You on the Auction Block

When you are successful you do not become the success. When you fail you do not become the failure. You are neither the sum total of all your successes nor the sum total of all your failures, mistakes, or poor choices. You are a rational human being who at times renders good decisions and at other times renders poor decisions. So we pride ourselves on our accomplishments because we think they affirm our humanity; and then we beat ourselves up for our failures (and sins) because we think they define us completely. Neither is true; at least, neither is true necessarily.

We have to offer that caveat, I think, because of these words from Jesus: "A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad. . . . A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart." (Matt. 12:33, 35 NLT) My former therapist agrees with this teaching. For the more a person practices the doing of good deeds the more the person wants to practice good deeds. The opposite is also true. The more a person practices the doing of bad deeds the more the person wants to practice bad deeds. So put into practice the doing of good deeds in order to form good habits. What we think about, and then feel, we practice and eventually become.

But performing a good deed, even a really good deed, does not render our humanity inherently good (by God's standards of goodness). In the same way, the performing of a bad deed, even a really bad deed, does not render our entire humanity evil. Moses killed an Egyptian. (Exod. 2:12) King David committed adultery, impregnated the woman, and then made certain that her husband was killed in battle. (2 Samuel 11:1-27) St Paul persecuted and murdered Christians. (Acts 8:3) Yet these men are not perceived in the minds of countless believers (and even non-believers) by their failures. But neither are we to perceive them by their many successes but by the grace and mercy of God. Henri Nouwen writes:
When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likeable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes.1
This is anti-Kingdom thinking. St Paul, when writing to the Corinthian believers about some who assume to maintain authority in the Church, responds: "Oh, don't worry; we wouldn't dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant!" (2 Cor. 10:12 NLT) If we are to boast, insists the apostle, our boast should be in Christ. (2 Cor. 10:17)

SOLD ON AUCTION BLOCK: DEPRESSION ERA

Do not think, though, that you cannot accept praise when praise is due. (cf. Rom. 13:7) But you are worth more to God and to others than any praise given to you. Do not sell yourself on the auction block of the world, in order to garner praise, because such does not define you as a human being of value. Nouwen warns that "the more we allow our accomplishments -- the results of our actions -- to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes."2 I know these tragic consequences first-hand. The more recognition I received, and the more praise that accompanied the recognition, the more I believed I was useful, wanted, needed. But that attention was not only a lie but also a curse.

How was the attention a curse? Nouwen explains: "In many people's lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists [to say nothing of celebrity pastors and relatively famous theologians] into self-destruction."3 When the destruction arrives, and with it a crushing blow, the temptation is then to indulge in self-loathing, defining oneself by the failure, and hopelessness. Get off that auction block! It is deceptive; it is dehumanizing; it is destructive. What if you have already failed?

Humility is a wonderful gift to humanity. Genuine humility and owning one's thoughts and feelings and words and actions can work wonders in one's spiritual life in Christ and with God's people. Once you realize that you, as a human being created in the image of God, are not measured by your successes, nor by your failures, you are permitted to rest, to heal, and then to carry on. God may even use your failure to help others. But humility must precede every other subsequent action. Seeking forgiveness, from God and from those whom you have hurt, is secondary. (Humility opens the door to repentance and forgiveness.) Then comes time for reflection, for learning how your failure(s) occurred, and then for practicing what you are learning. But grant yourself plenty of time.

Later, as you are experiencing a restoration process within the community, you can help others avoid the auction blocks of our culture. You will come to see that block for what it is: a temporary status (of praise and position) that is as easy to maintain as catching the wind. (Understand that there are auction blocks of shame as well. Do not let others try to sell you as the worst sinner to ever walk the earth.) Do not be overly-impressed by the praise you receive nor be overly-wrought by your failure. Someone already endured your shame (Heb. 12:2) and He alone deserves all the praise (Rev. 5:11-14).

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1 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 22.

2 Ibid., 22-23.

3 Ibid., 23.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.