Stephen Maginas, my campus minister with RUF, taught a seminar at our Summer Conference to teach college students how to best cultivate a devotional life. In a lesson, he stressed the importance to come towards God needy and dependent, because that's how God wants us to come before him. In particular, I saw the majority of students grab their pens and write down this quote from Stephen:
"Perfect people aren't needy and dependent, and perfect people don't need God."
I have previously written about how trying to be perfect is trying to be God, as a plea and persuasion against perfectionism that I'd hope would stick with people. It was a plea to see our own flaws, imperfections, and deny our own righteousness, and not compare ourselves to others. I wrote that comparison is an attempt to bolster our own savior complex and deny the role of a higher power in our lives, as well as an attempt to elevate ourselves above others.
Almost a year later, I now know that we become before God equals, no matter how deep our flaws and sins are, and no matter how righteous we are in the good we do. I thought about the perfect people in my life and how there's the issue that so many of those people seemingly don't have joy.
With perfectionism, "we're trying to be God...because what does it mean if, in some bizarre situation, you were your notion of God, and you made it. You got to the mountaintop. Did you get all you ever wanted? Then what?"
A year later, I think back to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18, that has become such a centerpiece of my faith and how I relate to the people around to me humbly. The Pharisee, a self-righteous religious figure of his time, goes to a temple and prays: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." The tax collector, who is shunned and ostracized by his local community, goes into the temple and prays "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!" The tax collector goes home justified, while the Pharisee does not.
But that was then, this is now, and it was fun hearing this quote from Stephen and relating it to what my life is like now. Then, it was a rebellion against the perfectionism that pervaded a high-achieving, competitive place like Emory University, that plagued my own thoughts and feelings of shame and guilt. Now, however, I have the goal of reaching towards being needier and dependent towards God and others, and I will be honest: it doesn't sound very sexy or appealing to want to be more needy and dependent. In fact, our individualistic society prioritizes self-sufficiency and independence above all else, and I take pride in the fact that I can take care of myself relatively well by myself.
And maybe I shouldn't because that latter statement is just a case of self-deception and lying to myself. The fact is that we, as human beings, as hard-wired for connection and relationships. The fact is that without my family, friends, and communities, I would simply go crazy being alone with my thoughts of all the things I've done horribly wrong in the past.
And we are validated by the fact that God is also someone who is similarly needy, dependent, and human. This may sound heretical and blasphemous to say but think about the Christian God. He is a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the words of Michael Wittmer, author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God, the concept of the Trinity and the Triune God is different from other monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam, because "If God were merely a self-centered person...He would be entirely self-centered." And if God were just a single person, "How could such a God love? He would have existed from eternity past all by Himself, with literally no one and nothing else around."
And if we are needy and dependent on God, we can't be prideful and we can't be selfish, because "if God is eternally three, a community of self-giving lovers, then it isn't possible for Him to be selfish. God has always loved the other within the Godhead. His very essence is love." Wittmer then tells a story of a vacation he went on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, one that he ironically didn't enjoy. He didn't enjoy the vacation because he went on vacation by himself. "I was in paradise," Wittmer says. "and I couldn't enjoy it because I had no one to share it with."
And I learned in the past that loneliness isn't always a bad thing, just like pain sometimes isn't. Loneliness is a symptom of a larger problem: a need for community and connection, which are "and what you need in order to live a full, happy life." Wittmer cites the Grant Study, which started in 1937 and tracked the lives of 300 Harvard men for 70 years through war, careers, parenting, marriages, and old age. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who directs the study, made this theory that I couldn't agree more with, as a result from the study: "the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."
So that means that to be needy and dependent on God means to be needy and dependent on others, and that helps us be further in relation with them. I struggle with this. I struggle with this profoundly. I was with my parents during graduation and my mom chastised me: "Ryan, I know you're strong. I know you're independent. But you never ask me for anything. You never ask for money. You never tell me your problems, you don't ask for help, and I want to help you." And in the moment that was a sentiment that I brushed aside completely, because I am the golden child in our family, and I think and am under the illusion of pride that I don't need any help.
And if I love God, that notion has to change, especially in how I relate to the people I love, because God is a triune God who "made us in His image as relational beings." If I want to love God and love people, I have to expose myself and tell people how needy and dependent I am, and maybe you do, too.