The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Apparently, we all agree that the value of a person doesn’t depend as much from their doing as from their being. But, what does the world understand by being?
«His life was his best book»
This comment, which someone made about the Christian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas when he died, had a considerable impact on me. I thought about my own life. Is it possible to find a better summary or tribute for a believer? It made me think about a vital biblical principle: the most important thing in this life is not what we do, but what we are.
Indeed, being comes before doing. In God´s eyes what we are is more important than what we do. Doing has its value, but only when it comes from a pure heart. This idea is clearly stated in the divine instruction to Samuel when he had to choose David as a king. What was the basic requisite God gave to the prophet? “Don’t look at his appearance, or on the height of his stature…for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 S. 16:7).
There was something to avoid and something else to search for in his election; avoid the outward, the visible because that's secondary, and look for what's inside, within the heart, the being. The Lord always “tests the heart and the mind » (Jer. 11:20).
Apparently, we all agree that the value of a person doesn’t depend as much from their doing as from their being. But, what does the world understand by being? When it comes to put a name on it –“being, what?”-very profound differences appear between the world and the teaching of Christ. Take, for example, the writer Oscar Wilde who said: «The work of someone is his own self». This is why we need to understand first the current views of our society on this topic and then, in our last section, we will see what true “being” is according to the Scriptures.
Dead-end paths: the secular gods
At first sight these paths are very attractive, but in the end they lead nowhere but to frustration and to a sense of absurdity. The book of Ecclesiastes describes these empty ways very forcefully showing how they become a source of vanity (emptiness). The danger lies in their seducing starting point. These ways present themselves in a very seductive manner because they flatter the self with promises of freedom and self-fulfilment that dazzle the human heart always thirsty for glory and for self-sufficiency. We live in the self- generation, a sort of epidemic narcissism that entangles everything around us. In this pervasive atmosphere, a Christian can subtly be lead astray from the deep biblical sense of “being”.
We should not forget how sin entered into the world. The promise was “you will be like God” (Gn. 3:5). The devil used the appealing temptation of “being like…” to seduce Adam and Eve. Thus, we are not dealing here with a trivial matter, but with the very temptation through which sin affected human race. We should beware of such dazzling promises of “being” that flatter the ego and make us feel like God. As a matter of fact they are the favourite instrument of the evil one to separate men from their Creator. Narcissism –the most prevalent secular god- is one of the most serious threats both to the Church and to individual believers in the West. It subtly leads us astray from the fundamental purpose for our life: we are called to become like Christ, not to be like God.
What are these seductive paths, the secular gods offered by the world? I have chosen three of them, the ones that I consider more relevant to us, but they are not the only ones.
- The option of humanism: «you will be as God» (Gn. 3:5)
- The option of autonomy: «we are free» (Jer. 2:31)
- The option of materialism: «I’m rich and I need nothing» (Ap. 3:17)
THE HUMANIST OPTION: «YOU WILL BE LIKE GOD» (Gn. 3:5)
This option, very much up to date nowadays, is presented in different forms, each one pointing out a distinctive emphasis:
Self-glorification: “to be famous and to be admired”
The desire to make a name for one’s sake so that “everyone may remember me and may speak well of me” is as old as mankind. We find it in the book of Genesis when men decided to build the tower of Babel with an openly self-glorifying purpose: «Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower… and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gn. 11:4). No wonder such an attitude kindled the wrath of God who “confused the language of all the earth, and from there dispersed them over the face of all the earth » (Gn. 11:9). Instead of learning from past sins and mistakes, this self-worship tendency kept growing to a point that became a sort secular religion by the second part of the 20th century. Such popularity was mainly due to the influence of the so called humanist psychologies. Their most prominent leaders (Karl Rogers, A. Maslow, Eric Fromm) believed that every person has such great potential and capacities that they are short from being omnipotent. “You are like demigods” (the basic anthropological assumption of the humanist psychologists) sounds incredibly similar to the old voice of the Devil in Genesis «you will be like God».
The dream to be (or to become) someone great and famous is not reserved to big names and important people, those who are in a position to build statues and mausoleum to perpetuate their names. It is not necessary to be a Stalin, a Bokassa or any of the other megalomaniac from History. Ordinary people face the same temptation. Salieri, for example, the musician who was contemporary and rival of Mozart, left us a remarkable example of the seductive power of vanity. In the movie Amadeus the following prayer -allegedly from Salieri- is quoted: «Lord make a great composer out of me. Allow me to celebrate your glory through my music and to celebrate myself with it. Make me famous all around the world, make me immortal. After my death, may the people pronounce forever my name with love, thanks to the music I wrote ».
Let us see an example from everyday life. What are the most sought after professions by kids today? If you ask children “what do you want to be when grown up”? The most frequent answers are: football players, actors, actresses, singers, models etc. Thirty or forty years ago the answers were quite different: doctors, engineers, fireperson, nurses, teachers.
What does such a deep and significant change reveal to us? Today motivation does not stem from social interests – solidarity –, but mainly from personal and individual interests, by the sheer narcissist desire to be a winner and become famous. Otherwise, how could we explain the overwhelming success of TV shows like “X Factor”? It is the mirror through which thousand of youngsters see themselves. Their goal is to become famous, their idea of success to reach personal glory.
Self-fulfilment: «seek great things for yourself»
This secular god is, in fact, a development of the humanist option. If you want to be great, you must do something great. The challenge here is to develop your potentialities to its maximum. This is the way to happiness. This idea could be summed up like this: “you have an extraordinary inner power; think big and develop your great dream; you can do whatever you propose yourself; there are no limits to what you can achieve».
What is wrong with such an ambition? After all, it reminds us of a biblical portrait of human potential: «You made man a little lower than the heavenly beings and you crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet» (Psal. 8:5-6). We shouldn’t forget that the devil disguises any of these temptations with a moral language (2 Corinthians 11:4), even quoting the Scriptures, just as he did when he tempted the Lord, using the texts out of their context. This is why they can dazzle and entice. In fact, much of the language of these current popular philosophies (New Age, new spiritualities, etc.) strikes a Christian cord that can lead to confusion. Not all that sounds Christian is in fact Christian.
Where is the problem with self-fulfilment? There is indeed a kind of self-realization that is good and pleasing to the Lord. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he gave them the command to work and develop all their potential of creativity, using their talents and gifts as much as possible. In a world without sin, working was at the same time a source of personal satisfaction -fulfilment- and a way to glorify God. The apostle Paul summarized the key principle behind this legitimate form of self-realization in a memorable sentence: “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). The ultimate reason and purpose in all I do is to magnify Christ. Likewise John the Baptist helps us to discover the real meaning of self-fulfilment: «He must increase, but I must decrease » (Jn. 3:30). When fulfilment seeks to promote first our own self and glory, forgetting any reference to the Creator, then it becomes a sin. Let us remember clearly the warning of Jeremiah to Baruc: «¿Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not » (Jer. 45:5).
Each of these paths brings forth certain consequences. The humanist option usually leads to frantic activism. When being is focused primarily on our “self”, we go frenzy in hyperactivity. No surprise, it is a logical outcome. When the goal of your life is mainly to build your tower, to make yourself a name and to seek great things for you, you will end up living in hectic activism. Why? The biblical answer is clear: these people are consumed by greed; their ambition knows no limits, they always need more because they never have enough like insatiable thirst. In Psalm 127 we see this principle strikingly illustrated: the psalmist describes the correlation between a house built without the Lord and a foolish and frantic pace of life: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain... It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil… » (Psal. 127:1-2). It is an accurate diagnosis of the illness of our western world. Many people today don’t live, they simply do, they are so busy doing, that they have no time to live. This lifestyle, on the long run, will end up in emptiness and frustration because it neglects the architect of the house.
These secular gods ultimately lead to a twisting of the biblical order: instead of working to earn their living, many people today live just to work. Their life (being) has been engulfed by their work (doing). For sure in some cases this is due to sheer necessity, it is the only way to survive in a materialistic and wildly competitive world. But many times activism with its consequences (stress, anxiety, exhaustion) is the ransom for an excessive ambition focused on the self. The biographers of Marcel Proust tell that in the last years of his life “he didn’t live, he just wrote”. Far from me to judge the motivations behind the hyperactivity of this great French writer, but it is a reminder that we can be so absorbed in what we do that we end up generating a regrettable metamorphosis of life: the being is substituted by the doing.
A word of personal reflection is necessary here. We as believers are not totally free from the influence of these secular gods. How many times our efforts are unconsciously aimed at making us a name, improving our self-esteem or achieving the applause and the acknowledgment of others? Let us take time to review our motivations and our priorities. The words of the Lord through the apostle Paul (Colossians 3:23-24) continue to be a great challenge and a powerful encouragement at the same time:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving”.
Pablo Martínez, psychiatrist, author and international speaker.
This is the first of three articles on the topic 'Being before doing' .
 An excellent analysis of this secular religion from a Christian viewpoint can be found in two helpful books: Psychology as religion: The cult of Self -worship, Paul Vitz, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977 and recently, The big ego trip, Glynn Harrison, Inter Varsity Press. England, 2013