It was a truly shocking revelation.
It was November and I was exhausted. It had been a very intense few months, and as I pondered and prayed suddenly the realisation came to me:
I put everyone into one of two categories - either “Superior” or “Inferior.”
Instead of loving people, I tended to either need them or use them.
I realised that for those I deemed in some way superior or more powerful than me, I needed their approval. And for those whom I deemed inferior or less powerful in some way, I very easily used them. I could literally put everyone in my life into one of those horrible and wrong categories.
Why? Where on earth had this sinful tendency to either worship people or manipulate and even subtly abuse people come from?
And then it hit me. It was because of a lie I had spent my life believing, because of a tape playing in my head for as long as I could remember:
You're not loved for who you are, Tom. You're not significant.
But the way that you can feel significant, is by being responsible.
The more people you can be responsible for, the more you can use them to, in some way, be ready to tell an imaginary Superior about. And this will make you feel powerful and significant.
You will be able to say, ‘Oh yes, i am terribly important you know. I am responsible in some vague way for all these different people. And so now I feel you'll accept me and as I see you as superior, I will feel significant and loved.’
It was both hugely upsetting to see this in myself but also strangely wonderful.
‘Upsetting’, as clearly God showed me the people I was called to love whom I had, at times, slipped into using. Making me feel ‘good’, making me feel ‘special’ and ‘powerful.’ It had become like a drug. And I was hooked.
‘Wonderful’, because finally the lie was exposed. The agreement with the lie I had made, weakened.
And suddenly another penny dropped: ‘Oh and that's why emotionally so much of my life, I actually swing between a subtle living in fear or a subtle temptation to anger.’
When I'm in the presence of someone I saw as superior, it would be fear that would be my temptation. I had wrongly empowered them in my heart by seeing them as superior to me. I had effectively given them a power over me to reject me!
But also, when in the presence of someone I saw as inferior, it would be anger. On the surface I was all smiles, of course, but internally, anger was crouching at my door. If they didn't ‘play ball’ and in some way act or behave in the way that I needed them to make me feel ok, then anger would so easily come into play.
And living like this was actually exhausting. I was not free at all and that was why I was so tired.
It meant that my relationships were basically all dysfunctional.
And most seriously of all, it meant I was breaking God’s heart.
The Bible tells us that when Jesus was asked, ‘What is the most important aspect of life?’, He said (my paraphrase): Love God and love people. (Mark 12: 28-31).
Love people. Not need them. Or use them, Tom. Not worship them or abuse them, Tom. Listen to them, but don't be ruled by them. Care for them, but don't use them.
I suddenly realised that this apparently simple command of Christ, to actually slowly, deliberately, love people one at a time, was just huge. Huge! And anything but automatic.
The beginnings of freedom were almost immediate.
I’ve started to interact with ‘Superiors’ and be willing to lovingly disagree and not fear rejection. It doesn't necessarily feel very loving! But actually I believe that is true love: to present another opinion even when conflict may occur. Disapproval may follow; criticism, judgment and even passive aggression. But I've started to realise that that’s their responsibility, not mine. Mine is to love. And sometimes, that loves looks and feels bold.
I've started to interact with ‘Inferiors’ and properly listen without hurrying them along or finishing their sentences. For them to know that you see them as being as valuable as anyone else -expressed through proper listening, lack of phone-checking or watch-watching - can be a genuinely life changing encounter.
So perhaps the million dollar question is...how? How can we actually live in this place? How can we be steady enough to not be swayed into needing or using? How can we avoid fear and anger constantly creeping into our lives? How can we escape a quiet ongoing exhaustion as a result of being enslaved?
The Apostle Paul knew the great secret. It's the issue of belonging. To whom do you belong, ultimately? Much of the book of Ephesians is making this point:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1) (He belonged to Jesus Christ)
“..blessed us in Christ” (v3) (He was in Jesus Christ)
“..He chose us…” (v4) (Jesus was the active one)
“..that we should be holy” (v4) (i.e. set aside from belonging to the world and now His)
“...as sons…” (v5) (Now in His family more than any other. Fathered and owned by Jesus’ Father more than any other)
If we allow ourselves to belong, or be mainly controlled, shaped, and influenced by people, then the above need/use scenario may be almost inevitable. If we allow ourselves to be listeners to lies that perhaps parents, friends, work colleagues or whoever, have spoken or just implied, we will be forever in the grip of needing and using people.
However, to be a Christian means we now belong to someone else! Someone else primarily owns us. Shapes us. Cares for us. Defines us. Is close to us. Is validating, affirming, securing and providing for us.
The Son of God who died in our place, taking our sin, and then rose from the dead and now lives forever is the one who now wants to get primary airtime on the ‘radio’ of Tom Shaw’s head!
He is the truly superior person who could demand a fear-inducing response. But doesn’t! Instead, He loves us! Cares for us. Tends to us. Gently serves! Ultimately, seen at the cross.
When I’m tempted to give a ‘Superior’ sway, influence and effectively glory in my heart, the Holy Spirit is more and more reminding me…
“No Tom. They are just a person. Jesus is God! And He is kinder, more joyful, more merciful than you can even imagine.
“He is FOR YOU. He even took the bullet for you. And then rose to new life, defeating sin, death and fear itself so that you can be forever joined with Him, sharing in His eternal life!
“You're not just close to Him. This Superior now lives inside of you! Inseparable!
“He’s your ultimate Big Bro who affirms and delights in you.
“So you can be as lovingly bold as a lion with those whom you would have previously feared. You can stand up to that work colleague, that guilt-tripping parent, that mum at the school gates. With love, warmth and tenderness, you can be firm, clear and authoritative. Wow! Hallelujah! Heaven rejoices when previously enslaved Tom takes a baby step forwards.”
For me, older people are often whom I feared. For whatever reason, I saw them as ‘superior’. And now, whilst I honour, love and respect them, I am freer to not need their thumbs-up in life.
And moreover, we can now love those ‘inferior’ with an unhurried and intentional love, just as Jesus loved and loves me, one who could so legitimately be called His inferior. Rather than using them and being prone therefore to anger, I’m learning to relax, enjoy what God is saying through them and their lives, and actually always take a posture of learning.
Jesus never saw people in this way, as Superior or Inferior. He hated favouritism or partiality. He was fearless before the rich, powerful and ‘superior.’ And He delighted in washing the feet, healing the sick, and befriending and sharing His life with those that we could call ‘inferior.’
This IS the Christian God! Who chose to lay aside power. Glory. Bling.
And He came to love all. And then… to invite us into a genuinely heavenly-tasting banquet of loving people as He did.
As we bathe in His love for us, as we actually believe and live in faith that He loves us with a love that all human loves faintly echo, we are changed.
Our relationships become less dysfunctional.
We become less drained.
Our love for Him begins to erupt.
And our love for people is bold, humble and world-changing.
It was a truly shocking revelation.