Wednesday, January 25, 2023

A Better Second Fiddle

Back in 1939, theorist Kurt Goldstein coined the term “self-actualization” to describe the motive to realize what he called “one’s full potential”.

In Goldstein’s view this drive might take the form of creative expression, pursuit of knowledge or the desire to contribute to society in some personally-defined way. Goldstein believed self-actualization was any organism’s “master motive” and its most basic drive in life. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory built on Goldstein’s concept and is probably the most familiar expression of it.

Among others in Christian circles, Rachel Held Evans seems to have bought into Goldstein’s theories.

Short-Changed in the Self-Actualization Department

It may not be a conscious thing, of course, but RHE is more than willing to throw biblical gender roles under the bus out of fear that wives will end up short-changed in the self-actualization department:

“Trying to force first century societal norms onto modern-day marriages has proven … complicated … even among those who subscribe to this approach. I remember countless conversations in the dorm rooms of my conservative Christian college about how to defer to a guy as the ‘spiritual leader’ in a relationship, an ideal that far too often resulted in women deliberately diminishing their own gifts, ideas, and dreams in an effort to better play second fiddle.”

Our modern society is certainly convinced that pursuing the fulfillment of our “gifts, ideas, and dreams” is critical to human happiness. Perhaps that’s Kurt Goldstein’s little gift to us, or perhaps we would have gotten there without his help. But whether we’re talking about Goldstein or RHE, the point here is that they are OUR gifts, OUR ideas, and OUR dreams that demand to be realized no matter the cost. It is the INDIVIDUAL who misses out if he or she fails to self-realize. For Goldstein, contributions to the betterment of others only matter insofar as they satisfy the person doing the contributing, making that person believe they have achieved their desire. What this all means for marriages, families, churches, societies (or, more importantly, what it all means to God) is not really under consideration.

The question that occurs to me is whether such pursuits are biblical or even feasible.

He Died For All

After all, first principles of Christian living tell us:

“He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

That applies equally to apostles and slaves, to men and women, to every believer in Jesus Christ at all points in time. It is not a gender thing or a sexist thing or a class thing or even a marriage thing. It’s a Christian thing.

In fact, in the Christian worldview, there is not even the same sort of “self” to be actualized:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

So, no, self-actualization is hardly a biblical notion.

Self-Actualization and the Use of Gift

Nobody is naturally keen on playing second fiddle. And yet “second fiddle” is pretty much default Christian status, whether you are a man or a woman. It’s part of the package.

Even if we are thinking of spiritual gifts and their use, the gifts were given “for building up the body of Christ”, not for the building up of individual egos. They are communal in purpose rather than individualistic. And oddly enough, it turns out that in dying to self and living for Christ it is possible to (indirectly and unconsciously) “self-actualize” (since we’re using the term anyway) far more effectively and usefully than by any other means. The use of our gifts on behalf of others may turn out to be immensely satisfying to the person using them.

But that is not the point of the gifts. Self-actualization is a by-product, not a goal. It is something we find almost accidentally as a result of doing the things we have been called to do. It is never the reason for doing them. The gifts are for the service of others. We are playing second fiddle as we use them.

At least if we’re doing it right we are.

Dreams and Ideas

As for “ideas and dreams”, the concept is not as airy-fairy as it may sound. I take it RHE is simply referring to the specific notions each of us have about what we would like to do in life and how we think it should be done. After all, whether in marriage or any other sort of partnership, secular or Christian, there is no difficulty in us all being self-actualized provided we happen to all be shooting for the same goals and inclined to use the same methods to get there. But if my dream is to go to China to serve the Lord, and my wife’s dream is to serve him at home in the context of the local Sunday School, even the fact that we both want to serve the Lord does not solve the problem that we disagree.

As long as we cling to specific, personally defined, set-in-stone notions about how and where God is to make use of us in this life, we are bound to clash with one another.

The apostle Paul was full of “dreams and ideas”, in the sense that he had very specific notions about what he wanted to do in the service of Christ.

Thwarted Again

But observe that even the apostle Paul didn’t always get his way:

“I have so often been hindered from coming to you,”

he tells the Roman believers. Paul’s dreams and ideas had so far remained unrealized. And then he adds:

I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.”

Uh, not so much. That whole Spain thing never played out. And again, Paul tells the Corinthians:

“I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?”

Paul was not being selfish or ungodly in making plans that never came to fruition, but the fact is that only God knows where and how we should be serving, and only he knows what will truly give us joy in life.

Hold On Loosely

Those of us with too many very specific “ideas and dreams” stand to find ourselves deeply disappointed unless we learn to hold onto them very loosely indeed. That’s true in Christian service or in marriage.

Now in Kurt Goldstein’s world, a failure to self-actualize is devastating. It is the “most basic drive in life”, the “master motive”. In Paul’s world, “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus Christ]”. Compared to that reality, the fact that Paul’s personal intentions, plans, wishes and desires were regularly thwarted in the service of Christ turned out to be no big deal.

We can learn from that. It’s not just wives that need to learn to play a better second fiddle. It’s all of us.

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