“Maybe we like the pain. Maybe we’re wired that way. Because without it, I don’t know; maybe we just wouldn’t feel real. What’s that saying? Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.”
-Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy. Yep, seriously, this is my choice.
“Stop hitting yourself” says the older brother to his helpless sibling as he slaps him enthusiastically on the face. A parent eventually pipes up, however in the meantime, the confused and, by now, delirious child has become the most unhappy of all victims: the self-harmer. “Stop hitting yourself!” “But I can’t.” Let’s call that parent God, and the poor idiot in the backseat, you. Yep, that’s you.
Shame-based monotheism has done much for society: it gives young women curfews, it hates pork, and it makes Israel supremely important to everyone. However, in all the fasts and prayers and Sabbaths, I wonder if we’ve endowed the maker with a responsibility for shame that he never wanted, that he even hates.
You see, it’s not just that Albino monk from the Davinci Code who hits himself. Everyone does it. Stop hitting yourself, for there is something to the endless symphony of effort and striving and self-punishment which even the pious (read: scared) should see as excessive. The “I can start to enjoy church/temple once I’ve punished myself enough” mentality is hurtful to God, as well as to you.
“There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear, he who fears has not been made perfect in love” The difference between a parent’s ‘dependable’ kid and the other children who they “all love equally,” (YOU LIE!) is the confidence. The favourite child still ignores and shouts at their parents, but, come bed-time, genuinely believes that dad does actually care for them. You see, these don’t practice that fakish, empty ‘pay your dues’ respect- the dependable kid actually values their parent’s opinions (and may not send them both to a home later)
Many believers speak of the maker’s love and compassion; but few live as though they have it. It’s the uninitiated, the new converts, who seem most enthusiastic, who often seem happiest. And they’re called ‘naïve.’
We should stop hitting ourselves: by out-performing, by exceeding the piety and ascetic heights of self-restraint which we thought impressive when we first scaled them, we diminish our value. We say “just as I am” but it is the same type of authenticity that a bride might aspire too: perfected authenticity, the post-diet me. The thinner me, the “new me.” Meanwhile, the real, fleshy mammal beneath is hated.
This ‘diet religion’ is all about the pay-off. Each time the follower disappoints, they, finding their humanity unacceptable, promise themselves, with ultimatums, that they shall never do it again. And when they, with much horror, find that they did do it again (and again, and again,) they compensate with even harder ultimatums, more reckless standards of self-denial, even harsher expectations.
The pay-off, the “phew, I’m still safe” only gratifies if these self-harmers have really outdone themselves, if they’ve paid in blood (the irony is terrible, ‘payment of blood’, the cross and all.) So we lift the bar, because “adequate” is never enough when we offer pain, and, “I’m only human” is unacceptable.
Perhaps we think that we need shame-monotheism. Shame might make it easier to sense that one has escaped the divine punishment, and, after all, If I don’t ever feel scared then how do I know if I feel safe? For shame, it seems, also provides a clearer opposite: namely, confidence. Without feeling unsure, when do I know to feel safe? (Apparently, it’s preposterous to always feel confident of God’s tolerance)
Christianity is pretty clear on this matter: substitutionary atonement disqualifies self-effort, and ensures divine protection. However, it’s that serious dourness of the preacher that makes such claims seem unlikely. Perhaps preachers should smile more. It’s easy, even for all the promises of God’s mercy, for it to sound like pleasant, but empty placation- when it comes to the crunch. They seem like nice Sunday School stories, but he’s a harsh creator. “God does love, but you just have to earn it,” seems closer to the money.
But, and it’s a big but, even if we could earn God’s approval by proving to him our deep convictions about our own failures- perhaps all that yearning, that effort which comes to nothing when, once again, you should have tried harder, that desperation and then the sense of being hard done by: turns poisonous. Perhaps it starts eating its host: it manifests and makes you sick. Proverbs makes it clear: “Can a man carry fire to his chest and his clothes not be burnt?”
The saints and heroes and prophets seem to trust God, not in that self-protective, “If I just abstain then he protects me” way, but with a confident, honest enjoyment of his presence. Christ hasn’t changed since then, so, maybe we’re missing something.
*Ian Mckellan’s involvement in The Da Vinci Code movie confuses me. Also, the albino monk just needed a hug.