Some years ago in a fairly unconstructive series of conversations about a relationship in which I was playing the part of “The Good Co-dependent” — not to be confused with “The Good Samaritan” — my spiritual director had some fairly direct advice: “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
Over the years, I’ve found the wisdom of that advice repeatedly useful, in my own life and in spiritual direction with others.
For those who are in “helping professions,” the tendency to climb up on the cross (in this sense) is a constant temptation. Clergy, counselors, physicians, nurses, first responders, and a host of others are often inclined to climb up there and it’s never a good thing. Here are some of the reasons why:
One: There is a God and you are not. Getting those two things confused is mistake and it inevitably leads to the conviction that we can do things that are beyond us.
Two: “God has no grandchildren.” Everyone has to make his or her own journey. It can be tough to watch people make their own choices, particularly when we can see where those choices will lead and especially when the choices being made are made by those we love. But each person has both the right and the responsibility to make those choices.
Three: Hanging on the cross-breeds spectators. Even Jesus had this problem. But for mere mortals, hanging on the cross as a lifestyle almost always gives other people a bye on taking their fair share of responsibility. When you get down off the cross, you help others get real about their responsibility (or not), but the reckoning never happens if you try to cover for others.
Four: Hanging on the cross breeds bitterness and a messianic complex. Filling in for others on the cross doesn’t just affect the spectators, it also has perils for the one making the sacrifices. The more we do it, the more we convince ourselves that we are indispensible, and – if not indispensable – underappreciated. Spiritual balance entails discovering the place where we take responsibility for our own part in the mix of things.
Five: If you were wondering how long you can do this, the answer is, “What time is it now?” Hanging on the cross has a limited shelf-life (to mix a few metaphors). Full-time martyrs are few and far between, and full-time whining usually takes its place. Those who succeed in holding on typically pass out from exhaustion.
Humility is often thought of as an entirely self-effacing enterprise — the virtue that ends up getting you crucified and that requires you to be happy about it as well. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Humility (from the Latin, humus, or earth) is about getting in touch with our very real limitations as human beings. Seen in that light, humility is not a virtue that ties you to the cross, it is the one that frees you from the obligation to go where no one – with one notable exception – went there and accomplished anything, ever.