Since a child, I had this sort of fantasy about sacrificing my life for the greater good of all. And it wasn’t until recently that I realized this death wish is more likely to surface as an integral part of certain personalities but also as a tricky preoccupation that most Christians struggle with day to day, no matter our personality type. The other night, I had all my children sit around the table at dinner and write a vision of their future selves. My fancy way of disguising the question, “What do you want to be when YOU grow up?” Well, my sweet hearted martyr child immediately emerged with a halo around her head. Despite her siblings’ desires to be drummer, artist and medical doctor – she chose the selfless road and generically stated her desire to be “sin less.” I’ve always identified with this child and have often thought, “Poor thing, she’s plagued with my faux Saint Mary personality.” But at the same time, I wondered how her exposure to Christianity, Biblical teachings and upbringing to this point, had contributed to her selfless desire to simply be a better Christian. She frequently cries to me that even though she is nice to others they seem to never return her kindness. She, sobbingly said, “I try to do unto others as I’d have them do unto me, but it just doesn’t work. They’re still mean.”
My first thought was to tell her to turn her other cheek. In other words, “Child, if someone isn’t treating you the way you want to be treated, just let them continue to treat you that way.” But it hardly seemed sane to tell an 8-year-old that. So I gave her this befuddled version of “turn the other cheek” advice — “Turn the other cheek only if….pause….welll…there are certain circumstances under which you shouldn’t turn the other cheek, you know that…right?….well, God does call us to love uncondition…..Cough….Um, It will all be ok. Just keep treating them nicely. Long sigh. Have you told these more selfish than you people how you really feel?” I sensed her frustration deep in my bones. I’ve lived most of my life struggling with Christian concepts I’d internalized as ruthless edicts to live a completely selfless life. There are so many selfless situations in which I’ve mysteriously landed or placed myself in the name of Christian fervor. While I learned great lessons and some not-so-great lessons, I might have short circuited the pain, had I focused a bit more on SELF, the four-letter word of Christianity.
I can feel your defenses going up. Trust me, I just installed lightning rods on my roof. But somebody’s gotta do it. Have this conversation. Why you say? Why even talk about the subject of self? Clearly there are already selfish Christians out there. Plenty. And in fact, all of us can be periodically selfish at times. But what I’m addressing goes deeper than appearance. I’m tackling a selfless way of life in the name of Christianity that tramples our joy, imprisons our personalities, subjects us to abuse, leaves us suicidal and in many cases, ready to abandon our faith altogether. Somehow picking up our cross and following Christ turned out less than what it was cracked up to be. Certainly, there are some Christians out there who have the whole “It’s ok to be selfish” thing down and may even assume that this book is still about them. They liked the cover and picked up the book simply to discover additional ways to exploit the unassuming selfless. But this book is not for them. It’s for you. Those who carry this kind of sticky icky shame around, feeling like what you give is never ever enough. You’re certain Christ has called you to be last so that you can one day be first. Not only do you feel shame for never giving enough, you also feel shame when it’s time to set a boundary. But there’s a small voice of reason within, whispering, “Enough is enough.” It’s just that you don’t know where to start. Every single circuit or solution seems to be blocked with a scripture you memorized as a child, or perhaps you’re surrounded by individuals who innocently or not so innocently prey on your inability to be selfish. This book is meant to debunk some of the myths around selfless living, empowering you to develop a sense of self more closely aligned to the way Jesus lived his life—not based on some sermon meant to control the masses as sacrificial saints.
What I love about the Bible and Christianity in general is how we often pick the most miserable interpretations of Scripture and apply them to our lives like an old lady applies bright red lipstick, believing she’s stayed within the lines of her lips. All the while it’s obvious to everyone else but her, that something’s not quite right about her face. Those outside our religious circles are dying to take their index finger and do the squeak-squeak motion across their teeth, letting us know something’s off. But we’re just too pitiful in a way for them to bother. It’s easier for them to have an entire conversation with us, pretending nothings wrong. What’s sad though, is when the little ole’ lady takes a trip to the bathroom, looks in the mirror and realizes how things really appear. Have you been there? Lived as the gawky Christian who everyone knows is dying for approval through performing selfless acts of martyrdom? You don’t even know how to keep your place in line at the church homecoming. “No, you go ahead. Really, you go first. Nah, it’s no problem. I’m not even really that hungry…”