All day long we walk around with our egos. We cradle and coddle them close to our hearts and simultaneously hold them out like a compass leading us from space to space, audience to audience, or really, from courtroom to courtroom. Our self-constructed self-image demands to be validated, and since we are always bringing it along, every new scene becomes like another trial.
“We tote around our egos like that hairless cat in the Austin Powers movies,” a friend recently remarked as we were talking about all this. You might remember that cat. It was Dr. Evil’s pitiable pet, named Mr. Bigglesworth.
The metaphor actually works nicely. Try to picture it: our egos are like a hairless cat — except it’s a bloated cat, too, as fragile as that helium balloon your toddler brought home from a friend’s birthday party; and it’s also a Velcro cat, because it seems to always be getting things stuck on it.
That is what we are constantly putting on trial. That is what we walk around with, saying over and over again in every scenario,
Here [insert scenario], what’s your verdict on my hairless, bloated, Velcro cat?
Now it would be nice to say that such shenanigans vanish once we put our faith in Jesus, but we all know that’s not true. In fact, in many cases, it might actually get worse. That’s because rather than let the gospel truth sink all the way down (I’ll come back to this), we clog it up somewhere along the way by thinking that our Christian life is just another piece of the puzzle that contributes to our self-image, and therefore, because it’s just another piece of the puzzle, it must be managed like all the rest.
It goes like this: we are good employees (as reflected in the gushing approval of our superiors and colleagues, and that we never make mistakes and are so productive that people envy us); we are good parents (as reflected in our children’s behavior when people are watching, and that our Instagram photos are so dang cute); we are good Christians (as reflected in how mature our Christian friends consider us to be, and that we are so theologically solid).
And see, because it goes like this, we end up focusing more on the reflection than on the thing itself. Our egos, that cat, is all about image.
And if you don’t believe me, think back to the last group prayer time you were part of.
You’ve been there before. Everyone is gathered in a circle at the end of your Community Group meeting — “We’re going to do this popcorn style. So-and-so will close. Pray as you feel led.” And right away the inner dialogue starts: Should I pray? Yeah, I think so. But should I go now or wait? Oh, this is what I should pray about! Yeah, yeah, I’ll say that. But no, I don’t want to be a prayer hog — God, help me! — Okay, no, but yeah, that will be good. Wait, never mind, I don’t know. That might be awkward. They might . . .
And the truth is, you’ve hardly heard a word of what the others are praying. You’re too busy constructing your own prayer, and what keeps getting thrown into the mix is that question: What will their verdict be on my hairless, bloated, Velcro cat? What does their courtroom say?
We’re a mess, you know, all of us are. I used to think there was no way Paul was talking about his post-conversion self in Romans 7 until I thought more deeply about group prayer time. What do we do about all the posturing? I mean, really, come on.
Here’s what we do: we ditch the cat and get out of the courtroom.
And we do this because, first, our self-image is not self-constructed, it’s God-declared, and as for the courtroom, there is only one that really matters, and that court has been adjourned.
When it comes to self-image, it gets back to letting the gospel truth sink all the way down. When the gospel overcomes us, all the way down, we understand that our true identity isn’t the piecemeal reflection we find in the assessment of others. Like the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, it doesn’t really matter who they think he is. In fact, it doesn’t even matter who he himself thinks he is. “It is the Lord who judges me,” he says (1 Corinthians 4:4).
This means that Jesus isn’t a piece to be thrown in with all the others, but he radically defines the whole thing. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul says elsewhere (Galatians 2:20). And the Christ who lives in me plays on no one’s terms but his own. It is he who makes me me. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” says Paul again (1 Corinthians 15:10).
And the me that I am — being God-declared, not self-constructed — is what the courtroom is all about. But it’s not your job’s courtroom, or your followers on Twitter, or your Christian friends with their heads bowed and eyes closed. We’re talking about the ultimate courtroom now, God’s courtroom. And in that courtroom — it’s an adoption courtroom, by the way — the verdict has been reached, or rather, sealed by blood: You are forgiven. You are righteous. You are a beloved child of God! The gavel has dropped. Court is adjourned.
The ego must bow. The cat has to go. We’re not doing the trial thing anymore.
This means freedom, church. It means freedom like we’ve never known before. It means deeds of love will rush from our souls like a torrent. It means our witness will be full of gladness and never compromised. It means that when we’re praying in a group, sitting in that circle in the living room, and that neurotic dialogue starts up again, we laugh our inner-heads off and we pray away, loudly, and to God, because it’s what he thinks that matters.