During the Byzantine Empire a type of monk known as a Stylite would live their lives sitting on top of a pillar. For years, they sat on the pillar, going nowhere, and pilgrims would journey to see them in order to ask them to ask God to grant them some kind blessings or mercy. From the pillar the stylites became a type of celebrity. Each town needed its own stylite to ward off demons, and each church needed the bones of some long dead stylite to draw parishioners.
Other so-called holy men of the era put themselves through similar suffering, all for the purpose of somehow avoiding hell, or transcending into the spiritual life, or knowing God more fully. Some stood up for years and never sat. They inflicted suffering upon themselves because they saw themselves as worthy of suffering.
This isolation of monks and holy men has never made sense to me. In the gospels Jesus gave instructions that we should love God and love others, that we should care for one another. But to spend your life in isolation from the world is a rejection of those commands. It’s a rejection of the gospel and the introduction of a religion of the self, where you alone exist in the universe, you the wretch deserving nothing but pain and suffering and misery for your life despite that Jesus also said that he came to bring life and life to the fullest.
But this is part of a long line of a theology of self-hatred.
I’ve seen it for a long time in our own churches. We’re surrounded by guilt dealers who need the flock to believe they are worthless scoundrels, or as the famous song amazing grace declares, a wretch like me. They need the churchgoers to hate themselves in order to need something from the church, an answer, a solution to their wretchedness, a way to escape the guilt and shame that consumes them.
Not all churches are like this, obviously, but I’ve personally experienced many examples of this kind of teaching. There’s an irony at the center of it. They say God loves us no matter what, he loves us as at this moment as much as he possibly could love us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, and that there’s nothing we can do to earn the love of God. But on the other hand we are scoundrels, we’re Adam chomping on the apple, we’re the ones hammering nails into Christ on the cross, we’re rotten at the core because of the nature we didn’t choose but was chosen for us.
It doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical, and God is a logical God. The universe is built on order and love, not on irony.
Plenty of preachers sell a theology of self-hatred. That you are born a sinner, that you have a fallen nature, that you’re weak, that a beast called Satan is on the prowl and will devour you if you aren’t careful, that you’re a bug, a nothing, that God saves you from the mud you are lying in because you are a mud-dweller.
But I’ve learned to reject that.
I’ve read the gospels and understand what Christ meant when he said it is finished. The price was paid for all of us, for all of time, in all of time. There are only sons and daughters.
I’m not Adam with apple skin in my teeth. I’m Adam walking through the cool of the morning.
I’m not hammering nails into the hands and feet of Jesus. I’m Cleopas at the moment bread is broken at the table, and I see the resurrected Christ and know that he lives in me too, the power of life in me that has conquered death.
The shame dealers want money and power, that’s all. They want to be water salesmen in the desert. But you have tasted the living water and flows in you still. It flows in you always.