Monday, March 10, 2008

Who Am I When No One's Looking?

"Who am I when no one's looking?" That question has haunted me for years, because I am often not at my best when beyond the gaze or knowledge of others. Can you relate?

I'm starting to wonder, though, if this sentiment is just wrong-headed. When Bill Hybels penned this phrase in his book of the same name, he was obviously imagining a situation where no human is looking. But I am beginning to suspect that when I am neither in the presence nor the thought of any human being, I am not fully human.
I think most theologians (and psychologists as well, I imagine) would agree that human beings are created to live in relationship. If God exists necessarily in relationship (being a Trinity), and we are created in his image, it would seem to follow that relationships are necessary for our flourishing. I would even go so far as to say that we are not fully human when in isolation from one another.
The necessity of relationship for the life of makarios, or blessedness, permeates the Scriptures. Consider the following passages -- but resist the temptation gloss over their familiarity.

"Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him." (Eccl. 4:9-12)

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-5)

"Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal. 6:2)

"We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. . . The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." (1John 3:14; 4:8)

To be a Christian is to love, and to love is to be in relationship. But this love, this relatedness, must be of a certain sort -- it must be Christ-love. What would it mean to love as Christ loved? It could not be done from a distance, in the abstract. To love as Christ loved is to "share your salt" as it were. Christ-love is enfleshed -- it is sweaty and mortal and down-in-the-dirt. It is near enough to grab a falling hand, to warm the other with its warmth.
To be alone, outside the love of a friend is to be less than fully human. What do I mean by "fully human?" Well, I certainly don't mean that we can somehow lose or possess less humanity than other humans. What I mean is that our humanity is not fully expressed or realized. Just as a guitar that languishes perpetually in its case is not fully a guitar, in some sense, we are not fully human when we are chronically alone.

One application of this truth is that our goal should never simply be to achieve some level of "independent integrity." In other words, the man who needs the steady, persistent love and accountability of his friends in order to maintain his integrity is no weaker than the man who needs the regular nourishment of food and water to maintain life. In fact, it is only in coming to grips with this neediness that there is hope for holiness.

So, maybe instead of asking, "Who am I when no one's looking?" we should be asking, "Who am I when in the love of a friend?" That is when I am fully human. That is when I am living the Christ-life.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that you have hit the nail on the head. The problem isn't, who are you when no one is looking. The problem is, why are you always by yourself. I first noted this when I read "blue like Jazz" and realized that Don Miller had been chastised by his pastor because he was writing books on people, but living alone. We were meant to live in community to provide accountability for our actions.

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

Chris: You oughta be a pastor man. These words hit me like a tidal wave.

Coldfire: I've read 'blue like jazz' and was thinking the same thing. We need to get back to the book of Acts. What a revolution that would be!

10:48 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Wow. Thanks for the kind words. I need to read "Blue Like Jazz."

12:34 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I should add, Josh, that your encouragement "hit me like a tidal wave."

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the crux of your article would be the phrase "independent integrity." I know I often try to develop and maintain my "integrity" independent of the relationships necessary to do so. Thanks for the good reminder.

I would add though, that I don't think that we should throw out the idea that "who I am when nobobdy is looking" is critical. Who I am in these situations will often be a direct result of the relationships I maintain.


8:26 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Good point, Ben. I wouldn't want to say that it *doesn't matter* who you are when alone. It does matter. But it isn't the ultimate standard. And you are absolutely right about your last point.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Derek said...


This is probably one of the best blog posts i have ever read anywhere. It in my mind has good theological reasoning with seamless transitions into the life of discipleship. This is good stuff.

Incidentally, i think that one of the reasons we enjoy focusing on our "independent integrity" is b/c then our moral decisions are simple and clear. It is only as we take the fact that all our decisions affect others, sometimes large groups, seriously that all of the sudden life gets complicated.

Rather than to trust in the ability of God to "hold us up against our sins," we would rather live in a fantasy world where every ethical decision we make only affects us and have easy answers.

Diabtribe aside, thanks for this CHris.

12:07 AM  
Blogger  said...

While I am going to disagree with this post, I'd like to offer a caveat to start. Obviously, you're just making a point for a youth group devotional or something, and this isn't meant to be taken doctrinally. That said, the point was a curious one...

I'll start with the "guitar in a case is not fully a guitar" comment. I honestly couldn't disagree more. Identity is never, ever tied to some human conception of utility. Dan Marino is still a quarterback after not winning a superbowl, and the good china that mom never uses is certainly still the good china that mom never uses.

So, let's tie this back to your example that we're intended to be social, and that a social spirit is what defines our humanity. The fact that a feral child has no identifiable traits of civilized humanity has surprised sociologists needlessly for a thousand years. Why should it? We grow up with a set of very arbitrary rules for everything, including the way we approach God. Christians claim that the bible came from God, but it certainly wasn't hand-delivered to every child... it came from their parents.

If you were to put a hundred people in front of a picture of a guitar, they wouldn't ask "how much does it get played" before identifying it as a guitar.

It's the same way with people. Our human experience is only less full in the eyes of someone who has the audacity to tell us what the human experience SHOULD be. It's like an indie hipster trying to tell a cowboy the music he's missing out on.

Scriptures, laws, rules, etc have always been run through the filter of the day. Paul would be utterly aghast at church today, because the social perspective... that true essence of angle-viewed humanity... is so different.

This has been a long set-up, and I apologize, so here comes some thesis: It's a huge fallacy of logic and anyone's perception of truth to assume that a full experience of humanity can only come from the preconceived notions you have of God and society. There exists understanding far beyond that which we know now (look at any point in history for proof that there's more to come), so to decide what is the ultimate experience is... almost offensive.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Brett (the last commentor),

I hope you'll have a chance to read my reply here. First off, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You're right that this isn't meant to be a precise theological manifesto. However, I stick by the theological implications. Two points you made warrant response:
(1) That identity is not tied to utility.
(2) That we shouldn't base our concept of human flourishing in dubious understandings of God.

Regarding (1): I didn't intend to tie identity to utility. Rather, I was tying flourishing to design-fulfillment. This is the "sense" I was referring to. A thing or a person can only flourish in as much as they live out their God-given design and purpose. What is this purpose? I made only one claim in this regard -- that we are designed to be in relationship. This is based on one fairly uncontroversial doctrine -- the Trinity (i.e., if God is esentially a community, and we are created in his image, then . . .). If you don't accpet this doctrine (the trinity), then you are perfectly rational in rejecting my argument. So, in this sense, I think a human being who remains isolated is comparable to a guitar that is never played. Neither flourishes and neither can be fully "happy" in the classical, Christian sense. Not only that, but I think we all agree that such things are tragic -- as when a child dies of cancer at age 1. There is a sense of loss regarding the potential life that was never realized.

Concerning (2), I can't say much except to ask, "To which dubious preconception you are referring?" I think it is fairly safe to ground our concepts of human flourishing in doctrines that have remained stable for almost 2 millennia, such as the trinity. If you think NO belief is stable enough to ground such concepts and practices, then I'm not sure what to say, except, on what do you base *that* belief? Are all truths about human flourishing relative to the indivdual? If so, then what is wrong with my view?

Thanks again for the stimulating dialogue.

9:49 PM  

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