A few years ago, I was invited to present a paper at the national conference in my field.
I was elated and then immediately terrified. The conference was huge, drawing big-name scholars and researchers from all over the country, and I’d be sharing my work. With them. In front of them. In front of everybody.
When my husband and I arrived to the event, I immediately made it my goal to procure the program and seek out the conference room in which I’d be presenting. We snuck down to it and I examined the size of it, the A/V equipment, the chairs, the podium. I hoped the sight would comfort me, but it didn’t. If anything, it only made me worry more.
I’d be up there, speaking in front of people whose names I’d read in books. They’d be listening. They’d ask questions. Obsessed with how I’d be perceived, I zeroed in on every detail under my control and micro-managed it to death: my presentation, my dress, my shoes, my makeup, my voice. When the time for my panel arrived, I walked into the conference room mentally armed to the teeth for every scenario I could think of.
And here is what happened: nobody cared.
I don’t mean to imply that anyone was unkind. People were very polite and friendly! They listened during my presentation and they asked nice questions and I received a few thoughtful compliments. But mostly, everyone was occupied with their stuff. The head of the panel was crouched down messing with the A/V equipment and frowning over it. The other presenters were too worried about their own papers to give any thought to mine. The audience was attentive, but also ready to move on once the presentations had concluded. And those big-time scholarly names? They were mostly there to talk amongst themselves.
The realization that I was not the center of the world was oddly comforting to me. I actually think it was the reason my presentation went so smoothly. If I messed up my talk or couldn’t answer a question, sure, people would notice in the moment – but then they’d go on and I’d be a random memory from a random conference that was, in the long run, not all that important.
What I learned from this – am still learning from this – is that overt focus on the self can be devastating. We have a tendency to perceive ourselves as the center of everything: we are, we believe, constantly being watched/criticized/noticed/observed by others. Therefore, anything that happens to us it the most important thing that could possibly be happening anywhere, ever. Anything that hurts us is the most hurtful thing that could possibly be happening anywhere, ever. Everything that we feel or think demands priority. Our wants, our needs, our interests, our desires, our relationships, the benefits and detriments: these things form the crux of how we react to and interact with the world.
And we live in a cultural moment that emphasizes this. The importance of the individual, the prioritization of the self: that’s where America is living, right now. “I’m _____” is the battle cry of the day. If something makes us unhappy or nervous or disturbed or confused, we are to jettison it. If something pleases us or makes us happy or fulfilled, we’re permitted to keep it. We draw lines in the sand that form a box around “me” and organize the world around that box.
Christians, too, are in danger of this – in danger of a self-serving Christianity that serves us. In danger of remaking God into someone who serves us. In this way of thinking, prayer is something that we do for our benefit: so that we can get stuff, or make stuff happen, or stop bad things happening. Redemption matters only inasmuch as it spares us. Implementing God’s word in our lives becomes important only because it allows us to feel superior to those we perceive as implementing it less or wrongly.
But Christianity isn’t that. Christianity isn’t focused on us at all. It exists so that we may focus on God; He exists at the center, and we at the periphery. And when we allow that to be so – when we take that moment to realize, oh, it’s not really all here for me – so many concerns and worries and problems fall away. It’s easier to behave like a servant when you realize you were never really the lord of the castle; it’s easier to be humble when you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you. And things like empathy, and peace, and kindness? It’s easier to act on those as the rest of the world – that world in which you are not king and dictator – comes into focus.
Matthew 20:28 reminds us that Jesus “came not to be served.” And most of us skip on over that bit to the important part: that he came to serve, to redeem us. Because who doesn’t want to feel the warm glow of the redemption story? In our focus on that, though, we can fail to fully grasp the truth: Jesus, the very center of the universe, came here to be treated not at all like the center of the universe. To be treated in most cases like an afterthought. Like a servant. Like a plain old regular anybody.
If He was willing to do that, how can we really ask any less of ourselves?
My prayer this week is that I’d be awake to how easy it is for me to believe that I am the center of everything, and to demand that the world adjust itself accordingly. If I permit God to be the center around which all revolves, I will naturally fade into the background – and it will become so much easier to do all He has asked me to do.
It’s not all about me. And that’s comforting.