Tilting at Shadows

The dream is forgotten, something about a shadow disappearing because some unknown person tore down a windmill. Maybe it was Don Quixote tilting at windmills again. But from that forgotten dream came a truth, a waking thought, a trajectory altering question. How often do we battle the shadow of a thing instead of the thing itself?

This truth is pervasive. How often in medicine are the symptoms treated instead of the disease. Even when suffering the common cold, we fight the symptoms knowing that in a week to ten days the battle will be over.

We often battle the shadow instead of the thing itself to combat all the “isms”* of the world. You know, “isms” like racism, sexism, judgementalism, favoritism, and legalism.  We fight trying to change behavior instead of battling the ugly core of the human heart lest we discover that we too have a pet “ism” or two.

Even in our everyday life and relationships, we often battle the shadow of a thing instead of the thing itself. We attempt to change our behavior without looking into the dark depths of our soul. Making resolutions, turning over new leaves, vowing to be different the next time – all shadows. Perhaps we’re successful or not. But in all of these attempts, I wonder if we often change to fit in more than because we’ve had a change of heart.

By battling the shadow, the thing is still in control. We make progress only to fall to the temptation of the thing. The shadow of guilt and shame and fear drives us to again alter our behavior. To try and beat the shadow.

But what is this thing? What is this core of ugliness and darkness which casts its long shadows of guilt, shame, and fear in ourselves and over others?

We may assume it is an ancient wound, even one from before our moment of conception. Or it may seem to be a grievous heart wound caused by the accident of circumstance or the evil intent of another.  But those are still only the deep shadows of the thing and not the thing itself.

Look deeper, peer the depths of your own soul. Like all casters of shadows, the thing is much smaller than its shadow. Separate the shadows, discern effect and cause. Better yet, bring another light source to drive the shadows away. The thing is revealed, but we have a problem. There isn’t one word to adequately name it.

Let’s call it human self-pride, that core of our being which desires our own stature, value, importance, and power above all else. That self-willed idol which we bow and sacrifice to without even knowing it. Everything we do and feel either feeds or protects our pride. Self-pride is the irreducible source of all shadows.

Doubt this? Consider our reaction when someone steals something of ours. Anger? A desire for retribution? Self-pity? Feelings of being violated? Those are shadows of our wounded pride. The answer would seem to be somehow destroying our own self-pride. Many have tried, none have succeeded. Some have even gone to great lengths to destroy pride by becoming a hermit or adopting an extremely sparse and spartan lifestyle. But pride is still there because we are there.

This crucible of the heart we’ve called self-pride was created by God although it is twisted far from its original shape. Even in the Genesis account, the twisting of self-pride came before that original sin. Or is the twisting of self into the desire to be like God the actual original sin and their rebellious bite of the forbidden fruit the second? Just a thought.

We can’t destroy self-pride, but it can be reshaped and untwisted to cast different shadows. At this point, it is important to separate self-pride from the Christian concept of salvation. The latter does impact the former in powerful ways but reshaping our self-pride doesn’t save us in a Christian sense. Neither does accepting Christ as savior and Lord immediately perfect our self-pride and all of its shadows.

Even in Christian circles, we must divide shadow from the thing casting it. So often we fight the shadow without actually fighting the thing. Call it sin modification. We fight the shadow by adhering to a community accepted sin-list instead of fighting the thing at the root of all sin. The reasoning is that If I can behave according to the accepted do’s and don’ts then I will be accepted. Do you see the root of pride in that? How self-pride is casting a shadow of behavior?  Or worse yet, we take pride that our sin-list is better than those Christians on the other side of town.

Now we’re back to our thing problem. How do we untwist and reshape our self-pride? (Again, with the point that this is not strictly a Christian thing, all can reshape. But the light of Christ and the love of God makes it far easier if we’ll dare to shine that light on the depths of our being.) There are many ways to untwist. A warning though, there are a few ways that look like we’re dealing with the problem, but we’re really just sitting in ashes so others take pity and think we’re someone special.

One way of untwisting self-pride is fasting. Denying ourselves something we desperately want and even need for a set time. But even in fasting, we can feed self-pride through our attitudes instead of starving it. Jesus said, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18, NASB95) Denying ourselves in a way that no one knows what we are doing diminishes our self-pride.

 Another way is valuing and supporting others in a way that does not feed our pride or is noticeable by others. We may, for instance, give to charities, which is well and good but have an attitude of “I’m a good person” or expect some sort of karmic reward. Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1–4, NASB95) Valuing and helping others without recognition or reward also diminishes our self-pride.

Come to think of it, Jesus taught many things which battle our self-pride. Taking the least seat instead of pushing into a higher position (Luke 14:8-11). Personal prayer is to be a closet encounter instead of a street-corner display (Matthew 6:5-6). (Although there are times to visibly pray ala Daniel 6:10).

This fight strikes at the heart of our western culture, which values personality and charisma over integrity and honor. A culture where “likes” feeds our souls and our god isn’t who we think. Let me put it this way. Our currency may say in God We Trust, but often the god we trust in above all others is ourselves. In our culture, what others think about us seems to validate our existence more than anything else. Where women and men are motivated to act out of fear of the crowd more than the fear of God. Where our value is measured by our influence and not by our character. Where any word which seems to strike at the god of self is a grave sin.

However, this is not a street fight for all to see, but one waged in the privacy of our soul. The battleground is the long-neglected quietness where one can peer into the dark depths of our soul if we dare. It is there and there alone where the god of self-pride is confronted, and we discover who we really are – warts and all. The Bible puts it this way, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 b, NASB95)  What shadows is your soul casting?

Dale Heinold
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