Lately, I’ve been haunted by a question. How could so much violence, fear, racism, and divisiveness occur in God’s name? I’ll ask it a different way. If God is love, why does the narrative of Christianity include so little of it? The impending election and media attention surrounding police brutality and national anthem protests make the question more visible and haunting. Everyone seems to have an increased desire to draw lines and share opinions, to determine who’s on whose team. The ultimate goal is to prove why “they” are wrong, by any means necessary, but mostly by demeaning and dehumanizing. I’m uncomfortable with all of it. The war of words looks more like a high school cheerleading spat than anything Christian. But let’s not pretend rivalries and dehumanization are anything new. Genuine Christians once justified slavery. I live in a country built on power and progress, two principles I see little of in Jesus. How does this happen? Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus? Ego. Christian ego.
You might call it “the flesh.” I believe our definition for “ego” closely parallels Paul’s definition for “flesh.”
The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit.
Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better.
This is hard work, however. It’s excruciating, to be honest, almost like dying. I would guess most people don’t let go of their ego unless life throws them a few gut punches. You probably know a few people who suffered unimaginable tragedy and have more peace and love as a result.
In the past year, I resigned from church ministry, mourned the suicide of a family member (and follower of Jesus), found and quickly lost a “dream job,” mourned the death of, Matsy Grace, our adopted Indian daughter, and battled a strange illness that makes going outdoors my worst nightmare. I’ve wrestled with the darkness, questioning everything: my faith, my identity, and my calling. At times, I even questioned life. I’ve thrown a few pity parties that would rival the one I threw in high school when my parents were out of town. Sorry mom.
Can I be honest? The past year has largely sucked. And I’m beginning to understand why. My ego was dying. And when the ego begins to die, it feels like death. My identity, my purpose, everything I used to convince myself I was somebody, that I was special, was losing out in favor of a different voice.
While I’m not an expert, I have realized a few things about the ego. I want to share those things with you. I hope you will take these and do some work. To be led by the Spirit and bear the Spirit’s fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), we must move beyond the ego and its lies.
1. The ego equates all self-knowledge with self-absorption.
It’s tragic that the American church equates self-knowledge with self-absorption. Maybe we’re concerned self-discovery will inevitably lead to hugging trees and smoking “left-handed cigarettes”?
Not until my ego-centric identity crumbled did I begin re-examining the question “Who am I?” The answer led me inside, and I found some ugly stuff, an identity composed of success, affirmation, and selfish ambition. In the process, I saw how I manipulated relationships and used people.
This inward journey has also led me to believe we can’t truly know God until we know ourselves. To uncover the Spirit, the True Self, you must wade through the ego’s facades and smoke screens. Until then, the ego controls things, including Christian things. This might explain why we can’t love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus tells us to do, especially when our neighbor is gay, Muslim or Democratic.
If you’re interested in discovering who you really are, here are a few resources:
- The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert)
- The Road Back to You (Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile)
- The Enneagram and Spirituality (Don Russo and Russ Hudson)
2. The ego is highly competitive and thinks in terms of win/lose.
Your ego wants to separate, divide, and draw lines to prove itself. Why else do we compete, except for superiority? And while healthy competition isn’t wrong, most people never beyond my team versus your team, my group against your group, my theology against yours.
For me, the opponent was other denominations. I believed my theology was superior, which made me a better Christian than you. Somehow, God chose to reveal the “real truth” to a small segment of mostly white people born in the last few centuries.
This is my story. For others, the ego uses political affiliation, social status, morality, skin color, nationalism to elevate itself.
Any thinking that makes you better than the person beside you for any reason is not from God. The Creator is love and doesn’t need to compete.
3. The ego must be correct and does not accept contradictions.
Most of my “Christian” journey, I thought it was my duty to have the right answers. I studied hard, and when I wasn’t really sure, I made something up.
Now I believe that “something” was my True Self, the Spirit.
In our effort to commercialize Christianity and mass market the eternal message, many American churches have eliminated uncertainty because, quite frankly, it doesn’t sell. It doesn’t sell because it’s both risky and time-consuming.
As I look at Scripture, however, I see a God who is incredibly risky (too risky for our comfort) and painfully patient. It seems God is more vulnerable than powerful and somehow God uses everything (love, death, celebration, suffering) in the larger plan.
Why did slavery happen? How could God allow the Nazis to murder so many Jews? Why are children overcome by cancer and others sold into sex slavery? For the first time, I can honestly answer, “I don’t know.” I find peace the land of unknown. I have faith that somehow, someway God knows.
And death won’t have the final word.