There’s a mentality — a way of thinking about sin, hurt, and the world — that chalks most of how we live our lives up to whether we see ourselves as “victim”. The gospel is a stumbling block to that mentality, but not in the way I would hope.
This viewpoint tells us to deal with the painful realities of living in a broken world by being strong and able to overcome, by not seeing yourself as victim. The past is over. Don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself up and move on. The spiritualized version would say that it is God that enables you to be strong and overcome. But even though that sounds good, it misses one critical point being “the gospel”.
That critical point is that we aren’t victims, we’re perpetrators. There’s a story that’s told of G.K. Chesterton, who reportedly responded to a newspaper’s call for articles on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?” His four-word response: “Dear sirs, I am.”
The sin that lives in my heart is what’s wrong with the world. The seeds of every kind of murder, adultery, dishonesty, idolatry, and blasphemy dwell inside of me. The idea that we should fight against a “victim mentality” with positive beliefs about ourselves is upside down and backwards. The gospel say to us that we should fight a victim mentality with the realization that we are worse off than we think we are. This sounds so counterintuitive in the light of pop psychology and Oprah-esque religiosity, and it’s “foolishness” to us, as scripture says it will be. But scripture says it’s true, the way out is not to climb up. The way out is to surrender to the truth that we are far worse sinners than we’d ever dared imagine.
The good news in all of it is that God’s grace is more powerful than we’d ever dared hope. Scripture also makes it clear that we will only ever understand how great His grace and mercy are to the extent that we understand our need for it.
So, taking it back to the matter at hand, here’s where I think the breakdown happens. Let’s imagine a scenario where someone has wronged me. They have said or done something that has hurt me. Now I have a choice.
I can react with this “I’m not a victim” response. I can stand a bit taller, lift my chin, wipe the tears and believe that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I can refuse to think of myself as victim, because I’m better than that. I’m not what that person said I am. I don’t deserve to be treated that way. I’m good. I’m admirable. I’m worthy of being thought of and treated better.
Or there’s the “victim” reaction. It most often looks like anger. I draw inward, seething, feeling the sting and the weight of the offense. My whole world narrows to a singular point. Nothing matters but justice. Nothing matters but my hurt and how wrong my perpetrator is. I obsess over imagined revenge, rehearsing witty comebacks I could have said.
Both are sinful.
In the latter, I’m not embracing the role of “victim” at all. I’m taking over. I’m launching a coup. Even in the “poor me” posturing of climbing into dark holes in my psyche, I am declaring my assessment of the debt owed more valid than God’s. Even in my suffering and tears, I’m extending my middle finger to heaven and climbing onto the throne of my own heart, demanding to act as arbiter of justice in His place.
In the former, I deflect criticism and poor treatment that I don’t feel measures up to the high opinion I and others should have of me. I give lip service to having my self-concept rooted in what God thinks of me. But, most often I’m once again shoving the glory that is me onto the throne of my heart and adjusting the flood lights so that none of the rotting parts show.
In both cases, I know the truth. The truth is that my attackers fall far short saying something that really captures how bad I am. The truth is that I deserve to be treated far more badly than I was. I am guilty. I have done wrong. There is no mistreatment I will ever suffer that could balance the karmic scales for my sins.
What is needed in this moment is obviously not for me to focus on my own needs to the point that I lash out in anger and wallow in self-serving sadness.
However, what is needed is also not to simply set aside any temptation to think of myself as weak and to think of myself as strong and capable.
What is needed is for me to realize that I was granted God’s glorious grace and mercy when I was guilty of cosmic treason, and that I have the unspeakable privilege (and responsibility) to extend that grace and mercy to others on the horizontal level.
Forgiveness that is driven by a high-minded view of how I ought to act won’t last long. Forgiveness driven by abject gratefulness for the debt I’ve been forgiven will last for an eternity.