When we share the narrative or story of our life, inevitably there are parts of our life we have a hard time explaining. I’m a rational guy. I’d like to think that when I do something, there is a good reason behind it. I would also like to think that I am not the kind of guy who will make the same mistakes twice.
This week, the political season begins in earnest, with another debate between Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren for the US Senate and the first Presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. This might sound incredibly irresponsible, but I cannot bring myself to watch or listen to any of the debates. After watching the debates, I would probably find myself disliking both candidates equally, and my inclination would be simply not vote at all. So, in the interest of actually voting in this election, I will watch none of the debates.
I always get a sense of unease around politics, in part because of my own history.
Twenty years ago politics was my life. For a time, I may have been the most conservative person at the University of California at Berkeley, which is another way of saying that I never saw another person on campus wearing a “Pat Buchanan for President” pin on his or her backpack. The saying, “to the right of Attilla the Hun” pretty much described me.
As a young man, it was probably natural that I would drift towards politics, since this was a place where I could be self-righteous without shame or self-consciousness. Every issue was “black and white” and “either or.” Life was made up almost entirely of moral absolutes. In taking stark positions, I liked thinking I was better than everyone else.
On the topic of “either or,” we pause for this interruption.
(Yeah, Yeah, Coke doesn’t really need my help, but I thought this was funny)
I suppose all us have periods in our lives about which we are deeply embarrassed. This was mine. If there was any positive for this period of my life, it was that it pointed me to Jesus. I always liked to think of myself as a nice guy. I was the guy who would give you directions if you were lost. I was the guy who would listen to you if you were feeling depressed.
Here is the revelation that changed my life. In politics, I wasn’t really much of a nice guy. Looking in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw. It bothered me how I could so easily lose my moral compass. It bothered me how in politics, the ends often justified the means. There may be good people involved in politics, solely out of a desire for public service, but I was not one of those people. In politics, I was lost and felt as if I didn’t even know myself. I needed help, or maybe an intervention. I needed someone or something to save me from myself. It seemed to me that Jesus was the one who came to help people who were really screwed up, and so this eventually led me to follow Him.
If there is an irony in this story, it’s that after I left politics and started following Jesus, I joined a legalistic and controlling church, where every issue was black and white, and where we self-righteously lived in a world of absolutes. While following Jesus was definitely a move in the right direction, I was still making the same mistakes. I was no longer a legalistic self righteous Republican, I was now a legalistic self righteous Christian.
One of the great things about fairy tales is the narrative arc which ends in a resolution, or “the happy ending”. The protagonist will eventually leave their old life and live happily ever after. Cinderella doesn’t mop floors for the rest of her life. The Beast doesn’t break up with Belle and move to a dog kennel because he misses being a beast.
As a follower of Jesus, my hope is in heaven, but in the meanwhile and in the here and now, I find myself frustrated at how I often make the same mistakes again and again. I’m frustrated at how I’m unable to break out of the cycle. It’s basically Groundhog Day
Within the past few years, I’ve realized there is something called my “false self.” My false self is the achiever, it’s the hard worker and it’s the person who always needs to be right. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with being an achiever or a hard worker, or with wanting to be right, but if this is your identity and you wrap your self-worth in these things, it can be a problem.
For me, both politics and church became places where my false self could be fed and nurtured. In church, I could receive attention and respect or being outwardly spiritual and for doing a lot of stuff. In politics, I could receive attention and respect for stating the most extreme social views and for doing a lot of stuff. I wanted respect and recognition, and in both church and politics, I found places where my false self could grow. I was feeding the beast.
In retrospect, it would be easy for me to simply blame politics, the Republican Party, God, Christianity, the church or Southern Baptists for my past experience, and yet this would also be wrong. In the end, I was looking for something that would give me affirmation and value. I wanted to be recognized. I wanted to be in control. I tried to find these things in politics and the church, and I failed miserably.
Thankfully, I’ve come out of these periods of life older and hopefully wiser. I know myself a little better, and I’ve become acquainted with my false self. Ultimately, God’s grace is the perfect antidote for my false self. I do not have to overcompensate for my insecurities. I don’t have to always be right. I don’t have to label the people in my world as “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys” (with myself clearly identified as a “Good Guy”). I don’t have to be continuously striving to earn the approval of others. I don’t have to be the guy who always says, “Yes.” If along the way there is failure, then I am no less a person and no less a follower of Jesus. That is grace!
Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. (Ephesians 2:7-10 MSG)