As Americans, we are taught from birth to focus first, foremost and last on the great ‘I.’ How will I benefit from this situation? Look how I am being wronged. I am so offended. Look how I plot my revenge. Without the great ‘I,’ American culture would unravel itself.
This culture of individualism — the secular worship of it — is perhaps why we squirm so much when we come to certain passages in the Bible. Crack it open, begin reading, and eventually you will come to passages that defy individualism, and call us to place the good of others above ourselves in ways that are entirely antithetical to our society.
In Acts 2, we’re told the early disciples “shared everything they had … sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” Ponder that in light of the contemporary American ethos of greed. But, even more radical is Christ’s command that we love our enemies.
It’s not enough to love our friends — for even sinners do that. No, we must love our enemies, “do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”
This call to love our enemies forbids and removes the greatest of American pastimes. No, not baseball. Nor football, or any other sport. No, our greatest cultural pastime is getting even — avenging ourselves for any number of real or perceived wrongs committed by our neighbors against the great ‘I.’
We feel entitled, even duty-bound, to hold grudges and seek vengeance, because in our ethos of individualism, the great ‘I’ is the true center of our worship. But, the Bible leads us down a very different path — a path that calls us to get ourselves and our self-centered egos out of the way, and allow God to be the center of our praise.
The Book of Sirach tells us explicitly we cannot seek vengeance for ourselves: “He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord, and he will firmly establish his sins.” Our constant thirst to “get even” is incompatible with following the Way of Christ, because vengeance demands we place ourselves at the center of our story.
In Matthew 18, Peter tests the waters on just how far we must press this anti-individualistic forgiveness of others, asking Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Some translations say seventy times seven, or 490 times. No, that doesn’t mean we’re to break out the abacus, and wait til the 491st time to wreak our righteous revenge on our neighbor.
It means we must set aside ourselves, get ourselves out of the story, and instead let Christ step in, and show others the same grace he has shown us. Now, I have to include this disclaimer: showing grace, and forgiving, does not mean you stay in an abusive relationship or a damaging situation. It means you get yourself clear of that situation, and then forgive and love those involved, while maintaining healthy boundaries. But, to do that, to forgive those who have hurt us, we must set aside the ‘I’ of our ego, and allow the grace of Christ to fall that void.
This is a tall order — it is a hard path, that calls us to abandon the ‘I,’ turn away from the values this society teaches, and instead allow Christ to become our center, our purpose and our meaning. In other words, if we want to follow Christ, we must first get ourselves out of the way.
Christ calls us to place Him at the center of our story, as Paul tells us in Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Live or die, prosper or struggle, sick or well — we live it and die it for Christ, which means we do not do it for ourselves. This is an uncomfortable path that demands we abandon our secular worship of the great ‘I,’ and instead show others the same love Christ has shown us.
But, if we give up ourselves, if we truly die to ourselves, what happens to the ‘I’ of our ego? How do we accomplish anything in this world, without ‘I?’ Well, the truth we must face is, we cannot do it — at least not alone. This is the lesson Moses had to learn, when God told him to go and lead His people out of slavery in Egypt.
Moses, understandably has some doubts, and he said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Who am I to do such a thing? I think we all have this doubt, that holds us back from our purpose in God. Who am I to serve God? How could I overcome addiction? Why should I forget vengeance, and instead forgive, and love? But when Moses had doubts about the sufficiency of ‘I’ — of himself — God told him “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God is the Great I Am. God is the source and meaning of our identity — not the false ‘I’ we construct in this life. In John 8, Jesus took his place as the center of our being, and of all being. When his authority and identity we questioned, Jesus replied “Very truly I tell you … before Abraham was born, I am!”
Before we were conceived, Jesus was ‘I Am.’ And if we want to follow him, if we want to overcome our sins, overcome addiction, overcome hatred, fear and our lust for vengeance, we must stopping worshiping the ‘I’ of our ego, and allow Christ to take over our center and our meaning as the ‘I Am.’
Only when we do this, only when we get ourselves out of the way, only when we truly die to ourselves and allow Christ to become our center, will we have the strength to carry our cross in the footsteps of the Risen Lord.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, lead us to our cross, and give us the strength and courage to take it up and follow you. Lord God, help us to die to ourselves and serve only you. Lord the Holy Spirit, fill us to overflowing with the truth of the Great I Am, that we be lights of Christ’s love and grace in this dark world. Amen.