My husband, Chris, and I were talking with a friend the other night, and she asked why we “knew so many people.” I didn’t know how to respond. Because the truth is Chris and I are blessed with many friends, but acknowledging that felt arrogant, like we’re proud of climbing the social ladder or having fans. I’d never want to come off that way, or be that way.
Trying to sound humble rings hollow though, and still somehow reeks of arrogance. Like those Facebook statuses that go beyond life-update to self-congratulation, eg. “So #blessed to be in tropical paradise with this martini on a business trip! I have the job of my dreams! #humbled” when #humbled doesn’t quite belong.
All this was playing out in my head when Chris responded to our friend, “Oh it’s just because we got married as students so it was a good story, and a lot of people wanted to hear about it. And we’re involved in a lot of clubs, and that automatically means that you connect with many groups of people.” For a second, I couldn’t keep back a small frown. Of course us getting married in college was a story, and of course we ran in a lot of different circles because of our clubs, but that wasn’t why everyone knew us, right?
And that’s when a hunk of my deep, dark soul gunk showed its ugly face. I felt myself slipping into pride re: my own awesomeness while feeling annoyed that Chris wasn’t talking about it. All I could think was, “Hey, I’m actually a really great person, like better than a lot of people, and everyone wants to know me because of that, not because of the clubs I was in.” I was actually offended at my husband for suggesting otherwise. I thought I deserved whatever popularity I had because I was just cooler, more fun, nicer, whatever form of “better” you can think of, than many other people, so people liked being around me. Duh.
Now that only sounds terrible because it is. Talk about UGLY. Talk about RUDE, PROUD, STUCK-UP, FOOLISH, DISGUSTING. But I explained the ugliness away, the easiest thing to do. I nodded along with Chris and covered up my proud nastiness by thinking, “Well, people have told me before that I’m a great person, so it must be true. I’m just being myself and everyone loves it–I can’t help that.” I sounded like Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls: “I’m sorry everyone’s jealous of me, but I can’t help it if I’m popular.” So not fetch.
At the time I was providentially reading “Pastrix” by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. I really liked how she tried to live like Jesus, so I looked up her sermons online. In one of my favorites she talks about how hard it is for us to see and accept the truth of our own motivations or actions. We may justify something bad we’re thinking or doing, and let it go unchallenged for days or years at a time. The truth is there, but we just cover it up or explain it away, or both, when the truth could set us free.
To use Nadia’s examples, are you gossiping a lot and in doing so, pawning off malice as compassion? Or are you fudging on your taxes because you’re against the wars the taxes support, pawning off greed as non-violence? Or maybe you’re not fulfilling your obligations to your community because of self-care, pawning narcissism or self-loathing off as a virtue?
Oof. As soon as I heard her sermon, I felt that awful pit in my stomach that you may have experienced before: the one that means you know you’re doing something wrong, and you know how to make it right, but you really don’t want to confront either. In my case, I was denying the truth–i.e. I can be arrogant fool–in favor of another, seemingly reasonable take on it–i.e. that I’m just special, and others have affirmed that, so it’s not a bad thing to think.
Once I realized the truth, I cringed from the idea of sharing it with anyone. The truth may “set me free” but it would be embarrassing to fully dig up and face all of it, especially in front of someone else. Nadia agrees with me: in her sermon, she says, “Yes, encounters with truth are hard and require you to step into something that feels like it might just crush you. But the instant it crushes you it also puts you back together into something real. Only the Gospel can do that.”
I had trouble sleeping that night, worrying over whether I should tell Chris about this or not. The next morning I did eventually blurt out something that sounded like, “Questionyesterday thinking about mygreatness butNadia and truth settingmefree but soproud feelashamed pleasehelp.” The weight lifted some, and lifted a lot more when I talked with God about it while walking to work.
And I realized that when I prayed about it, God didn’t feel judgmental, like he wanted to penalize me for not being perfect. He was comfortingly helping me sort it all through so he could make me into something new, which is what he has always promised. This wasn’t about making me feel ashamed, it was about finding the truth, and growing from it.
What does that look like? It mostly looks like me asking myself, “What am I really thinking?” or “What’s my real motivation in saying/doing this?” no matter how ugly the answer is. Once I see what’s going on, I can sort of diagnose it and fix it. It just takes a lot of remembering that the truth will, in fact, set me free, because the process of confronting the truth is still difficult. No one likes realizing that while they thought they were being kind or generous, they were really being apathetic or selfish.
It’s like a chore that makes you feel good afterwards (like making a really difficult but amazing dinner). Find the ugly truth, air it in the sun, observe it, learn from it, and let God form a new, better you.
It’s like Nadia describes: “Step into the light. You’ll be fine. You’ll be real. And you’ll be free.”
(You can read or listen to Nadia’s sermon here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/03/being-good-doesnt-make-you-free-the-truth-makes-you-free/)