Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.

Performance Review

Anybody who has a job is familiar with that yearly ritual known as the performance review. Performance reviews are a common occupational liturgy. Like worship, they usually begin with praise. Your boss tells you the things you do well. But we all know what comes next. The real point of the meeting is the short list of areas where you could do better. I’ve been told that a good performance review is both summative and formative. They are supposed to affirm and inspire. But it never seems to work that way with me. Somehow the pleasure of the praise is always canceled out by the pain of the criticism.

Of course, employers aren’t the only ones who engage in this kind of ritual. We all got report cards when we were in school. Mine always included a section where the teacher checked the box that said “needs improvement.” Somehow knowing that I needed improvement never seemed to motivate me towards improvement. Instead of being the searchlight which illuminates a better path it felt more like a spotlight whose only purpose was to show me my shortcomings. It did not inspire me. It just made me feel bad.

Maybe it’s a personality flaw. I have a friend who used to work as a personal trainer. As far as I can tell, he loves criticism. Knowing he has missed the mark seems to energize him. Why doesn’t it affect me the same way? I suspect the difference between us is a matter of hope. He believes he can change. I am not so sure. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I can’t. Not when the same boxes get checked year after year. Or day after day.

We would like to think that our shortcomings are really only missed targets. All we need to do is step up and take aim again. But sometimes they are more. They are also limits. What if the spotlight isn’t just revealing where we have fallen short but what we cannot become? What do we do when we discover that no amount of practice or well-intended effort is going to be enough to close the gap? In such cases the only thing we can do is mourn. We grieve the loss of what we thought we were or hoped to become.

It is to such people that Jesus addresses His second beatitude in Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like all these blessings, it is counterintuitive. What Jesus says is unexpected. What kind of blessing can possibly come from knowing what we are not and cannot become? None at all. Not without Jesus’ implied promise that He will close the gap Himself. “Nobody is helped by negatives, even when they are true” someone has said. Especially when they are true.

The Sermon on the Mount, like the Law it illuminates, is not a performance review. It is not a target. It is a reality check. When we read it, we know instinctively that all the checkmarks will fall in the box that says “needs improvement.” It is a diagnosis. We used to think that we were doing well and that our potential was limitless. Now we know it is otherwise. It is a good thing. As Jesus Himself said, it is only the sick who need a doctor.

 

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Leisure

My first job was short-term employment. I suppose you could say I was a day laborer. A neighbor hired me to weed her lawn. She provided me with a two-pronged weeding fork and promised to pay me five dollars when I was done. At the time it sounded like a fortune. I said yes eagerly, carried away by visions of all the comic books I intended to purchase with the money I earned. Plus this was work I could do in a more or less recumbent position.

But once I was on my hands and knees in the hot sun, my enthusiasm soon diminished. The lawn looked bigger from that angle than I had first imagined. There were more weeds than I thought. As the sweat trickled down the back of my neck, I poked them half-heartedly with the weeding fork, pausing every few minutes to scan the yard and see what kind of progress I was making. The view was not encouraging. The number of weeds appeared to be growing not shrinking.

After a while, I persuaded myself that I had worked long enough. There was still a weed or two left but surely my employer didn’t expect me to pull every single weed? She did. “You’re done already?” she asked skeptically when I went to the door to collect my money. Then she walked the lawn with me, pointing out the weeds that still remained and grumbling about my work ethic. There were more than I thought. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed them. Probably because they were the same color as the grass, I reasoned. With a sigh, I knelt down again and went back to work, this time with even less enthusiasm than before. Eventually, my employer paid me off and sent me on my way. By now more eager to be rid of me than of the weeds.

“A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” Proverbs 26:15. I suppose my unhappy employer would have said that a sluggard buries his hand in the lawn, too lazy to pluck out the weeds. The sin that the ancients called sloth or acedia certainly includes laziness but it also involves more. Sloth has many features and manifests itself in many forms. At times it looks like what we call ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. Other forms of sloth are more active and profligate. We squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations.

In our day sloth is often reflected in what is falsely called leisure. Sometimes this involves empty activity that does not provide either rest or pleasure. It is marked by a kind of frenetic busyness whose aim is to distract us from whatever is making us uncomfortable. Theologian Joseph Pieper observes that true leisure has a different character. Leisure is a kind of silence. It is an attitude of contemplation: “Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.”

True leisure is marked by an attitude of confidence and peace. It is grounded in trust and particularly in trust in God. The essence of leisure is expressed in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.” By this definition, true leisure is as important to our work as it is to our play. Leisure as most people describe it is merely time off. Leisure as God defines it is a state of grace. It is the ability to rest in God, confident that He will bring to completion all that concerns me according to His plan.

If you are interested in learning more about the Bible’s theology of rest, you might enjoy The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler (IVP).

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Forest Gump’s momma said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Well, we all does stupid sometimes. I probably feel stupid more often than I deserve. But I deserve it often enough. Everybody has moments of stupid that haunt them, sometimes for the rest of their lives. A college friend once told me how he would lie in bed at night and relive an unfortunate incident from high school. It only took a moment for all the shame and embarrassment to come rushing back. He would lie rigid in his bed and moan out loud. He told me that more than thirty years ago. I suspect he still thinks about it at night.

I could make a list. Indeed, I do make a list. It’s one of the main things I dwell on in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. It’s either death or stupid. I worry about both. As it turns out, I can’t do much about either. Reason tells me that I ought to ignore what I can’t do anything about. But it never seems to work out that way. The sense of helplessness only increases my anxiety.

In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd Jones writes about those who are overcome with regret over “that one sin.”  This is the case of “those who are miserable Christians or who are suffering from spiritual depression because of their past–either because of some particular sin in their past, or because of the particular form which sin happened to take in their case.” Sin is stupid but stupid isn’t necessarily sin. Still, the language Lloyd Jones uses helps me to at least diagnose my symptoms. Sometimes the distress I feel is over a particular act of stupidity or because of the particular form that stupidity happened to take.

The feeling I experience in these instances is not just shame and horror, ultimately it is regret. I want to turn back the clock and do things differently. I want to change my past and thereby change my future.  I won’t ask the question. I won’t attend the meeting. I will leave the country and go into exile. My whole life will be different after that. And I will live happily ever after.

Now here is what is really interesting about these things that I regret. Most everyone else has forgotten them. Some of the people involved are dead. They probably noticed when the thing occurred, whatever it was. But I doubt that they thought about it much afterward. If they did it is likely that they only shook their heads. While I relived the moment in my mind that night, rewriting the dialogue to give me the advantage and make myself the hero, they were resting in their beds. Or else they were lying awake dwelling on their own version of stupid. The point is they weren’t even thinking about me.

It’s probably not as bad as you think. Even if it is, it won’t last forever. You might think about it for a long time but you will probably be the only one. I suppose I should leave you with three steps for forgetting about all the stupid things you’ve done. If I knew what they were, I’d be practicing them myself. What I can tell you is that as you lie there in bed dwelling on the past, like an old dog worrying a favorite bone, Jesus waits up with you. He is quiet. He does not lecture. He does not try to talk you out of it. He is simply there with you, aware of your pain and your regret. The good news is that Jesus forgives sin. He forgives stupid too.

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Love

The first of the seven deadly sins is lust. For most of us, this word is associated with sexual sin. But the Bible employs the term more broadly. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated lust is often one that simply means desire. In addition to illicit sexual desire, it can refer to both ordinate and inordinate desire. Lust is as liable to take the form of an illicit desire for someone else’s things or their success as it is an inappropriate desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “ For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust everything in the world is a potential target.

The opposite of lust is love. But the terms themselves may not be of much help in distinguishing between the two. We often use “love” to refer to a multitude of desires and affections, some high and some low. A couple on a date might declare undying love for one another during dinner and then in the next breath say that they “love” the food that is on their plates. Neither thinks of the second of these as genuine love, at least not in the biblical sense.  Afterwards, they might decide to “make love,” using the same term in a third sense that is really more in line with what the Bible actually means by lust. Not every desire we experience is necessarily lust nor does every affection that we call love qualify as love in the biblical sense.

You would think that sin and love would be incompatible. After all, if the heart of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Yet this assertion seems to imply something in addition to this. Namely, that sin has its own version of love.

Sin shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is actually a distortion of love which, once it has achieved its full effect, proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. It is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. Yet for some reason, we return repeatedly to this false lover and expect a different result.

In the Old Testament, David was criticized for preferring his unfaithful and rebellious son to those faithful men who had risked their lives for him. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” David’s commander Joab complained (2 Sam. 19:6). Similarly, when Jehu the Seer went out to meet Jehoshaphat after the king’s ill-advised alliance with Ahab, the prophet warned, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is upon you.” A similar charge might be laid at our own feet in this present age. We claim love as our cardinal virtue. But a closer inspection all too quickly reveals that what we are really celebrating is an infatuation with ourselves.

The alternative to lust is love. It is a love that comes to us, like the righteousness of Christ, from the outside. Adopting the same language Martin Luther coined to speak of that righteousness, we might call it “alien love.” Because it is not our own it is the only love powerful enough to wean us away from ourselves.

A Rat’s Eye View

A lot has happened since I blogged last. There was a royal wedding. The worst tornadoes in a hundred years left bloody scars on the Alabama landscape. Osama Bin Laden was  executed. And that was just since last week. Kind of makes you wonder what is going to happen next. If I lived near the sea, I might be afraid to take a walk on the shore for fear that a ten horned beast might rise out of the water.

Events like these expand the perspective of some people. Their eyes are opened to a wide horizon of need. They feel a greater sense of compassion and even a kind of wonder. But not me. My instinctive reaction is the opposite. I want to hunker down. I feel  myself receding into my own world. I feel smaller in the face of such great events and my world grows smaller with me. I watched the pageantry of the royal wedding and wished my church experience were a little more like that. Not the gown and the funny hats but the grandeur of the music and the sense of dignity reflected in the service. I listened to the reports of the execution of Osama Bin Laden and wondered why I didn’t feel bad for him. At the same time I wondered why I didn’t feel exhilarated enough to dance in the streets. Images of the rubble left by the last week’s storms flicker on my screen and I wonder why I don’t feel sadder.

Is it because I am shallow? Am I a narcissist? Yes, I suppose I am. The malady of sin has a way of making your world small. In The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis portrayed Hell as a shrunken and shrinking realm where the damned soul is shut up in itself.  “Good beats upon the damned incessantly, but they cannot receive it” Lewis writes. “Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes are fast shut.” Fortunately, God is greater than my small heart. “Only the greatest of all can make himself small enough to enter Hell.” Lewis explains. “For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend-a man can sympathize with a horse but a horse cannot sympathize with a rat. Only one has descended into Hell.”

 That is to say, only one has descended into Hell and ascended again. Thanks be to God.

Death: Our Enemy and Teacher

In Christ and the Meaning of Life, Helmut Thielicke tells the story of a young flier who reached out to pick a bouquet of lilacs and uncovered the half-decayed body of a soldier beneath the bush: “He drew back in horror, not because he had never seen a dead man before—he drew back because of the screaming contradiction between the dead man and the flowering bush.” 

Thielicke notes that the soldier’s reaction would have been different if the man had come upon a dead and faded lilac bush instead: “A blooming lilac bush will one day become a withered lilac bush—this is really nothing more than the operation of the rhythm of life—but that a man should be lying there in a decayed condition, this was something that simply did not fit, and that’s why he winced at the sight of it.”  

We can only understand the mystery of death if we see it through the lens of Adam’s rebellion against God.  We are pilgrims who traverse an “empire of ruins” with death as our fellow traveler. Unable to rid ourselves of this cheerless companion, we attempt to rehabilitate it instead, treating death as if it were a neighbor and not a trespasser.

We clothe it in our best dress and apply make-up to its waxen features. Laid out before us in stiff repose, death looks as if it were merely asleep and if we do not look too carefully, we can almost convince ourselves that it has a beating heart within its breast and warm blood pulsing through its veins. We whisper to ourselves that it is not as alien as it first appeared. But this fool’s dream vanishes the minute we attempt to embrace death, finding that it repays our kiss with only sorrow and loss.

Death is not a natural stage in the cycle of human development. Death is a curse.  The presence of death is an intrusion. It is “natural” only to the extent that nature itself suffers from the stroke that fell upon Adam as a consequence for his sin. Nature endures death but not willingly. It groans in protest, loathing the bondage to decay which death has brought upon it and yearning for “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Death is “the last enemy,” a tyrant who acts on sin’s behalf and whose sway over us was finally broken at the cross but will only be fully realized at the resurrection (Rom. 5:21; 1 Cor. 15:26).

Death is our enemy but, like the law, it is also a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. Death’s hard lesson exposes the true nature of sin.  Indeed, the law and death are strange allies in this mysterious work. In the hands of God both act as a goad, puncturing our denial and prodding us to turn to Christ for relief from death’s sting.