Not surprisingly, one of the first things I’ve learned in the two days since Lent began is that I fight myself really, really hard. I have a very difficult time just being. I have a litany of lists of rules I perform as liturgy. I’m excellent at getting mired in shame and guilt when I break one of these self-inflicted rules, and even better at manufacturing ways I’ve failed. This was actually one of the reasons I attempted to give up Facebook last year…only slightly less insecurity and social anxiety that addiction. Touchingly, one of my profs expressed a strikingly similar experience with Facebook and crushing self hatred. Even “grown ups” suffer from jealousy and fears of not measuring up or being good enough.
Which is why I’d built this Rube Goldberg machine of rules and regulations in the first place: to force myself up to all the standards I set for myself or perceived others set for me. Neither the standards nor the rules were formed in communion with God, of course; they were constructed long before I started becoming Christian. If I do say so myself, I am quite good at fighting myself to uphold them (which is different than actually upholding them) – hence, the reason for giving all that up for Lent. Or trying. As it turns out, I’m not able to un-entrench myself. Upon realizing just how sneaky and strong I am in the boxing ring with myself, I very nearly toppled over the Failure cliff (yet again). After all, God helps those who help themselves…
I have always cringed at that phrase, though I could never articulate why until now. This terrible line, and others like it, such as “how can anyone love you until you love yourself?” need to be retired from usage immediately because they’re just not true. God does not help those who help themselves, it’s precisely the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves, who are sick and need a doctor, who are unwell and need to be healed. If we look at who Jesus spent His public ministry with, it was with people who likely felt pretty wretched about themselves: I mean, I don’t think you can live in a society, culture, or family that perennially sends you the message that you’re worthless without internalizing it somehow. In Jesus’ day, that recipients of such messages would probably have been the poor, the disabled, the sick or “unclean,” women, tax collectors. (I note, sadly, that things haven’t really changed much.)
Given the societal structures of power, the poor, the disabled, the sick, women, tax collectors…none of these marginalized could help themselves out of the particularities of their minority groups’ suffering, self inflicted or otherwise. Though the terms are somewhat anachronistic, our Psychological-Age thinking would surmise that such outcast and ostracized people couldn’t possibly have felt good about themselves. Yet Jesus found these folks. He gathered up a band of blockheads and preached love to them. Then He proclaimed that whoever cares for the least among them cares for Jesus Himself. Jesus did not find the people who were helping themselves, who were (again in modern-day speak) loving themselves well and He certainly didn’t commend them for how comfortable they’d made their own lives. I seem to recall that Jesus informed those who were helping themselves just fine that they have already received their reward.
Yes, Jesus commanded anyone who would follow Him to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but that was just as much for the self as for the neighbor. One could take this to be just as much about acts of love towards neighbor as about doing those acts as who you are – as in, love your neighbor as who you are, not as striving to be someone else. This could also be understood to be a call to radical community, an affirmation that we really do need each other and were created to. As a classmate so eloquently preached in class last night, insofar as Mary the Mother of Jesus is the archetype for humanity in that she literally bears God, what Jesus says about her to the Beloved Disciple – “take care of your mother” – while He’s dying on the cross, He’s saying to us: “take care of each other.” In other words, “self-help” is no real help at all.
It seems to me that Jesus’ neighbors – those He shared life with – were not those who thought highly of themselves, the healthy and wealthy who just needed an extra boost from God to make it. It seems Jesus did not seek out those who were doing enough to “earn” divine help or meet some quota before God would pay attention to them. And Jesus did not die for those who would die for themselves. Jesus lived and died “once for all,” yes, and that includes those who cannot help themselves, those who cannot love themselves, and those who cannot, on their own, be themselves.