A Necessary Deconstruction
It's all good and well to discuss it in the abstract, but deconstructing is also deeply personal. It changes how we view our relationships and ideas. But mostly it changes how we think of ourselves.
In Matthew 10, Jesus said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
In nearly the same breath, Jesus also said that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
It is clear that Jesus is not calling all of His followers to be martyrs. Nor is He saying that He expects His followers to forsake loving their parents or their children. Instead, Jesus is talking about undergoing a process of losing your identity in order to re-form a new one; one built intimately around Him. In other words, to be a Christian means to have your identity deconstructed and then built anew around Christ.
But deconstruction is painful. It often causes pain to the people around you too. Any good therapist can tell you that disrupting family-dynamics practically always results in great conflict (which is sometimes irreparable). Even when we know that it is necessary, most of us greatly fear this kind of disruption precisely because we feel like there is so much to lose.
But that is exactly Jesus’ point. There is a lot to lose when you follow Him.
Saint Paul talks about the Christian life as a type of death. Saint Peter says that it is like a new birth. When you follow Christ, a kind of transformation takes place. You are simply not the old “you” anymore.
Of course, Jesus’ words must have been particularly jarring to the ears of that traditional culture he was speaking to; a culture where family meant everything. For them, being against your own family bore an unimaginable social cost. Though today we live in a far more individualistic society, psychologists will tell you that the voices of our families are often still the ones we allow to shape our identity the most. But perhaps for you, it could instead be your career, your political affiliation, finding love, or being a parent now yourself.
What are the things that compete with Jesus for your identity? Those are the things that Jesus says you will need to lose for His sake.
This is all well and good to talk about in the abstract, but, in reality, it is deeply personal. It requires challenging your assumptions. It likely means changing much of how you relate to family, friends, and strangers. It even means questioning what you have been taught about Jesus Himself by your parents, by your pastor, and by prevailing sub-cultural narratives. Of course, it also means changing how you see yourself.
And there is great risk if we shortchange this process. Jesus says in other places that many people think they know him when they really don’t. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 11 that Satan often goes around dressed like an angel and that his servants often look like Christians.
Today we look around and we see Christian leaders being exposed as abusers, often succumbing to sin, or leaving the faith altogether. Research is coming out that shows how many churches in the West operate within narcissistic systems and that narcissists themselves are particularly drawn to pastoral ministry. Recent research from Barna suggests that most people who identify as Bible-believing Christians say that Scripture has little effect on how they live their lives. What are we to make of this?
Perhaps we can simply name that it is far easier to follow a Jesus that doesn’t ask us to give up much else in the process; one who doesn’t ask us to deconstruct. We would certainly much rather go on holding to our particular tribes and ideologies than to give them up. And we would much rather avoid “rocking the boat” in our relationships than make changes that disrupt them. We want a Jesus that fits into our life and doesn’t ask us to fit into His.
But the promise that Jesus makes is that if you lose your life for Him you will actually find it.
So, what does “losing oneself” for the sake of Jesus really look like? I will suggest that it likely looks different for each of us. But I will also suggest that it likely starts simply with learning to really be loved by Him and then learning to really love Him back. That in itself may be the most disruptive thing of all. It may also be the very thing that gives you the strength to deconstruct the other parts of your “old self” along the way.
In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul wrote that Christians have to constantly be on guard from being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Ironically, for some of us, that may mean that we have to deconstruct our religion in order to be more faithful to Jesus. Because Christianity, as theologian John Stott once said, is “not a religion, nor is it an institution. It is a person.”
When we learn to love and be loved by Jesus, our entire world, indeed our whole identity, truly begins to change. As C.S. Lewis’ once said,
“If we let Him, He will make even the feeblest and filthiest of us into a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”
We talk about giving things up during the season of Lent. Jesus, it seems, likely has something much more radical in mind for us.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Resident in Washington, D.C.