Taking One’s Self Too Seriously

My favorite atheist was Bertrand Russell.  Being a first-rate mathematician and close associate of Alfred North Whitehead, he tended toward a radical and almost naive consistency and in the process gave us some terrific statements to use in presenting the gospel.  He clearly understood the temporal implications of rejecting God’s truth, not unlike Moses in Deuteronomy 30:15, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.”  Take, for example, this excerpt from his July 19, 1903, “Letter to Goldie:”

“Why should you suppose I think it foolish to wish to see the people one is fond of?  What else is there to make life tolerable?  We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness.  But it is a voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns.  The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of most people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it.  To know people well is to know their tragedy:  it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built.  And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.”  [Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (New York:  Routledge, 2000), p. 194.]

Russell did try to cope with life as an atheist and sometimes had good advice, advice that is keenly insightful even for Bible-believing Christians:

“A great many worries can be diminished by realizing the unimportance of the matters, which is causing anxiety. Our doings are not so important as we naturally suppose; our successes and failures do not after all matter very much . . . One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”  [Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Liveright Books, 1971), p. 61.]

I agree with Russell’s assessment about not taking ourselves too seriously, not because of atheism, but because of radical, thoroughgoing theism.  Indeed, to be an atheist and not take one’s self terribly seriously is to stand at the precipice of complete insanity.  Sure, bad stuff happens, but the Bible teaches that God always causes it to bless those who belong to him.  Take the case of Joseph:  he was hated and betrayed by his own brothers who sold him into slavery.  Then he was betrayed by a jealous woman; she falsely accused him of trying to rape her, and he was thrown into prison where he was forgotten for years, in spite of a promise to the contrary.  What kept Joseph from hating all the people who betrayed him?  What kept him from suicidal despair and depression?  How was he able to maintain a cheerful spirit and keep on keeping on with the ugly and empty tasks of life? 

Joseph gives the answer when his brothers come to plead for mercy after their father’s death: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20.)

Joseph didn’t excuse his brothers’ sin as if they were not free moral agents and fully accountable for what they had done, nor did he minimize the gravity of their wicked actions as if they had not really intended him deadly harm.  But Joseph was never really harmed by any of the things that happened to him.  This was because he regularly took an antidote to bitterness, a divine cordial, the thankful acknowledgment of the absolute sovereignty of God who is in complete control of the world and who is causing everything to work for the blessing of those who love him.

“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11.)

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28.)

Such theological convictions did not cause Joseph to withdraw from life with a “Que Sera, Sera” attitude of indifference.  No, he forged ahead, always doing all he could to improve the quality of life around him.  He always wholeheartedly served the people with whom he was placed.  His example reminds us of Peter and Paul’s admonitions in the New Testament.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22-24.)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.” (1 Peter 2:18, 19.)

But when Joseph could be free, he took advantage of it, not for freedom in itself—such freedom is but another kind of slavery—he used his freedom to serve God by serving others.

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” (1 Corinthians 7:21.)

Fundamentally, Joseph’s attitude was no different as Vizier of Egypt than it had been during those long years in prison.  He still served others with vigor and diligence and directly oversaw the day to day operation of the system that he had set up to save the lives of those around him. (Genesis 42:6 ff.)  So, while on the one hand, we can say that Joseph took his tasks in life seriously, it wasn’t as most folks tend to do, because Joseph didn’t see himself as really important; he simply understood that he was a tool that God chose to use for a season.  In spite of his ascent to the pinnacle of power as the second most influential man in the entire world, it never went to Joseph’s head.  He saw himself as an ordinary person with an extraordinary calling, an imperfect conduit of perfect grace.

I submit that the key to Joseph’s sanity was that he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He trusted God while being keenly aware of human frailty and sinfulness, including his own.  I try to remember this, especially when I am engaged in conflict with others.  Whenever I begin to take myself and what I’m doing really seriously, I tend to begin to violate other people and use them for my own advantage:  I want to succeed whatever the cost, at times even to the injury of my own soul.  When this starts to happen, I need to stop—oftentimes more than once a day—and ask, “What difference does this really make?  What happens if it doesn’t get done?  What happens if I have a heart attack and die—will God’s kingdom come to an end—will he cease to take care of my family and my congregation?”

Death is gain for the believer, and being assured of this truly sets us free from fear, not only the fear of death, but all the other things that hold us in bondage, too.  (Philippians 1:21; Hebrews 2:15.)  Being truly free in Christ, free from all condemnation and guilt, (Romans 8.) and assured that we are a little part of a great, big plan, a truly good plan, frees us to rejoice in all our circumstances. (1 Thessalonians 5:18.)  It also frees us to laugh, to laugh at ourselves and all the silly things we do and say, because we all act like idiots at times and sometimes talk like fools.  But this divine laughter is void of the painful cynicism of this world; (Proverbs 14:13.) it is a holy laughter at the goodness of God:  “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” (Genesis 21:6.)

“A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.” (Proverbs 15:13.)

“All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he who is of a merry heart has a continual feast.” (Proverbs 15:15.)

“A merry heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit dries the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22.)

The medieval church with its superstition and uncertainty about salvation had forgotten how to laugh; Luther restored this great gift with a self-deprecatory gusto and earthiness that still makes me laugh when I read his Table Talk.

E-mail lists can be edifying, and it is good to defend the faith.  But in doing so, we must not take ourselves and what we write too seriously.  Sometimes we simply “need to get a life.”  In fact, as soon as I post this, my wife and I are going to ride our motorcycle off into the wilderness.

Quare—Me Sollicito? Legero Insanus.” (A. E. Neuman)

Bob Vincent