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Unbind Him, Unbind Her

My Uncle Tom once wrote to one of his professors requesting a letter of recommendation. In his letter, he suggested that the professor should “feel free to exaggerate my good points.” Like my uncle, we’ve all been in situations in which we wanted to put our best foot forward: preparing a resume, interviewing for a job, or meeting someone for the first time. In such situations, we try to make the best possible impression.

I sometimes have such a strong desire to make a good impression that I overdo it. My over-zealous impression management leads to creating an exaggerated version of myself. The result is a not-so-subtle dishonesty in which I project an idealized view of myself that is in some ways false. I posture as though I have it all together – promoting my strengths and hiding my limitations. The false self that results is a caricature that requires ever increasing energy to keep my faults and limitations hidden.

Thomas Keating interprets the Lazarus story (John 11: 1-44) in a way that helps us grasp the spiritual significance of dynamics of the false self. When Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits two days before departing for Bethany. As he is about to leave, Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus is already dead. Keating’s interpretation of Lazarus’ mysterious illness is that he is in the grip of the false self.

Lazarus . . . is a paradigm of Christian transformation. The spiritual meaning of Lazarus is that we cannot enter into the transforming union (or heaven) with our false selves. Lazarus in the tomb represents someone . . . who feels imprisoned, forgotten by God, and abandoned by loved ones.¹

When we are in the grip of the false self, we are caught in a prison of our own making. We find ourselves bound up, trapped, entombed. Keating describes the way out.

Lazarus shows us that the Christian journey is not a magic carpet ride to bliss, a career, or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self.²

Jesus delays his journey to Bethany because Lazarus’ false self has to die. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus is already in the tomb. In the midst of the grief and tears, Jesus commands the crowd to roll back the stone. Then, his liberating voice calls Lazarus from the tomb using words that are also meant for us: “Unbind him. Let him go free.” (John 11: 44) 

When we are living out of our false self, we need to be freed: “Unbind her, unbind him, let them go free.” The liberating voice of Christ calls each of us from the tomb – freeing us from our false self and all the ways it holds us back. Christ’s liberating voice urges us to live our authentic identity in God. All that is false within us needs to die so that we are freed to live as our true selves.

There is so much in us that resists the liberating voice of Christ calling us out of the tomb: “Unbind him, unbind her, let them go free.”

We need to be freed from all the ways our false self holds us back:

  • Freed from our need for control, the desire to call our own shots, and the subtle manipulations we use to get our own way.
  • Liberated from our self-conscious efforts to please others, look good, and manage how others view us.
  • Freed from our feelings of shame, our fear of abandonment, and everything that keeps us uptight and anxious.
  • Liberated from our self-conscious efforts to fix ourselves, make ourselves worthy, and save ourselves.
  • Freed from our feeble efforts to disguise our egocentric motivation so that we appear selfless, generous, and good.
  • Liberated from our need to achieve, succeed, and win in order to be recognized and appreciated.

There is so much in us that needs the liberating voice of Christ to free us: “Unbind her, unbind him, let them go free.”

We need to be freed to live out our authentic identity in God:

  • Freed from hiding our faults to affirm we are gifted and blessed.
  • Liberated from woundedness to reach out to those broken and vulnerable.
  • Freed from pride to take on the mind of Christ and pour our lives out in service of others.
  • Liberated from sinfulness to extend mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation to others.
  • Freed from shame to accept God’s love and let it flow through us unabated.
  • Liberated from fear to love without holding back – surrendering whole-heartedly to God’s will and God’s way. 

Opening ourselves to the liberating voice of Christ urges us to grasp a simple yet profound truth: each of us is already loved by God as the unique person we are. That truth needs to penetrate our fearful minds and change our anxious hearts. Unlike my Uncle Tom, we don’t need a letter of recommendation. There’s no need to ask someone to exaggerate our good points. We have no way to deserve God’s love, but we already have it. We have no way to earn it, we simply receive it as an undeserved gift. God’s love frees us from our efforts to posture and pretend because all that is false within us simply gets in the way.

Paul Tillich reminds us that it comes down to this: accepting that God has already accepted us. We simply need to trust that God loves us as we are and urges us to love others with the same lavish abandon. Being able to love like that begins by opening ourselves to Christ’s liberating voice:

Unbind her!

Unbind him!

Let them go free!

Invitation to Prayer

I invite you to use the following steps to enter into prayer.

  • Prayerfully read John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. (John 11:1-44)
  • Review the points in the above reflection on:
    • Being freed from all the ways our false self holds us back, and
    • Being freed to live out our authentic identity in God.
  • Try to find one statement that captures the way in which you need to be freed.
  • Prayerfully open yourself to being freed by the liberating voice of Christ.
  • Continue your prayer in whatever way your heart leads you. 

Notes

¹ Thomas Keating, The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002), p. 23.

² Ibid., p. 23.