Saturday, March 28, 2009

Learning honesty

Over the last couple of years, I've been working on being more honest. It's not that I'm a particularly deceptive person; I'm probably more concerned with telling the truth than most people. But I've realized over the last few years that I'm dishonest in a much more subtle, but damaging, way-- my words and actions frequently disguise who I really am.

I don't think that I am alone in this. I think all of us, in some ways, have learned to hide our true selves to keep ourselves safe.

To a certain extent, this is an important defense mechanism. We should not bare our souls to just anyone; we must learn whom we can trust.

I believe, though, that in many cases this self-protection has gone too far. Too often, we hide who we are because we are afraid of what others will think-- because we are afraid of letting others know the truth. In my case, this usually takes the form of me acting as if I am some kind of superhuman who isn't affected by my circumstances. I act as if I'm not hurt when I am, I pretend I don't care when I do, I claim I don't need help when I really wish someone would lend me a hand.

I don't think that this dishonesty is always-- or even often-- intentional. I think that too often we are dishonest about who we are because we don't know who we truly are. Re-reading Psalm 139 recently, I was blown away by the verse, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This may have been the first time that I realized that that verse applies to me-- I should praise God because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, "We are his workmanship"; I once saw the word "workmanship" here translated as "masterpiece." If we really believe these words, it will make a radical difference in the way we view ourselves and in our ability to open our lives up to other people.

In Much Madness is Divinest Sense, Kathleen Greider writes of "the cost to our souls of social emphases on competitiveness, extroversion, and intelligence, as compared to Christianity's gospel of grace, which asserts that our worth is a gift to us from our beginning." We have immeasurable value, no matter whether we fit into the mold we and society have set for ourselves. Hiding our true selves is a denial of this value.

This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore all of the negative things about ourselves. On the contrary, I think that is part of the problem. As James Bryan Smith says, "As long as we continue to try to think well of ourselves we will have to distort reality.... We will have to create a facade, participate in a charade, and avoid looking closely at our true selves." Part of our misrepresentation of ourselves is due to our unwillingness to look at our selves as we really are-- sinners, yet God's masterpieces, nevertheless. If we cannot admit our fallenness, we cannot accept the grace God gives.

I think that in order to be honest with each other, we must begin by being honest with God and with ourselves. Julian of Norwich wrote, "it is very greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul should come naked, openly and familiarly"; we must come to God as we are, not pretending to be someone else. One of my favorite written prayers is by Brennan Manning; he writes,
I pray as I write these words for the grace to be truly poor before you, to recognize and accept my weakness and humanness, to forgo the indecent luxury of cling to my humanity, to accept the limitations and full responsibility of being a human being--really human and really poor in Christ our Lord.
It is only once we have done this--accepted our weakness and humanity and admitted it to God and ourselves--that we can begin to be honest with anyone else.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Praying in my real voice

Some have raised the question of how important a concern must be before we bother God with it. This has never really been an issue for me; I tend to be self-centered enough that I assume my concerns are all worth taking up God's valuable time. But this is a valid question, since most of the things that I spend my days worrying about are probably not really matters of cosmic importance.

Even though I know my perspective is often fairly skewed, I truly believe that God wants me to bring my concerns before him. I first came to this conclusion after stumbling upon Psalm 62:8, in which David instructs his hearers, "pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge." We cannot take refuge in God if we try to keep all of the things we really care about to ourselves.

This is backed up, I think, by the fact that a lot of the heroes of the Bible say some pretty ridiculous things to God. How about Job telling God about how unfair he is? Or David harping on how innocent he's always been? And Jacob actually wrestles with God. I know that truly saying what's on my mind might sometimes come across as irreverent, but, since God already knows what I'm thinking, trying to hide those things won't work anyway. (I'm not saying we should be disrespectful; I'm just saying that expressing ourselves to God is a much better option than acting like he doesn't know what's going on in our heads.)

I've frequently found that when I pour out my heart to God, things get messy. Or, more acurately, the messiness that is already in my heart became much more visible.

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis' retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche's sister Orual relates her complaint against the gods. After she has repeated her story over and over again, the gods stop her, and she realizes,
the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice.... Lightly men talk of saying what they mean.... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words.
This strikes me as being a pretty good summary of what happens in prayer, when I'm truly pouring out my heart. I often find myself repeating, "idiot-like," the same concerns over and over, and I'm often shocked to find what they reveal about the center of my soul. Sometimes what I thought I meant isn't really what I meant at all. In prayer, God helps me to realize what it is that I truly mean, and through this realization I begin to change.

It's certainly true that my prayers often focus on things that are not all that important in the whole scheme of things. But they're focused on things that I will be focused on, whether or not I talk them over with God. In Prayer: Letters to Malcom, C.S. Lewis writes, "we want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we now are.... It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us." If I pray merely about the things that I think I ought to care about, I will leave out many of the things that I really care about.

God, of course, already knows all of our deepest fears, needs, and desires. But relationships are built when people communicate with each other, not when people simply know information about each other. If we love people, we lay our lives open to them. If we love God, I believe we should do the same.

Henri Nouwen writes, "God wants to be together with us where we really live and, by loving us there, show us the way to become a complete human being." This kind of prayer is not about telling God things he doesn't know; it's about inviting him to be with us in our experiences and, by being with us, to change us.