I was nine years old and attending a small church. My Fourth grade teacher would pick me up on Sunday morning and take me to church. One such Sunday in November our Sunday school class was planning our Christmas pageant. I was full of it ideas and contradicted the teacher at every point, stating that Mary should sit here and Joseph there. The wise men should approach from this side, not that one. It went on and on. I was feeling pretty good…until church was over and I was sitting in the back of the car waiting to go home. Out of the church came a contingent of adults, walking directly toward me. It seems that the Sunday school teacher was in tears because of the way I had taken over the class. Me? I had done nothing, I responded. However, they wouldn’t let me get away with empty denials. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but the gist of it was that I was bad and must never treat someone like that again. I was ashamed and humiliated.
Forty years later, I am still not forcing my opinion on others. In fact, I have a hard time sharing my opinion with others. I tentatively stick my toe out in the water to see what people might think of something. Maybe I’ll share an idea, maybe not. I don’t want to take over the conversation. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. I don’t want to force someone to do something that they don’t want to. I don’t have any good ideas, really.
Understanding the root causes of something is helpful, though, only to a certain extent. Knowing where something came from can help to determine its validity. However, being stuck reliving the past does nothing to change my present behavior.
Recently in my quiet time, God spoke to me. Having recently read the book Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, I started thinking about some things. Seligman talks about learned helplessness leading to pessimism. Pessimists tend to think that bad things that happen in their lives are permanent- they will never get any better (i.e. I will never get married, find a job, graduate, etc.), pervasive- they will impact many other areas of their lives negatively (I’m not good at anything, no one likes me, etc.), and personal- it is because they personally are broken that these things are happening (I am unlovable, not good enough, too old, too young, etc.). There are two measures of pessimism- the way you view negative events in your life and the way you view positive events in your life. When it comes to the negative events, I am a pretty optimistic person. I tend to view negative events as temporary, limited in scope, and not my fault. However, when it comes to positive events, I find myself falling into the pessimist role. I tend to view positive events as temporary, limited in impact, and having happened because of chance, not due to my influence. This is a pessimistic view of life.
An interesting thought though also occurred to me. It is easy to think that I am acting humbly to not take credit for the good things that I have done. When I have a good interview, do I say, “I interviewed well.”? Or is it rather, “She really liked me. Things went well. It was an easy interview. They didn’t ask me anything really very hard.” Those statements all make the good thing that happened out of my control, but they sound humble from a common view of humility.
I then thought about God. How does he behave when he has done something great? When he made the earth, he said that he looked at everything that he had done and it was very good. He didn’t say it turned out okay. Well, it was pretty good considering the things he had to work with. He didn’t say, well the atoms just aligned pretty well, making the good things that had happened out of his control. No, he looked at all that he had made and it was very good. Yep, he was pleased with his work. He owned the work and it was darn good!
CS Lewis has a great description of humility in The Screwtape Letters Letter #14. In The Screwtape Letters, a high ranking tempter is discipling a junior tempter in the art of ensnaring a human. Let’s listen in:
You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self- forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible. To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long- term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.
Next I thought of my children. Right now they are both grown and out of the house and actually can use some care packages every now and then. I think about what they need and make sure we have it when it is time to pack a box to send to them. I will often bake something special to go in it, freezing and double wrapping to keep it as fresh as possible. Care and thought go into this. I always ask them if they’ve gotten it. I’m thrilled when they say something like, “You sent just exactly what I needed. Thanks a lot.”
Now God is our Father, He has also given us many gifts. Imagine that we get the mail and in the mail is a package to us. It is from God. We open it and we see many gifts. One of our gifts is mathematics; we are a natural with numbers with its cousin, logic. In addition to that we are good at spatial things and then as a bonus gift we have good leadership skills. Perhaps our box has people skills and nurturing relationships, language, and good looks. Should we, when we see these evidenced in our lives, disdain these gifts from God and diminish their value? Is it the right response to say that these just happen in our lives and we have no control over them? Is it true humility to say, “I don’t have anything to offer to this world. I haven’t been given any gifts with which to effect the situations in my life. I think I’ll just lay here and take everything that is happening to me. It must be God’s will.”
Obviously the answer to these questions is “No!” God has given us gifts. He wants us to use them, develop them, and see an increase in our lives and the lives of others through them. The parable of the talents comes to mind. It was the servant who hid his talents that the master was angry with, not the ones who used their talents.
Let’s unpack this a little more. Seligman states that learned helplessness leads to depression. When Jesus went to the cross he stated, “No one takes my life from me I lay my life down.” He didn’t feel helpless in this. He wasn’t coerced. He wasn’t forced. He understood the price and wanted there to be another way, but when no other way was available, he still chose to go through with it. James, in chapter 1 of his book says to consider it all joy when we fall into various trials, knowing that the trying of our faith brings maturity. The writer of Hebrews says that no discipline for the moment is joyful, but grievous, yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
Jesus states that he came to set captives free. Paul says that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ. Jesus said when he left that all authority had been given to him and it was our job to carry on in his name. These statements do not sound like those who are helpless in the face of calamity. Paul was beaten, imprisoned, stoned and left for dead. He did not respond with helplessness. He considered it an honor to suffer for Jesus. David spoke to his soul and encouraged himself in the Lord.
Finally, Seligman speaks about a process of retraining our minds to reinterpret our situations so that we do not feel helpless. This process will be examined in a later post.
Understanding where my hesitancy to put myself forward came from in my childhood has some benefit, but applying the principles that God has put me in this world to be an overcomer and not helpless has greater value.
Life is hard. Sometimes it seems that no matter what we do, we cannot come out ahead. But, as Christians, we have been given the principles that enable us to see ourselves as overcomers, not helpless victims.
Blessings to you!