A long time ago, I was taking a pastoral counselling course. The course had a stated purpose and an unstated purpose. The stated purpose was to help us become better at counselling, something that pastors are called upon to do a lot but which we aren’t all qualified to do. The unstated purpose was to help us discover a lot more about ourselves so that we could actually provide some honest help to people.
During one class session, one member of the class mentioned that he felt like he was a pastoral version of a politician of that time who had a reputation for being weak, wimpy and ineffective. I looked at him in surprise and before I thought it through, told him that he wasn’t at all like that politician but was actually a perfect match for a different politician, one who had a reputation for being aggressive, brash and something of a bully. After falling silent for a few minutes, the student abruptly got up and walked out.
The next day, he was back in class. After apologizing for walking out, he looked at me and thanked me for my comment, telling the class that at first, it made him mad and then it opened his eyes to his real nature, which he had been trying to hide from himself but was obviously not hiding from anyone else. Once he began to challenge his carefully constructed and basically ineffective image, he could begin to deal with who he really was and begin an honest journey to becoming who he was meant to be.
I was confused and even a bit scared by the process. My comment hadn’t been made out of any great psychological or theological insight. It was more of an offhand remark based on what I was seeing, meant more as a funny observation than anything. But somehow, it penetrated his self-image and opened some important doors for him.
For me, it was a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 12.3, “… rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (NIV). Many of us are sadly lacking in this sober judgement. A lot of us who have been part of the more conservative part of the church for a long time have been taught and learned well the lesson that we are pretty much worthless and have no redeeming value.
That particular heresy has damaged our ability to see ourselves as we really are and therefore seriously hampered our ability to grow and develop healthy relationships with ourselves, others and God. The antidote is to allow ourselves to develop a sober estimate–which in this context, means a balanced and realistic understanding of who and what we are.
For most of us, this will require some help. We have often lived with the distorted image and pressure to maintain the distorted image for so long that it is so much a part of our thinking that we don’t know what to begin. Of course, we need to be careful where we look for help–there are lots of people who want us to maintain the worm theology we have been so carefully taught.
Because my life and work involve me primarily with groups of believers, I can say that I have seen such support within the church and its groups. When believers gather together and care for each other and really pray for and with each other, the Holy Spirit has a fertile ground to work at helping people see and understand and grow. When a group affirms some aspect of our being, we need to listen carefully. Forget about the false modesty that requires us to attribute everything to God. Listen to the group tell us that we sing well or understand Scripture well or are really caring or make people feel comfortable or always know just what to do or say. Listen and ponder–use those comments as revelation from God about who we really are and what we can really do. These shafts of light are one of God’s ways of showing us who we are.
We can also formalize the process by find a counsellor or mentor or spiritual guide, someone who is gifted by God in helping people discover themselves and therefore their path to growth and development.
The bottom line is that knowing self begins by rejecting the pressure to define ourselves as worthless and begin developing a realistic and sober self-understanding. We are seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, which is the beginning of a sometimes scary but always exciting journey.
May the peace of God be with you.