Saturday, March 2, 2013

Unique? Yes. Special? No.

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

The Compulsion to Feel Special

Because I work mostly from home, I’m privy a universe that many daytime commuters may never discover. It’s the world of afternoon television, a thing wholly unto itself. On the chat shows, smug has-been and not-quite celebrities bemoan the peccadillos of more current and famous stars. On the judge programs, ex-lovers, former friends, and fractured families drag each other into court demanding redress for slights and slander. On “Dr. Phil”, regular-looking folks lay their dysfunction at the good doctor’s feet for all to see. On the news stations, prattlers and howlers truck in hyperbole and speculation.

To the bank teller at home with the flu or the snowed-in schoolteacher, picking through TV’s midday buffet can be an eye-popping experience. It’s a feast of every kind of crazy. What could possibly induce people to behave so ridiculously in front of millions? Anyone regularly exposed to afternoon TV knows why. Celebrated or unknown, TV’s workaday denizens think they’re special. They believe their woes and outrage set them apart. At first, that would seem to be the case. But over time, a more sorrowful reality emerges. They are not special. For every betrayed spouse, there are another hundred queued up with similar stories. Every neighbor suing for property damage falls between dozens who’ve already been there and dozens more to come. Every star break-up boils down to the same foibles that have ruined relationships since the dawn of time. Today’s political kerfuffle will make way for tomorrow’s flap. In this regard, the surest way to prove how ordinary you are is to broadcast your “specialness.”

I paint this picture not to lament the pathetic state of daytime TV. It is what it is. Rather, the armchair sociologist in me is fascinated by how accurately it mirrors the compulsion to feel special. We’re all driven by a desire to set ourselves apart. Many of us set out to accomplish this in a constructive manner that can lead to overachievement and false pride. Just as many of us are convinced that our tests distinguish us from everyone else. Either way, these self-portraits we create are striped with the supposition that God should somehow love us more for being “special.” Sunday’s readings, particularly the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10.1-13) and Gospel (Luke 13.1-9), issue reality checks that charge us to recognize we’re not as special as we may suppose. While we may not be pleased to hear it, when we absorb what the texts say, they deliver really good news.

This Notion of “Deserving”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul revisits Israel’s wilderness trek, noting though the people’s needs were met, their grumbling caused many to be destroyed. Jesus picks up this destruction theme in Luke, where he recalls Roman atrocities against the Galileans and the deadly implosion of a tower. “Do you think these things happened because the victims were worse sinners than you?” He asks. “No,” He answers, saying, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” When we unpeel this onion down to its core, we uncover a message of sameness. We all cross dry deserts. Any one of us can be random targets of violence and casualties of disaster. Our tests aren’t reliable indicators of our singularity, as victors or victims.

These texts yank this notion of “deserving” off the table. We neither deserve special favor because we’ve done well nor special consideration because we’re unable to do better. Whatever we’re dealing with, good or bad, opens avenues for God’s grace to reach us. Individuals who appear to have everything going their way need God’s grace. Those who can’t seem to buy a break need it, too. This is the crux behind Paul’s admonition that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10.13) Whatever we face, we are not the first to confront it. Nor will we be the last. No one is singled out to suffer. No one is selected to succeed. Tests come to everyone. And they are given for one purpose only: to teach us our God is faithful.

What’s Unique About Us

This is a tough idea to digest. We want whatever we go through—whether the price we pay for success or burdens we bear at great personal expense—to say something extraordinary about us. But what’s extraordinary in this context is that God remains true regardless what we go through. Our specialness isn’t defined by our circumstances. What’s unique about us is located in our making—in the specific gifts and flaws placed in each of us to engender reliance on God’s grace. Because I was born gay doesn’t entitle me to harbor resentments or indulge in self-pity. Because someone else is burdened with wealth doesn’t grant license to feel superior or exploit privilege. Wherever we fall on life’s continuum, we will be tested. And the only way to survive our tests is by turning to God. “Unless you repent…” Jesus says.

Many times I’ve heard people quote Paul’s admonition about life’s trials and stop at “God will also provide a way out.” That’s magical thinking that ultimately defeats the purpose behind our tests. To accept this teaching, we have to ride the text out to the end: “so you may be able to endure it.” God’s faithfulness is proven in times of testing, not in helping us escape them. It’s who we are—not what we deal with—that makes us unique. Our trials are fundamentally no different than everyone else’s. The good news about not being special is found in the discovery that, regardless who we are, our God is always the same.

Tests and trials offer no indication of how “special” we are. In fact, they confirm we’re no different than anyone else. Our making—the gifts and flaws specific to each of us—is what’s unique.


Sherry Peyton said...

What an excellent reminder! We are so ready to feel superior, and I find that my nemesis is in "knowing" better than others on any variety of subjects. Yet many who "know" things find themselves being proven wrong. And there is no graciousness in being the "know-it-all". Those who labor quietly behind the scenes in humility deserve the real accolades. As you point out, our uniqueness is in our simply being who we are--and the better we try to be that authentically, the better we shall be. God alone sees our true intentions and our successes. He sees our failings and loves us any way. He sees our very human trials and offers his guidance ad support. We do nothing of good without him. Thank you Tim for the reminder. I needed it especially today.
Blessings every day! Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, I'm slowly learning to take comfort in the notion that I'm no different than the next one. Neither my strengths nor weaknesses are so singular that I should rely on either to explain who I am. All I am is one of millions, all of whom must depend on God's love and help. There is something quite wonderful in knowing that!

Thanks for your thoughts here. It's always a joy to hear what you have to say and a pleasure to break the Bread of Life with you!

Blessings always,