It’s possible to participate in a charade of loving the broken and poor in our ministries while experiencing very little to no self-compassion. These outward expressions of love may last for a while but if there are parts of ourselves that we’ve written off, overlooked, and consider irrelevant our outer charade won’t last.
Perhaps there are embarrassing disabilities or deep sadness’s within yourself that you’ve categorized as unredeemable, unworthy, and irrelevant.
When I was 23 years old I began taking on more leadership responsibilities at my church. This meant I had to speak in front of people. I loved the idea of being an up front kind of guy but when it came down to actually doing it, I realized just how terrified and nervous it made me. It made me feel like an adolescent again.
My terrible insecurities and poverty was impossible to hide. When standing in front of a group just seconds after opening my mouth, I’d break out in a splotchy rash all over my neck. Although I’d always manage to soldier through it, I’d get short of breath and have to take awkward gasps to catch my wind revealing just how out of place I felt.
I seriously considered wearing turtlenecks every time I was up front, but then I realized that splotchy-necked nervous public speakers just might be more fashionable than turtlenecks so I just had to live with it.
Like an unsightly booger hanging from my nostril, a significant aspect of my poverty was now exposed for all to see and I despised myself for it. As I’d drive home from whatever up front gig I was doing I cursed at God while mostly heaping shame upon myself, which of course, further perpetuated my issues. No amount of prayer, reading, or self-coaching seemed to help. Far gone were the days of popularity and athletic glory.
Over the years, I’ve learned that presence, acceptance, and love of the marginalized and irrelevant without coincide with my willingness to accept and love the marginalized and irrelevant within. Learning this has been critical for me.
In his book titled, Intimacy, Henri draws on the work of Carl Jung,
“For Jung, self-realization meant the integration of the shadow. It is the growing ability to allow the dark side of our personality to enter into our awareness and thus prevent a one-sided life in which only that which is presentable to the outside world is considered as a real part of ourselves. To come to an inner unity, totality, and wholeness, every part of our self should be accepted and integrated. Christ represents the light in us. But Christ was crucified between two murderers and we cannot deny them, and certainly not the murderers who live in us.”
Genuinely accepting others regardless of their outward presentation means genuinely accepting myself regardless of my weaknesses and sins. My social and performance anxieties can still be easily detected at times now, but my recovery time has drastically improved the more I’ve allowed Immanuel to gradually reveal just how loved I am now, just as I am in this present moment. Through solitude and reflection, I’ve slowly and reluctantly learned that the self that God persistently loves is not my relevant pretend self but my actual self - the real me. But, master of delusion that I am, I struggle penetrating my web of self-deceptions and knowing this real me.
Our psyches are amazing at getting us through hard times. But they can also work against us by helping us cover up those parts of us that we sometimes wish could stay hidden.
So, how then do we learn to love those painful parts that remain just under the surface?
When it comes to self-compassion - loving the murderer within - I’ve read many good books and received much spiritual counsel. But to be honest, I’ve felt the invitation to befriend my own inner poverty most when I’m in consistent proximity to the materially poor. In my journey with marginalized people, it’s often been the most mentally ill, addicted, and unattractive personalities that have poignantly served as mystical guides, God’s co-conspirators in helping awaken me to the reality of myself.
Experiencing the reality of God’s love most profoundly among both her inner and outer poverty is something Mother Teresa would teach all of us throughout her life’s work. Just as I’m making a point by using the word irrelevant, Momma T spoke similarly of the idea of “nothingness.” For Mother Teresa God’s great humility emerges as he chooses her very nothingness to accomplish his loving purposes.
“It is only when we realize our nothingness, our emptiness, that God can fill us with Himself. When we become full of God then we can give God to others, for from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Mother’s instructions to the MC Sisters, May 17, 1978. Cf. Matthew 12:34)
Jesus points to the nothings of creation, the common and overlooked creatures like sparrows, lilies, prostitutes, and tax collectors. Mother Teresa thought surely it’s the overlooked and irrelevants that we too must learn to lay down our life for in the way of our savior. In her service among the sick and dying she also recognized that God must be creatively restoring the world through a subversive presence active within our very own dark nights of the soul.
I find myself feeling severe exhaustion when pretending to be the prom king. The treasures I think I possess aren’t all that much to brag about. The reality of Christ’s love is much sweeter than we can imagine because it comes to us the more we subject our nothingness to God’s relentless affection.