Chapter Eleven of The Cross of Christ is entitled “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving.” In Chapter 10 John Stott called the community of the cross a community of celebration, a place of “boldness, love and joy.”* Besides providing a place of celebration, what he is saying in Chapter 11 is that living under the cross can help Christians assume an identity. He poses the questions “Who are we, then? How should we think of ourselves? What attitude should we adopt toward ourselves? These are questions to which the satisfactory answer cannot be given without a reference to the cross” .
Years ago, I came to know something about myself. I have a tendency to think too much at the extremes. When I believe something is good, I don’t just think of it as “good.” It is great! When I believe it is bad, I don’t just think of it as “bad.” It is awful! I can also flip my feelings quickly, from thinking that a great thing is great to the idea that the same thing is awful, extremely awful. One comment from my wife can trigger that. The effect is very dramatic which she does not appreciate [I do try to monitor this aspect of my personality since she dislikes it so much]. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail.
My wife calls me an “obsessive compulsive” even though I don’t really think I have many of the typical accompanying OCD symptoms
How does this fit into Stott’s ideas of self-understanding and the cross?
He writes about the low self-image that many people have today. When one considers the way some people react to the world, it is no wonder they have crippling inferiority feelings. Children are deprived; people suffer through a lifetime of being unwanted or unloved. Racial prejudice is a real aspect of life today as well as sexual prejudice. The list of negative aspects of life today is long, from being trashed on social media to being discounted and disrespected in the workplace. Does God intend us to live lives where we feel (as Stott says) “like worthless nonentities?”
Of course not.
Then let’s “flip the script.” There is a lot of “be yourself, express yourself, fulfill yourself” preaching out there. He calls this the “human potential movement.” Many Christians take these ideas from the command to love our neighbors as ourselves but they love themselves first and sometimes forget tolove those neighbors. This is the idea that all people can be great! When I was much younger, there was a popular book entitled I’m Ok-You’re Ok by Thomas Harris. To take this to extremes, all humans are intrinsically good so everything we do is “ok.” Does God intend us to live lives where we put ourselves first and glorify our own actions?
Of course not.
Stott writes that Jesus did not say the first commandment is to love the Lord your God, the second is to love your neighbor and the third is to love yourself. “He spoke only of the first great commandment and of the second which was like it. The addition of ‘as yourself’ supplies a rough and ready, practical guide to neighbor-love, because ‘no one ever hated his own body’” [See Ephesians 5: 29]. Loving one’s neighbor is tantamount to giving of oneself in the service of others [often referred to as agape love]. Sacrifice in order to serve oneself seems to be nonsense.
Should life to be lived at the extremes? One has either to experience self-loathing or self-love? Sadly, my (and others) extreme thinking leads to that. I am a merciless sinner so I wallow in my guilt and see no way forward. I am a merciless sinner and I deny my guilt; nothing I do is really bad. In fact, it is not bad at all. “I’m ok!” If I sin, I deny the guilt. If I sin, God’s grace has me covered. This can lead to what Stott calls an “evil suggestion.” When sin increases, grace increases all the more so I can go on sinning so grace may increase still further.
What gets us out of these extreme positions?
When Jesus went to the cross, He died for our sin. Romans 6: 10 says “the death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.” We die to sin also (of course not the way that Christ actually died). We die to sin daily through repentance, through asking for forgiveness. We have to if we dedicate our lives to Christ but because we keep on sinning due to our human nature.
How do we reconcile this “nature?” Stott writes “This does not mean that we are to pretend we have died to sin and risen to God, when we know very well that we have not. On the contrary, we know that by union with Christ, we have shared in the death and resurrection and so have ourselves died to sin and risen to God; we must constantly remember this fact and live a life consistent with it” [270; italics mine]
Wallowing in guilt associated with our sinning is not a good way to live. However, our world is full of people who have a low self-image and that image can be built on the idea that they are not living a good life based on Christian principles. Our world is also full of people who are so narcissistic that they think they do no wrong [and if they do, they figure they can get away with it]. I don’t think they can really deny their acts if those acts are obviously against God’s commandments.
Why live at the extremes? We have a Lord who has given His Son that we can be born again, living a life that is holy. We know we will never achieve perfection but we try anyway. We know that we will never conquer the need to sin but we try anyway. Our faith calls us to try.
In the next posts, we will discuss what Stott calls a “double attitude;” we are new, though redeemed, and still fallen. We move forward with life through self-denial and self-affirmation. Are these the key ideas for our Christian identity? We will see.
Stott describes them as “both illumined by the cross.”
*See June 23 post in St. John Studies “Where you Will Find Boldness, Love and Joy.”