11 April 2009

Psychological Self-Flagellation

This is a picture of a Maundy Thursday service in San Fernando city in the Philippines two days ago, in which Filipinos engage is self-flagellation (HT: Boston Globe, Andy Naselli). Click to enlarge.
Some of us are (quite rightly) saddened by such a picture, knowing that the need for this kind of self-inflicted pain has been wonderfully eradicated by Christ's own suffering.
But I wonder if we really take to heart what is wrong about such a practice. Is it not a constant temptation for Western Christians to engage in such self-flagellation psychologically and emotionally, if not physically? What's your response when you are aware of your sin? If you're like me, you know Christ died for that, and you're grateful. But just to show how grateful you are, or to seal the deal, you do a bit of psychological self-inflicted pain to top it off. Not, of course, to self-consciously add to Christ's work. Heaven forbid. Just to let him know how much you care. Make it clear that you're a serious Christian. Nothing physical. Just a bit of extra externalized obedience or formal service or sucking on the guilt. (This is not my distant past; I'm thinking, for instance, of a pattern of thought and action last night.)
It is utter folly. The New Testament tells us over and over that if we're going to add a cherry of self-contribution on top of Christ's work to really be okay, we have to provide the whole sundae. All or nothing. And the tragedy is that though we assent theologically we can't add to Christ's work, we try to put ourselves emotionally at ease by helping the Lord out a bit--yet adding something to seal the deal is, oddly, precisely what will create uneasiness about whether the deal ever really is sealed. What if we don't seal the deal well enough?
That innate instinct to help out God's opinion of us by self-medicated doses of humanly generated recompense is so sensible. So reasonable. Intuitive. Duh. How else would we live? But the glory of the gospel is that this attempt to help God out is not only unnecessary, it is a stiff-arm to God's offer in Christ.
We will sin. I will sin in various ways later today. Some of it I'll be conscious of, most of it I won't. And the way to deal with that is not to self-flagellate. Neither physically nor psychologically. That isn't a strengthening of God's opinion of me but a rejection of it. And it will make us grouchy and tense instead of humble and free.
That's why we celebrate this weekend.


ErinOrtlund said...

That picture reminds me of a presentation I did in college--it was about how Shiite Muslims do a parade every year where they flagellate themselves along the route.

Eric said...

Dane, can you post this again next week - and the week after next - so I can remember this? Or maybe could you drive up to Saskatchewan and tatoo it on my arms so that I remember? Wait, that would be more flagellation . . . rats.

Thank you, thank you, for posting this. Please keep doing it.