As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
What happens to our relationship with God when we find ourselves in situations of powerlessness? A friend at church who was an experienced nurse educator expressed despair about how her search for a full-time job in the past years always came to no avail. A young mother who was in a month-long quarantine in China due to the coronavirus outbreak shared anxiety and tears over the separation from her daughter. I myself have been in similar seasons, feeling useless and downcast.
But it is when crises in life happen that we get a chance to face our unadorned self—the impoverished, isolated, insecure soul undefined by career success, honors, achievements and approval. These moments of “losing control” challenge us to examine our self-knowledge and our knowledge of God. We then ask ourselves the more important questions: Who am I? What defines me? Does my life mean anything? Has God abandoned me?
Although many Christians acknowledge that the knowledge of God and our self-knowledge are two sides of the same coin, they often procrastinate on the second task. When the imbalance between these two becomes staggering, often shown in lofty talks about God versus unrealistic self-perception, the soul is stagnated in an unhealthy state. In some cases, theological knowledge may even equip the egoistic self with more spiritual pride.
To deny oneself and follow Jesus in our world of self-fulfillment, careerism and unreflective complacency is a more daunting task than most of us realize it to be. We have been pampered by the mentality of “I can” on a daily basis—I can purchase most of what I want; I can achieve most goals in my work; when I do something good, I should be remembered; when I give advice, I make sure it is being followed. The world revolves around “me” and my ability.
To Christians, the human ego creates an additional spiritualized way of tricking our perception. We tend to think the root cause of all problems is with secularism around us via a form of spiritual battle. Thus we name others in a different religious camp as “theological aliens” who pose threat to our treasured beliefs. We do all these at the expense of missing the real battle—a self-righteous ego that is puffed up by this warfare mentality.
The balance between humility and conviction is a hard one. But when Jesus lived on earth, he had both—a heightened sense against the egoistic self while affirming his authority as Son of God. Even for him, the journey also became more difficult. In the crucifixion, all that he had was taken away. He was no longer a rabbi, but a despised criminal. He chose not to use lofty words and parables, but silence. Worst of all, Jesus was left completely naked on the cross, an utter humiliation to the male body according to the Jewish tradition. In the art world, most paintings of this scene adorned Jesus’ waist with a linen. But scripturally, the nudity was part of the humiliation he had to go through.
It is hard to face one’s unadorned self, which is often revealed in the stormy moments of our life. They might even shatter our theology about God. Our natural tendency is to seek a shortcut and ignore lessons from these difficult phases of life. We want quick fixes to our problems. Our ability to achieve becomes the hurdle for true self-knowledge. This ego may even adorn itself with narcissistic glamour and self-serving slogans. It manipulates, censors, and deceives.
But there is no other way to follow Jesus and carry the cross unless you do so with an unadorned self: I can no longer achieve; I have nothing to offer. It is a deeply humiliating journey—to start all over again; to know yourself and God from zero again; to learn humility and honesty all over again. And that is how Truth deals with us.
About the Author
Mary Li Ma is a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and now works as a research analyst for a national research center on education equity.