One of my all-time favourite cartoons shows a man and woman on their first date, sitting at a table in a restaurant, chatting over coffee. They are just getting to know each other, and the man has been telling the woman about himself. Realizing that he’s been going on about himself long enough, he turns to her and says “But enough about me – let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”
We laugh, but we’re not so different. Underneath the veneer of self-assurance, our hearts cry out to know that we are OK, that we are acceptable, that we are highly valued, that we are loved and respected, that others think well of us. Most people seldom talk about such things, because even admitting our need makes us feel vulnerable, but these longings are deeply imprinted on the human heart.
No-one enters marriage hoping for a stormy, strife-filled marital relationship. Every engaged couple longs for a great marriage. Yet it’s easy to see that not all marriages are good ones. Why is this? Many factors make marriage a challenge, but I’m convinced that the biggest single factor is the self-preoccupation that is so evident in the cartoon clip described above. We long for intimacy and trust, yet we ourselves build the walls that keep others out and make true intimacy impossible.
The hunger for acceptance and affirmation is a reflection of how we were made. From the very beginning we were created for intimacy with God and with one another, but our Enemy has used this hunger against us. Ever since Adam and Eve took the fruit of the tree of knowledge, our race has been cursed with an inclination to choose independence over surrender. Satan knows this about us – he knows that there is a chasm separating us from the One who can meet the true need of our hearts – and he is right there, waiting in the shadows to fill the void with a toxic brew of unforgiveness, regrets, bitterness, fear, inferiority, superiority, pride, self-will, anger, and control. He specializes in drawing perceived or real grievances to our attention and magnifying them in our eyes, so that we feel justified in our self-preoccupation (“Can you believe what he/she did to me?”) , never realizing that we do the exact same thing to others. In our wounded, deceived condition, we have swallowed the Enemy’s lie that we have to look out for ourselves and can trust no-one. This lie is so deeply embedded in the core of our being that, as Paul says, we can’t help ourselves. This is why marriages fail – because both partners enter the marriage with wounded and polluted hearts and minds, crying out for love, and looking to their marriage partner to meet a need that can only be met when we surrender our independence and humbly turn to the healer of our souls.
You don’t have to be a Christ-follower to recognize that self-preoccupation is a big problem in human relations. Not surprisingly, psychological studies (1, 2) suggest a link between self-preoccupation and depression. I recently came across some reflections on this issue by Jayarava, a Buddhist monk. As I read his words, I found them quite perceptive. He notes that the practice of reflection, and life in community, are both of some help in taming the beast of self-preoccupation. However, he ends his reflections by saying that he is still waiting for real deliverance. He has found no true freedom because he has only his own resources, and the help of his friends, to call upon. As valuable as these things are, they are not enough without the power of God. Religion doesn’t have the power to set us free, our friends don’t have the power to set us free, but Jesus is able to set us free. That’s because he forever broke the power of self-preoccupation by surrendering himself to the will of the Father so that we could be forgiven and could learn to live in a new way.
God is absolutely passionate in his love for his errant human children, but until we surrender our independence and admit our need, we can’t see his love for what it is. He desires to demonstrate to each one of us the love that compelled Jesus to give his life for us. We only really discover freedom when, out of gratitude to the One who has set us free, we are able to ask a different question – not “who can love me”, but “whom can I love”. When we are able to ask this question, and depend on Jesus for the grace to walk it out, then we are on the way to a satisfying, fruitful life characterized by enduring peace, and a reward that endures for eternity.