4. Being Special
Unlike animals, human beings are self-conscious. We are keenly aware of ourselves as individuals, distinct from every other individual. Each one of us considers himself immensely important; in fact, the most important individual in the universe! I know why we have this feeling; it is because we are children of God. God actually is the center of the universe; and, because our life is really His life in us, we have the feeling that we are God. Of course, with us it is only an appearance; and if we realize it is only an appearance, that's fine. But if we believe it, and act on the assumption that it is true, then we are in for trouble.
There has been a tendency in recent years for ministers to emphasize how important each one of us is in God's sight. This is quite in order. One of the outstanding contributions of Christianity to human thought is the concept of the uniqueness of man and a revelation of the fact that God loves us all as individuals. The trouble comes when we think we are more important than others and deserve preferential treatment. We want to be an only child in the family of God. An only child thinks it is wonderful to be an only child, since he can get the undivided attention of his parents; his "nose gets put out of joint," as we say, when the next baby comes along. But an only child tends to be selfish and over-demanding, and is therefore miserable. The happiest children are those who lose themselves in the life of a family. Therefore God has placed us in the huge and lively family of mankind. That man is happiest and most fulfilled who is best able forget his own specialness and uniqueness, and enjoy the specialness and uniqueness of other people.
Take conversation, for example. Many people, in social conversation, have no interest whatever in what the other person is saying. They just wait, patiently or impatiently, until they can get a word in, and then they say, "That's not half so funny as something that happened to me!" - and off they go, happy at last because they are talking about themselves. The worst offenders, whom we call compulsive speakers, do not even wait till the other person has finished, but barge in and go on and on. They are society's greatest bores. It is good and right in conversation to contribute your own experience and ideas, but you should also be prepared to listen with full attention to the other person's.
There is more in this than the making of a good conversationalist. Psychiatrists tell us that many of the mental troubles of their patients arise from too great a concern for their own specialness. It shows itself in a number of different ways. Being insensitive to other people's needs is a common symptom. Also the urge to criticize others, to be contemptuous and scornful, to run them down, thus making oneself more important than they are. Or it can come as self-pity. "No one will ever know what I've been through." "Nobody really understands me." Or, if trouble strikes, as it does to us all, "Why did this happen to me?" They ask this as if they expected trouble to come to other people, but not to them, because they are a special case.
Conceit is all too evident in such remarks as, "I am the greatest of all sinners"; but it may also lie concealed within less spectacular claims, such as, "I have nerves," "I'm not as strong as other people," "I'm not so clever or well-educated as you are," "I make a mess of everything." A sense of specialness can lead to the most ridiculous false modesty, as when someone says, "I'm not the kind of person who pushes himself forward. I'm a nobody, nonentity" (and up swells his ego like a balloon!).
Guilt can make us feel special. I knew a woman who was always weeping in penitence for some sin she claimed to have committed many years before. She was hugging the memory of it to her soul. When I assured her that God had forgiven her, she sobbed "But I cannot forgive myself," thus making herself more important than God - which is the last word in being special. Then there is the martyr complex. George Bernard Shaw, in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, discusses the psychology of martyrdom, and suggests that the early Christian martyrs may not have been motivated by loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, but merely by a desire to make themselves special. As usual, G.B.S. is being deliberately provocative, perhaps to emphasize his own specialness! - but he has a point here. Indeed the expression "making a martyr of oneself" is no longer used as a compliment. If Aunt Jane makes a martyr of herself, the rest of the family are likely to leave her to it, hoping she will get some satisfaction out of her martyrdom, since nobody else can.
In religion, you get people making a specialty of being saved, or speaking with tongues. In the Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis, a senior devil advises his junior to get the man he is trying to damn to join some small select church denomination or esoteric religious group, so that he can be encouraged to look down on everyone else and feel superior!
Our personal prayer life must consist, of course, of a one-to-one relationship with God which nobody else can share. But do let us try to make our worship as un-self-conscious as possible. Let it be God-centered, not self-centered. Dr. Frank Laubach suggests we word our prayers to include all members of the Lord's family, the entire population of this planet. "Bless all three billion of us" - that is a formula which prevents us from thinking that we, or our church, or our nation and race, are special in any exclusive sense. God is your Father and you are His child; but remember, three billion others are also children of God, and He loves and cares for them all, just as much as He does you. Never think of yourself as being more special than anyone else, for everyone is special. Include yourself in any judgment you make of others, and include others in any judgment you make of yourself. It is better to laugh at yourself, rather than trying to damn yourself or excuse yourself. Do not be pompous, or play up little things. Do not be indignant or easily offended, or make too much of people's opinions of you, good or bad. Just accept yourself for what you are, and accept other people for what they are.
Jesus gave as one of the two Great Commandments that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. This can be expressed the other way round - "We must love ourselves as we love our neighbor." That is to say, we must love and respect and honor our neighbor, seeking the very best for him; and similarly we should love and respect and honor ourselves - not more than other people, but not less. Just as we can and should admire our own gifts, acknowledging in our hearts that they are not really our own gifts but God's in us. Can you do this? It is exceedingly difficult, but not impossible, and is necessary for our spiritual sanity. To "run myself down," in comparison with other people, is just as bad as to "run other people down" in comparison with myself. In either case it is applying a different set of value judgments to others than I apply to myself, which is making me special. The ideal way is to separate your personal feelings from yourself to such a degree that you can think of yourself and treat yourself objectively, just as you think of and treat other people. You should criticize yourself by exactly the same standards as you criticize others, and admire in yourself what you admire in others, for everything admirable is from God. To hide your own gifts under a bushel from a false sense of modesty is to insult your Maker who gave them to you. You should make yourself attractive and acceptable to others, just as you want them to be to you (that is the Golden Rule!), and you should develop your various skills and faculties, not to compete with others and make yourself important, but because you have these talents entrusted to you, and you should use them and increase them, and not bury them in the ground.
Our gifts are special, even if we personally are not. So are our opportunities. You are continually being placed by the Lord in certain situations which nobody has ever been in before, and you must act to the best of your ability in each situation. If you do not work that lever at the appropriate moment, or turn on that faucet, or build up that bit of wall, nobody will, and something will be missing from God's plan. It is like a jigsaw puzzle: you are one little bit of that puzzle, unique and absolutely necessary to the finished picture. You know how it spoils the picture if one piece is missing! In that sense you are immensely important, very special, and you should know and realize that you are, while gladly acknowledging that everybody else is equally so.
We learn from Swedenborg that every individual ever born is predestined to heaven, and Jesus Himself said He was going to prepare a mansion for each one of us. If we do not claim it and occupy it, our mansion remains vacant to eternity. Among all the three billion people on earth, and all those who have ever lived since the Creation, there is and can be only one YOU, for the Creator never repeats Himself. You are unique, with your personality and potentials and your experience of life. No other soul in the universe can do or achieve what you can. That is a sobering thought, and also a challenging one. You are responsible for building up God's kingdom in some particular area. The Lord works in the world very largely through people infilled with His Spirit. You should be one of them. There are many others, all equally important; there is no seniority or rivalry or competition between them. But there is only one YOU.
How wonderful life becomes when you can know and accept yourself for what you are: a being whom the Lord considered worth creating and preserving down to this day, and worth trying to make happy to eternity! In that assurance, knowing you are rich and precious in His sight, go forward with your head held high. You will receive honor, maybe, but will immediately hand it over to the Lord to whom it is due. You will receive slights and insults, perhaps; but these will not disturb you, since you know who you are and what you are. And soon your little world will become a colony of heaven. Or, to change the metaphor, your home will be a consulate or embassy - not an embassy of Italy or Nigeria or any nation of this world, but the Embassy of the Kingdom of God. When you die, it will be like going back to the Homeland. The mansion prepared for you will be a palace in the midst of palaces, and you will be one of those princes described by Swedenborg, who rule over a smaller or larger region of heaven, and are given immense honor on account of the uses they perform but do not appropriate one atom of that honor to themselves, being among the humblest people in heaven. They take off their crowns and cast them before the throne of God, saying, "Thou are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor, and power; for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created" (Revelations 4:11).