Lately, I’ve been haunted by a question. How could so much violence, fear, racism and divisiveness occur in God’s name? I’ll ask it a different way. If God is love, why does the narrative of Christianity include so little of it?
The impending election and media attention surrounding police brutality and national anthem protests make the question more visible and haunting. Everyone seems to have an increased desire to draw lines and share opinions, to determine who’s on whose team. The ultimate goal is to prove why “they” are wrong by any means necessary, but mostly by demeaning and dehumanizing.
I’m uncomfortable with all of it.
But let’s not pretend rivalries and dehumanization are anything new. Genuine Christians once justified slavery. I live in a country built on power and progress, two principles I see little of in Jesus’ priorities.
How does this happen? Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus?
You might call it “the flesh.” I believe our definition for “ego” closely parallels Paul’s definition for “flesh.”
The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit.
Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better.
This is hard work, however. It’s excruciating, to be honest, almost like dying. I would guess most people don’t let go of their ego unless life throws them a few gut punches.
Can I be honest? The past year has been one of the worst. And I’m beginning to understand why. My ego was dying. And when the ego begins to die, it feels like death. My identity, my purpose, everything I used to convince myself I was somebody, that I was special, was losing out in favor of a different voice.
While I’m not an expert, I have realized a few things about the ego. I want to share those things with you. I hope you will take these and do some work. To be led by the Spirit and bear the Spirit’s fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), we must move beyond the ego and its lies.
The ego hates change above all else.
If you asked the ego to rank its greatest fears, change would take the top spot. When your ego is in charge, you love comfort and the status quo. It should come as no surprise that Jesus’ first sermon is “Repent!” (Mark 1:15 and Matthew 4:17), which means “change your mind.”
The ego hates that message. But it’s difficult to explain away Jesus’ desire for us to change. So, most egocentric people project the message onto a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend or life’s circumstances. As long as the ego can find someone else to change, it’s off the hook.
I’m convinced the most loving thing your spouse or church can do is patiently challenge you to change or grow.
When you know whose you are, when you’ve uncovered your divine identity, change isn’t threatening. Change is no longer an indictment on a particular generation, race or leader. It’s an indictment on your ego.
The ego minimizes sins of the heart and focuses on sins of the flesh.
Because your ego is formed by external stuff—like validation, opinions, job, education—it focuses on eliminating external sins, the ones you can tangibly measure. So, the absence of sexual sins, church attendance, and right theology become the measure of a true Christian.
Jesus seems to address this ridiculous attitude from the beginning (see Matt. 5-7) and somehow I missed it. Jesus knows external sins are shadows of true transformation, and we’re merely reshuffling the deck until we address what’s underneath.
Greed, envy, pride, hatred, prejudice and vanity affect the heart. And, sadly, America not only accepts these sins, but often celebrates them.
The ego needs to feel special and it’s reluctant to give others praise or credit.
“It’s just me, myself, and I,” says your ego. Your ego, your flesh, your false self needs to feel separate and special. It needs the spotlight and isn’t afraid to manipulate people, even God, to attract attention. The ego says, “Look what I’ve done. See what I accomplished.” And it’s always looking over its shoulder because it believes attention is a finite resource. Usually not openly, but almost always privately, the ego resents any person who threatens its platform or reputation.
It wasn’t until I lost a job that I realized how impure my motives were. The ego can, and often does, stand in place of God’s voice, and you don’t realize this until everything falls apart. I remember losing this job and wrestling with the reality of pursuing jobs in other fields. I was freaking angry with God. I might have even cursed a few times.
Your True Self doesn’t attach to accomplishments or titles. You no longer need to be who others want you to be. Climbing mountains and ladders no longer seems important either. Even a small taste of this radical shift liberates your heart and mind to serve God freely and be who he called you to be.
The ego romanticizes the past and idealizes the future, but rarely lives in the present.
Depending on your position in life, the ego has an unhealthy attachment to either the past or the future. For some, the ego obsesses over the “good ol’ days,” you know, the way things used to be. It agonizes over what this world has become and believes restoring the old way or system of doing things would solve our problems. This same group is fearful about the future. It’s unknown, so why take a risk?
If you’re stuck in the past, wishing your marriage, church or country would just go back to the way things were, your ego is calling the shots.
But there’s another diversionary tactic the ego uses to avoid the present: idealizing the future. Most people who idealize the future are cynical towards the past. There’s nothing redemptive or useful about what happened “back then.” For this group, the ego has convinced them to hold out for some some future version of life, when things will be better. It embarrasses me to admit this is my story. And it’s both painful and liberating to admit that future life where everything is perfect never comes.
Let me say this: The past, present and future matter. God comes to people in their present situation. He comes to us this way as well, right now. I’m convinced our experience of God is tied to how fully we live in each moment.
At the same time, the past reveals a larger narrative of God’s work and interaction with his creation. Your experience will be limited without knowledge of the past. Your faith will also be limited if you fear the future. God leads people forward, not backward. Those who allow the Spirit to lead know this.
The ego seeks immediate gratification and despises anything hard or uncomfortable.
If it’s hard, requires effort or makes you uncomfortable, it’s not worth pursuing. So says the ego, at least. But if you’ve lived for any length of time, you know these situations are unavoidable. Rather than wrestling with discomfort or anxiety, the ego seeks a quick fix.
Most Christians like everything about Jesus, except the hard parts. Like losing your friends, being rejected by your own people and, of course, dying on a cross. Again, I’m guilty. I couldn’t imagine loss leading to life. It’s still hard to believe.
In a culture built on power and progress, the ego has plenty of fuel to fan its flame. Could it be our ego insists there’s no meaning in suffering because it knows something exists on the other side, something like God? Could it be that suffering isn’t bad but necessary? For years, American Christians have tried to rewire our journey, believing we can find true love and peace and joy another way. And in such, we as a church remain deeply angry, racist and materialistic.
The ego is sensitive and easily offended.
If you want a practical point for inspection, here it is. How easily are you offended? When the ego is in charge, almost any disagreement or opposing viewpoint feels like a personal attack. In response, the ego gathers like-minded people to affirm itself. Although I’m not against technology or social media, I believe it’s stunted most Christians’ spiritual maturation. It has stunted mine. In a former world, huddling around common viewpoints was much harder. But today most people go months or longer without engaging a different perspective.
For proof, look no further than most churches. Many resemble glorified pep rallies. I wish this weren’t true, but when you ask Christians why they attend a certain church, you will inevitably hear, “I agree with what they teach.”
Look at the political landscape. We’re more polarized than any time I can remember, and I’m just referring to Christians. When it comes to Trump or Hillary, I’m not sure whether people are concerned about the future of our country or just being right?
I write this from experience. When I received a nasty email or encountered someone who saw the world differently, I ran to social media or called a friend because my ego needed to be pampered.
This stems from the ego’s desire to be right, special, and separate. Notice Jesus was never offended. The spirit of God is unoffendable.
We’re made in the image of God. The Maker places His essence in you. I believe some of you know this, but aren’t sure why you’re still battling bitterness, greed, racism or another sin. You’re tired of looking “out there.”
You know it doesn’t deliver what it promises. For me, catching a glimpse of my True Self, even if it’s a small one, feels like freedom. I no longer need to be anyone other than who I am in God.
The first step to finding who you are, your identity, is recognizing what keeps you from it. Our ego never fully dies. But its authority over our lives can diminish.
Another version of this article was posted at frankmatthewpowell.com. Used with permission.