Comparison kills spiritual growth. A mother with three preschool-age children hears her pastor talk about loving God so much that he is up very early every morning to spend an hour of quiet with him. She would love an hour of quiet at any time, but her children simply will not cooperate. What she takes away is that she ought to be doing the same thing, and so she does spirituality by comparison, living under a cloud of guilt. It never occurs to her that the love she expresses to her children might “count” as a spiritual activity. It never occurs to her that perhaps she is serving God more faithfully than the very pastor who may be neglecting his wife and children in the morning so he can have that hour of quiet.
A gregarious, spontaneous husband is married to a woman who loves to be alone. Solitude comes easily for her; she would have to become more extroverted just to be a hermit. He feels he is a failure at prayer because he cannot be alone the way she can. It never occurs to him that his ability to love people “counts,” that the way he loves people is shaping his soul and delighting God.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Spiritual greatness has nothing to do with being greater than others. It has everything to do with being as great as each of us can be.”
Each one of us has a me that we think we should be, which is at odds with the me that God made us to be. Sometimes letting go of that self may be a relief. Sometimes it will feel like death.
I grew up with a need to think of myself as a leader, as stronger, more popular, more confident than I really was. I ran for class president because grown-up leaders would always say, “Even when I was in high school I was class president.” I would think up good slogans and campaign hard — but I always lost. The truth is that I was more introverted, more bookish, and less of the “class president” type than I wanted anyone to think.
As I grew up, my need to be a leader kept me trying to be someone I wasn’t. It made me more defensive, pressured, unhappy, and inauthentic in ways I didn’t even know. To make matters worse, the person I married is one of those people who ran for school office — and always won. She didn’t even have a good slogan: “Don’t be fancy, vote for Nancy.” (No, I’m not making that up. She actually won with that.)
Finally, around the age of forty, I went through six months of deep, internal emptiness and depression like none I had ever experienced. Nancy was involved in work exploding with growth, and I felt as if the trajectory of my life and work was destined to keep arcing downward. It led to a moment I will never forget.
I sat in the basement of our home and said to God, “I give up my need to be a leader.” Out of me came a volcano of emotion — wrenching sobs. I felt all my dreams had died. All I knew was that holding onto my need to lead was wrecking my life. So I prayed, “I’ll let it go. It’s been my dream for so long, I don’t know what’s left. If I can’t become this leader I thought I was supposed to be, I don’t know what to do. But I’ll try to do the best I can to let it go.”
What I was really dying to was a false self, an illusion of misplaced pride, ego, and neediness — the me I thought I was supposed to be.
Should is an important word for spiritual growth, because God’s plan is not for you to obey him because you should even though you don’t want to. He made you to want his plan for you.
On the other side of death is freedom, and no one is more free than a dead man. Jesus had much to say about death to self, and on the journey to the me you want to be, you will have some dying to do. But that kind of death is always death to a lesser self, a false self, so that a better and nobler self can come to life.
John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.