Jennifer Watley Maxell

The No-Guilt Zone

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I once envisioned myself a bee, spending my days buzzing from job, to school, or home depositing myself here and there leaving me exhausted and overwhelmed. To combat this busyness I conceptualized a “lifestyle” boutique offering one-stop-shop service to people like me. Clothing for children and adults could be purchased and tailored on site with accessories to match. Home accents could be purchased and customized as well, without ‘buzzing’ from place to place to do so. In theory, my idea called “Honeycomb” was great, but in reality I discovered one fatal flaw. My peers and I had built our lives on busyness. Without it, we might not know how to function.

Despite the warnings of generations past and life experiences that affirm the same, our life choices often seem to negate our intentions. We say that spending time with our families is our priority, however, we choose to put our careers and personal ambitions first. We say we want to be healthy and live long-lives, however, we choose to eat fast food and don’t exercise. We say we want an intimate relationship with Jesus, but we choose to relegate Him to Sunday mornings before brunch and football. We seem to live in a constant state of guilt-ridden hypocrisy. However, in Howard Thurman: Essential Writings by Luther E. Smith, Jr., Thurman’s idea of the divided self, illustrated by Legion, the alleged demonic found in the gospel of Mark, gives a fresh perspective on how we might assuage the guilt. Instead of seeing it as hypocritical, or a lack of will, Thurman characterizes it as competing wills.

The issue is more complex than two competing issues with distinct outcomes to be selected from: either we choose our family or we choose our career, or either we choose our lifestyle or we choose God. This type of oversimplification leads to dissatisfaction as critical parts of ourselves remain unattended and unactualized. Thurman’s idea that the self is filled with claims and counter claims (130) seems simplistic and yet revolutionary at the same time. By relegating our choices to dualistic extremes we oversimplify the complex relationship of competing wills within us. For many of us, we find ourselves making choices that are counter to our beliefs without realizing that our choices have become unhinged from our moral center (141). This unhinging process results in what Thurman identifies as chaos. In this way, many of us are modern Legions, walking around amidst the chaos of our multiple selves resistant to salvation. Our resistance comes from our acceptance of this divided existence as “normal” and unchangeable.

Thurman asks, “What is it we want, really? When we try to meet it head on we discover, perhaps for the first time, that we have never lived our lives intentionally, and therefore now are unable to do it on demand.” (139) This concept strikes at the heart of what I believe is a fundamental spiritual issue for those of us who have adopted the perspective that we make choices and God endorses or denies them. This perspective has resulted in a shift from God as the moral center to God as outside counsel. While we say we want Christ centered lives, we end up with egocentric lives distanced from God.

Acknowledging the multiplicity of competing claims within frees us from the guilt of oversimplified choices and opens us to re-establishing God as the moral center. We in turn allow others to acknowledge that God isn’t their moral center facilitating the opportunity to shift in that direction. Thurman acknowledges that the process is difficult, however, with intention, religion as a resource (132) and grace (136) a different relationship with God can be established and the chaos of division within the self can yield to peace.

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