I have often joked that this mantra will be my only lasting legacy in our ministry at UCM. My identity, I tell the men I play ping pong with, is totally and completely in my forehand. It’s a humorous play on our fallen nature and how we tend to place our identity in things other than Jesus.
But what if it’s more than that?
If that’s the case, then who I am, the thing that is the very essence of what it means to be a person, and thus an image-bearer of God, will actually be just like my forehand in ping pong. Some days I will be booming with confidence, assured of my ability to do anything, find victory in any situation, only to have that assuredness crumble under the weight of a few consecutive errors. Other days it’ll never even get up and running.
So I play this off. I joke about how bad I am with self-deprecating humor designed to deflect the eyes of any spectators away from the turbulent waters in the depths of my heart.
I am a master of the self-focused put down, whether with wrath or wit. One moment I can lightheartedly joke about how proud my mother would be of my shanked forehand and that I should be sure to get her a copy of the video, the next I’ll be genuinely furious with myself.
You may be wondering, why on earth is he talking this much about ping pong? Simple: I really like ping pong.
But that’s not actually the point. It could be anything. In fact, self-deprecating humor has always been an incredibly useful tool for me in virtually all venues of life. As a creative writing major, I loved to poke fun at the supposedly traumatic nature of my clearly privileged teenage years. One of my professors even told me that it was likely my greatest strength, this ability to not take myself too seriously.
And to an extent I agree with her. It is a good thing to be able to look back on the situations and circumstances in my life, especially the ones that weren’t nearly as big of a deal as I made them out to be, and laugh about them.
So where does the strength end and the sin begin?
Shame and Hiding
“I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself,” Genesis 3:10.
Why was Adam afraid because he was naked? Why would he hide himself? It must mean that there was something wrong with him. Nothing wrong, nothing to hide. But he did hide. He was afraid. Adam and Eve felt fear and shame and they hid themselves. As a result, we have all been hiding ever since.
Maybe you can see how this relates to my self-deprecating humor. I’ve only recently begun to. My internally directed joking is in itself, not an issue. It’s simply a symptom. I’ve started asking myself questions about this behavior recently: Why am I saying these things? What’s the point? What does this accomplish?
The answers to these questions are absolutely essential. I fire off these insults at myself because on some level I believe them. Even when I say them jokingly, the thought is only there because I believe that I suck. And I think I suck because I think I’m a failure, or I’m a disappointment, or whatever lie I’ve chosen to believe about myself and given the enemy permission to use against me.
So I say these harsh things to myself, and I’m desperate for someone to speak to these lies, to tell me that they aren’t true. I want others to tell me that I don’t suck, that I’m not a failure. But again, this can’t be obvious to anyone, including myself. So this is all done with humorous barbs, carefully crafted to elicit the desired response. Because I’m hiding. Because I’m ashamed even to admit that I think these things about myself.
I think I’m a failure and so I hide behind humor with the intention of getting others to tell me that I’m good, or skilled, or valuable, or significant, or to address whatever other insecurity I’m feeling. This is at the very heart of shame.
But this can come across as humble, right? I make these statements about my lack of ability, and sometimes I even dress them up really spiritually by talking about God’s grace in the midst of my bumbling mistakes. Now I’ve really mastered this art.
An Issue of Authority
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death,” Proverbs 14:12.
There are a lot of things that are wrong with this mentality and way of living, but I want to press in to look at what is wrong with this in the deepest levels of the human heart, rather than speaking to the surface level issues that are more obvious. I want to cure the disease and not treat the symptoms. 2 Timothy 3:5 teaches us that human behaviors can have, “the appearance of godliness,” and yet deny its power and virtue. Combine that verse with the reality of Proverbs 14:12 and you can begin to see the cracks forming on the walls of self-deprecating humor.
I use fake humility to seek out praise and affirmation from others. That’s not humility. That’s as prideful as it gets. That is a broken cistern that holds no water (Jeremiah 2:13).
Okay, so it’s prideful. Let’s go deeper. What’s the real issue of looking to others for affirmation? It’s actually really pretty straightforward.
When I look to others to tell me that I’m good or valuable or whatever, I tell God that His opinion of me doesn’t matter. It isn’t enough to fulfill or satisfy me. That can only come from people. But it gets even worse than this.
When I believe these lies about myself (the very thing that causes me to seek out this validation) I have committed a far greater sin. I totally deny the authority of God in my life. How does this work?
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. That really answers the question, honestly. If I have placed my life under the lordship of Jesus, then I don’t have the right to believe lies about who I am. I am not my own. He bought me. I belong to Him, to the one who has all authority in Heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). And I think I get to tell Him who I am?
He is the one who made me! “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well,” Psalm 139:14. He made me and He did it wonderfully, because that’s simply who He is. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 2:10.
Every single time I tear myself down, I belittle the work and the authority of Jesus. Do you see that? The Bible is abundantly clear on how God sees me: as one loved, chosen, adopted, and valuable. So when I believe anything contrary to that, I am telling Jesus, “You are not enough for me. Your view of me doesn’t matter. You may have all authority in Heaven and on earth, but you don’t have authority over me.”
I am only beginning to understand these truths and how they can release me to live in the abundant life (John 10:10) and freedom (Galatians 5:1). I’m beginning to see that when the Father says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased,” (Mark 1:11), He says that very same thing to me. To believe anything less is to deny His lordship and authority in my life.
I don’t get the final say in who I truly am. What a freeing truth this is once I understand what God says about me. Jesus gets to be right about who I am.