I was talking with a friend the other day about work. He'd put in extra time into his job in recent months and learned he wasn't going to be compensated for it in the way he'd been led to believe. He'd worked with excellence, he'd been diligent and reliable, he'd sought to do his work well, "as unto the Lord." He was frustrated.
This topic's been much on the brain recently for me. Not employer-employee relations, per se, but how the Christian perspective can be unexpectedly problematic in some situations. Specifically, I've been thinking about the self.
If you're (a Christian and) you're anything like me, free association with the word "self" leads quickly to phrases like "self denial," "self discipline," and "die to yourself." And there's a good reason for this: these phrases are both biblical and an integral part of the Christian belief system. As Christians, we believe that sin has corrupted our souls and personas, sowing seeds of selfishness and discord throughout our beings. We wrestle with and against this darkness residing within us, and ultimately we're victorious in escaping its grip when we unite with Jesus. The sole purpose of his coming was to free us from the clutches of this evil and enable us to fully who God created us to be. Part of the wrestle is recognizing this, and putting aside ("taking off," the Bible calls it) those parts of ourselves that are overly self-focused - interested narrowly in our own gains rather aligned with God and his greater goodness. This is non-negotiable.
Fine. The problem is that this part of the story - a vital one - is only half. But in my experience, it tends to be the half that gets most of the attention. The half we hear about in church. What our prayer life centers around. It can be easy to focus just on the negative components related to self. And depending on theology, some feel this is appropriate or fruitful.
The way I see it, the other half of the story is just as important... and has gotten too little press, at least in many circles. Here's the other half: the self we each have was custom-created at our conception, and it's glorious. Amazing, even. It's packed full of capacities and gifts, joys and uniqueness. It's a gift we receive from God - our first gift. And the longest-standing gift, too, apart from God himself.
It's our job to know this self, and to appreciate and cultivate it. This is arguably the most fundamental stewardship job we have. It's even our job to love our self. It must be: God loves us passionately, and he calls us to love the things he loves. His love is righteous and purifying, so this is the kind of love we're to apply to ourselves - a love modeled wholly after this.
The problem is: this sounds wrong to the Christian. It sounds carnal and unholy. It sounds self-reliant instead of God-reliant, pagan instead of Christ-centered. When I hear someone speak of "the self," I generally feel skeptical. Will they psychologize in a Freudian manner? Will it be a "you're a snowflake; you can be anything you want to be" stance from the overkill self-esteem movement? I'm OK knowing that God made me fearfully and wonderfully and be thankful and all, but let's keep things 'holy' and just leave it there.
The baby's been thrown out with the bathwater on this one, it seems to me. It doesn't follow that I should under-appreciate and under-focus on self - one of God's ffirst and best gifts to me - just because the culture is currently over focused on it.
In her exceedingly worthwhile book The Emotionally Healthy Woman, Geri Scazzero writes a chapter entitled "Quit Dying to the Wrong Things." In it she makes the case that, in a effort to obey Christ and his call to "deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow" Him, many of us have misunderstood. We've "died to" core parts of ourselves - our identity, our gifts, our humanity, our rest, the things that bring us unique joy - and believed that this would please him. We've taken up the mantle of servant, but at the expense of being fully alive and his - whole people vibrantly following him. This was never the kind of servanthood he was looking for.
I think she's right. When Jesus says, "Love others as you love yourself," he was partly talking about loving your self. He actually wants us to love ourselves... in a way that's in keeping with the way that He loves us. When it comes down to it, some of us could stand to love ourselves (in this way) more than we do.
My friend, for example, wouldn't treat an employee of his the way that he was treated. He'd treat a diligent employee of his with dignity and gratitude - and reflect that in compensation. The frustration he feels is legitimate; it's an expression of God's justice. If he were to stand for appropriate compensation for others but go without appropriate compensation himself, he'd be loving others more than he loves himself. On its face this appears 'servant'-like, but it's not what God intends. ("The worker is worth his wages" appears, after all, multiple times in the Bible.) This same type of dynamic plays itself out all over the place - in friendships, marriages, parenting scenarios, everywhere.
The entire Boundaries series, by Cloud and Townsend, is full of scripture and examples about what happens when people - Christians - under-love and under-value themselves. It's not pretty. And it's not what we're called to.
The "die to self" message is loud and the "know, love, and cultivate yourself - as stewardship, and for God's glory" message is comparatively quiet. But both messages are true - simultaneously and equally. They're parallel tracks we run down as we chase after God and his fullness in our lives (and in the world). Once I roll my sleeves up, I discover that there's quite a lot of work that can be undertaken in the 'know and love yourself' column. And doing it turns out to be pretty rewarding.