MISNOMERS

Misnomer. Great word, that. Sounds like a silly pseudonym, as in the author of that well-known book Inaccurate names for things by Miss Nomer.

It’s strange, but the book was about something completely different….

And here’s a misnomer: I remember the first time I came across a sign in Ikea stating ‘This is a self-clear restaurant’. I was gutted that my plates and cutlery and mess didn’t clear themselves away automatically. I was expected to do that! So much for ‘self-clear’.

And on the motorway the other day, I saw one of those ‘Self Drive Hire’ vans, but it clearly wasn’t driving itself. If it had been, it probably would have been driven better and not have been overtaking me on the inside lane….

Misnomers…they just don’t do what they say on the tin, do they?

Talking of self-things, what about self-help? A friend of mine recently told me he was lapping up self-help books. But do they help? Do they help people to help themselves?

Can we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Can we lift ourselves out of depression? Can we heal ourselves from our afflictions?

Or is self-help a misnomer? Or at least an illusion?

Were U2 perhaps right in suggesting that ‘Sometimes you can’t make it on your own’?

Perhaps there are some things we can do to alter our thinking and habits, to alleviate symptoms. I’m sure that being self-aware and applying psychology to ourselves has some value, but I believe our best efforts at healing ourselves are like putting sticking plasters on our cuts. Superficial and symptomatic.

Can we actually change our inner self? Can we heal ourselves? Can we remove the cause? Can we save ourselves? Can we cleanse our souls and make ourselves new?

I believe in the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and all the other Anonymous programmes, that acknowledge that we are powerless over….alcohol / cocaine / etc….and that we need help from a “higher power”.

I believe in grace. In fact, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that you can’t get me off the subject!

But what does grace have to do with this question of self-help? I’m so glad you asked me…

Grace is God’s way of dealing with the root cause of our angst, our guilt, our identity crisis. So many of us struggle to know who we really are, who we’re meant to be, or how to find inner peace.

For some, those problems may have been exacerbated or even caused by a strict, religious upbringing. I’ve heard and read countless stories of Muslims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hindus (and even some Christians) trapped in guilt-ridden thought processes that perpetuate stress and depression, until Someone sets them free…

For example, I have a friend who used to be a Muslim, wracked with guilt and anxiety. Now she follows Jesus, and knows God as a compassionate Father. She always has a smile and has learned not to worry. Christ has set her free1.

For Jesus freaks like her and me, grace obliterates the pervasive sickness of soul the Bible calls ‘sin’2.

This is not just the things we do wrong, although that’s part of it. Sin is at the heart of all that’s broken about the human condition, and it stands between us and our healing Father. It’s described, amongst other ways in the Bible, as a disease that needs radical treatment.

Grace, through Jesus’ death on the cross, tells us we’re accepted. Grace says we’re forgiven. Grace declares us “NOT GUILTY” and tells us we’re safe – in good hands.

Both free and secure.

For us Jesus freaks, who have accepted this as a free gift, this is not just theology or theory. This is experience. You can read my own experience of grace in My Life’s Soundtrack.

As I was writing this, Barbra Streisand’s soulful voice on the radio echoed my thoughts:

And we got nothing to be guilty of / Our love will climb any mountain near or far… Our love is one in a million.

Grace pulls us out of a hole, sets us on high and gives us lofty ideas of spreading the love we’ve received with our neighbour. Grace cleanses us.

Grace does what we cannot do for ourselves.

We cannot perform surgery on ourselves. Grace gets to the root and surgically removes the disease, deep inside.

We cannot lift ourselves up. Grace does.

Rob Bell puts it far better than I can in his ground-breaking book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, where he compares this idea to learning to water-ski. Apparently beginners are repeatedly told: “Let the boat pull you up!”

Bell continues:

Lean back – to go forward?

Stay down – to get up?

As a result of this confusion, many people, on their first attempt, get pulled forward out over the front of their skis; they ignore the advice from the boat and follow their natural inclination, which is to try to get themselves up onto the surface of the water.

Which doesn’t work, because you can’t get yourself on your own up onto the surface of the water.

It’s impossible.

Learning to water-ski requires a person to make the counterintuitive leap from trying to do what seems natural, which is to get yourself up onto the surface of the water, to trusting that the boat will do that work for you3.

Like learning to water-ski, resting on the good news that Jesus came to announce, is counterintuitive.

The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf is, as Bell puts it, “an unexpected foreign notion, a strange idea that cuts across many of the dominant ways we’ve all come to believe are how the world works”.

This good news often goes against the grain of our society, but I’m not ashamed of the one I love, the one who’s loved me. I’m not ashamed to say: this good news works!

Self-help? Try it if you really think there is such a thing. If it’s not a misnomer or an illusion.

But maybe also consider the alternative.

In fact, you could think about it over a meal in the restaurant of a Swedish furniture store, but remember to clear your table afterwards, and on your way there, steer clear of those dodgy van drivers…

  1. The New Testament is full of images of being set free from the power of sin. Romans 6:7 is one of many examples of this.
  2. The prophet Isaiah was incredible in the way he foretold the coming of Jesus, and how Jesus would take our place, bearing all the weight of our sin, which is compared here to a sickness (Isaiah 53:5).
  3. P. 132-133. Rob Bell is an amazing communicator and one of my literary heroes. Even his end-notes and references are interesting and fun to read. Wish I could write end-notes that well!
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5 thoughts on “MISNOMERS

  1. Nancy Aguilera says:

    Very well written Roger. I had to bag my own groceries the other day, what do they call that? Self bag?

  2. […] Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God (WWTA). I referred to WWTA in my last blog post Misnomers. I have to confess, I’m a bit of a Rob Bell fan. Big time. In fact, I think Time magazine may be […]

  3. […] Another fun word, like Misnomers. Rolls off the tongue. Para-pher-nal-i-a. Someone should write a song about […]

  4. […] Another fun word, like Misnomers. Rolls off the tongue. Para-pher-nal-i-a. Someone should write a song about […]

  5. […] years ago I wrote Misnomers about the term self-help, arguably a fallacy. Now for a short reflection on one of the very worst of […]

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