The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
We are continuing our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that you are not that important. This week's truth is that your life is not about you.
You may have heard me mention, perhaps on more than on occasion, that my favorite theologian is William Temple. Temple has a beautiful explanation of the doctrine of original sin that I've always appreciated and found to be true. He explains that our "original sin" is not something that is our fault, but something in which, from our very births, causes us to focus primarily on ourselves. This self-centeredness manifests itself as sin as we continually put ourselves in the place of God. He writes:
"When we open our eyes as babies we see the world stretching out around us; we are in the middle of it; all proportions and perspectives in what we see are determined by the relation—distance, height, and so forth—of the various visible objects to ourselves. This will remain true of our bodily vision as long as we live. I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand. Now just the same thing is true at first of our mental and spiritual vision. Some things hurt us; we hope they will not happen again; we call them bad. Some things please us; we hope they will happen again; we call them good. Our standard of value is the way things affect ourselves. So each of us takes his place in the centre of his own world. But I am not the centre of the world, or the standard of reference as between good and bad; I am not, and God is. In other words, from the beginning I put myself in God’s place. This is my original sin. I was doing it before I could speak, and everyone else has been doing it from early infancy. I am not 'guilty' on this account because I could not help it. But I am in a state, from birth, in which I shall bring disaster on myself and everyone affected by my conduct unless I can escape from it. Education may make my self-centeredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like the climbing of a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision while leaving me still the centre and standard of reference. Education may do more than this if it succeeds in winning me into devotion to truth or to beauty; that devotion may effect a partial deliverance from self-centeredness. But complete deliverance can be effected only by the winning of my whole heart’s devotion, the total allegiance of my will—and this only the Divine Love disclosed by Christ in His Life and Death can do" (Christianity and the Social Order, p. 60).
This formulation of Original Sin has always resonated with me as a very practical way of looking at the sometimes damaging doctrine of original sin. That original self-centeredness that's been with me since birth is not my fault, but it is my responsibility, with God's help, to move beyond it. A central component of the spiritual life, then, is a continual moving more and more outside of myself. An ongoing recognition that my life is not about me!
When I think back on my life as a young person, then as a younger man, I can see areas where I was not only focused primarily on myself, I was also focused on shaping myself into an image I found more pleasing. What I mean is that I lived a lot of life not being satisfied with who I am. I wanted more; wanted to be more. I tried way too hard in high school, for instance, to be "cool." Truth is I wasn't cool! I was the geek that I am, but was more concerned with fitting in than being myself. Admittedly, that is hard for most adolescents I think. With the advent of social media this has become an even more intense struggle for many people. We see people living seemingly perfect lives on our feeds and think maybe we should be living the same way. Or wondering why we aren't as beautiful, or cool, or whatever as the people we see. Wondering why our lives aren't as "together" as theirs seem to be. It's difficult not to compare ourselves and impose social standards on ourselves that may not truly fit who we are--who we were created to be.
Even as a newly ordained priest, who had become far more comfortable with myself over time, I felt a kind of pressure to conform to the way other clergy did things. "That priest does X. Maybe I should be doing that, too. That priest prays like X. Why can't I pray like that? Should I be doing it differently?" It took me a little bit to realize, through the help of a wise spiritual director, that God did not call me to be like other clergy. God called me to inhabit the role of priest as myself. God called me. God did not call me to be a clone of someone else. God wanted me to reach people in the way that I reach people--through the gifts God gave to me, as the person God created me to be.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed by the faithfulness of God's Son, who loved me and gave himself for me."--Galatians 2:20 (CEB)
As people who believe we are created by God, in the image of God, we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God. As Christians baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, we are united with Christ, and are growing more and more into his image. Paul also says in Colossians,
"Your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."--Colossians 3:3-4 (CEB)
This, then, is the BUT that comes with this hard truth: your life is not about you, but you are about life. As we deepen our spiritual lives, it's not like Christ subsumes us into some formless personality. It's not that we suddenly have to become someone we are not. Instead, we discover that to live a Christian life all we have to do is to truly live as the people God made us to be. We become more ourselves as we begin to shift our focus outwardly, and to become life-giving, life-affirming persons. Richard Rohr says, "Great people do not need to concoct an identity for themselves; they merely need to discover, uncover, and enjoy the life they already have. . . . My destiny and [God's] desire are already written in my genes, my upbringing, and my natural gifts. It is probably the most courageous thing you will ever do to accept that you are just yourself" (Adam's Return, p. 158).
"It is probably the most courageous thing you will ever do to accept that you are just yourself."--Richard Rohr
Rohr points out that the famous theologian Henri Nouwen "believed that original sin could only be described as 'humanity's endless capacity for self-rejection'" (p. 159). Paired with Temple's conception of Original Sin, you could say that focusing exclusively on ourselves is, ironically, a kind of self-rejection! The spiritual life then is something of a paradox in that your life becomes precisely about you only when you come to know and understand who (and whose) you really are (p. 160-1).
What do you find difficult to accept about yourself? How does it feel to think of yourself as not being your own, but rather belonging to God? Perhaps all of us could find true freedom by realizing that "your life is not about you, but you are about life." Remember last week's post as you think about this--God does not love us for what we accomplish, but loves us intrinsically as exactly the person God created us to be.
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