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Have you ever had an embarrassing experience that, mercifully, you forget about for awhile, only to re-remember it at some random time, and experience the humiliation anew?
That happened to me this week. I had forgotten about this experience, but it dates back to when I was in college having lunch with an older woman from church. She was godly and wise, a mentor to many women my age, and we sat across from one another chatting and eating our food.
Out of nowhere she interrupted herself to ask, “Is there a mirror behind me? You keep looking past me.” Then she turned around and, sure enough, there was a mirror.
Basically, I had been checking myself out the entire meal.
Talk about a lesson in the importance of eye contact! But if we’re being real here, I am not the first person to make that mistake. How many of us glance at our reflections every time we pass by a mirror or reflective surface? It’s almost like a reflex–if you can see how you look at a given moment, you’re going to take a glance. We all do it.
Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if we couldn’t see our reflections. I suspect we would think less about ourselves–or at least our appearances–and be freer to focus on others. That’s because mirrors have a narcissistic effect–the more you look at yourself, the more you think about yourself. And the more you think about yourself, the more you find flaws. For example I hate the size of my teeth (weird, right?), but I’m fairly certain NO ONE else has noticed them before. I’ve just spent too much time staring at myself in the mirror, and mirrors magnify our flaws.
They also keep us preoccupied with ourselves.
Lately I’ve been thinking about popular Christian teaching–specifically Christian teaching for women–and I noticed a problem that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Something seemed off, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
This “off-ness” became more apparent as I confronted some personal sins and struggles. As I read books and blogs about insecurity and fear, I had trouble finding teachings that were helpful. What I found over and over again was the same basic message: God loves you. He created you just the way you are. Accept yourself, just as Christ accepts you.
These messages are all true. Every one of them. They are good, important truths. But they weren’t really addressing my problem.
As I tried to work through it, I re-read Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, which is one of my favorite books. In it he explores the nature of woundedness, using a wounded leg as an analogy. He explains that it isn’t until you hurt your leg (or any part of the body) that you give it much attention. But if you break your leg, you will give it your full attention, and the entire body will compensate for the injury. Until the legs heals, your focus is on the wound.
Keller maintains that spiritual woundedness is the same. A person who is fixated on herself is a wounded person. Some part of her soul is not well.
On the other hand, a soul that is healthy and whole can look up and out. Rather than focus on the self, she focuses on God and others. In doing so, she thinks of herself less, and experiences the freedom of self-forgetfulness.
And it really is freedom–relief from the bondage of constantly examining yourself.
As I thought more and more about Keller’s premise, and why so many of the resources for women were unhelpful to me, I had a realization:
Many of the Christian messages out there, particularly for women, are the spiritual equivalent of a mirror.
So much of the content out there is like a mirror with a Jesus tint. These messages tell women to look at themselves, but to look at themselves “through” Christ: “this is who you are, who he made you to be, what it means to be in Christ”.
These truths have their place, but if we stop there, then we aren’t directing women to Jesus. Not really. All we’re doing is holding up a Christ-tinted mirror. They get a bit of Jesus–maybe they even see themselves through Jesus–but at the end of the day they’re still staring at themselves.
That’s why these self-help messages will only take women so far. Yes, women need to know that they’re loved, and they do need to know who they are in Christ. I’m not saying we do away with those truths.
But if, at the end of the day, women are still looking at themselves, they will never truly be free. As long as they’re looking in a mirror, they’ll find more flaws to be insecure about, more flaws that “need Jesus.”.
That’s why the books and blogs that help me the most are the ones centered on equipping believers to love God and love others. There is a vision bigger than myself in view. It’s not about healing my insecurities or feeling better about myself, but how can I be conformed to Christ? How can I be an effective witness to a lost world? How can I love and serve the least of these?
When I think about those questions, and when I sit down and actually read the Bible, my mind is foisted off of myself and onto something that gives my life meaning and worth. Loving God and loving others is more transformative than any self-help message can ever be, because I’ve finally stopped staring in the mirror.
In Hebrews 12 1-2 we are instructed to
Run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
This verse is not just a challenge, but an explanation of how to run. Any runner knows that if you look sideways or at your phone for too long, you get disoriented. You might even lose your balance and fall. To run straight and strong, you need to fix your eyes on something in front of you.
For the Christian, we fix our eyes on Jesus. He keeps our feet steady and sure. Christian teaching, at its best, supports that endeavor by fastening our eyes on Christ, rather than ourselves.
So when you read a book or blog, you need to start asking yourself: Is this message fixing my eyes on Jesus, or is it offering me a Jesus-tinted mirror of myself? One message offers me a human-centered gospel that keeps me returning to the “mirror” again and again, preoccupied with my flaws and my failures. But the other message–the one that has Jesus, not self-esteem, as its ultimate end–that message is freedom.