"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 June 2005

Self-Denigration vs. Joy

A friend wrote recently about the destructive habit of self-denigration in so many of the now abundant diary-like web logs – even among Christians, who are called to joy. “Life’s terrible, I’m terrible, I’m a wretch, my life is pathetic, I hate myself . . .” is the litany, often with far more details than any but a voyeur should really want to know. I come away from reading a series of such diaries feeling rather like I need a shower to remove the grit and grime of other people’s self-absorption. My friend points out three particular dangers of this bent:

1. “[I]t leads to constant self-absorption. It seldom looks for answers and rarely, if ever, considers any long enough to act upon them.”

2. “[It] is the [. . .] excuse for NOT doing what we were called to do. ‘I have to get my life together before I can reach out.’”

3. “Perpetual agony over something we cannot change will accomplish little, if anything, productive.”

Right after reading this, I came across an especially appropriate meditation in Chambers, as I was catching up on those days I’d missed. In the 21 June entry, he writes, “The continued grubbing on the inside to see whether we are what we ought to be generates a self-centered, morbid type of Christianity, not the robust, simple life of the child of God. [. . .] How long is it going to take God to free us from the morbid habit of thinking about ourselves?”

It is an indication of just how fallen we are that when offered a feast of joy in full forgiveness and intimate fellowship, we choose instead to wallow about in the mire of our imperfections. Paul reminds us that it is sin that makes us fall, that the truth of who we are lies in this: our hearts made whole and perfect in Christ. “Thanks be to God! There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Himself assures us that He has come to bring us joy, His joy: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He told the disciples right before His crucifixion, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). We see Him now; He is the resurrected Lord: why do we remain in the mire? Why do we refuse the joy that no one but we ourselves can rob us of?

We have the Holy Spirit as the seal of our salvation, and the fruit of the Spirit is . . . oh, I’m a worm, I’m despicable? No, the fruit of the Spirit is joy. Nehemiah tells the Israelites after they have repented of their idolatry to no longer grieve, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If we have tired of doing good, of living righteously, perhaps it is because we have sought self instead of Him, focused on sin instead of the forgiving Savior.

Of course there are trials, sometimes horrific ones. Of course there is sorrow, sometimes deep, haunting sorrow. Of course we still stumble, sometimes badly. The world is still the devil’s and our flesh is not yet burned away. (And remember that the disciples went through trials and sorrows that most of us can’t even imagine - after the time that He promised His joy could not be taken from them.)

But our hearts have been made new. And He has promised joy, abundance of joy, fullness of joy – His own joy. This does not mean we will always feel happiness. Joy is not a trumped-up emotion of our fickle flesh or a fleeting response to changing circumstances, but rather a reality of His life in us. “The joy of the Lord,” Nehemiah says. This means that even in the midst of tragedy – much less the mere daily grind of living in a fallen world – His joy is there to sustain us. We rejoice, not in circumstances, but in Him. We recognize that trials can make us more like Him as they force us to rely on Him, know Him, look to Him instead of ourselves, and so we can agree with James to “count it all joy.”

Chambers exhorts us, “Launch out in reckless belief that the Redemption is complete, and then bother no more about yourself [. . .]. There is only one place where we are right, and that is in Christ Jesus.”

Oh, that Paul’s prayer would bear fruit in our lives: that the Father “may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [Christ], having the eyes of [our] understanding enlightened, that [we] may know what is the hope to which He has called [us], what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe [. . .]” (Eph. 1:17-19).

May we stop lying against the truth and begin acting as though we are what He calls us: His glorious inheritance, bought with a price, created and reborn for joy. How dare we slap Him in the face by calling His glorious inheritance a wretched worm, a despicable clod of dirt. His glorious inheritance – humbling and exhilarating and true.


Cindy said...

It would be lovely if the church would stop relying on guilt-trips to gather converts. That might go a long way toward wiping out this particular problem. I get very weary of the emotional manipulation that takes place, and I remain frustrated and even angry about the church so often shooting its own wounded. Many of us learn this crippling self-denigration at the hands of God's supposed messenger of grace.

(who has been overdue for a good snarl for awhile now, although this one isn't aimed at you personally, of course)

alaiyo said...

Amen, sister! Emotion is a great thing, when reined in by the Spirit. But when we rely on it as the messenger of spiritual health or sickness, we end up on very wrong paths. "Conversion" ought to come because "Now I see Who Jesus is!"

There was a long time during which I wondered if I were an "adequate" Christian because my "conversion" didn't come out of a deep sense of self-loathing. Sure, I knew there was something fundamentally wrong, but really, I needed a friend -- and Christ gave me Himself. Wow. Everything else follows. (Or would if I would let it!)

And here is yet one more place for that sense of balance that haunts me. We must learn that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, and that's got to be personal and real. But once we see that and embrace the only Remedy -- Christ Himself: how awesome is that? -- then we need to stop focusing on *our* shortcomings and focus instead on *His* glorious perfection and the fact that we *already are* perfect in Him. (The fact it doesn't work out that way all the time is merely a function of still being part of a fallen realm, not because we are pathetic worms. I *hate* worm theology! Yes, it has destroyed many a believer's potential to live in Him.)

Glad to give you the chance to rant, any day!


amelia ruth said...

Thanks for that. I find as I am here at camp that I tend toward self-loathing, trying so hard to figure out what I need to improve and what's wrong with me that I forget my Savior. His great promise of joy is so easily forgotten when I am exhausted by two hundred second-through-fourth-graders down at the waterfront; and yet instead of wallowing in self-pity (I cut my foot, the sun's in my eyes, these annoying junior-campers!), I am called to pursue joy.

The junior-campers have gone, and I am sitting in the office drinking tea that is not sweet tea (hurray), and eagerly anticipating a nap and perhaps a good book. Thanks for the ever-encouraging posts.

Megan said...

Yeowch. i definitely stoop to that self-absorbed, self-denigrating behavior. see, i'm such a jerk and selfish, mostly because my life is....wait a minute...

It's self-perpetuating, isn't it, worm-theology and the like? I acknowledged a year or so ago that swallowing that idea and living that way was a problem in my life, but getting off the wheel AND STAYING OFF is still hard to figure out...i know, mixed metaphors

Megan said...

BTW, i didn't even notice how many 'me's and 'my's were in that last comment of mine. [point taken]

Thanks for pointing others to Him, time and time again.

alaiyo said...

Thank you, ladies! I am always grateful when I can be an encouragement. And I am generally (okay, always!) preaching to myself as well.

Blessings on you both!


Fieldfleur said...

I'm back from Europe, wallowing in pity and envy, but, knowing, that Christ is more blessed than any apparition of freedom and disillusionment of self. You're right, Paul is right, Oswald is certainly (!:) right, should we just focus on Savior, our gaze would clarify. Our purpose would be viewed and sailed forth.
Cindy is so right, though. I have been schooled in shame and guilt in the church. It's a constant battle to unwrap its hold. And a constant question on whether I have a right to unfettered joyful freedom. I still sin, therefore, I'm not to be trusted. Sigh, a lie. He makes me presentable with endorsement.
I love your clear writing and perspective.
Take care,