Day 15 – What Others Think of Us
In the wilderness spaces of life, one of the distinct features that can arise is loneliness. When suffering, the experience of aloneness can be quite profound. Our response can be either to resist and manage those difficult emotions with our own resources, or to discover how the Lord might desire to be with us in the loneliness and isolation. Loneliness and the feelings of alienation are common human experiences, and for many of us we learned how to navigate them at an early age. We learned how to do things to either get noticed by others or to stay off the radar that could lead to potential criticism. As we continue to consider idolatry, we can make an idol of what others think of us. It can be a place we go to receive what can only come from God.
Henri Nouwen described this clearly: “I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.”
An awareness of this idol often shows up in the solitude of the desert because when we experience loneliness, there is no one to impress … there is no one to put salve in the wounds of loneliness. All the relational props and strategies get knocked away in the isolation of the wilderness. If it is a time of severe illness, we may lose the ability to seem strong or perhaps competent. If it is the suffering of broken relationship or a lost career, we may lose the sense that we are important. The gift in times like these is that we are left with nothing, just us. Just us and God. It may not feel like a gift but … what can emerge is the experience of being enough. Not only that God is enough, but that we are enough. We can stand on our own in Christ. We become deeply aware of our significance, giftedness, dignity, and value that transcends both the affirmation and denigration of others.
The people of Israel were collectively confronted with a sense of isolation and vulnerability. In Exodus 32:1, the text simply notes that Moses delayed. Packed into that word “delayed” is certainly a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Rather than seeking God in that moment, the people went to what was familiar. As Jesus journeyed through His 40 days, the devil sought to exploit the loneliness and isolation of the desert as he tempted Jesus from the pinnacle of the temple with “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6) The temptation was to put on a show, to perform … to deal with the isolation by using His relationship with the Father to do a miracle. Jesus simply responds with “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (v. 7) In other words, “I am not going to try to get God the Father to show up for me according to my perceived needs, but instead I will trust His love and plans for me.” Jesus modeled rest as opposed to striving. He didn’t need an outside source of validation.
Jesus also modeled this at the cross. In Hebrews 12:2, we read: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” On the cross, Jesus hung battered, bruised, bleeding, and naked … executed as a criminal. The loneliness He experienced was excruciating, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) The mocking, “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross … save yourself” (Matt 27:40ff), was intense. The shame was quite palpable. Jesus despised (or, let go of) the shame because of the joy set before Him.
For Jesus, “the joy set before Him” was living into the fulfilment of everything that had been planned for Him. He could let go of the shame (and need to validate Himself) because of what had been promised and proclaimed about Him. For us, in a time of loneliness and isolation in the wilderness, we can also release the shame and trust in what God has said about us. We can let go of people pleasing strategies and rest in the reality that in Christ we are enough.
We may believe that the promise of an abundant life in Christ is true, and we also might be plagued with the idea that we aren’t the kind of person who could live into the fullness of that life. For the people of Israel, God had promised them entry into a land where they could grow in love and faithfulness. He was also leading them into it. However, we know from Numbers 13:32-33 that they compared themselves to those already in the land and became afraid: “the land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.” Fear gripped them, and fear is often the companion of the loneliness and isolation of the wilderness. We just aren’t so sure we have what it takes. From that place of insecurity, we can rely upon what others think to fill the gaps. We may try to fill the emptiness with the applause and approval of others.
As we reflect on this and then release the false self (of what others think about us), we can then remember that in Christ we are complete. The prayer of Ephesians 2:19 (“that you may be filled with the fullness of God”) is a prayer that we would experience what is already true about us. See Colossians 2:9-10, “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him.”
Question for reflection: can you see ways that you try to please people or attempt to get people to think about you a certain way?
Prayer: Lord, I release this idol of defining myself based on what others think. Thank for you taking me into wilderness spaces where I am confronted with this. I desire to experience the reality that I am filled and complete in You. Amen.