Normally, this would be the season when stadiums and high school auditoriums would be filled with graduates listening to baccalaureate addresses and commencement speeches in which no small number of them would feature the feel-good theme of positive psychology: “Believe in yourself.” Speakers would be crafting their challenges centered around the statement, “If you will only believe in yourself, young man and young woman, you will go far.” These speakers may be right. If you believe in yourself, you may go far. The question is, in what direction?
When I hear the phrase, “Believe in yourself,” I think of a conversation the brilliant G. K. Chesterton had with a prosperous publisher when he heard the man say of some popular artist, “That man will get on in life; he believes in himself.” Chesterton responded by saying, “I can show you a place that has a great collection of people who believe in themselves. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. The place where such people are found in great numbers is the institution for the mentally ill.” The publisher remarked that there were a great many people who believed in themselves who were not mentally ill. “Yes,” said Chesterton, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believes in himself. That elderly cleric who believes he has written a best-selling epic and from whom you hide in a back room, he believes in himself. If you consulted your business sense you would know that most people you know who believe in themselves are profoundly unbalanced. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.” “So what can a man believe in if he can’t believe in himself?” the publisher asked. Chesterton replied, “I’ll go home and write a book about that.” He did, an enduring Christian classic entitled, “Orthodoxy.”
Now maybe Chesterton overstated his case. But I daresay that he is far more right than wrong in his assessment of those who live with complete self-confidence. Think for example of John Lennon’s homage to human brotherhood as expressed in his famous song Imagine: “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try; no hell below us; above us only sky. Imagine there’re no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for — and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living lives in peace. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
Without question, John Lennon believed in himself. He believed himself to be a person of infinite generosity and goodness. He believed himself to be a swell guy, and because he believed himself to be a swell guy, he believed you and I are pretty swell, too. He’s OK, and we’re OK: after all, as he said, he’s not the only one. He summoned us all to come together and affirm our common humanity on the basis of our common belief in ourselves, because, in his eyes, there was no other basis on which to appeal to our commonality. Having dismissed the possibility of our bearing any divine imprint, having denied that any of us can lay claim to originating in a divine purpose or be empowered by a divine Spirit, the only basis we have for affirming our worth is our mutual self-confidence. But if you believe in yourself and if I believe in myself, then naturally we should feel a desire to bond together to affirm our mutual self-worth – because that is all that can bind us.
The irony is, of course, the mentally-ill man who killed John Lennon believed in himself as supremely as John Lennon believed in himself. Indeed, Mark Chapman believed in himself more so. John Lennon was a virtuous, incredibly creative, compassionate, altruistic artist, and was humble enough to know that his celebrity did not entitle him to take another man’s life to advance his personal career. Mark Chapman, on the other hand, believed that he deserved celebrity, too, and deemed the surest way of gaining such status was to take the life of a man he idolized. In fact he later told his biographer, “I used to fantasize that I was a king, and I had all these Little People around me and that they lived in the walls . . . and that I was their hero and was in the paper every day and I was on TV every day, their TV, and that I was important. They all kind of worshipped me . . . it was like I could do no wrong.” Here was a man who believed in himself! Plenty of so-called free thinkers have assumed that once humanity did away with humanity’s attachment to God, the killing of humanity would stop. History has shown that once one does away with God, the killing of humanity commences. Lots of folks have assumed that religious forces only divide the human community. But in fact religion – the very word is based on the root word for “ligament” – binds people together in mutual obedience to the call of God. That Mark Chapman should express his self-will through murderous violence against another should surprise only those who have never bothered to take a serious look at human nature.
The apostle Paul certainly bothered to take a serious look at human nature. His words constitute a severe antidote to the “Believe in yourself” philosophy. He asserted: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside. No one does good, not even one. Everyone’s throat is an open grave. Everyone uses their tongues to deceive. Everyone speaks words of venom. Everyone has a mouth full of curses and bitterness. Everyone is prone to violence. No one knows the way of peace. No one’s eyes show any true fear of God.”
Okay, as commencement speeches go, Paul’s words seem depressingly pessimistic. But Paul did not need to “imagine” what a world would be like where everyone believed in himself: such a tenet was a key credo of the Greco-Roman world in which he lived, and he knew exactly what qualities a society based on such a notion produced: insecurity, superficiality and violence. Paul knew that a society divorced from any sense of being imprinted by God was a society freed only for destruction, a society freed from any sense of meaningful destiny or purpose. Paul’s thoughts would be echoed sixteen hundred years later by the brilliant French mathematician Blaise Pascal: “It is in vain oh men that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.” The twentieth century Russian philosopher and theologian Nicolas Berdyaev expressed Paul’s perspective exactly when he said, “Man exists only if he is an image and reflection of God; he exists only if God exists. Let God be nonexistent, let man make of himself a God and no longer a man – his proper image will perish. The only salvation to the problem of man lies in Christ.” What he is saying is, we find our fundamental worth in the fact that before we could love ourselves, Christ loved us.
Last week I mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge, the celebrated journalist who argued that in addition to the witness of the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a Third Testament, that of the combined testimonies of people of faith who were not ashamed of the Gospel and made the Good News of Jesus come alive throughout the ages. But the truth is, for much of his life, Muggeridge was not a Christian. In fact, he recalled waving to his wife as his ship embarked for America from Great Britain; as sight of her faded, he became overwhelmed by self-loathing. He was happily married, blessed with children he cherished, regarded as one of the most respected journalists in the world, and well compensated for his skill, but he had lived so long believing in himself that he had grown weary of his self-worship. His god was too small. He recounted the experience of standing at the stern of the ship looking around to see if anyone would notice if he jumped off into the sea. In one sense he had everything; in another, he had nothing. He found himself in his bed reading a phrase out of the Book of Common Prayer that said: “Service to God is perfect freedom.” Service to God is perfect freedom! He knew those words were true. But he could not bring himself to act on them.
One of his interviewees had been Mother Teresa, and he wrote to her of his inability to come to faith. She wrote back in return words that pierced him like a holy dagger: “I think, dear friend, that I understand you better now. . . . you are to me like Nicodemus (who came to Jesus under cover of night), and I’m sure the answer is the same: ‘Unless you become like a little child . . .’ I am sure you will understand beautifully everything – if you would only become a little child in God’s hands. Your longing for God is so deep, and yet He keeps Himself away from you. He must be forcing Himself to do so, because He loves you so much as to give Jesus to die for you. Christ is longing to be your Food. Surrounded with the fullness of living Food, you allow yourself to starve.”
Malcolm Muggeridge knew that that old leathery nun had read him rightly. He had been everywhere, had encountered everyone that the world considered consequential. But he had learned that Paul was right: no one is fully righteous, no one has life all figured out. We all fall short of righteousness. The only solace he could find was to take Mother Teresa’s advice and humble himself to the one Lord who truly qualified for the role of God. His own god was too small, but he turned his life over in humility to the Father of Jesus Christ. For the first time in his life he found true fulfillment. Service to God is perfect freedom!
Our Lord was once asked to name the greatest commandment, and he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In that formula Jesus gives us the pathway to forming a positive self-image. Do not hear me saying that self-image is not important. It is vitally important. But you won’t build a positive self-image by becoming fixated on yourself and focusing upon your strengths and weaknesses. Jesus says that if we want to find ourselves, we must give ourselves in love to others. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, must love our neighbor as if we were loving ourselves, and employ all that we have been given to improve the lives of others. In the process we will find that we are children of Christ. Christ is our food. It is in opening our soul and pouring our energies out for others that we discover that we bear God’s imprint and that God desires to nurture us everyday. As we allow God’s strength to sustain us and acknowledge God’s desire to claim us, that is how we form a positive self-image.
I think of a friend of mine, a young man whose life was in shambles, who came into my office looking for guidance. He described himself as “a miserable failure.” I asked him a simple question: “What do you think God desires for your life?” The question stunned him into silence, then he answered, “I don’t think God desires anything for my life.” He must have repeated my question and his answer to a mutual friend because that friend soon found me and said, “We must work on Barry’s image of God.” I said, “No, we must begin with Barry’s image of self. For until he realizes that he bears God’s imprint, he can never understand that God’s loves him and wants what is best for him.” Show me someone’s image of God and I will show you their image of self. Those who think God has no plan or interest for their lives, those who think that God has placed no imprint upon them, their self-image is profoundly incomplete. Their lives may travel in a well-defined direction, but it won’t be the right direction. Only when we realize that Christ loves us first and that we are imprinted by the divine, only then can we open our being to receive the love and direction of God’s Spirit and pour that love and direction back out in worship to God through service to others. For service to God in indeed perfect freedom.
Let’s hear Paul again: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside. No one does good, not even one. Our lips are full of venom and deceit. Our mouths are full of bitterness and curses. No one knows the way of peace. No one’s eyes show any true fear of God.”
As commencement speeches go, Paul’s words would be considered a real downer. But the man who offered this analysis of human nature also trumpeted this theme: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In this era when we need to be at our best, when we need to cultivate the positive image of being God-imprinted, God-loved, God-inspired and God-employed, here is where our self-image must be grounded: we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We will find ourselves and gain our true identity only as we first open ourselves to the Christ who first loved us and redeemed us.