you did not choose me - I chose you
I can remember what being the last to be chosen for a net ball team felt like. Failed before one had even started. From that moment on, I have never liked team sports – or any competitive sport. The problem with competitive teams is that they set you up as somebody who gets chosen, or somebody who doesn’t, and that can define who you are for the rest of your life. You take whatever positive or negative feeling you have experienced as a team player, or non-player, into all the other areas of life where a person needs to prove themselves in some way. If you start life feeling that you were never ‘chosen’ your attitude to life will be governed by a sense of having already failed and therefore of being generally unworthy.
The person who is hard wired for failure does not really feel that they deserve to succeed and this plays itself out in all sorts of testing situations. It also plays itself out in their relationships. Passing or failing exams is not entirely a matter of innate intelligence because success in any testing situation begins with a person’s aptitude or gift being recognised or affirmed from the beginning, often by a wise teacher. Even passing a driving test and then becoming a good driver is a matter of believing first of all that you can drive safely. If you don’t believe this, not only will you fail the test but you may well cause a serious accident at some point in the future, even if by some fluke chance you happen to pass the test on the day. Low self esteem is long term and can have fatal consequences.
Low self esteem is often reinforced by bad religious teaching. Some churches convey an idea of a God who chooses or rejects people on the basis of highly suspect theological criteria, sometimes presented in such a way as to favour their own personal power agendas, or those of charismatic leaders. Signing up to these criteria allows a person to belong to a particular church grouping and to feel that they are in some way ‘predestined’ for God’s special favour and thereby superior to, and protected from, the world outside. This is what we call dispensationalism, believing that as a member of a particular group they will be spared God’s wrathful indignation and the subsequent punishment which the rest of the world will be subjected to – as they see it.
Other churches make much of the virtue of humility without really understanding what humility entails. People who have been the victims of such teaching (and they are often women) may have had their giftedness deliberately ‘put down’, by the ignorance of the times or by sheer envy on the part of family, teachers, colleagues or even well meaning friends. But envy destroys its perpetrators as well as it victims because it destroys a person from within.
Jesus tells his disciples that he has chosen them. What he means is that he has always known that they were his. Each one of them was destined to do the work of the kingdom in widely differing but prophetic ways, each according to their means, according to their unique personhood. He tells the apostle Nathanial that he has always known him, echoing the words of the book of Isaiah ‘ I have called you by name, you are mine.’ (Is. 43:1) It is in knowing ourselves as named and cherished by God that we begin to find our true self. But Jesus also speaks of the need to ‘die’ to self. Dying to self seems to be the only way to life and freedom. These two approaches seem to contradict one another. So how do those who have never really felt they have a self ‘die’ to themselves in this way?
Dying to self begins with realising where our true self is to be found, and that it really is ours and not someone else’s, or one that has been imposed on us by other people’s expectations. As a result of the destruction which has been wrought on it in the past, we have perhaps spent most of our lives searching for this self in all the wrong places, or giving up on the search by resorting, instead, to easy and superficial living. This is to avoid our true self, rather than to die to it. Or perhaps we have spent most of our lives trying to reclaim our real selves from the manipulative influence of another person. But our true self is to be found by listening to Jesus telling us that he has already chosen us, that we are not to continue trying to reclaim someone we thought we once were, or were trying to become. Neither do we need to struggle to project this other self into the lives of others, often in ways which diminish them, thereby perpetuating the damage done to us.
We do not succeed in the fullest sense at the expense of someone else’s happiness. In the economy of the kingdom of heaven both success and happiness are measured according to entirely different criteria. Success has to do with the extent to which we are able to allow Christ to love us so that we can generate love in the world. We do this by allowing him, or surrendering our anxieties to him, so that he can re-work our own past into something of unique value to him, and for the work which he calls us to. In his ‘economy’, or from his perspective, past, present and future are as a single moment. He is already in the past ‘working all things to the good’, including our old self, and he will go on doing this right up until the moment we meet him face to face in our physical dying. So happiness comes from doing that work with him now, not for our own sakes but for the sake of all those others whom he loves and wishes to set free because they too are locked in a struggle with their old selves. The work of Christian discipleship begins with recognising the pain of others and loving them with a love which only God can give. It is not we who love but God who loves in us. Only when we surrender our selves, or our spirit, into his hands, as Jesus did, do we begin to truly live and to become who we really are.