Redefining Terms

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You—that’s how you spell JOY.” I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me.” The older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word “abandon,” and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things … all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

We all have a fear of abandonment. Along with the fear of falling, it’s one of the most primal fears human persons carry. But what I was feeling was not quite that, was it? This is what I finally realized: I was terrified of disappearing. I had somehow inhaled some really lousy theology along with that early Sunday school ditty. I had taken the words of John the Baptist completely out of context and come to believe that the way to the heart of the gospel was for me to somehow be sublimated to the point of extinction, for Jesus alone to inhabit this flesh.

There are all kinds of interesting reasons why this particular woman came up with these particular fears and most of them, I understand a whole lot better now than I did then. But what I want to talk about here is the sometimes dangerous way we throw words around when we teach and when we preach. Because this is the beautiful truth of the gospel, the powerful, life-changing, miraculous truth:

As we learn more about the heart of Jesus, as we open ourselves to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, this is what happens: More of Jesus, MORE of me.

Yes, you read that right. Think about it for a minute: why would God go to all the trouble of creating the wildly different and wholly beautiful human race if the goal was for each one of us to disappear, to lose our distinctiveness, to be pushed into the waters of oblivion that some have chosen to call “Jesus?” Is that wave supposed to cover us completely?

In some ways, YES, YES, YES. We are covered by the grace of God made tangible in his sacrificial death and resurrection. We are; yes, we are.

BUT also, NO. We are not lost when we are covered by the grace of God. We are not ever lost. No. WE ARE FOUND.

The true me, the real me, the best me, the apple-of-God’s-eye me, the very particular, very unique, highly individual me is given space. Room to breathe and grow and flourish. The heart of the mystery, the wonder is this: the more we allow Jesus to fill us with love, to inhabit us, the more ‘me’ we discover. The me that God had in mind when he created the world, the me that reflects the image of God, the me that Jesus sees when he moves in for good.

Today I know that God has no desire to devour me, to make me some kind of freakish “walking dead” person. No. Jesus came to this earth to show us what a truly human life looks like. And he wants us to discover what our truly human life looks like. It’s true, we will look a lot like Jesus. But we will also look like ourselves. 

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Diana Trautwein
Married to her college sweetheart for over 40 years, Diana is always wondering about things. She answers to Mom from their three adult kids and spouses and to Nana from their 8 grandkids, ranging in age from 3 to 22. For 17 years, after a mid-life call to ministry, she answered to Pastor Diana in two churches where she served as Associate Pastor. Since retiring at the end of 2010, she spends her time working as a spiritual director and writes on her blog, Just Wondering. For as long as she can remember, Jesus has been central to her story and the church an extension of her family. Not that either church or family is exactly perfect . . . but then, that’s what makes life interesting, right?
Diana Trautwein

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Comments

  1. Diana, I was referred here by a friend, and find this post fascinating. I think that one of the false teachings Christians can be subsumed under is that of “daliy dying to self,” trying to make ourselves, essentially, disappear, as you have said. I did a series of posts on this teaching, the first one of which is here: http://www.heresthejoy.com/2017/07/dear-christian-your-marriage-is-not-supposed-to-kill-you/

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for this affirmation, and for your good words on this important topic. As usual, the Spirit sings the same sweet song in all kinds of places, yes?

  2. Thank you Diana for highlighting this issue. When I studied theology in high school that same fear arose in me and caused me to forcefully reject the tenets of Buddhism for that reason – I had no desire to reach enlightenment in order to disappear and become one with nature. I was desperately trying to stay visible and count for something in my own life. Thank you for teaching me this hope – that I can be more like Jesus AND more myself – although I am still discovering what she might be like!

  3. Elaine Reed says:

    Diana,
    As always, you have said it beautifully. The words that scared me were — If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Not much is really said about heaven in the Bible. I was beginning to wonder if we would lose our individual self and personality when we got there. I like those last 2 lines and the heading of the column. We will become a lot like Jesus and a lot like ourselves also.

    • I’m so glad this spoke to your own points of stress from the past, Elaine. I take hope from the pictures we have in scripture of Jesus’ resurrected body – he was the same…yet not the same. I think we’ll be like that, too.

  4. Mary Gemmill says:

    Diana, I am the same age as you and my experiences mirror yours.
    The teaching that it is no longer I that liveth got me into deep burnout.
    I was raised to be mindful of the needs of others, but never to acknowledge a need in myself.
    I loved the Susan Howatch books, too, and I found a wonderful spiritual director who helped me heal.
    A book that helped me tremendously was written just 2 years ago: Give yourself a break; the art of self-compassion, by Kim Fredrickson.
    Since doing all the homework exercises, I have now learnt to come before God and admit to feelings, and acknowledge needs.
    Finally,at nealry 70, I can care for others AS WELL AS MYSELF.
    I can love my neighbour AS myself.
    As well as… is the operative phrase…. I am VERY good at caring for others, as I know you are, too.
    Thanking God for his continuing work in our hearts and lives as He transforms us by the renewing of our minds by the watering of the Word.

  5. Insightful clarification, Diana. What Jesus wants to do is make each of us the best versions of ourselves, and (just as you said) reflect the image of God in our own unique ways. Those goals are surely part of the abundant life Jesus said he came to provide (John 10:10). It’s a life of hope and expectation!

  6. “More of Jesus, more of me.” How I love this, Diana! Yes, allowing the Lord completely into our lives is meant to complete us, not deplete us. Beautiful, my friend.
    Blessings!

  7. Sandy Hay says:

    I taught first and second grade Sunday school for 14 years. I don’t want to think too long and hard about what I may have said to these sweet and precious young ones that’s pinging in their heads today. I agree with Idelette in thanking you for allowing us to walk with you in your journey . This gives us permission to speak outloud too. xoxo

    • Thanks, Sandy, for your kindness and encouragement. And I wouldn’t worry too much about what you may or may not have said in Sunday School! The Spirit has this winsome way of helping us to sort it all out!!

  8. Marilyn says:

    Yes!
    I am definitely more fully, more wholly ME, the closer I know and follow Him. He does not mean for me to disappear. So well told, Diana!

  9. You and C.S. Lewis are singing in harmony, Diana! He wrote that we only become fully human, fully ourselves in the presence of God.
    I’m intrigued by the author you mentioned (Susan Howatch), and am always (Always!) challenged by the amount of good work you have done in your spiritual life.

  10. I so appreciate how vulnerable you are willing to be. I love that you are standing in an idea we have allowed to grow to this very large idea and you are saying, No. I love that you are becoming more and more YOU. I love reading your process and getting a glimpse into your life. Thank you, Diana.

    • Thank you so much, Idelette, for your kindness and encouragement. I appreciate your inclusion of an old woman on this team! And I’m wondering how we can monitor comments now that we’re using WordPress. I got a personal email from someone who tried to leave one and it hasn’t shown up yet. I imagine that will happen a lot these first few weeks. I’m here, trying to respond on a busy day, but I can’t do it if the comments don’t show up.

  11. Annette says:

    Yes! I too was raised on “JOY” and He must become more, I must become less. Also the idea of daily picking up your cross was to purposefully crucify and sense of “self” – I understand the sentiment behind it but now looking back I’m able to see it as something that can be damaging to our identity and self-worth. Jesus REDEEMS our characters that we might be our truest self, completely unique and utterly me!

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