Sunday, April 12, 2020

Free of Me: Why Life is Better When It's Not About You by Sharon Hodde Miller

Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller is a book intended to help us be free of self focus.  Miller isn't writing necessarily about the kind of self focus that comes across as arrogant.  She's writing about another type of self focus, the kind that is much more subtle in most cases.  She writes about the kind of self focus most of us are guilty of nurturing without knowing it.  She opens her book with a phrase by Rick Warren, "It's not about you."  This phrase is not intended to scold, but rather to set the tone of the chapters ahead, explaining why "it" really is not about you.  "It" refers to the way we see ourselves inside the whole scope of God's plan for all creation.  It's not about me.  It's not about you.  It's about God.  Yes, God loves you.  In fact, He adores you.  Yes, He created you for His glory and He does have a plan for you woven into His beautiful tapestry of all of creation and life but if we make ourselves, though unintentionally, the focus of our own path through time, our focus is on the wrong person.  Our focus should rest on God.

Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller, Book Review
Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller, Book Review

Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller

The introduction sets us up for the big picture.  We learn that realizing that it's not about you is actually freeing.  Someone reading this right now has been hurt by someone, rejected by someone, and perhaps abused by someone.  Maybe someone was rude to you today.  When these things happen to me, I take them personally.  I let hurts fester down the core of my being.  I admit it.  This is an area where I struggle, but as Miller points out, when we make things about us that are not about us, it is a heavy burden to bear.  Realizing that all the hurts are not about you, but about them, you are free to let go of the hurt.
Self focus hurts our relationships, shrinks our faith, kills our confidence, and ultimately steals all our joy.  When it creeps into our families, our friendships, and our work, it turns the beautiful into the burdensome. - Sharon Hodde Miller, Free of Me
One of the first things we learn about is the mirror reflex.  This is something we all do whether we realize it or not.  There are several aspects to the mirror reflex but let me rest for a second or two on the people pleaser.  That is pretty much me.  I'm a people pleaser.  I want people to like me so I work hard to please them.  Serving others is indeed valuable in our Christian walk.  We need to serve others, but are you serving them because the Holy Spirit has prompted you to serve them or are you serving them so that they will like you.  If I am totally honest with myself, I have done both.  Yes, I serve by Holy Spirit prompting, but I am also guilty of serving so others will like me and so others will know that I am a good Christian woman.  The latter two are self-focused, not Christ centered.
This is how subtle self focus can be.  It doesn't always look like a devil with horns.  It's gradual and quiet and it creeps in on the back of good intentions.  I wanted to be a good person, and I wanted to be liked, and that desire became idolatry of self. - Sharon Hodde Miller, Free of Me
Miller goes on to explain that the mirror reflex is a powerful thing because it is often applied to our relationships with others.  Other people can become a reflection of our self worth.

Miller dives into the area of self esteem, quoting studies by researcher Jean M. Twenge which reveal that over the past 40 years, give or take a few, that there has been a drastic increase in self help books and focus on self esteem.  However, self esteem and self worth are not the same thing.  More and more people have become self focused which has led to an increase in self preoccupation.  We have become a people constantly seeking affirmation, but a constant hunger for affirmation only feeds our self focus resulting in deeper insecurity.

I love the phrase Miller uses when she refers to some Christian self help books.  These books are not necessarily bad.  The authors write with good intentions, but they serve only to provide their readers with a "mirror with a Jesus tint."
After all that work to boost self esteem, some people became self absorbed.  Instead of raising people with a high self esteem, we raised narcissists. - Sharon Hodde Miller, Free of Me

 Miller takes us through 7 mirrors that feed our self focus.

1.  God and the Bible

Treating God and the Bible as if they are all about us can make our faith small and powerless.  The Bible is a book about God, not about us.  I am reminded of a previous study centered around a book called Women of the Word:  How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilken.  l recommend her book with helps us see the Bible for what it was meant to be seen, a book about God and nothing else.

To focus on the one true God, we need to recognize several false me-centered gods.

a.  The self help god.

This god serves to help you feel better about yourself.  Miller points out a truth that most of us have not thought about when we read stories about our "Bible heroes."  She points out that when Moses was worried about his ability to speak and Jeremiah was concerned about his age, God didn't praise their abilities.  He didn't give them pep talks.  He didn't build them up.  Instead, God turned the focus back on Himself.  He took the focus off of their limitations and placed it on His own power and goodness. Moses, Jeremiah, and others were freed from relying on their on weakness and insecurities.  The focus was removed from the humans who could not and instead was placed on the God who can.  They were free to place their trust in Him alone.

b.  The self serving god.

This god serves you to make your life easy and great.  It is all about what God can do for you.

c.  The self exalting god.

This god exists to make you look good in public.  However, Miller tells us that "glory is a seducer and praise is addictive."  We have to be careful with this because over time, a desire for constant affirmation becomes your way of life.  However, Miller goes on to explain that desiring praise from God is not necessarily a bad thing.
We can and should seek God's praise, but approval is only sweet if it directs our attention back to Him. - Sharon Hodde Miller
d.  The self image god.

This god is a combination of all the others.  It serves, exalts, and affirms you.  It looks just like you.

2.  Family

Miller introduces a term called image management.  This is when we attempt to manage the behavior of others because we believe it reflects on us.  We act not out of love for them, but for ourselves.

I agree with Miller that her description of image management is not a good thing, but I don't necessarily agree with everything she says in this particular chapter.  Maybe it's not what she says that I disagree with but the way she says it.  I'm not sure how to express my thoughts and I don't want to get into that here and now, but if you decide to purchase this book, I'd love a discussion about it in the comments.  I'm interested in what you think.

I do believe this.  Parenting IS a high calling and for some women, perhaps it IS her most important calling.  I agree with what Andy Stanley said of parenting when he stated, "Your greatest contribution to the kingdom of Heaven is not something you do, but someone you raise."

I think that perhaps I interpreted some pages in a way that doesn't reflect the message of the book.  I felt like Miller, though unintentionally, may have cheapened the high calling of parenthood.  Again, I don't that that was her intention.  In one particular passage, I felt like a young person or teenager might take the entire message the wrong way and perhaps he or she might decide that he or she is justified in rebellion.

Miller spent several pages writing about various parental and family responsibilities while reinforcing her point that competition in those areas results in the mirroring effect that results in self focus.  I agree with most of that to some extent, but I also think she was overthinking most of it.  Perhaps I'm overthinking the whole thing.  When you read her book, I'm interesting in your interpretation of this section.

I completely and wholeheartedly agree with the following quotes from this chapter on family.
The Christian identity can stand on no person - spouse or child - but on Jesus Christ alone.

Living in a state of constant guilt is living as if Jesus never died.

Christian parenting is not perfect parenting but parenting under the grace of Christ.  Our call is not to be flawless parents, but to point to the Parent who never disappoints.

3.  Appearance

In this chapter, Miller encourages women to use our appearances as bridges to love others.  We are to choose compassion over comparison.  This is true.  We women are so good at comparing ourselves to others or comparing others to others.  Our focus should turn from trying to look good to others to achieving an appearance that leads others to Jesus.

4.  Possessions

In this chapter, we take a look at vanity and greed.  This particular chapter runs parallel to my pastor's current sermon series on generosity.  We are encouraged to be good stewards of all God has given us.  Our possessions are blessings from God to be generously given to others.  The best way to summarize this part of the book is in the following quotes.
The answer to greed is not poverty, but priority.  The source of our contentment and hope should never be our things, but our God.

God is a giver and we are made in His image which means our calling is to give.  Generosity is at the heart of the Christian life and it's our answer to the pain and emptiness of vanity and greed.

In a world held captive by consumerism, vanity, and greed, we are the people of the Giver.

5.  Friendships

In this chapter, Miller writes about loneliness and how it can make us be a better friend to others.  She quotes a valuable lesson from Lysa TerKeurst:  "Being set aside is actually God's call . . . to be set apart."
On the heels of rejection, there is mission. - Sharon Hodde Miller

6.  Your Calling

You read this point correctly.  You can actually make your calling about you.  When we make our calling about us instead of God, we play it safe.  We tend to stay away from the more controversial topics.  We want our audience to like us and we are focused more on our own reputation instead of focusing on God and leading others in the direction of Jesus.  The following quotes from this chapter of Miller's book jumped of the page as I read them.
Whenever your calling is about you, your reputation, your comfort, or your success, disobedience is not far behind.

If wholesome and safe is our compass, then we will always choose convenience over obedience.

Miller goes on to explain how Paul's focus on the glory of God kept him from hate and despair while he was in prison.

7. Your Church

Miller writes that making church about us instead of Jesus, there are consequences:  shallow friendships and a shallow faith.  She goes on to write that although the church is not about us, it is for us.
"We are meant to do life together in a support system of people who love us, sharpen us, and grow us." - Sharon Hodde Miller
Before entering part 3 of Free of Me, Miller gives us a little hint into the next section.  She compares our tendencies to either remain self-centered or to others focused to a piano.  Our spiritual "free of me" walk with the Lord needs routine "tuning."  Otherwise, like a piano which fades out of tune over time, we slip back into a self focused life.  She introduces 4 ways to remain "free of me:"  Praise, People, Purpose, and Passion.

Miller tells us that the above list is not exhaustive and tells us about two other resources that might also help us stay Jesus-focused and others-focused.

In her chapter on praise, Miller explains that praise and worship is not just something we do to check off our christian checklist, but they are a way of life which turns our focus off of ourselves and back to the goodness of God.  We praise the things we enjoy because praise completes our enjoyment.  When there is good news to share, we will burst if we try to keep it a secret.  Good news is meant to be shared.  Praising God isn't something we occasionally do to make us feel better or get us past our insecurities, but praising God and worshiping Him is a way of life for the christian.  We can take time to praise God on our own, but we were meant for community.
"Worship belongs in the context of community, because the truth is, some days we can't bring ourselves to do it.  It's too hard.  The darkness is too heavy and the grief too close . . . That is why the story of God has always been a story of a people.  Worshiping God is not something "you" do alone, but something "we" do together." - Sharon Hodde Miller

You can and should worship and praise God when you are alone, but Miller is correct when she writes that we were made for community.  Worshiping and praising God within our communities is a blessing that God tells us that we should not forsake.

In her chapter on people, Miller teaches us that when we are in a self-focused crisis, healing comes in loving others.
There is a whole world out there of brokenness and poverty and hunger and pain, begging to hear the good news of Christ, but we will never reach them if we're too focused on building our best lives now. - Sharon Hodde Miller

The section on purpose was particularly interesting to me because I have struggled to find my purpose for the second half of my life.  One paragraph stood out the most to me.
How do we discern the difference between God-given purposes and lesser ones?  Just look at their fruits.  A God-given purpose hemmed in by the boundaries of Sabbath, Spirit, Scripture, and wise counsel, will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).  Lesser purposes manifest in behavior like gossip, busybodying, stressing, and raging.  They parade all over the internet as scrutiny, name-calling, and endless empty hours on Pinterest.  In the absence of true purpose, we swing between outrage and insecurity, judging other parents on their parenting or tearing down strangers out of envy.  We do this because we are desperate for validation and meaning. What appears to be self-righteousness is often a soul crying out for significance.  

Then Miller goes on to say:

When we identify our purpose and use our gifts for God, it's fulfilling.  It makes us more like Christ, it delivers us from worthless endeavors, and it saves us from the quiet desperation of living for ourselves.

In her chapter about passion, Miller explains that true passion "has more to do with sacrifice than strong emotion."  Most of this chapter teaches us that true passion means joining Christ in His suffering.  We learn to die to self so that we can live for Him.

Sharon Hodde Miller's book, Free of Me, takes us into a deep dive into understanding how and why life is better when it is about God and not about us.  I'll end with her last statement because it sums it all up well.
Don't settle for a focus that is partially about Christ but mostly about you.  Messages about your worth and your belonging are good, but they are also too small a thing, and you were meant for more. - Sharon Hodde Miller
 Check out Sharon's blog at She Worships.

Get Free of Me here.
Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller
This book is available here.

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