Last week I went to my national Christian counseling conference that’s held every other year in Branson. As expected, it was wonderful. Everything I was looking forward to came true, and I came home with a full heart and a crammed-full head.
When we think of this word, various ideas come to mind.
Children say that being selfish is refusing to take turns or share one’s toys.
Grown-ups think of other things…
like wanting one’s own way,
or valuing oneself more than others,
or lacking compassion and empathy in interacting with others.
We can be selfish with our time, our energy, our money, or our stuff.
[Aside: having healthy boundaries means that there are right times and wrong times to share all of these, and it is not selfish to take a pass on sharing the wrong things at the wrong times. So please don't take my words as an invitation to pack your bags and go off on a guilt trip every time you deny someone who asks something of you.]
Hint: it’s a lot easier (and lazier) to share our time and our energy and our money and our stuff with everyone who makes a really spiritual or emotional pitch for it or who uses the threat of anger to get us to give up these things. To give under this kind of manipulation or compulsion is not generosity—certainly not the opposite of selfishness—and is a cheap way to skate out of having to depend on God’s Spirit to guide us in choosing when to give and when to withhold. If you think about what’s going on under the surface, it’s actually selfish to give our time, energy, money, or stuff for the sole motive of not wanting to feel guilty or not wanting to be intimidated by the demanding person’s anger.
Sheesh! This following Jesus business is harder than it looks, right? Hebrews 4:12 says that God’s word is sharper than any two-edged sword and is useful for pinpointing the thoughts and intentions of the heart. This tells me that God cares as much about my motives (and about dividing right motives from wrong motives) as He does about the choices and behaviors attached to the motives.
So what it all comes down to is this: What I do out of guilt or compulsion or trying to dodge someone else getting mad at me is being done for myself. It is done out of selfish motivations. It is done to protect myself from feelings I don’t want to feel. If I am setting out to give up unselfishness, then I have to be tuned into my own motivations so I know when I’m doing something self-protective or something that is truly loving, giving, kind, and generous. God gave us His Word and His Spirit so we can figure out the difference.
This week the media brought us plenty of bright, colorful views of revelers at Carnaval celebrations all over the globe, photos of King Cakes and Mardi Gras parties on Pinterest, and tempting recipes popping up everywhere. Most everyone knows that Mardi Gras–“Fat Tuesday”–is based on the idea that if one is going to give up partying, drinking, and feasting for the 40 days of Lent, then it only makes sense to gorge oneself on all of these things until the very minute Lent starts. We see the photos and videos of people dancing wildly, shouting, singing, parading, drinking, carousing, and stuffing themselves with all sorts of delectable-looking foods.
Being a language person, I find it interesting that the word “carnival” or “carnaval” is related to English words like “carnivorous” and “carnal,” which refer to meat/flesh. Carnival/Carnaval celebrations are all about indulging the flesh to the max as a way of saying goodbye to the flesh for the period of Lent. Tying these thoughts back to my Lenten goal of learning to give up selfishness, I think it’s intriguing to note that saying no to selfishness means, in essence, saying no to my flesh. Hmmm… This certainly bears more pondering.
So… if the Carnaval revelers had their Fat Tuesday of feasting and frolicking to say goodbye to their flesh for 40 days, then I certainly had mine for saying goodbye to selfishness. Sadly, though, I have to admit that mine wasn’t planned that way. At least the revelers have the good sense and the integrity to plan their indulgences; I just fell into mine in the usual fleshly ways.
My Tuesday afternoon was planned to be an errands day. I don’t ever look forward to errands days. I always pack my agenda with more stops than I can ever fit into the allotted time, and then I get worn out and grumpy. I had intended to take off and start my list right after lunch, but important and long-awaited calls about our insurance coverage and flood damage restoration started coming just as I wanted to leave home. The result was getting out of here at 2:30 instead of 1:00. <sigh…> I tucked the thought into the back of my mind that I would surely run out of afternoon and energy long before I ran out of errands, so I’d call Bill and ask him to meet me on his way home from work and finish the list together. And then we’d have dinner out while we were OTR (on the road).
As I marched, and then trudged, and then slogged my way from one stop to the next, I saw the hands on my watch racing faster as my tummy growled louder. Wryly I made a note to self that since I started dieting on March 1st (coincidence; not related to Lent) I am going to have to be more aware of taking protein snacks along when I do my errand marathons. Every few minutes I tried again to reach Bill. I left messages on his office phone… knowing that he hardly ever gets to his desk these days and would probably never get my messages. I dialed and then redialed his cell phone. Each time it went to voice mail I got a little more frustrated, because he has purposely never set up an inbox and could not retrieve a message even if I left one. I also texted him, but I had no idea if he’d know he got a text, especially if he wasn’t answering his phone anyway. Finally I started leaving messages on the machine at home, so least if he went straight home he’d find out where I was and could call me to synchronize plans.
The more exhausted and hungry I got, the more calls I made, and the angrier I got. Before long I was mentally slicing and dicing my husband. How dare he ignore my calls? Does he think it’s funny to be unreachable by cell phone? How on earth am I supposed to be connected to a person who is beyond the reach of a phone call? What if this were a freakin’ EMERGENCY? What plant is he working in today, anyway? How far away is he? When will he be coming through this way on his way home? When will he get home and find me not there? All in the world I want to do is ask him to meet me at Walgreens, for Pete’s sake! Is that so much to ask?!?!?! As I tromped up and down the aisles of Walgreen’s, indulging myself in a Fat Tuesday feast of selfish, angry thoughts, I looked up to meet the eyes of…
…the very same husband I’d been trying to reach for HOURS. I can only imagine my countenance as my head swam with angry, accusing thoughts. His face brightened, his eyes lit up, and he looked delighted at the very sight of me. He hadn’t read my text or listened to my messages or had any idea I’d be at Walgreen’s. Innocently, he hastened to tell me that he couldn’t find his cell phone, had lost it hours ago. Meeting up at Walgreens? Pure serendipity. (Or pure evidence of the hand of a loving God?) Yes, he agreed joyfully, he would LOVE to take me out for dinner. We finished finding the things we needed at Walgreen’s and then headed out to relax over a hot dinner that I didn’t have to make in my over-tired, over-hungry state.
It was not until later that I made the connection. I had my Fat Tuesday, all right. I had indulged my flesh to the max. I had feasted on selfishness.
And the 40 days to follow? Will I get myself on a crash diet of selflessness? Stay tuned…
Well, here it is. Lent again. For us Protestants it’s not all that well defined, really. We know it’s a holy time–a time set aside for pondering what our faith means and how high a price our Savior paid to buy our place in God’s forever family. But just how we do that is left to us, and there seem to be as many ideas and theories as there are Christians proposing them.
When I was a little girl being taken to the church down the street–the one that taught that “all you have to do if you want to go to heaven is to learn the Ten Commandments and try to follow them/try to live a good life”–we children were given those little plastic banks for Lent every year. The idea was to put coins into the banks as an extra offering for Lent. One year my Sunday school teacher challenged our class to go without soda during Lent and to put the money not spent on Cokes into the little bank. I remember thinking that for me that would amount to a dime or two a year, because our family didn’t have soda often. I didn’t get an allowance, didn’t get treats or spending money or new clothes. What, I wondered, did I have to give up?
So here I am, all these years later, still wanting something to put into my little bank for Lent and not feeling quite sure what that something should be. I’ve noticed a lot of challenges appearing on the Net lately about what to give up for Lent, and many of these ideas have been inspiring and helpful. They aren’t at all like the proposed “sacrifices” of people I’ve known throughout the years…
…like my grade school friends who gave up liver and spinach every year…
…like my fellow Spanish teacher, fresh out of college, who asked if we could delay the annual mid-semester celebration of a Mexican holiday “because I take Lent very seriously and am not supposed to have any fun during Lent.” (I kindly informed her that class parties are not fun for the teachers.)
…or like the client who told me that he had made a bargain with God to give up some small (unspecified) habit in his life and in turn wanted God to get him a job. When no job materialized, he lied about his credentials, experience, and qualifications and got a job he really liked. “See?” he said to me. “I did it my own way. God didn’t care about my sacrifice.” I told him that God never promised to give us what we ask for in exchange for sacrifices, and in fact he said in Micah 6:8 that the sacrifice he genuinely wants from us is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.
One blog I read a few days ago proposed that all through Lent we love, love, love all the people we encounter in our daily lives. We give up judging and criticizing and just love them all. Hmmm… quite a challenge, really. It seems to me that when Jesus gave us the assignment of loving God and loving others, He knew it would be a lifelong process. Like sanctification, it’s a challenge that’s never done, a lesson we never stop learning. It’s sometimes easy to love the soft, warm, fuzzy, and beautiful. But how do I love the bully? the scorner? the abuser? the evil doer? Too big a job, I concluded, to try to wrap up in a nice 40-day package.
Yet another blogger proposed 40 days of thankfulness. A grateful heart, the theory goes, is a loving heart. This blogger issued a challenge to start a gratitude journal and record in it each day of Lent as an antidote to an ungrateful spirit and as a way of giving up griping and complaining. I certainly agree that gratitude is a wonderful thing and improves one’s outlook measurably. I also think, though, that it may or may not take one very deep in the pursuit of holiness and nearness to God. Like my grandchildren who at bedtime every single night thank God for “Mommy and Daddy and all my stuffed animals,” I can put (or not put) a lot of effort into pondering my blessings. At the end of Lent, will I have grown deeper in my faith by thinking up 120 new things to be glad for? Can’t unbelievers do the same thing without even knowing God?
As I’ve spent some time lately pondering just what God would want me to give up for Lent, the idea that has recurred is selfishness. We often think the opposite of love is hate, but I’ve concluded (at least for now) that it’s probably plain old selfishness. When my eyes and heart are fixed on myself–on satisfying my own longings and needs–then they are not focused on doing that for others. I can fail to love a lot of people not by hating them, but by simply being wrapped up in myself. Selfishness.
So let’s see where these next 40 days take me. If for me Lent is to be a journey of choosing to let go of selfishness, then it will mean listening to God’s Spirit. It will mean tuning in to the longings of others’ hearts. It will mean catching myself in my self-absorption and snapping out of it. It will mean all of these and, I suspect, a lot more.
Whenever we hear the term “control freak” we find that certain people come to mind. We think we have a good grasp of what it means, and usually we are thinking of those forceful people whose strong wills exert pressure on us (usually to do things we don’t want to do).
So does it come as a shock to any of us to learn that we are all–every last one of us–control freaks? One of my best teachers used to say, “It’s not whether you control–it’s how.” We often think that if we’re not overtly exerting verbal, relational, or physical pressure to get what we want, then we don’t belong in that ugly category. We may comfort ourselves with that thought, but it is false comfort because it’s not true. In fact, it could not be more wrong.
If we think long and hard, most of us can come up with lots of examples of people we have watched who controlled others with all sorts of strategies besides obvious control. Some use charm (like my old college roommate who would exclaim in her thickest southern accent–when cute guys were close by–“My stars! I do believe I forgot my umbrella, and it is startin’ to rain!” Except she was from Michigan). Some use cunning. Some veil their control with a sort of sweetness that says, “I am so sweet that no one could ever oppose me.” Some use helplessless to get others to come and rescue them. Some lie. Some cheat. Some steal. Some gossip (or slander)… which is also a form of stealing, in the sense that your reputation is stolen… but that’s a topic for another day. Some use overt goodness and helpfulness to get you so allied with them that you will do their bidding without question. Some restrain their forcefulness yet somehow communicate to you that you will pay a very high price for not giving them what they want. Others use deceit, such as by appearing to agree with you and then going on to do what they want to do anyway.
In other words… there is agressive control and there is passive-agressive control. We instinctively recognize aggression because we dislike the feelings we experience when people treat us with aggression. Passive aggression, however, is much more devious. It can go on and on, sometimes for a lifetime, without being recognized for what it is: control. Those of us who see life as a growth path toward Christlikeness–a sometimes painful journey of being made over in the likeness of The One who loves us best–can make a conscious decision to find the control strategies in our own lives. We don’t have to wait till the wreckage piles up in our relationships before we look for our own control strategies. All sinners in a broken world, we just want to make it through this life as unharmed as possible. We naturally resort to whatever ways work best to minimize our chances of getting hurt; we shift into autopilot and follow our internal GPS to steer around the hurts: the very essence of self-protection. If we see our self-protective instincts as often (not always) the exact opposite of self-sacrificing love, then it becomes easier to see our self-protective ways as unloving. Controlling. Sinful.
The bottom line, then, is this: I am a control freak whether I admit it to myself or not. I am a control freak who is harming and controlling others if I don’t consciously acknowledge my need for control, recognize my favorite ways of trying to gain control, and willingly cooperate with the Spirit in letting them go.
Help me, Lord! I know I need to let go…
So what are we supposed to do when life hurts? (I mean really hurts–way down deep.) When it isn’t a force of nature–fire, flood, or storm–but people who have hurt us?
I know what my flesh tells me to do about it. A speaker I once heard summed it up this way: nurse it, rehearse it, curse it, or disperse it. Nursing it means I hold a grudge and look for all sorts of supporting evidence to prove to myself that that person really is a villain and I am an innocent victim who surely did not deserve what I got. Rehearsing it means replaying the scenario in my head over and over again, growing more more resentful and self-righteous each time I do. Cursing it means giving in to the temper that I came by oh-so-naturally–if you knew my parents, then you’d know just how naturally ;)–and allowing myself to grow angrier and angrier, more and more self-righteous, and to justify whatever malicious thoughts come into my head by assuring myself that “he/she deserves whatever happens to him/her!” Finally, dispersing it means spreading my story to those who will listen, getting all sorts of sympathetic ears lined up on my side, and establishing myself as the wounded (surely not the guilty!) party. Not one of these fall-back reactions will get me anywhere I need to go with the person who has harmed me or do anything to repair the broken relationship. Any and all of these can lead to bitterness, which we are clearly instructed (Hebrews 12:15) not to allow to grow in us or among us.
So what if I’m determined not to go the fleshly route? What if I really want to get this right? The obvious answer is to follow the steps laid out in Matthew: talk to the offender; see if he or she will listen; take someone else along if the offender doesn’t listen… you know the pattern. In some cases this prescribed process is easier to do than in others, and in every case it should not be undertaken without a lot of prayer. After all, before we go and air our grievances we ought to be pretty sure that we’re not the ones who got it all wrong. Sometimes–many times–the hurts can be cleared up as simple misunderstandings. When I know the person who has caused my hurt is one of integrity–a person who will hear me out, thoughtfully consider my words, and respond appropriately–then it is easy (or at least less than excruciating) for me to approach him or her. When I am not at all sure how the person will respond, then it’s a lot more difficult to make myself go the distance. When I’m mighty sure I know how the person will react–and I know it’s going to be awful–then it takes a boatload of courage to do the right thing. It is ever so much easier to hold onto the hurt and wish it would just go away by itself… to pretend that I am not responsible for helping to heal the relationship.
And yet I am a person of courage. I have done these Biblical steps many times, and many of those times with difficult people. I have followed the Biblical transcript because (1) I do not believe in letting my fears dictate my actions and because (2) I want to be able to stand before God one day and know that I did what my Father told me to do. In every case I have agonized over the process. I have rejoiced (with relief!) over the healing that it sometimes brings, when hurts are forgiven and misunderstandings resolved. I have gone home to cry out to God and lick my wounds when I have not been heard or have been treated with contempt. From each experience I have learned lessons about how to do the process better the next time.
But let’s face it… There are situations and relationships in this life that do not lend themselves to this type of resolution. The pattern laid out in Matthew was being given to believers who knew each other and were in the same community. But what about hurts and wounds that occur between those who are only remotely connected to me or who live far away? These are the situations that give me pause. When I see someone rarely, how do I choose to spend the little time I have with him or her resolving past hurts and grievances? Or when the offender is not only distant, but also going through life stresses and difficulties far greater than just the stuff that’s tied to my feelings of woundedness–what then?
I have learned that there is only one answer: to grieve. Each hurt, each wound, each misunderstanding is a loss. And what else can be done with a loss but to grieve it?
Lately I’ve been learning fresh lessons about what it means to hurt–to hurt deeply, to hurt to the very depths of my soul… and to grieve it. Grieving means being willing (and able) to hurt… to be sad… to let the sorrow rock me to my core… to ask the hard questions about my responsibility in it… to cry out to my Lord for help with the pain… and to trust that He will not let me be destroyed by it. Sometimes this means spending sleepless nights, tossing and turning while nothing makes sense, then waking up to a new day that feels heavy and burdensome more than fresh and hopeful… and giving God the pain all over again. In all of this I cling to the hope of Heaven, where one day we will celebrate that all sorrows and hurts are past and done forever.
I am learning that grieving deepens my faith, deepens my trust, and deepens my dependence on the One who is able to carry such burdens with me. If it were not so, why would I need my Lord anyway? If life were only about lightheartedness, wouldn’t I be able to handle it on my own with ease?
And so I go. Trudging my way through the Valley of Shadow. Thanking my Lord that He is always with me. He knows my sorrows, sees my tears, and comforts my heart. Because that is Who He Is and that is what He Has Promised to Do.