Best Selves—Versus Blest Selves
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Mark 3: 20-35
My wife Margaret teaches college students Strategic Communications—public relations, marketing, so forth. She has students write blog posts about favorite topics to get them used to developing a media presence. She told me the other day that one thing they often like to write about is “being their best selves.”
Trying to be the best person they can be. Tied closely to that: they write about “mental, physical and emotional health” almost like a mantra. Mental, physical and emotional health are the building the blocks of “their best selves.”
We found that interesting, actually kind of different from what it was like when we were college students ourselves in the late seventies/early eighties. It’s not like those things didn’t occupy our thoughts at some level—but it’s striking that we would never say, and were never told, “to be our best selves” and to strive for “mental, physical and emotional health.” Mental health, for instance, was only spoken of in terms of pathologies. If you were depressed, you had to suck it up. And it would have been awful to admit struggles with certain mental illnesses, say Bi-Polar Disorder which is surprisingly common, in public. Mental health was supposed to be a given and any deviation from it was not a topic for discussion. That’s quite a change from today, when it’s not uncommon for people to admit their diagnoses or struggles openly on social media. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. For too long we have been taught that struggles with mental and emotional challenges are shameful and not to be admitted to. We were striving for some kind of false idol—I do mean idol, as in idolatry—of perfection. In the process we suppressed ourselves, our needs, and our uniqueness.
Having said that, I wonder if striving to be “our best selves” is another impossible, unattainable goal we set for ourselves, another type of perfection. At some level, as long as mental health, physical health, and emotional health are our goals, we will always feel like we’ve fallen short.
And who sets the standards for “mental, physical and emotional health” anyway? There is immense social pressure on all of us to fit some cookie-cutter version of mental, physical, and emotional health. And it’s never easy to distinguish what might objectively be your “best self” and what others might be pressuring you to think of as your “best self.”
And so I take great comfort in knowing that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our role model as Christians, was thought to be crazy by his family and possessed by a demon by his enemies. If that’s what they thought of the Son of God, then maybe it’s okay if sometimes people think I’m off my rocker when I’m just being true to God and to myself.
Yes, if your parents think you are crazy, if your siblings think you’ve gone off the deep end, and if people who don’t like you think that you are possessed, you are in very good company. There is a level at which any of us, trying our best to live into what we think is right or best, is going to look crazy to someone else or at least eye-rollingly strange. There is something in society that requires of us a level of conformity. That conformity inevitably pressures us to over-emphasize certain qualities while suppressing others.
My friend Scott Lennox, an extremely able local therapist and podcaster, tells the story of being in Fifth Grade and having a sculpture assignment in art. After some thought, little Scott rolled the clay, widened it at the bottom, and looked at it satisfied. To him it was finished and perfect. Not so much to his art teacher, who thought he was being non-cooperative and non-conforming and wrote a note to his mother. But when Scott’s mom got the note, she took Scott back inside and confronted the teacher. “If Scott thought what he made was beautiful, it is beautiful,” she told the teacher. “And that means he fulfilled your assignment.” The teacher did not acknowledge that but it didn’t matter. And Scott says that for years, his mom kept that little sculpture by her bed—an affirmation not just of the sculpture, but of Scott. As Scott says, who would he have been if she had handled that differently? But she didn’t. (https://scottlennox.com/the-beautiful-question-podcast, episode 165.)
Our story in Mark today illustrates the complicated relationship Jesus had with his family and society. It’s sometimes confusing for us to see this side of his life. Here, for instance, Jesus’ mother Mary is presented as afraid that her firstborn son is mentally deranged. But in other places in the Bible, she affirms him as the Son of God!
But I think we all know that when our parents think we’re the Son or Daughter of God that can be both a blessing and a curse, because it brings with it expectations that you and I might prefer not to conform or comply with. They may expect us to be quiet when we need to be loud—or the other way around. They may expect us to be gender-conforming when we can’t be. They may expect us to like things they like or to understand church, religion, or politics the way they do. Those of us who are parents often learn hard lessons about those matters that make us realize that despite our expectations, our children need to be who they are, and we need to love them no matter what. And we adapt.
I imagine Jesus taking from his mom all the affirmations of her calling him the Son of God and then sorting out all the not-so-affirming stuff that came with it, as we all do when it comes to the influence of parents, friends and society. And I think the evidence is that Mary went through a period of doubt, concern or—and I suspect this is it more than anything—fear for her son and the route he was taking, but she clearly came around in the end.
Jesus in our scripture lays down the guideline for how we set the standards that help us live our lives. “Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my brothers, and my sisters,” he says. This must be understood first in context: religion and society have called him demon-possessed and his mom is afraid he’s nuts because of the risks he’s taking. Religion, society and his family are pressuring him to conform to a certain expectation.
In contrast, Jesus tells us to do the will of God. That is our standard of being who we are meant to be. If only that was as easy as all that!
If I was a fundamentalist, telling you how to do the will of God would be easy. Just do what the Bible says. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s what Fundamentalists really believe. I think they have pre-conceived notions of what the Bible says and ignore any passages that might tell them differently. For instance, they will tell women to sit down and shut up in church, because that’s what it says in I Corinthians. But they ignore the fact that one of the earliest judges, one of the leaders of early Israel, was Deborah. They gloss over clear passages where Paul openly affirms women’s leadership, as for instance Romans 16, where a woman church leader named Junia is called an “apostle” and another woman named Phoebe is called a “minister.” So Paul seems to contradict himself.
Likewise, we have plenty of examples of warriors in the Old Testament; but Jesus extolls peacemakers in the New Testament, tells his followers to put down their swords, and refuses to defend himself on the way to the cross—an example that all the Apostles eventually followed. Warrior or peacemaker? How do we resolve this, and many other challenges to being faithful in modern life that seem not to be addressed by Scripture at all?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others talked about “dialectic theology.” A simple way to frame that might be to take two seemingly contrasting perspectives in the Bible and find where you fit between those two points of view. Non-violent or warrior? A woman’s place is in the house or a woman’s place is in the White House? In conversation with God in prayer, in conversation with Scripture, in conversation with others and in conversation with the realities of your life and the modern world, you sort out to the best of your ability who you need to be and what you need to do in order to do “the will of God.”
Dialectic theology though is larger than that. It’s really about a non-formulaic, deeply prayed over and struggled-with search to find out the elusive nature of God in a world that contrasts sharply with the world in which the Bible was written. The tension is between what we know of God through Scripture and the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and the world in which we live and move today.
Discerning how to follow the will of God in the present reality, and how to be the you God calls you to be, is often very personal. The promise we have is that God has given us the Holy Spirit, a piece of the divine nature that enables us to transcend simple solutions in favor of more divine solutions. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are a part of God. When we struggle with honesty and humility to discern the right path, we’ll receive insights and direction. Dialectic theology affirms your ability to interact with God personally and discern God’s path for you rather than having others tell you how to go about it.
The point is that this discernment has to be sincere. We have to really be seeking the will of God, not just seeking for God to stamp divine approval on what we already want to do anyway.
We Presbyterians do not so much talk about people being their best selves. What we talk about is Sanctification—the idea that we are by the grace of God and by the work of the Holy Spirit within us, always on the path toward where we need to be, always improving, always drawing closer to God’s intention for our lives. But we don’t arrive there, at least not in this life. We stray. We think we’re doing the right thing and end up doing the wrong thing. We are not by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how long or how well we live, perfect. That’s okay. We trust in a loving forgiving God who knows how imperfect we are and no matter what, God still loves us. God forgives us and picks us up when we fall. Unlike other people, unlike society, unlike perhaps most of all unlike ourselves, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect people.
On the contrary, what God wants is humble people who know they aren’t perfect but know they are forgiven and that by God’s grace they can be better. Such people know they have to seek the will of God always, that they’ve never arrived but are always on this incredible, challenging and ultimately rewarding journey as they seek to be one with the will of God.