Culture is wrestling with the nature of humanity. We are experimenting with definitions and with decisions to change fundamental human rights.
If it is hard to say what it is to be human, I can say something about what being human is not. For much of my life, I made a basic error about the purpose of strengths and weaknesses in people. This error was destructive, but at least a lesson was learned
Chatting with many students suggests that, perhaps, my folly is not as isolated as I might hope.
What was my bad idea about people?
I believed that my personal strengths were for me and were especially useful in covering up my weaknesses. One might envy more talented people, but had to make do with the gifts one had. These skills could be put to good or bad uses, but a man had to make his own way, thankfully and humbly, with the gifts God had given.
Decent verbal skills were useful in covering up deficiencies in other areas. Why study for an exam if you can bluff your way through the test using rhetoric?
Of course, covering up ignorance is wrong, but my use of strengths to compensate for weaknesses was not limited to bluff and bluster. Instead, strengths were used to do good for myself.
This did not appear selfish to me, because most “harmless” uses of personal strengths were to take care of my own issues and needs. My acts of charity began when those needs were met: the surplus was everyone else.
Who else should bear my burdens if not I? Wouldn’t it be foolish or even wrong to demand help if I had the capacity to deal with my own issues?
This was my mistake and it was a big one.
I was the one person who could not bear my burdens. Selfishness was always creeping into any attempt. Reading the Bible, and later Charles Williams, introduced me to a different idea.
Perhaps my strengths are for other weaknesses and my weakness to provide an opportunity for other people’s service.
The thought is stunning and a bit mad sounding.
It is as if everyone has twenty dollars in his pocket in order to buy the next fellow’s dinner.
Why not just use your own money to buy your own dinner?
In the same manner, shouldn’t you take care of yourself (as long as you can) while I do likewise?
Of course, Christians must be generous when people cannot help themselves. Charity begins where self-help ends and Christians must be charitable!
All of this is the furthest thing from true charity. Real love thinks little of self and only about the beloved. The beloved is delighted to receive in order to grace the lover. Love uses strengths in order to serve the beloved.
The lover even secretly delights when he needs help as it provides the beloved an opportunity to show her love to him. Each round of giving and receiving of help locks the lovers together more firmly.
Why can’t I just meet my own needs?
First, thinking about self is dangerous this side of Paradise. Anything that helps me avoid concentrating on my needs is generally good for me.
Second, the desire to help myself cheats others of any opportunity to receive the blessedness of giving. My self-sufficiency can be selfish!
Third, bearing my own burdens tempts me to keep on trying long after my strength has failed. It tempts me to the fatal belief that I can earn any kind of salvation by my own works.
Finally, it changes acts of charity to acts of condescension. Instead of meeting the beloved’s needs, because she graciously allows me to do so, I meet them when she needs me to do so. I come from a position of surplus to her position of deficit. This is unwholesome and less desirable than the economy of love which keeps no track of surplus or deficits at all.
Charles Williams suggests all of this in many of his writings, but it is best put in Descent into Hell. There characters decide whether they will live for self and demand others meet their needs or whether they will give to others expecting nothing in return.
In short, Williams has men decide if they will be motivated by love or commerce.
So many of my students are talented people.
The temptation of that talent is first to bear their own burdens and then to use what is left to bear the burdens of weaker folk. Instead, all of us are called to interdependence even when we don’t think we need such a relationship.
Our need is not that of the bankrupt but of the lover.
Give up meeting your own needs. Look for friends to be burden bearers. Use your strengths to meet the needs of others. Find authentic community where such exchanges are possible. Live out Galatians 6: 2:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.