But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
I think I could start every reflection with an anecdote from Doctor Who, my favorite British television series, but that might be gratuitous, so we'll just do one. My wife and I are rewatching some of the early seasons with our boys right now, and it’s fun to see them experience the sci-fi twists and turns for the first time. Last week’s episode was a suspense thriller taking place in an abandoned library. A group of alien organisms called the Vashta Nerada had destroyed all human life, so the Doctor and his companion come to work with archaeologists to save the day. The tricky part? Vashta Nerada are virtually invisible, made up of the stuff of shadows. Stay in the light and you’re fine. but the problem is, even in light, everyone has a shadow. And throughout the episode in the library, various explorers noticed that they had inexplicably gained an extra shadow. And if you had more than one shadow...well, not even a high tech suit can save from becoming a skeleton a few moments later.
Sleep well tonight!
So shadows got me thinking. I've been pondering ego more and more lately. Ego is the part of us that pushes our need for value. It’s not all bad, but until we reach real maturity, the way we pursue significance will usually involve self-promotion, self-protection, and pride.
Richard Rohr describes the ego as "that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior. It is defended and self-protective by its very nature."
The negative part of our ego lurks just behind us, like a shadow. It is connected to us and looks a bit like us, but doesn’t contain the real substance of our souls. The ego often attempts to hide what is real in order to externally convey something impressive. It is not our truest selves. Like a shadow, it stays small when we remain in the light. But when light gets dim, the ego grows and expands and threatens to destroy who Jesus intends us to be.
In Matthew 23 Jesus speaks of the ego as the actor, often translated "hypocrite”, that lurks within the human soul. Jesus is harsh toward the religious leaders not because of sins of weakness, but precisely because Pharisees presented an air of sinlessness while simultaneously projecting their own sins onto others and judging them for it. Sometimes this is intentional; other times it's simply lack of self awareness. But the refusal to face our shadows is the perfect atmosphere for darkness and evil to grow in us. That’s why Jesus says that those who “exult themselves will be humbled but those who are humble will be exalted” (23:12).
Maybe this is why Jesus’ beef is never really against weakness (think of how compassionate he is to his disciples in the garden when they are weak), but against the ego that drives judgment, manipulation, and control over others. Our egocentricity is where the real evil lies.
Ego has always been one of the most destructive forces on the planet, but it has become more noticeable than ever to me in recent years. Of course, sometimes it’s obvious and easy to spot, but other times it’s elusive, almost imperceptible to the naked eye. It’s in the shadows, lurking behind our actions and attitudes. It pushes us to be arrogant in disagreements, selfish in our decision making, and unreflective during our struggles. And sheesh, when this shadow gets a hold of you, it leaves a path of destruction, and you’re lucky to make it out alive.
Sometimes we work so hard protecting our egos that we can’t receive any difficult truths about ourselves. And when this happens, we can’t be transformed. We also can’t experience the beauty of shadowed things in our lives being exposed to light and becoming redeemed (see the Ephesians passage above).
Ignoring our growing shadows will lead to the destruction of our true selves. We have to notice them there, and keep them well lit.
And that is exactly what Jesus does. He lights things up. He helps us be unafraid of our shadows so that we can name them, talk about them, and take away their power. Jesus is light. When we expose our egos to Jesus, we find in God our truest sense of significance, and learn to be ok living in our own skin without pretense (yet always desiring to keep moving toward holiness). We no longer have to seek out significance in damaging ways. We can simply walk forward as God’s beloved.
Today, don’t be afraid to notice the role your ego plays in your thoughts and interactions. Where are you quickly defensive or easily offended? Talk with a friend about it. Sit with Jesus in prayer about it. Be freed from the need to impress, and enjoy the good news that light casts out darkness.
Jesus, give me courage to be the person you created me to be with you and others today.