I’ve come to realize one of the hardest lessons for the spiritual life isn’t about the internal state nor is it even directly related to our perception of God. The hardest lesson of the spiritual life has to do with that oft source of frustration — other people. It’s hard because we’re always around people, and it’s hard because this is the area of life in which life with the Spirit goes so much against our natural inclinations that it requires a constant and steady work of the Spirit in order to keep us in line with Christ.
What are our natural inclinations? We want to control people. We want to judge people. We want to rate people. We want something from people. We have expectations of people. We have demands. We have desires. We want people to make sense. We want them to agree with us. We think God should be doing the same thing in other people that he is doing in us. We want respect. In short, there’s a quality in which we want to be a little god to other people, God’s own representative so that we can manage people to be the way they should be. Even if there’s only a few Mugabes and Pol Pots in history, we’ve all a bit of the tyrant in us. Which is expressed in anger, or depression, or a maybe, if we’re really trying hard, just a mild form of irritation. We get out of sorts.
And yet, Paul wrote in Philippians 2:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!
We are not called to be little gods, but rather to follow the lead of Christ in letting go our insistence on our supposed dues and becoming a servant.
Servant is an overused word in Christian culture. Everyone wants to be a leader, everyone wants to be a servant. We all want to be the kind of servants who get to tell other people how and when we will serve them, lording over them with our service. But, Jesus, though Lord, didn’t lord over anyone. He didn’t assert his authority but did something else.
He remained open to people. And that is one of the most profound spiritual acts a person can do. Why? Because people hurt, insult, fight, ignore, crush, use, abuse, dismiss. People have mixed motives. They fail. They have different goals and different hopes and different expectations. They might not share our feelings, or our yearnings, or our dreams. People can be fickle. They can be flighty. They can be ignorant. Indeed, God might even just be talking to those other people as much as he is talking to us, and what he is saying to them isn’t the same.
In the face of this, where other people for whatever reason don’t match up us, it is extremely natural to let the ego have its way. The ego is that part of us that defends our supposed identity. It provokes anger and frustration when people don’t match what we want them to match. It stirs up jealousy and fear and provokes us to go on the attack, rejecting or denying another before they get the chance to do anything to us.
And so in the face of natural inclination we have to be thoroughly unnatural. We have to risk being hurt. We have to enter into interactions in which there is a possibility for heartache. We have to set aside our ego’s attempt to defend our innermost self, and let our innermost self face the brunt force of other people’s egos. We have to trust. We have to help. We have to give. We have to love. Even when this might not return to us. Even when our being open might deliver to us sadness, or hurt, or emptiness.
That is Jesus on the cross. That is our call, to carry the cross, not the cross of our own sinfulness or our own faults, we have to carry the cross that others build. In remaining open, even and especially in the face of potential hurt, we become conduits of the Spirit to move within a situation, taking hold of faith’s promises rather than our ego’s fears.
This is, frankly, humanly impossible. Which is why I think of this as being one of the more advanced spiritual lessons. Learn this and there is nothing anyone can do to removed us from God’s presence, nor are we battered by the fierce storms of others. This is the love of the martyr for their persecutor and the love of Jesus for all of us. It is the openness of love, that transcends our ego and places us within the community of the Spirit who seeks the wholeness of all people.
That sounds nice theologically. Practically? It means getting the heart crushed and broken but still not crawling into a shell. It means understanding when someone else is hearing from God and that means a limitation or a separation or a silence, while still praying for their best and knowing that they are walking with God. It means listening to those in pain, and offering assistance to those who hurt when there’s not a bit of chance they offer anything in return. It means being a friend and risking unshared feelings, doing the part God asks. It means letting go of the often right perceptions of slights and insults and dismissals, washing the past from all regrets and ill will. It means acknowledging all the hurts that have been caused, understanding these as being real and true, but not letting any of this guide future actions. Bless those who curse. Honor those who insult. Make peace with those who yearn for war. Turn the other cheek.
This isn’t an exhortation for national policy, this is how I am supposed to live as a disciple of Jesus. I have to remain open to people, even and especially after being hurt, knowing I probably will be hurt, and while being hurt. I have to let even that go for the sake of Christ, always seeing others as Jesus sees them, and hopes for them, and yearns for them. The Jesus who welcomed the denying Peter back into the fold is the model for my own personal interactions.
And God has been teaching me this lesson, certainly through my life, more explicitly over the last year.
But sometimes it’s too hard. Sometimes I close off. In the absence of palpable sources of renewal sometimes I lose heart, and hope, and so struggle to maintain my openness. Sometimes it’s too hard. That’s not a sign of someone else. That’s a reminder of my own immaturity.
Tonight I see the ways in which I have remained open in the face of potential hurt. And I see the ways I have remained open in the face of recent hurts, knowing friendships served purposes even as they took part of my soul with them. And I see the ways in which I couldn’t sustain it and lost my perspective, lost my openness and likely contributed to hurt, and the hardening of other egos.
I pray that I do more of the former and less of the latter, taking on hurt so as to help be a beacon of peace and openness to others.
I think at that point I will truly see Jesus, for I will have finally grasped his attitude.