(Second in a six-part Lenten Series)
There’s nothing wrong with wanting health, success, beauty, power, glamour, money, or fame. Of themselves, these are good and can, if used properly, help God’s glory shine through in ordinary life. But they can also be dangerous and can just as easily corrupt, inflate, and weaken rather than strengthen character. We want these things, but they aren’t always good for us.
Ironically, the reverse is also true: We don’t want failure, humiliation, sickness, powerlessness, poverty, or inferiority of any kind. Yet these, more than success and glamour, are what produce character and depth inside us. We see this, for instance, in a family who has a handicapped member. It’s this person who gives the family character and depth. The son or daughter who’s the professional athlete or the wonderfully beautiful fashion-model bring glory to the family, but not necessarily character. Character comes from something else.
If we examine ourselves with courage and honesty, we will see that almost all the things that have made us deep and given us character are the very things we’re often ashamed of: a plain body that won’t let us stand out in a crowd; a quirky family whose habits can only be understood from the inside; a frustrating job where our real talents can never emerge because we don’t have the right education or the right opportunities; a troubled history within which there have been too many instances where we were the dumb one, the weak one, the sick one, the excluded one, the fat one, the slow one, the one chosen last when sides were drawn up, the one without a date on a Friday night, and the one who got beaten up on the playground. Beyond that, we’ve also been forever the frustrated one, the one who, despite the burning ache for greatness, has never and will never create the masterpiece, write the symphony, or dance on a world stage.
But character and depth aren’t given for scoring goals in the World Cup, for winning Oscars in Hollywood, or for being so successful or beautiful that you become an icon for an adoring public. Character and depth are given for coping with powerlessness, inferiority, and humiliation, that is, for finding that deeper place inside of you where you can make a happy peace with the fact that your mother is too fat, that your father never blessed you, that you were abused, that the school bully humiliated you in front of your friends, that you were always the outsider, and that even today you live a life of quiet desperation wherein sickness, addictions, dark family history, loneliness, and inadequacies of every kind are barely kept at bay.
There’s an innate connection between attaining a certain level of depth and having experienced a certain level of humiliation. That’s one of the lessons of Gethsemane.
When Jesus walks into the garden of Gethsemane, he asks his disciples “to watch”. They’re meant to learn a lesson there, to see something illustrated. But, as Luke tells us, they missed the lesson because they fell asleep “out of sheer sorrow”, were blinded by simple depression, and were unable precisely to stare humiliation in the eye. That’s why on the morning of the resurrection, when Jesus meets two disciples walking away Jerusalem (the church, the faith, and the place of humiliation) towards Emmaus (a Roman Spa, a place of human consolation) he has to point out to them the necessary connection between humiliation and depth: “Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should have to suffer in this way so as to enter into his glory?”
What they’d missed seeing in the Garden, missed seeing Jesus struggling with and eventually accepting, was precisely the innate link between the experience of humiliation and the resurrection of character. Resurrections come after crucifixions, Easter Sundays after dark Fridays, and depth of soul after the kind of pain that one is ashamed of.
However, just like power and success, failure and humiliation are also dangerous. Power can corrupt, but so can powerlessness. Many are the acts of violence that issue forth when people feel powerless and humiliated. Sometimes failure and frustration build character, but sometimes they build monsters and murderers. Feelings of inferiority drive us into the deeper parts of our souls, but demons, not just angels, lurk in those depths. That’s why Gethsemane is drama without a pre- written ending. Not everyone will handle things like Jesus did. The feeling of humiliation can make or break us, pushing us either into greatness or perversity.
In Jesus’ case, it pushed him into greatness. How he handled his humiliation was perhaps his greatest gift to us and his deepest revelation of wisdom. By accepting humiliation and powerlessness (without resentment, but as a gift that can used to give something deeper back to the community) he taught us one of the deep secrets inside the very DNA of love itself, namely, that only when the private ego is crucified do real love, community, and character emerge.