When I first worked in prisons people would ask me about the women I worked with and part of my reply would often be: ‘I just want to take them home, keep them in my spare room and feed them biscuits, where no one and nothing can hurt them.’
It was a joke. Sort of. So many of the women clearly needed nurture and love, which I could provide through copious biscuits. There was a need to be away from harmful stuff – drugs, certain men, certain associates – and none of these were lurking in my spare room, I assure you dear reader. But my words were also a statement that didn’t recognise the woman’s autonomy and personhood. It put me in the role of saviour, mollycoddler, dispenser-of-all-things-good without even a hint of irony. It put my red cape out there for all to see.
The desire to help people, to alleviate suffering, to see others flourish is clearly God-given. For example, I believe God has put a deep desire in me to see the women I work with in the criminal justice system set free – free from abuse, pain, fear, addiction and so on. But where does my desire to serve – to bless – end and my self-aggrandisement and delusion begin? Only I can help this woman. Many other people have failed, but I will not. I will never give up. I shall make her feel more valuable, more important, more human, whatever the cost. I shall spend my free time doing this too. Then it’ll be clear to everyone that I am a good grafter: I work so hard for others, despite my own feelings – I always go the extra mile, I live almost as sacrificially as Jesus did. In fact my whole life is about other people and meeting their needs.
Because that’s what true Christianity is – making sure all of my life is about others, whatever the cost.
Well, ish. I’ve spent an adult life being seduced by verses about taking up my cross, preferring the needs of others, being a living sacrifice – which on the one hand is very good and large swathes of the Western Church could do with a bit more of that theology – lay down your life, your holiday, your right to put your kid in a good school etc. However, if that is your only theology (and it was previously mine), then it’s lopsided. I’d take it further still… The serve-till-you-drop, the no-space-for-me-and-my-needs life, the idea that acknowledging any level of need or want in yourself is selfish – that’s all a cleverly disguised lie.
Yes we are to be “poured out like a drink offering”, but there’s a reason the verse states “love your neighbour as yourself”. The reason being that God wants to lavish love on us. Service and denying yourself are crucial to a full life with Jesus, but they are not the full story. Nor are they meant to take precedence over putting yourself in the path of God’s love for you. I felt pretty poured out most of the time, and when you think about it, who wants to receive ‘love’ from a poured out person who has been motivated by their self-hatred and a desire to punish themselves (in amongst some good motivations)? I am not Jesus and to pretend I am is woefully arrogant. I cannot rescue anyone. We need to fully understand that we are not meant to crucify ourselves, because Jesus has already done that*. Jesus took our shame and received punishment, so we can live free from it, not so that we can be driven by it and dress it up as following him.
So, when a woman was taken to court and released without charge completely unexpectedly and with no money, only a small bag of belongings; and when she crossed London on foot to reach our office; and when this was late on a Friday afternoon, so London’s tiny emergency housing provision was all but all the pub ’til Monday and still she had nowhere to sleep – I bit my lip and didn’t offer her the sofa bed in my lounge for the weekend. For one thing, I’d have got the sack, and rightly so, if I did. I put my red cape away and let God work. She is God’s responsibility, not mine. I made many frantic phone calls to do what I could, sure. But I knew that I wasn’t God, that God was God; that God desires obedience more than sacrifice and sometimes being obedient to the author of love means finishing at 5pm and switching my work phone off…
Yeah, I’m still struggling with the profound, releasing truth of that… and learning to let God love me first, whether I have my world-saving cape on or not.
*I don’t think ‘dying to self’ is about punishing ourselves, rather it’s about letting God set us free. That freedom has no hint of punishment in it.