Lately, I’ve been haunted by a question. How could so much violence, fear, racism, and divisiveness occur in God’s name? I’ll ask it a different way. If God is love, why does the narrative of Christianity include so little of it?
The impending election and media attention surrounding police brutality and national anthem protests make the question more visible and haunting. Everyone seems to have an increased desire to draw lines and share opinions, to determine who’s on whose team. The ultimate goal is to prove why “they” are wrong, by any means necessary, but mostly by demeaning and dehumanizing.
I’m uncomfortable with all of it. The war of words looks more like a high school cheerleading spat than anything Christian.
But let’s not pretend rivalries and dehumanization are anything new. Genuine Christians once justified slavery. I live in a country built on power and progress, two principles I see little of in Jesus.
How does this happen? Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus?
You might call it “the flesh.” I believe our definition for “ego” closely parallels Paul’s definition for “flesh.”
The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit.
Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better.
This is hard work, however. It’s excruciating, to be honest, almost like dying. I would guess most people don’t let go of their ego unless life throws them a few gut punches. You probably know a few people who suffered unimaginable tragedy and have more peace and love as a result.
In the past year, I resigned from church ministry, mourned the suicide of a family member (and follower of Jesus), found and quickly lost a “dream job,” mourned the death of, Matsy Grace, our adopted Indian daughter, and battled a strange illness that makes going outdoors my worst nightmare. I’ve wrestled with the darkness, questioning everything: my faith, my identity, and my calling. At times, I even questioned life. I’ve thrown a few pity parties that would rival the one I threw in high school when my parents were out of town. Sorry mom.
Can I be honest? The past year has largely sucked. And I’m beginning to understand why. My ego was dying. And when the ego begins to die, it feels like death. My identity, my purpose, everything I used to convince myself I was somebody, that I was special, was losing out in favor of a different voice.
While I’m not an expert, I have realized a few things about the ego. I want to share those things with you. I hope you will take these and do some work. To be led by the Spirit and bear the Spirit’s fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), we must move beyond the ego and its lies.
1. The ego equates all self-knowledge with self-absorption.
It’s tragic that the American church equates self-knowledge with self-absorption. Maybe we’re concerned self-discovery will inevitably lead to hugging trees and smoking “left-handed cigarettes”?
Not until my ego-centric identity crumbled did I begin re-examining the question “Who am I?” The answer led me inside, and I found some ugly stuff, an identity composed of success, affirmation, and selfish ambition. In the process, I saw how I manipulated relationships and used people.
This inward journey has also led me to believe we can’t truly know God until we know ourselves. To uncover the Spirit, the True Self, you must wade through the ego’s facades and smoke screens. Until then, the ego controls things, including Christian things. This might explain why we can’t love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus tells us to do, especially when our neighbor is gay, Muslim or Democratic.
If you’re interested in discovering who you really are, here are a few resources:
The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert)
The Road Back to You (Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile)
The Enneagram and Spirituality (Don Russo and Russ Hudson)
2. The ego is highly competitive and thinks in terms of win/lose.
Your ego wants to separate, divide, and draw lines to prove itself. Why else do we compete, except for superiority? And while healthy competition isn’t wrong, most people never move beyond my team versus your team, my group against your group, my theology against yours.
For me, the opponent was other denominations. I believed my theology was superior, which made me a better Christian than you. Somehow, God chose to reveal the “real truth” to a small segment of mostly white people born in the last few centuries.
This is my story. For others, the ego uses political affiliation, social status, morality, skin color, nationalism to elevate itself.
Any thinking that makes you better than the person beside you for any reason is not from God. The Creator is love and doesn’t need to compete.
3. The ego must be correct and does not accept contradictions.
Most of my “Christian” journey, I thought it was my duty to have the right answers. I studied hard, and when I wasn’t really sure, I made something up.
But while helping others make sense of God, especially those troubling parts about suffering and eternity, I became less certain. Something in me knew God’s nature and interaction with his creation couldn’t be explained in a few sentences.
Now I believe that “something” was my True Self, the Spirit.
In our effort to commercialize Christianity and mass market the eternal message, many American churches have eliminated uncertainty because, quite frankly, it doesn’t sell. It doesn’t sell because it’s both risky and time-consuming.
As I look at Scripture, however, I see a God who is incredibly risky (too risky for our comfort) and painfully patient. It seems God is more vulnerable than powerful and somehow God uses everything (love, death, celebration, suffering) in the larger plan.
Why did slavery happen? How could God allow the Nazis to murder so many Jews? Why are children overcome by cancer and others sold into sex slavery? For the first time, I can honestly answer, “I don’t know.” I find peace in the land of unknown. I have faith that somehow, someway God knows.
And death won’t have the final word.
4. The ego hates change above all else.
If you asked the ego to rank its greatest fears, change would take the top spot. When your ego is in charge, you love comfort and the status quo. It should come as no surprise that Jesus’s first sermon was “Repent!” (Mark 1:15 and Matt. 4:17), which literally means “change your mind.”
The ego hates that message. But it’s difficult to explain away Jesus’s desire for us to change. So, most ego-centric people project the message onto a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend or life’s circumstances. As long as the ego can find someone else to change, it’s off the hook.
Your ego doesn’t want you to grow or change. It doesn’t want you to let go or stretch yourself beyond your current theological understanding. So, rather than accept the radical message of Jesus that essentially says, “You change. You’re the problem, not your spouse, child, or co-workers,” your ego searches for a place that loves the status quo.
When you know whose you are, when you uncover your divine identity, change isn’t threatening. Change is no longer an indictment on a particular generation, race, or leader. It’s an indictment on your ego.
5. The ego minimizes sins of the heart and focuses on sins of the flesh.
Because your ego is formed by external stuff (validation, opinions, job, education), it focuses on eliminating external sins, the ones you can tangibly measure. So, all types of sexual sins (porn addiction, sex before marriage, prostitution, etc.), church attendance, and right theology become the measure of a true Christian.
Jesus seems to address this attitude from the beginning (see Matt. 5-7). Somehow I missed it. Jesus knows external sins are shadows of true transformation, and we’re merely reshuffling the deck until we address what’s underneath.
Greed, envy, pride, hatred, prejudice and vanity affect the heart. And, sadly, America not only accepts these sins, but often celebrates them.
6. The ego needs to feel special and is reluctant to give others praise or credit.
“It’s just me, myself, and I,” says your ego. Your ego, your flesh, your false self needs to feel separate and special. It needs the spotlight and isn’t afraid to manipulate people, even God, to attract attention. The ego says, “Look what I’ve done. See what I accomplished.” And it’s always looking over its shoulder because it believes attention is a finite resource. Usually not openly, but almost always privately, the ego resents any person who threatens its platform or reputation.
It wasn’t until I lost a job writing full-time that I realized how impure my motives were. The ego can, and often does, stand in place of God’s voice, and you don’t realize this until the “fit hits the shan.” I remember losing this job and wrestling with the reality of pursuing jobs in other fields. I was freaking angry with God. I might have even cursed a few times. Stop judging me.
Your True Self doesn’t attach to accomplishments or titles. You no longer need to be who other’s want you to be. Climbing mountains and ladders no longer seem important either. Even a small taste of this radical shift liberates your heart and mind. This has been my experience, at least.
7. The ego romanticizes the past and idealizes the future, but rarely lives in the present.
Depending on your position in life, the ego has an unhealthy attachment to either the past or the future. For some, the ego obsesses over the “good ol’ days,” you know, the way things used to be. It agonizes over what this world has become and believes restoring the old way or system of doing things would solve our problems. This same group is fearful about the future. It’s unknown, so why take a risk?
If you’re stuck in the past, wishing your marriage, church, or country would just go back to the way things were, your ego is calling the shots.
But there’s another diversionary tactic the ego uses to avoid the present: idealizing the future. Most people who idealize the future are cynical towards the past. There’s nothing redemptive or useful about what happened “back then.” For this group, the ego has convinced them to hold out for some future version of life, when things will be better. It embarrasses me to admit this is my story. And it’s both painful and liberating to admit that future life where everything is perfect never comes.
Let me say this: the past, present, and future matter.
Our experience of God is tied to how fully we live in each moment. The present.
At the same time, the past reveals a larger narrative of God’s work and interaction with his creation. Your experience will be limited without knowledge of the past. Your faith will also be limited if you fear the future. God leads people forward, not backward. Those who allow the Spirit to lead know this.
8. The ego seeks immediate gratification and despises anything hard or uncomfortable.
If it’s hard, requires effort, or makes you uncomfortable, it’s not worth pursuing. So says the ego, at least. But if you’ve lived for any length of time, you know these situations are unavoidable. Rather than wrestling with discomfort or anxiety, the ego seeks a quick fix.
Most Christians like everything about Jesus, except the hard parts. Like losing your friends, being rejected by your own people, and, of course, dying on a cross. Again, I’m guilty. I couldn’t imagine loss leading to life. It’s still hard to believe.
In a culture built on power and progress, the ego has plenty of fuel to fan its flame. Could it be our ego insists there’s no meaning in suffering because it knows something exists on the other side, something like God? Could it be that suffering isn’t bad but necessary? For years, American Christians have tried to re-wire the Motherboard, believing we can find true love and peace and joy another way. We remain deeply angry, racist, and materialistic.
9. The ego is sensitive and easily offended.
If you want a practical point for inspection, here it is. How easily are you offended? When the ego is in charge, almost any disagreement or opposing viewpoint feels like a personal attack. In response, the ego gathers likeminded people to affirm itself. Although I’m not against technology or social media, I believe it’s stunted most Christians’ spiritual maturation. It has stunted mine. In a former world, huddling around common viewpoints was much harder. But today most people go months or longer without engaging a different perspective.
Look at the political landscape. We’re more polarized than any time I can remember, and I’m just referring to Christians. When it comes to Trump or Hillary, I’m not sure whether people are concerned about the future of our country or just being right?
I write this from experience. When I received a nasty e-mail or encountered someone who saw the world differently, I ran to social media or called a friend because my ego needed to be pampered.
This stems from the ego’s desire to be right, special, and separate. Notice Jesus was never offended. The spirit of God is un-offendable.
I write these words with humility. I sincerely hope you receive them this way. I’m only 31. I haven’t figured God out. I’m not holier or closer to God than you. I just want to share what I’ve received.
Maybe this sounds like nonsense. That’s ok. Maybe you think I’m high on something or a heretic. That’s ok too. But I believe everyone has divine DNA. The Maker places his essence in you. I believe some of you know this but aren’t sure why you’re still battling bitterness, greed, racism, etc. You’re tired of looking “out there.” You know it doesn’t deliver what it promises. For me, catching a glimpse of my True Self, even if it’s a small one, feels like freedom. I no longer need to be anyone other than who I am in God.
My ego (and yours) never fully dies. But its authority over our lives can diminish.
The first step to finding who you are, your identity, is recognizing what keeps you from it. Maybe I’ve accomplished this for someone.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!