Monday, November 17, 2008

selfishness v. self-awareness v. self protection

The message this past Sunday at Warehouse was about Envy. (We are going through the 7 deadly sins.) The simple definition was that envy seeks pain or negativity in the positive experiences or situations of others. Wanting what someone else has and then wishing them ill because they have it (and not us.) It was an appropriate message since so much of American society seems to be based around comparing ourselves to our neighbors. Often the "american dream" becomes 'keeping up with the Jonses".

Obviously wanting what someone else has and being resentful when we don't have what we want is not healthy or godly. But at what point do you recognize your weaknesses and try to keep yourself from walking down the path that you know tempts your selfishness? I ask because as I talk with more and more women (married, single, mothers, or women without children. Well off (or at least comfortable) or desperately trying to make ends meet - we all can find outselves disappointed with our situation and envious of someone else's situation.

Some sins seem easy to avoid or combat. If lust is something you struggle with, you are advised to stay away from provocative movies, books, situations, etc. If sloth is your vice you find ways to encourage motivation. If gluttony is your worry (whether in the traditional sense of food, or with any excess) you learn to avoid those situations in which you are most likely to indulge that temptation. But do you avoid envy without avoiding the people that you are guilty of envying? Certainly all any of us have to do is walk through the door of a church to be confronted with a situation that could provoke in us dissatisfaction. (Men can struggle with this too, I think. Perhaps someone has a better job, drives a nicer car or has a thinner wife. *shrug* One can hardly stop seeing those people.)

Obviously the solution runs deeper than avoidance. And certainly focusing on truth, practicing trust, reiterating blessings, taking moments throughout our day to be thankful can help. But, my friends, emotions are so intractable. You can reprimand, you can chastise, you can heap guilt and you can feign ignorance, but changing the emotional response (especially to issues that have slowly over time worn away at your confidence in God) seems impossible. For us, from our own power it certainly is impossible.

One suggestion made for combatting envy is service. Instead of focussing on what we wish we had, but do not, we should focus on giving what we have to others. Perhaps for the person who struggles with materialism, they practice giving away their money or limiting their possessions. Or maybe a person who struggles with insecurity about their physical appearance goes and spends time at a battered women's shelter helping to make clothes or fix their hair to encourage self confidence in others. Maybe single women focus on serving in the nursery or as a big sister in a community center. Maybe through these ways we are reoriented to receive the goodness God has brought into our lives instead of focusing on the things we do not have that we desire.

But let me bring to light the sticking point. What if the things we desire are GOOD things? What if they are things that are pleasing to God. For a single woman, perhaps that is marriage. For a childless wife, perhaps that is a chance to raise a godly family. For the struggling marriage, perhaps that is a desire for a closer intimacy. Even career wise - perhaps you are looking for a job that allows you to give back to the community, like a non-profit position, or an opportunity to teach. What if these godly desires are the things you crave and still have no received. How do you mark the line between self-awareness (and affirmation of the validity of such desires) and selfishness or envy?

Going even a step further, once you have determined that having your desires met has become a priority and usurped your focus on God, how do you fight against them? What if your desire for acknowledgement has led to anorexia, do you place yourself amongst models to combat your envy? If you desire children, do you spend all your time at babyshowers for others? If you desire marriage, do you become everyone's favorite bride's maid? If you want a healthier marriage, do you spend all your time with couples you preceive to have a perfect intimacy? Obviously sometimes the answer is yes. For some of us, sometimes, that is exactly what we need to do. Walk with the wise and grow wise. Serve and learn humility. Sacrifice and learn appreciation. But sometimes there needs to be a healthy boundary that says to the lust-er to avoid provocation. To the materialistic - avoid the mall. Does it say to the lonely to avoid community? To the single to avoid weddings? Where is the line between selfishness and self-protection? Where is the godly answer in guarding our hearts and avoiding the hope deferred? At what point do you have to recognize that being selfless requires a certain amount of selfishness?