The Impact of Western Ego on the Church

I don’t know many Christians who have ego issues. At least not in the sense that they talk about how great they are or have an over-inflated sense of their own perfection.

In fact, we’re all pretty hard on ourselves.

And yet, when I read how the contemplatives (Nouwen, Merton, Rohr) describe ego, I think we as First World Christians have some deep habits that get in the way of the things we so desperately want for our faith and in our church.

And when we are confronted with a bad habit, we do what we always do: work hard to overcome it. Make a goal, set action steps, jump into action. And that in itself is actually the bad habit. When we are confronted with a bad habit, we do what we always do: work hard to overcome it. Make a goal, set action steps, jump into action. And that in itself is actually the bad habit. Click To Tweet

Bad Habits

Challenging Question? Respond!

Painful Conflict? Respond!

Overwhelming Problem? Respond!

Contemplatives talk about ego as that instinct in us that assumes it’s all up to us. It’s that habit that jumps into action, assuming every problem is solved by human initiative, ingenuity, hard work. Our overuse of our personal agency speaks volumes about where our hope is and who we think is running the show.

This self-sufficiency is so deeply ingrained in our psyche we can’t even remember when we learned it. Our media has given us many models of it, our education has rewarded it, our art praises it.

So what’s the answer then—passivity? The fact that we can’t imagine anything apart from the extremes of total responsibility or total passivity is a part of the problem. Of course, as adults we can’t be passive—there are kids to raise, bills to pay. And as faithful followers of Jesus, we can’t be passive—there’s a message to share, a community to serve. And so we engage as we’ve been taught by our culture: take on full responsibility. And as we do we burn ourselves out physically, emotionally, spiritually. It breaks our bodies, our marriages, our mental health, our faith. Our leaders “fall from grace.” Our churches collapse. It doesn’t look like good news, only doubt, depression, anxiety, and disappointment.

What if there’s something better? 

What if there’s a third option beyond the false-self extremes of hyper-engagement or under-engagement?

Imagine This

This earth was set spinning by Someone Else.

Someone Else filled it with life and spoke flourishing over it.

Someone Else imagined each one of us, brought us into being at this moment and time and place.

Someone Else holds us while we sleep.

Someone Else wakes us with the dawn.

Someone Else gives us energy to rise, grants air for our lungs.

When we stumble into the kitchen, it’s filled with nourishing things dreamed up by Someone Else. Someone else provided the rain, the sun, the tending hands for that food to grow. And Someone Else dreamed up the electricity we use to prepare it, the minerals we shape into a spoon to scoop it into our mouths.

And when we step out into the world each morning, Someone Else has been sustaining it while we slept. 

Someone has already given the birds their song, nourished the grass with dew.

Someone Else is making all things new—coursing through every living thing, bringing healing and flourishing.

And he invites us to partner with him in his work.

He provides our minds the ideas and the words.

He provides in our environment the opportunities and resources.

He provides in our bodies the gifts and the energy. Someone Else is making all things new—coursing through every living thing, bringing healing and flourishing. And he invites us to partner with him in his work. Click To Tweet

And he himself, this One who set the planets spinning, abides in us, giving us the vision, the comfort, the courage, the inspiration, every moment of every day so we know how to partner with his work in every other thing in this universe.

The Way of God

There is undoubtedly hard work for us to do. But he doesn’t ask us to do it in the way the world works (or the way even Christians in the First World work). 

Our habit is: Respond, Respond, Respond. 

But the way of God invites us: Rest, Receive, Respond.

At the beginning of every day and at the moment of every question or problem, we can jump to response or we can rest, even just for a moment. Rest from anxious striving, rest through prayer and emptying and dying to our own fears and egos. Rest enough to remember someone else is holding the world and holding us and cares more about this day and this problem than we do. And every single time we take that moment to die to our ego, to rest in God, we receive something.

It may be comfort, it may be an invitation to slow down, and sometimes it’s a real way forward. Not usually a five-year plan but a first step. An invitation to see and respond in a new way. An invitation to partner with the One who made it all and who made us. Do we really believe he is the source of all creativity and wisdom? Do we really believe that if we die to the anxious reactionary responses of our ego we’ll tap into something even better?

Scripture is one long story of our need for God, of his place as the initiator and our place as participants. It is filled with more uses of the plural “you” than we realize (reminding us of our need for one another) and with many more passive verbs than we realize—we are being made new, being transformed into Christ’s likeness.

Yes, there will still be churches to plant and good news to share and neighbors to serve and many, many ways to apply our gifts. We will have both exhilarating and exhausting days.

But ours is not the impetus but the obedience. 

Our action is not the beginning, but in response to all that comes when we take up our cross daily.

Our daily call is to die, over and over again, to present our bodies as living sacrifices, to open our ears and soften our hearts. And when our ears are open and our hearts are soft, we will receive calling and direction and ideas and opportunities. They may not look like what we expected, but now it’s our task to obey, to follow, to work with all our hearts at something that Someone Else began. It will take everything we have but it will be possible because we’ll know we’re not alone.

In this death of our ego we will be lost. And we will be found. 

And by some miracle the world will see Someone Else in us.

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