Posts Tagged ‘despair’

Saying I need to care for myself sounds so self-centered.  Many of us who follow Jesus Christ might even feel a little nauseated at the idea, because it feels like letting our flesh, our sin, have its way.  Entire sermons are preached and books written against living this way, but we must be careful and specific, because words matter and self-loathing or condemnation can stealthily slip in wearing godly clothes.

Self-care and self-indulgence are not the same; in fact, they couldn’t be more separate and distinct.  I believe the confusion arises from the term “self”, which frequently invokes an image of self-centered living and selfishness, which are, almost universally, considered detrimental to human health, relationship and a functioning society.  In fact, love, compassion, service in integrity, putting others needs before one’s own all run counter to, and are essentially incompatible with, living with self as my focus, because my immediate feelings and desires for me will without exception out-prioritize needs of others.  This is not to say a self-centered person can never serve others; rather, it means they are only capable of doing so either once their own perceived needs are met or perhaps under a guise of integrity crafted in fear.

Motivations behind our will are often obscured to the eye, quietly churning and hardening like stony gravel concealed in our hearts and flesh.  For those known by Jesus Christ and who trust his offer, God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:26-27 is fulfilled and the heart of stone has been supplanted by our loving creator with a refreshed heart of flesh as the catalytic initiation of new life in God, deliverance from the desperate and dark hopelessness of sin’s prison.  This deliverance has been presented by some as requiring a complete despising of one’s self, even one’s identity, typically referring to the word of Jesus in Matthew 16:24, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'”  But let’s take a broader look to include the context of this event.  Jesus said these words immediately after correcting Peter for his self-centered protest of Jesus when he warned the disciples of his approaching death: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.'” (v. 22-23, my emphasis) Now reread v. 24. So, did Jesus intend for Peter to wholly neglect his personhood, his identity as a man?  Or was Jesus instead pointing to the sin lurking in Peter’s flesh?  Was he calling out the fear rising in his mind from hearing of his Lord being murdered and prompting him to refuse the possibility?  After all, Jesus created Peter; not with sin, but with all his gifts and character in an original, unique design, as he has each human being.  Surely that design is what God is working to restore, not reject, and even enhance along with the rest of his creation (Revelation 21:1-5).

So, then, how do I care for my self in a healthy way?  Self-care manifests as differently as the varied life experiences of each person yet dwells within the same existence and touches the same places in our hearts, like diverse mini-currents and eddies all maneuvering within the larger flow of the same stream.  Self-care is quietness of mind, heart and soul.  It is being willing – more fundamentally, agreeing with the need – to separate from routine engagements with other people and things and choosing to absorb, rather than expend.  A temporary closing of the valve, if you will, of the outflow of our energy and life.  Self-care acknowledges the incontrovertible physical, emotional, mental and spiritual necessity for equilibrium and that the elements of our human design always seek it out, despite potential frustration from our will pushing to stay the course.  Yet, there is much more to it than just “taking a break”.    

For many of us, the startling disorientation Peter experienced from contemplating such a horrific loss can cause our flesh to similarly lurch into denial as a means of survival, to escape and refuse reality to protect what we have secretly defined as “life”.  It exposes a crucial truth:  our hope rests on an outcome rather than on Jesus himself.  This is central, not only to our growth in him and his daily work to restore us, but also to how we care for ourselves.  Self-care is not immersion in or protection of idols we’ve grasped, motivated by fear, but the recognition of those idols as idols, releasing them as powerless and transferring the hope we had previously placed in them to Jesus and his supreme affection for us.  Self-care is a reorientation to truth and light; a consolidation of trust and following, decoupling from the myriad facades of hope and life to select and pursue the one voice that credibly and compassionately promises eternal fulfillment of our original intricate being.

The truth is, ultimate self-care is immersion in, union with, God.  My energy, my love, my healing, my fullness of life come from him alone.  Without self-care, even as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have little to offer anyone in my life because my efforts will, at best, produce a thin residue of love scraped from the remnant of my last encounter with him.  I have gone weeks before without spending more than a few minutes with him (“arrow prayers”), and it takes a toll.  Suddenly, I discover I’m less able to respond in a healthy, productive way to those who depend on me. Life just gets harder, and I start to despair.  Many people I’ve met carry the faint awareness of this in their eyes, flickers of hope losing ground to shadow.  They know deep in their being we were not intended for such an inconsequential, futile existence, but that fading hope is daily met with reinforcement of pain from the world and false helpers, often others who are equally terrified yet also refusing to risk full pursuit of union with God.  Instead, eyes shut tight, they cling to a fraying but familiar rope over a bottomless chasm.  That was me, too; it feels safe, but really caring for myself is opening my eyes and considering that what feels true may be incomplete.  Self-care is moving my gaze off the weakening strands of that rope long enough to discover Jesus reaching out just above my head as he gently encourages me to trust him all the way and instead grab his strong, immovable hand.

Scripture and scripture references taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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In my life, I’ve found conviction can become confused with passion pretty easily.

My church’s motto is, “In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity” (Origin: Rupertus Meldenius, theologian, 17th Century). I treat conviction similarly to the “essentials” of Christianity; in other words, only the established, authoritative truth of God’s word should fuel my conviction on any topic. My passion, however, is tied more directly to my unique design, the gifts and character God has given me, and my experience and wisdom (or lack thereof). As such, my passion is more like a “non-essential” that, while valid and full of potential to bring glory to God, is still vulnerable to error and must be subject to correction. Any contention of mine I present as a conviction I also ought to be able to demonstrate outside myself with sound interpretation of God’s word; otherwise, my contention slides into the passion category – no less valuable, just less authoritative.

Many arguments between true followers of the Lord Jesus result in fracturing unity because the parties fail to observe these distinctions. I have certainly fallen to this error many times, allowing my passion-based position to overwhelm my wisdom, particularly when I sense I am losing the argument. Can you identify? At some point, when the tide shifts and I lack a suitably decisive retort to a challenge, the temptation to leap from passion to conviction dangles appealingly. It’s almost irresistable. I go for it, display either anger or arrogance, feel my breathing quicken and take an emotional swing or two at my opponent with whatever doctrinal bat is handy. What has happened?

The fuel for this outcome was actually ignited earlier, before the debate began. If I am passionate about a position, it’s almost always because I’ve walked through a process of experience and discovery which has made me so. The sense of ownership of my argument is extremely high, its tenets nearly inextricably intertwined with my grasp of my own identity. Consequently, any contrary response, perceived or actual, presents a potential threat to my identity. Any latent fear in our spiritual and emotional backpacks chafes and weakens our ability and willingness to listen to the Spirit’s warning. Whether we decide the threat is real or reject it is a measure of our own maturity and confidence in our relationship with God in that particular moment.

The contrast with true conviction is dramatic. With real conviction, fear is absent, no threat is felt, and authority is readily available. Fear and threats are no-shows because the sense of ownership is representative instead of personal. The authority for the conviction comes not from our personal experience or desires, but from the Bible. Consequently, and even more powerfully, there can be no loss of unity: If those opposed come to see the truth and soundness of the application, unity is increased; if the response is rejection of truth, then the other’s position has been exposed as misguided passion vs. conviction, and the engagement transitions from debate to correction, still serving unity.

Of course, while God’s word is the authority and speaks clearly to many topics, there are some issues where liberty is called for (“In non-essentials, liberty”). Again, in the instance where these passionate positions are debated in a healthy way, unity is preserved because neither party’s identity is threatened; neither approaches the other with their belief’s validity tied tightly to “victory.” In some ways, this can actually “supercharge” unity because the discovery that honor and disagreement are not mutually exclusive brings tremendous peace.

As Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 described, God’s love is the greatest power, the oxygen to our actions and relationships (“In all things, charity”). Without love, our arguments fail, even if we “win.” That’s why we sense such synergy within God’s living word, between the meaning of faith in God, hope, peace, and unity. They are God’s character, the products of pursuing his glory and pleasure. Conversely, fear, despair, hatred and murder (see Matthew 5:21-22) lead to and are born from pursuing solely my glory and pleasure without the Lord. It’s the familiar war: New creation or old; love or selfishness; grace or judgment; Spirit or flesh.

So where do we go from here? First, figure out which you want to be. Do you want to be in the stream of life, giving refreshment to others and breathing deeply of the glory of Jesus together? Or do you want to lie in the slough of death, never getting clean and pulling others in to keep you company in misery? Seems like an obvious decision put that way, but it really is that simple. This isn’t a game, and that is the spiritual reality each one of us faces. It’s time to decide. This world and this perpetual moment of choice won’t last forever – God’s word is definitely clear on that.

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