The Gospel Shell Game

Photo: FlickR/Still Burning

Have you ever known anyone imprisoned by a cell of their own making?

Perhaps we all do it to some degree, but some do it to the extent that their lives are an ever-shrinking, imploding world of self-absorption.  Indignation can be addictive, and some seem to have been seduced by it entirely.

I know a woman who has built impenetrable walls around herself, solid and unyielding, against any personal offense (and, of course everything is personal) past, or present, real or imagined.

She carries an impossible burden; she is the eternal victim – and so she thinks – must be eternally vigilant regarding what must be done – and how.  Her life is all about control – and about the inherent futility and lack of appreciation from those around her.

She apologizes constantly – for not being perfect – as if anyone else could be – but never apologizes for her everyday human rudeness or cruelty.

I had a boss like her once. He thrashed around the office like a raging wounded beast; always the victim, and always offended.

He felt threatened by everyone different from himself. His world, like hers, was filled exclusively with people – and forces – conspiring against him.

He had an immediate distrust for anyone of a different race, religion, income, education or political persuasion.

He particularly hated younger people, women, ‘liberals’, atheists¸ Muslims – and his own government – and people who hated his government. His name was John and his firm belief was that a ‘real’ American should have a ‘real’ American name like Bill, Fred or Tom; any ‘strange’ name was automatically suspect.

As I observed these two individuals, both imprisoned by the most unforgiving warden of all, the self, I began to wonder; what kind of childhood injury or assault sets the foundation for a lifetime of resentment and rage that knows no limits and allows no rest?

Is there any release, any forgiveness, for this self-imposed spiritual and mental isolation?

Oddly enough, both of these individuals claim to be Christian.

But their “salvation”, like their lives, is one of grasping and self-absorption. They would gladly doom – and damn – everyone else in their unyielding grasp for their own personal ‘salvation’.

They see heaven, not as a place they have helped others enter, but as a place they, at any cost, have elbowed their way into.

Heaven, in their view, is where they are proven ‘right’ and everyone else is proven wrong.

Perhaps they will spend eternity in a place free of their ‘enemies’ where they are eternally vindicated, and proven right and superior to everyone else. It might be eternal, but it sounds like hell to me.

Their ‘heaven’ is no garden of convivial – or divine – delights; there is little or no celebration there. The confirmation and consolidation of their presuppositions is even emptier in eternity.

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Their goal, in eternity, as in life, is the triumph of the self. And the self – ever more petulant and focused – becomes even more demanding and unforgiving, feeding like a raging monster, even on itself, becoming ever more toxic and self-destructive until this tortured soul reaches its final objective – the suffocation of itself at its own hands.

To put it mildly, it is a strange spiritual journey, yet perhaps not as unfamiliar as we would like.

These two live publicly at the vortex of their own individual gravitational fields, and the pull is irresistible.

Loving their neighbor as themselves is impossible – on both counts.

The theme of their lives is “nothing is good enough”, and, if we carry anything into eternity, it is our attitudes.

As with all of us perhaps, how we look at life is the ultimate mirror.

What does it tell us when we look at the world and nothing, not even ourselves can ever be ‘good enough’? Is there anything more desolate and empty than the isolation of one’s own boundaries and fears?

But there’s a reason the Gospel is the “Good news” – it is the ultimate and immediate deliverance from this self-made hell.

Satre famously said “Hell is other people” – but so is Heaven.

Perhaps the same thing is true of faith – does our faith equip us to face and confront the contradictions and craziness of life? Or has our “faith” become our excuse for avoiding the difficult situations – or people – in our lives?

For my two friends above, their “faith” is just another exercise in self-righteousness, their attitude to the world is not invitational or welcoming – it is closer to “I’m saved, and you’re not”.

They have developed their own 21st Century version of Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’; their grace is not so much ‘cheap’ as it is mechanical and oppressive. A faith that warms the heart (Luke 24:32) re-orients one’s life (2 Timothy 3:15-17) or includes personal transformation is alien to them. They cannot imagine living out the freedom of unbridled thankfulness. They have no appetite for “rejoicing in all things” (2 Corinthians 6:9-11).

There is nothing they need more than the Gospel, but they think they have it, so they have been inoculated against the real thing.

Aren’t you glad you don’t know anyone like this?

Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.

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About the Author

Morf Morford

Morf MorfordMorf Morford is a writer, teacher, word-nerd, 98% vegan, listener, community story-teller, poet, advocate of the oddities of earthly existence. Scavenger of the unlikely.View all posts by Morf Morford →

  • MrsWoo57

    Thanks Morf.

    The call of the self is like a siren and sometimes resistance to it is almost physically painful. Each day is filled with little opportunities, as Paul writes, “to live according to the sinful nature”, or to “live in accordance with the Spirit”. And although there are also more occasional really big choices to be made I believe, for myself anyway, that the drip drip drip effect of these daily choices builds up – either a toxic pool of bitter water or streams of living water.

    But in case there’s a risk of getting too self absorbed with where I might be on the “drip-o-meter” (just made that up!) I always come back to Romans 7:24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will  rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

  • Hell is self-justification. Heaven is the ability to commune with others and God that comes from Christ-justification.

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