When someone finds out I’m a Christian, they almost always say, “I’m not — but I’m a good person!” Good for you, I think, because I know I’m not. My innate tendency is to react to everything with anger, and if people are burned in the conflagration, to blame them. (Those of you familiar with the Enneagram are by now nodding your heads and saying, I knew she was a One!) It has been and continues to be my life’s work to notice each surge of rage, identify the trigger, then breathe out slowly and deeply and let it go in peace.
Despite this awareness and effort, however, I slip up. Time and again I have needed to confront my destructive tendency, and acknowledge how it has hurt others; time and again I’ve known that sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach when I realise that I’ve been careless and wounding. In other words, time and again I’ve come face to face with my shadow side and sinfulness: and they are hard to forgive.
Yet Christ did not come to condemn, but to save. I understand this in part to mean that I am not to wallow in a mess of self-loathing. Instead, because God has already forgiven me, I must learn to accept this forgiveness, which means understanding and accepting myself. Several things have particularly helped me in this journey.
Idea 1: Learn about yourself. The Gospel according to Thomas may have missed the final cut, but the church fathers still recommended it. In it, Jesus says “examine yourself, and learn who you are, how you exist and what will become of you … for he who has not known himself does not know anything, but he who has known himself has also known the depth of all.” With self-understanding comes love and forgiveness, and a growing ability to understand, love and forgive others. Self-understanding does not always come easily, however; but there are formal tools which can help. For example, many people find the Enneagram types profoundly insightful as they seek to understand their own tendencies; you might like to explore that personality tool. A counsellor can provide a clear eye, particularly if you need someone to travel with you through a rough patch. The Ignatian Examen, a daily prayer used by many through the centuries, is another powerful instrument to learn about yourself in relationship with God; I will write about the Examen next week.
Idea 2: Befriend your shadow. Often it is the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves which are so destructive. Read Psalm 139 (my favourite). Bring your shadow side — everything you hate about yourself — before God in prayer, remembering that this is the same God who formed you, and knows you, and loves you. Ask God to show you the life-giving aspect of the shadow: the energy behind your impatience; the perseverance behind your stubbornness; the passion for life behind your gluttony; the prophetic voice behind the rage. As a sign of self-acceptance, make time to do something which you and you alone really love. Do it prayerfully, in the presence of God.
Idea 3: Admit difference. Conflict can arise when people see things in different lights, or bring different values to bear on a situation, but are unwilling to allow others to differ. Remember that it’s OK for you to think differently to others, and it’s OK for others to think differently to you. Read Philemon, and notice that Paul doesn’t take sides. Pray to see things always through the lens of love and freedom. If you are experiencing conflict with someone now, write yourself a letter from Paul, setting out the differences and pointing the way to love. Stick it on the fridge or somewhere else where you can read it regularly. If you can, read Philemon with the person who has rejected your values and together tease out the similarities of the situation. Talk about the struggle to keep love front and centre.
I hope these pointers are helpful. Next week, I’ll focus on the Ignatian Examen, a method of prayer which helps you trace how your emotions bring you closer to or take you further away from God. Over time, it not only reveals more of you to yourself, but leads you ever more deeply into the heart of God.
Emailed to Sanctuary 25 July 2018 © Sanctuary, 2018. Image credit: Ryan McGuire, gratisography.com. Used with permission. Ideas 2 and 3 draw from ideas in The Forgiving Family by Carol Luebering.
Tools for the Journey
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