Narcissus was a character in Greek mythology that spent his time staring at his reflection in a river because he found himself so beautiful he fell in love with himself. Today, we think of narcissism as self-absorption with positive feelings of ourselves. But we can also stare at our image in the mirror and find ourselves horrible, picking apart our flaws over and over again. Self love and self loathing are two sides of the same coin. The flip side of personal pride is personal condemnation. I’ve been around that circular block many, many times, waking up to my personal pride only to replace it with self loathing. Then talking myself out of the self loathing only because I managed to find personal pride in something again. We recognize the problem of narcissism when people are proud and overly self confident. But the answer to such pride is not self condemnation. No, excessive negative self examination is a net that tangles us up. The more we examine ourselves, the less we can function. It is a brutal, painful net that winds us up tighter and tighter the longer we struggle in it. It binds us in a way that keeps us from being available for the good works God planned for us before time began. It’s strangling.
If you are staring at your reflection and find yourself ugly and unlovely, your first tendency may be to read this article, further examine yourself, and find yourself even more horrible than before as you add this negative self absorption to your list of reasons not to like yourself. But I do not write this to add to your bad feelings about yourself. I write to share with you a third way – a way that personally has brought me FREEDOM from that entangling net. There is an alternative to both positive and negative self absorption. It is self forgetfulness. And there is no better word to associate with Christ-centered self forgetfulness than the word FREEDOM. It is truly freeing. It is disentangling. It relieves us of the restrictions and restraints of bondage to self. After being painfully entangled in the bondage of self condemnation, the freedom of self forgetfulness is joyous. Do not read this and then feel further entangled by self loathing. Bring those thoughts captive and embrace the better way that God has called us to – a way that helps us deal with both our strengths and our weaknesses in healthy ways.
In Tim Keller’s stellar little booklet, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, he unpacks Paul’s words to the church in Corinth in I Corinthians 3 and 4. I was caught by Paul’s words about himself, which are quite profound.
I Cor. 4:3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.
This is not to say that Paul was unaware of his sins or failings. We know from Scripture that he had great personal awareness. But he did not set himself as judge and jury over himself, nitpicking through the details of what he did and did not do. He dealt with his issues, but he did not become absorbed by his issues. Do you see the subtle difference?
To absorb means to engross or to occupy the full attention, interest, or time of.* A synonym for absorb is monopolize. When you are faced with your failings, do you address them or do they monopolize you? Some of us do not know how to address them without them monopolizing us, but there is a way. That way requires a strong understanding of what Christ has accomplished for us through His life, death, and resurrection. It requires a firm belief in the Holy Spirit, God Himself, living in us and guiding us into all truth as Jesus says He will do in John 14-16. Understanding Christ and the Holy Spirit in and for us equips us to face our sins head on without becoming absorbed by our failures. We do not BECOME our failures; we just deal with them.
How do we do that? I can’t tell you exactly. It’s a joint work with the Holy Spirit, not with me. I’ve done my own work with the Holy Spirit and the Word on this subject. I will point you to those things that were helpful to me, but you must wrestle in your own relationship with the Spirit and the Word. I trust some of this will be helpful in that journey.
I Peter 2:23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Phil. 2: 5-7 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
Matthew 10: 38-39 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
From these verses I note Jesus’ example of entrusting Himself to God, who always judges correctly. Advocates examine to help correct and protect, but judges and juries pronounce sentence and punishment. God alone is the only one with the right of judgement over us. Jesus entrusted Himself to God’s good judgement, and I Peter tells us in earlier verses that we should follow Jesus’ example. Paul too refrains from judging himself, understanding that is God’s job alone to judge. Instead, both Peter and Paul dealt with their sins under the influence of the Spirit, their advocate. God has pronounced His final judgement, and Christ paid the punishment. Now He leaves us with the Advocate to counsel us in how to go forward in a different way. Note if the conversation going on in your head is one of condemnation OR one of advocacy from the Spirit. If it’s the voice of condemnation, then take those thoughts captive and make them submit to the truth. That’s not the voice of God – for there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Listen well to the voice of advocacy, pointing you in wise steps to take to correct past failures and make God-centered future choices.
I note also the exhortation in Philippians 2 to have the same mind as Christ, who emptied Himself of His rights as God, did not grasp for His rights, and took on the form of a servant. Finally, from Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 10, I note that I need to follow Christ, including taking up His cross. And this cross-bearing following, obviously one of sacrifice and service, results in losing our lives in a way that ultimately brings us to truly finding our real lives. It reminds me of the opening words of Crucified with Christ, by Philips, Craig, and Dean.
“When I look back at what I thought was living, I’m amazed at the price I chose to pay.”
At the worst points in my life, such losing of myself in service to others has been like a birthing process that brings me to new life. I remember most vividly being morbidly depressed in my late twenties after breaking up with my boyfriend and moving to a new city. Weekends were horrible. During the week, at least I had to get up and go to work. There were people there. But I’d wake up on Saturday mornings with almost nothing to do and no one to share anything with. I’d just go for rides in my car, because staying within the depressing walls of my apartment was more than I could bear. It felt suffocating. I examined myself over and over. How had I reached this place? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make it work with that guy? Why did my life feel so empty? I visited many different churches, but sitting in a new church by yourself only compounded the loneliness. I eventually chose a church just because I knew a couple with whom I could sit. After a few months, I stumbled into a ministry to help families transition off welfare. It was an ineffective ministry, by the way, but it had a good heart. I met a single mom with eight kids and threw myself into helping her family for the next year. Wow. Poof. It was a miraculous anti-depressant (I’m not undermining the value of anti-depressants by the way). Looking back, I know exactly what happened. Helping that family distracted me. It distracted me from myself. I didn’t talk to myself in my head all the time about me. My thoughts weren’t occupied all the time by my problems and my concerns. I forgot about those issues for a while as I got involved in the issues of that family. I remember so well the feeling of emerging freedom, of the net falling away as I lived again.
By the way, I’m not minimizing the biological issues of depression or encouraging those on anti-depressants to get off their medicines and simply volunteer somewhere. If you feel enslaved by negative self-examination, I do encourage you to wrestle with the Holy Spirit on how to take your thoughts captive, die to yourself, and live anew a life in the freedom of self-forgetfulness. I recommend Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulnessas a helpful starting point.
Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 10:5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,