unsolicited and unusual directions.
  • The fishermen obey and catch so many fish that their boats begin to sink.

Despite their similarities, there is one, huge difference. After the first miracle, Peter exclaims to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” After the second, Peter casts himself into the sea and breaks an Olympic-record-freestyle to get close to Jesus.

What changed in Peter that drove him to Jesus? He had finally experienced deep shame.

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.

I’m Scared of God

The rising bubble of my New Year enthusiasm was burst last week when I read a prayer in the Imitation of Christ. It terrified me. Does it scare you too? (Misery loves company.)

Scared of God

Purely as a scientific experiment, pray the following words out loud (or under your breath if your spouse is nearby and already suspicious of your sanity). I’m curious how it speaks to you.

Lord, you know what is best for me; let this be done—or that be done—as you please. Grant what you will, as much as you will, when you will. Do with me as you know best, as will most please you, and will be for your greater honor (Book 3, Chapter 15).

The first phrase is easy: “You know what’s best for me.” Sure, God knows everything better than anyone, Theology 101. The second phrase gets prickly: “Let this—or that—be done as you please.” I’m okay with “let this” be done as long as it means financial or physical health; but what if it means something else? I imagine stock market crashes and cancer.

The next phrase scares me, “Grant to me what, as much, and whenever you want.” I want (right now) a home with a roof and a checkbook that can pay the bills. But what if what he grants is “Never,” or “Not very much,” or, “A lifetime of struggle”?

The last phrase put an exclamation point on my fears: “Do with me as you please.” What if God thinks my greatest need is a trial by fire, betrayal by friends, or a financial melt-down? What if my wife and I end up homeless, or that my life’s work looks like campfire smoke that vanishes in the evening sky, forgotten by tomorrow?

How is that for New Year optimism?

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.

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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.