Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflections on Kierkegaard and Self-Hatred

I have recently been muddling through some of Soren Kierkegaard's work, The Sickness Unto Death. If you have never read it, picking it up will blow your mind -not necessarily because of its insight, although I believe it has great insight, but because of how difficult to read it is! Insecurity and self-hatred have been enemies of mine for a long time. I only recently came to see this. I always used to think that things like this were "psycho-babble." Kierkegaard, along with pastor Tim Keller and in particular his message "Blessed Self-Forgetfulness," has shown me many things about this and how, ultimately, it is sin that needs to be confessed and not merely a personal problem.

One of the things Kierkegaard talks about is what it means to "despair of the self." This, to me, was profoundly interesting because I could resonate with it almost immediately. Here is a great example:

"A young girl is in despair over love, and so she despairs over her lover, because he died, or because he was unfaithful to her. This is not a declared despair; no, she is in despair over herself. This self of hers, which, if it had become "his" beloved, she would have been rid of in the most blissful way, or would have lost, this self is now a torment to her when it has to be a self without "him"; this self which would have been to her riches (though in another sense equally in despair) has now become to her a loathsome void, since "he" is dead, or it has become to her an abhorrence, since it reminds her of the fact that she was betrayed."

What is the "self?" It is, simply put, like what we see in our own reflection, but with a mirror that looks deep into our soul and identity rather than merely our outward appearance.

If my wife left me, for example, and I felt like my life was over... what is really going on? Am I in despair over the situation? No, not properly. In reality, I am in despair over myself. I loathe the self that I have, and I long to be rid of it "in the most blissful way," by having my wife be mine. But if she left me, I would be losing that escape from the self that I have -the one that I desperately want to be rid of. To have her, in my mind, would give me a self worth having, a self worth being happy about. But otherwise, I am doomed as if to a prison. I despair of the self I have.

Now, this is where it gets even more strange. Upon reflection, I came to realize that one of the main reasons for my self-hatred is because I am insecure and tossed around and controlled emotionally by things like these. I despair of my self, in other words, because I see that the self I have is weak because it despairs in itself. Do you see the vicious cycle?

Kierkegaard addresses this form of despair and properly identifies it as self-righteousness, although without using those precise words. Thus, I see more clearly why self-hatred and puffed-up pride are essentially the same thing, but on opposite ends of the same deadly rope. To despair of the self because you see the self you have as weak and sinful is to say, "If I had a different self, If I was more like that person, If I was better in this area, I would be a self worth having." This is the same thing the religious legalist says when he cannot live up to his own demands. His ego cannot take that he cannot be as good as he thinks he should be. He longs to boast, but cannot, so he slumps in sorrow over himself. The self he lusts after he cannot reach, and so his failures are a torturous reminder of the self he has and hates. He cannot stand the sight of himself. When he comes across others who have seemingly done what he cannot, who have what he does not but lusts after, he cannot take any pleasure at all. These others are only a reminder which tortures his soul all the more. He hates them because they remind him of his bondage to the self he deeply hates and longs to be rid of. Thus, the only difference between this person and the puffed-up, arrogant individual is that the arrogant one is deluded into believing he has attained his own righteousness. He believes that, with that thing, he has arrived -at least for a moment. He boasts well, though he is truly deceived. His foundation is merely shifting sand.

Loathing ourselves because we are weak, did not do enough, failed, don't compare to others as we like, or might not have gotten it all perfectly right is self-obsession and self-righteousness scorned. We are not comfortable with ourselves because we are trying to build our own righteousness, and hence every failure is not merely discouraging -it is a stab into the heart. It is a reminder of the self we are seeking to leave behind, which we hate, which we believe is nothing, and which we are desperately seeking to recreate and establish apart from our Maker by using finite, created things and boasting in them.

Therefore, I came to see that despairing of myself because of my weaknesses and sins is abominable. It is not repentance. It is self-righteousness, it is idolatry, and it is something to be confessed as sin. It is wounded pride. In other words, it is the fruit of a lustful desire to create a self so worthy of our self-centered love and self-exaltation that we ideally would become our own god, worthy of self-worship.

The only sphere in which we can have significance, true significance, is in relation to our Creator. Anything else is a myth, a mirage, a phantom. Therefore, only with the Gospel are we broken free since it is only with the Gospel that we are re-connected with Him and able to be both wholly transparent and accepted. Faith, which Kierkegaard basically describes as the opposite of this despair (sin), is seen essentially as a rest in or acceptance of what God has done in Christ, through which we see we are transparently known and completely accepted. Faith amounts to transparency before and security in God. Only then can the self be at rest. And when it is at rest, when it is in connection with its Maker through grace, it no longer is bound in the chains of this insatiable desire to be rid of the self we have by idolatrously building our life on the finite. It is free. It is free to love and serve, for it knows it is complete. The self is "OK" and free to not be fixated upon itself.

The "solution" to this sin, then, is not more law. Law has its place in relationship, not in the area of self creation and justification. The solution is the believe the Gospel. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? This is where it gets hardest, and all of this is why grace is so foreign to us. As Luther once said (paraphrase), "we would more readily receive grace if we could earn it than have it for free."

In case we would begin to think that we are free from self-hatred and don't suffer from this, it seems it is a universal problem. It is the reason behind boasting, comparing to others, exploiting others, becoming angrily defensive in arguments, bitterness and unforgiveness, racism, hatred, self-righteousness, etc. It is sin at its most core level. The racist says, "my race is what gives me a self of significance," and thereby he looks down upon those of other races. The braggart says, "my achievements and talents and skills give me a self that has significance, better than those," and so he is pleased with himself, looking down on others less fortunate, though in reality he takes no pleasure in the things he has achieved or the things he is skilled in -only in being able to stand upon them higher than the next man.

P.S. I started a new blog with a bit of a narrower focus. Check me out at http://gospelid.blogspot.com

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween

You can feel free to disagree with me about Halloween, and I can still call you brother. I have no problem with that. Below is a compilation of questions I put together to think through some issues. You may remain in your convictions, and that is fine, but I hope I am able to stir some honest thought instead of fostering what I generally feel is a kind of phobia or hysteria toward anything deemed "un-Christian" or part of the "pagan culture."

1. Is "fear of man" rather than "fear of the Lord" really the only reason anybody would ever have any participation in something like Halloween?
I read an article, recently, which essentially said that people participate in Halloween because they fear man and not the Lord. It said that people who participate in Halloween are embracing evil rather than shunning it. Hmm...

I think many Christians interpret "fear of the Lord" to mean living like how they live, while many of them may live the way they do out of the same fear and pride they accuse unbelievers or "liberal Christians" of. Ironic, no? In other words, the reason one person does things that are externally "bad" and the reason another person does things that are externally "good" can really be the same sinful reason: fear of man and/or pride. A person can do all of the right things because they fear losing the approval of their group and/or don't want to be like "those people." The fear of the Lord is to abstain from evil, but we must also realize that, for example, it is just as evil to believe we are in the "good people group" because we do the "right things."

The reason I lump fear and pride together is that they both revolve around comparing ourselves to others. They are both of the flesh -they are both worldly. The flesh loves to lead us back under systems in which we try to build our personal identity and significance in things other than God and what He did for us, by grace, through Jesus Christ... things that involve comparing ourselves to others in various categories that we idolize and esteem very highly. Maybe it is that we homeschool and "they" don't. Maybe it is that we don't see R-rated movies. There is nothing wrong with those things if that is your personal conviction, but often we make good things into ultimate things, identity things, and that is of the flesh. We compare, we boast, and we are really no different from those other people we think we are so different from. That can be hard for us to swallow, because it means we can do and be involved in lots of things rubber-stamped as "Christian" and yet be just as worldly and fleshly in our hearts.

The reason I don't like this way of thinking (that celebrating Halloween = fear of man) is that it completely demonizes and dismisses all contrary opinions without actually addressing them fairly. It stridently implies, as if obvious, that their own way of thinking is God's way. Are there evil things associated with Halloween? Sure. Are there evil things associated with lots of things we enjoy or engage in? Yes. That does not mean "anything goes," but...

The other reason I don't like this kind of reasoning is that often the folks who are so cut-and-dry about one issue do not apply the same standards in everything. They pick and choose. With some things, they can enjoy them moderately and shun the parts that are not glorifying to God, but with this one thing, they see it as completely black-and-white, one-dimensional. Therefore, whether they intend to or not, they are often picking one thing they abstain from and dismissing it as "evil" as a way to build their own personal significance and identity, which is really the same idolatry they accuse others of.

By all means, have an opinion (and I do believe that some things are black and white), but please avoid making blanket judgments about your brothers and sisters.

2. What makes celebrating Reformation Day so much better?
I love the Reformation, and I love using October 31 to tell people about Martin Luther and the great work that God did in the Protestant Reformation, but what is really so much better about this? Again, are we just trying to rubber-stamp something as "Christian" so that we feel better? Are we just trying to be counter-culture so that we aren't like "those people?" Is there something inherently more pleasing to God about turning October 31 into Reformation Day, or are we just trying to say "my culture is better than yours?" What makes this a more "Christian" way to observe the day?

If there is one thing we learn from the Reformation, it is that things can be extremely "Christian" and religious and yet be completely bankrupt, spiritually speaking. The human heart is incorrigibly religious, and the Reformation marked a huge movement of God to overcome centuries of religious tradition with the Gospel. But guess what? Even that was imperfect, and that is why one of the slogans of the Reformation is "semper reformanda" -always reforming. We always need to be reforming, conforming to the Gospel. Does that mean celebrating Reformation Day is better than Halloween? I don't know. That is what I am asking you to think about. What is the motivation, really, in doing so? Is it in line with the Gospel?

3. What makes having a Harvest Festival at your church so much better?
I really don't understand what makes it so much better as to justify its existence. It isn't mandated in Scripture. It is still observing a day as special over another. It seems like we are, again, trying to produce a "Christian-clean" environment. That isn't all bad. I don't let my kids watch just anything on television, for example. But it implies that there is something bad and evil out on the streets of the typical neighborhood that isn't found in having a more "Christian" celebration within a church building. Maybe you don't see scary costumes. OK, fine, but in my personal experience those are few to begin with. Maybe you don't see jack-o-lanterns. OK, but what is so evil about those? Is it really worth avoiding your neighbors, escaping the neighborhood, and huddling with other Christians? Is it really the "Christian" thing to do on Halloween? I don't mean to demonize Harvest Festivals, if I am. I don't think they are bad, but I think they might be making a really big deal out of something not so big and doing what history has shown us is not always a great idea: providing a "rival" celebration to a more "pagan" cultural celebration. Look at how Christmas turned out. Ho Ho Ho! Need I say more?

4. If having so much candy on Halloween is gluttonous, then why is it OK for you to stuff yourself at your Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving feasts? Does God make special rules for those days?
I have heard some folks say that one of the reasons Halloween is so bad is because there is so much candy involved in it. Apparently, Halloween supports gluttony, and the sugar isn't good for you or your teeth. That is fine. I will remember that when all the candy-free people stuff themselves on Christmas and Thanksgiving or drink fruit punch or any of the other sugar-filled juices in the stores. :) Is "Christianized" gluttony permissible? I'm kidding. This isn't a competition, but sometimes I think that what is really going on has very little to do with gluttony, sugar content, or the health of the body. I think it is that Christians, whether they admit it or not, create little cultures of their own with practices and norms and mores, and, just like everybody else out there, they have a flesh which loves to boast in the things that make us not like others. I do it, too, so I'm not picking on anybody, but that is what I think is really going on in most cases. Besides, if you don't like the candy, then don't take any and give out something other than candy when kids come to your door. Dare to be like that one weird lady that hands out sliced apple and granola bars every year!

5. If you refuse to participate in Halloween at all, do you participate at all in Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving? If so, why?
None of the above mentioned observances are mandated in Scripture. The only thing the Lord told us to remember was His death, and He told us to do that often (not yearly) in fellowship together (what we call "the Lord's supper"). All of the above mentioned observances are cultural traditions. The only reason Christians celebrate them is because they deem their content more "Christian" in nature, even realizing that for holidays like Christmas and Easter, there are loads of pagan symbols and worldly traditions associated with them -Santa Clause, the Easter bunny, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, parties with drunkenness and gluttony. We know there are bad things associated with them, but for the good things we still celebrate them. Think about how many people die every year during the "holiday season" (Christmas and New Year's) due to drunk driving. Yet Christmas is OK and Halloween isn't? I think this may be a case of deeming some evils as more "respectable" than others. What does God think, though? Maybe God hates Christmas, too.

I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate any of these days. Most Christians admit that there are pagan roots and godless cultural traditions associated with these holidays, yet they choose to moderately observe them in light of the good things associated with them. If that is acceptible with those days, the why not with Halloween? To me, there is plenty of good associated with Halloween. There is plenty to enjoy and plenty of fun to be had, and, just like with Christmas, we have an opportunity to get to know people better and share Jesus with them. I'm tired of hearing how "Jesus is the reason for the season." No, Jesus never told us to celebrate Christmas, and Jesus is the reason for everything, not just that season. Jesus is the reason, for example, we can celebrate victory over the powers of darkness and enjoy each other's company in light of that victory. It is the reason I can receive the good, enjoy it, and shun the bad, knowing that I am in an intimate relationship with my Father based solely on Christ's work on my behalf.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, what could be better than having droves of people come to your front door as you hand out Gospel tracts, books, share the Gospel, or just get to know people better? I'm not saying that any kind of fun is legitimate fun, but I am saying that the idea that the only legitimate fun is the kind that includes "Christian" content and "Christian" symbols is narrow and stupid. What makes "fun" glorifying to God? Things like love, humility, enjoying God's gifts in their rightful place, recognizing all things as His, etc.

6. Is all fantasy bad?
I'm not saying that all fantasy is good, but is it all bad? What makes good fantasy and bad fantasy? Is Frosty the Snowman better than Santa Clause? Is Bible-Man so much better than Spiderman? Why? If my daughter dresses up as a witch, does that mean she is going around pretending to cast spells on people, studying Wicca, and trying to emulate real witches, or is it just that she thinks the costume is cute? Could it be that sometimes it just depends on the individual, as well? I'm asking you to think it through. I think we Christians are very prone to a low view of sin that is often based largely upon tradition and externals.

Our view of sin typically says, "Sin is drinking, smoking, going to bars, watching R-rated movies, wearing clothes with bad words on the front, etc." It may be that those things are sinful, depending on the circumstance, but what about pride, self-righteousness, gossip, and idolatry of the heart -things we can be completely guilty of, even if we abstain from the "bad list" above? This view can sometimes (unfortunately) lead us to overlook the good, even glimpses of Christ, found in things we would traditionally label as "bad."

Remember in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf (the Grey) fought that demon and, as far as we knew, perished... only later to return as "Gandalf the White?" Gandalf was a wizard, a sorcerer -something forbidden in Scripture... yet, given that this story is fantasy fiction, this is, to me, a picture of Christ. He "died" to save his friends, only to return later in "glory" for battle against the forces of evil.

So, I'm asking you to think. What makes fantasy and make-believe evil?

7. Is it possible that we may be contributing to erroneous views about Jesus and the Gospel by how we react to things like this?
Are we contributing to the false impression that most irreligious people have, which is that Jesus and Christianity are all about joining a religion and observing certain rules and a particular way of life? In other words, are we helping our unsaved neighbors continue to believe the lie that Christianity is all about a list of do's and don't's, caring mostly about your own little tribe, and recruiting others to join you?

The funny thing is that, while most irreligious people think the only alternative to their worldview and way of life is religion (follow these rules and you will be a good person whom God loves), many of us Christians act the same way. We are incorrigibly religious, we think the problem with the world is "those people" who aren't like us, and our reason for remaining that way is because we believe the only alternative is going to a pagan lifestyle. The Gospel is neither religion nor irreligion. The Gospel humbles the religious and tells them to repent of their "righteousness," while it calls the irreligious to repent of their irreligion. It calls both people to forsake the idolatrous forms of identity they build their lives upon and to be founded solely upon the grace of God in Christ. It tells us all that we are ultimately no different and that we are both lost apart from Christ alone.

Where I stand

Halloween, yesterday, consisted of taking my two dressed-up girls downtown, walking around, getting candy, having a pony ride, carving a pumpkin, and then later walking them around with some of the neighborhood guys and their little girls. We saw neighbors, we chatted and got to know each other a bit better, we had fun with our girls, and, yes, we got some candy. At home, my wife (and I, after I returned home), greeted people and handed out candy.

It was a fun night, and I'm not ashamed to say it, even as a Christian. I am not even compelled to try to assuage my conscience and "Christianize" my exploits by handing out tracts, though I have done that in the past and think it is a great idea given the opportunity to see and meet so many people. Why am I so OK with it? Because there is nothing wrong with hospitality, greeting neighbors, the excitement of dressing up and treading the sidewalks of the neighborhood with with your kids, and even enjoying some candy.

It could be bad to take those things too far, just as it would be bad to take anything, even good things, too far. But there is nothing wrong, in my view, with enjoying the fun of a cultural tradition for the good things found in it, shunning the bad. It is, in my view, no worse than listening to a Clash record and enjoying the music for what it is or getting together with the neighbors, even those pesky unsaved neighbors, for a block party. It doesn't mean that I love everything about Halloween or everything associated with it -I don't, but it doesn't mean that I can't enjoy what we and our kids deem to be the biggest parts of it. By all means, I do not want to be trying to share the table with demons, but I'm not convinced that I am.

And still... I might be wrong...