Paul Prather

When it comes to Christianity, less is more. Less of you, that is.

The New Testament tells Christians to give more and expect to get less in return. That’s not always easy to do. As Kentucky writer Wendell Berry put it in The New Yorker recently, “it all comes back to the problem of self.”
The New Testament tells Christians to give more and expect to get less in return. That’s not always easy to do. As Kentucky writer Wendell Berry put it in The New Yorker recently, “it all comes back to the problem of self.” Getty Images

Nearly everything about the Christian faith is, by design, at odds with our natural inclinations and with the precepts of the culture in which we live.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the New Testament’s teachings that command us not to concern ourselves with our own good or our own rights, but to instead prefer others, even when they might be doing us wrong, or even if they’re squirrelly or too needy or irresponsible.

“Why not prefer to be wronged?” St. Paul asks in a typical passage.

If you’re ordered to carry a soldier’s pack one mile, carry it a second mile voluntarily, Jesus says. If you’re struck on one cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone demands your coat, give him your shirt, too. Don’t lend money to those who will pay you back with interest; lend to those won’t pay you back at all.

All these actions help us lose ourselves. To find our life, we first must lose it, Jesus explains.

Of course, for many people, including most Christians, such an approach smacks of stark raving madness. If anybody but Jesus or an apostle offered this advice, we’d send him for counseling.

We’re mainly taught by our culture that leading a healthy life requires standing up for our rights. It requires not letting anyone take advantage of us. It requires establishing strict practical and emotional boundaries around ourselves that no one may cross. It requires placing ourselves at the center of our own physical and emotional universe.

There’s a certain practicality to all that, I realize. I’ve known people who seemed to have no innate emotional defenses and desperately needed to erect barriers to protect themselves from the predators walking all over them.

But what if that’s not your issue?

My problem, for instance, is that I’ve always been by nature one big, impregnable boundary. Not only have I not let others take advantage of me, I’ve tended not to let anyone mildly inconvenience me. I’ve done what I wanted when I wanted, without a great deal of regard for how others (except my closest loved ones) felt about it.

I don’t need to erect walls around myself. I need to pull my walls down.

I think it’s people like me — and perhaps you — that Jesus and St. Paul were addressing.

The longer I’ve lived, the sicker of myself and my self-centeredness I’ve become. It’s a great burden to always be guarding your rights and your property and your ego. It’s exhausting.

I’ve slowly, incrementally, imperfectly realized that, where I’m concerned, Jesus and Paul were right on the money.

So was John the Baptist when he said, “I must decrease, so Jesus may increase.”

I’ve been trying for years to get over myself. I want to get out of my own and God’s way, so that God can get bigger in me, so he can demonstrate his love through me toward others. I’m trying to submit to him, to the needs of my fellow pilgrims, to service.

It’s not going well, frankly. I find this self of mine keeps a death grip on me. I have to repeatedly pry its frantic, grasping fingers loose.

I considered this struggle recently while reading a magazine interview with Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.

Berry talks about his friends among the Amish, who take great pleasure in quietly, nearly anonymously serving their neighbors who are in need.

“Finally it all comes back to the problem of self,” Berry observes. “Blake spoke of Satan the Selfhood. What the Amish are trying to do is lose themselves.”

Yes, I thought. Satan is Selfhood and Selfhood is Satan. That’s it.

Although I’m not Amish, what they want is what I also want: to lose myself. I want to discover the true freedom of submission — and submersion. I want to get away from me.

But it’s hard. I’ve come to realize that my self-worship is partly about fear.

It’s a fear of being misused. It’s a fear of becoming undervalued. It’s a fear of giving up financial or other resources I might need later to people who will only squander them now. It’s a fear of having my time and privacy impinged on. It’s a fear of being made uncomfortable.

It stems from lack of trust in God. I guard myself because secretly I’m scared he won’t guard me.