Have you ever mistaken someone or yourself been mistaken for a god?
When I was a senior in high school, one of the sophomores decided that my close friend was a Saint. She followed us around for weeks taking notes on everything we did and said. Eventually, we started to swear whenever she came near and the “Saint” took up smoking, a definite no-no back then. In a few days, she saw the error in her impression and stopped pursuing us. It was a relief!
In today’s First Reading from Acts, Paul and Barnabas, having fled to Lystra to get away from some who were trying to stone them, cured a crippled man. Soon people were calling them Zeus and Hermes. Despite their “tearing their garments” in protest and attempting to switch attention to the One God they worshiped, they were not successful in dissuading this misimpression.
How does such an error occur? We see the person doing something “godly,” perhaps. Something generous, outstanding, magnanimous, and see them often. This is somewhat harmless until the person we give undue authority in our lives and then an ungodly characteristic peeks out. Perhaps Bernie Madoff followers were captured by his charisma and apparent success. What a rude and costly awakening for thousands! Another unfortunate kind of “god” is an addiction. We all know the disaster that can result when an addiction de facto takes the place of a god in someone’s life. You may think of other examples.
What can be even worse is our belief that we are a god. How can one tell that this has happened? Perhaps we take on too much responsibility for the salvation of another—like a child, or a close friend. Some have called this a “Messiah complex.” We get filled with the notion that we have all the answers, know what’s best, have no need for collaboration, and forget that our skills, situation, opportunities are at their core-gifts. We fail to cultivate the virtue of Gratitude.
Can either of these mistakes be recognized? It is not always easy: the advice of an insightful and truthful counselor, honestly assessing the contributions that others have made in our current success, becoming aware of those “occasions” that tend to blind us to truth, the discovery of patterns of behavior that manipulate us can be helpful. In my tradition, reading Sacred Scripture, reflecting regularly on one’s own experience while seeking the help of the Holy Spirit in the process, a willingness to recognize harmful patterns in our actions, the assistance of a spiritual guide—all are tools that can be useful.
In any event, today’s Scripture comes as a welcome reminder to steer away from giving anyone or anything God’s place in our lives.
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