How Can I Block Out the Cruelty?

The stereotype of the schizophrenic is a poor soul beleaguered by a cacophony of voices telling him what to do. But we all now are subject to imperative messages from sources that do not have our best interests at heart.

Some of these are commercial, which foster the spiritual pathology of consumerism. “I alone matter, and I alone shall decide what is best for Me, Me, Me! So, ah, what shall I select? Oh, right. What you told me to buy….”

Some of these are social, whether this or that parent, this or that coach or teacher or director or other authority figure, this or that corporate culture or team attitude or church culture or other groupthink. Voices, voices, voices in our heads—and silent, but powerful, forces in our hearts.

Many of these commands, alas, are not merely manipulative, advancing their own interests at our expense. Some are truly cruel: dangling ideals before us that are impossible to actualize, demanding standards that no real person can achieve, and denouncing us for our inevitable failures to perform so as to earn the esteem of these malignant judges.

Prof. John Barclay of the University of Durham in the UK has recently gifted us with a popular-level précis of his splendid work on the theme of grace in the writings of the Apostle Paul, Paul and the Power of Grace (Eerdmans, 2020). Most of the book is what it ought to be: straightforward exposition of this theological theme: God’s unconditioned gift to us of salvation in its many splendours. At the end of this book, however, Professor Barclay looks up from his notes to survey our world, and what he sees compels him to urge us again to receive the good news he has seen in Paul.

We live in an age when self-esteem, or self-worth, is under intense pressure, especially among young people. Indeed, research in Western societies shows that crises of self-worth have reached epidemic proportions. Schools, colleges, counselors, churches, and health workers report a sharp and shocking rise in the number of people suffering anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and loss of self-esteem. These elements manifest in numerous ways: self-harm, panic attacks, eating disorders, sleep disorders, obsessive behavior, suicidal thoughts, and, tragically, suicide. The problem has multiple roots, but it seems to be exacerbated by social media, with its requirement to project an attractive self-image in popularity, appearance, body-shape, and success. The combination of impossibly high expectations and fragile egos is a recipe for distress. In an age when people fear the judgement of their peers more than the judgement of God, we have become increasingly petulant, critical, even cruel, and it is proving hard to take. [Emphasis added]

In Paul’s good news, human worth is founded on the grace of God, which is not dependent on any form of symbolic capital, ascribed or achieved. No one can, and no one needs to, make themselves “worth it” in the most important arena of all.… Many have urged that people should “let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are.” [Barclay refers to Brené Brown and her well-known book Gifts of Imperfection, 2010.] But that does not help if “who you are” crumbles under your own embrace, as happens for many people today. If that embrace does not come from outside of ourseves, and if it is not completely authoritative and utterly secure, we are left wishing ourselves into worth, rather than knowing we have it.

… When all else fails, the love of God does not. What we need are better, fuller, and more down-to-earth ways of making this message clear and practical, and in the present psychological state of many young people, few things seem more existentially urgent.

John Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 154-56

Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), and so all matter. Each person matters, not only as a creation of God, but as the much-loved object of God’s self-sacrifice. That is how much you matter: a crucifixion-of-the-Son-of-God’s worth. However bleak, or bland, your life may seem now, it is a life God made, a life God suffered and died to redeem, and a life God wants to bless forever and ever in unimaginable delight on a renewed planet and in a renewed society rid of all the stupid, harmful, and even cruel injuries we sometimes must suffer for a while here and now.

The world is deranged. It wildly rewards the wrong people and ignores and even punishes the right ones. We must not, must not, must not take our cues from who wins an Oscar or Stanley Cup or Grammy or Order of Canada. We must not adjust our lives by those who are glamourized by “Entertainment Tonight” or celebrated on “Saturday Night Live.” We must not strive for likes and friends and followers—how very thin and small the definitions of “liking” and “friendship” and “following” have become! What an insane way to govern your life, the very gift of God intended to last forever and to result—in just a few decades!—in stupendous glory as you become the very best version of yourself, finally recognizable and recognized, joining in a society the beauty of which exceed Disney’s greatest imaginations. (Read Revelation 20 again for starters. What a city is coming to us!)

Thanks, then, to Professor Barclay for calling us to What Really Matters, and Whose voice should be our only guide. “Trust in Yhwh with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall straighten out your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

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