I never expected anyone to describe me as self destructive. I though I was doing OK. But as I worked my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way over the past year, I came to a difficult conclusion. I wasn’t OK at all. It’s been a troublesome lesson and one I’m not done with.
At its root, I believe, is a flawed view of self. I came to believe my own value to be less than everyone else. Even now as I write this, I struggle with a theology of selflessness. Verses like Philippians 2:3 come immediately to mind. It reads, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” (NASB) These verses often come accompanied by stories of great compassion like that of Mother Theresa, who would only take whatever shoes were left after everyone else had been provided for, even it they didn’t fit. This great example of sacrifice, so much like our Savior, amazed and challenged me. In this way I learned sacrifice, however, I don’t believe I learned sacrifice in the context of wisdom.
I’ve always viewed selfishness and selflessness as opposite states of being. You can only be one or the other in any given situation. I’m not so sure this is true any longer. At the very least, how it is applied in this day to day existence called life is far more complex than I thought it to be. So, if this theology of selflessness is correct, but only a part of a much bigger picture, how does it fit?
I don’t have a complete answer for that question yet, but let me share a little of my own search for it with you. I believe that we must come to understand and live in the truth of God’s own valuation of us, and value ourselves as He does. Ultimately, this is embodied in how He loves us. He loved us enough to masterfully craft us for purpose from the very beginning. (Psalm 139:10, Jeremiah 29:11). I think it also important to remember that He loved us enough to give us freedom. Not simply freedom from the judgment of sin, but freedom to choose at all times. Even when those choices grieve Him. This is a great and difficult love, one that most of us are not willing to give. We’d protect those we love from all tragedy if we could, even at the expense of their freedom, and that is actually a problem. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Regardless, we must come to understand God’s great love for us and our value to Him. I believe that when we understand this, we come face to face with something amazing. It is one of the most difficult lessons of the past year, and I still have trouble believing it.
My dreams, and God’s dreams for me, are not at odds with one another. I don’t know where I learned it or how. But I came to believe that what I wanted must always be contrary to God’s own desires. Not only has it hurt me, but it has always provided me with a convenient excuse to ignore myself and my own wants and desires. After all, if it hasn’t happened, it must not be what God wants for me. I believed this heartbreaking lie for a very long time, and so I lived as a man at odds with himself and with God, even though I thought I was serving God by denying myself. After all, aren’t we supposed to “deny ourselves”? However, in this case, denying one’s self is what hurts others.
I took me a while to understand that, but I found my answer in the second greatest commandment. It reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “As yourself”… Those two words carry such amazing implications. One day, I’ll share more of my own musings on this simple commandment. For now, I will only say this. I believe that it is impossible to truly love someone else, when we do not have a sense of love for ourselves. I came to confuse self care with selfishness, and so I neglected myself for others. This meant I was giving out of poverty. I was trying to share out of an empty bottle. In the end, I feel like operating this way creates obligations of sacrifice that often don’t serve us or the people we’re trying to help. It’s a dangerous way to live. Living this way is like ignoring the instructions they give you on an airplane for deployed oxygen masks. If you have to help someone else, put yours on first before helping them with theirs. We have to be tied into the lifeline, before we’re able to really help tie others in. It’s quite a challenge.
In the end, I believe life is intended to be fulfilling, especially life where we’re tied into the lifeline that is Jesus Christ, and I believe that when we pursue Him by pursuing our deepest desires, we are more fulfilled and more effective in all things. I’ve also learned that there are times where this requires what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, selfishness, or what seems like selfishness. So it might just be the right thing to do. Make sure you have your own oxygen mask on first, then help the passenger next to you.