Ethics & Christian living

Dealing with status anxiety

There are many obvious forms of status anxiety, such as worrying about the brand of the car we drive, the location of our home or the success of our careers.

But a more subtle version relates to our concern for how much we are seen as someone who is compassionate or concerned for social justice.

There is nothing new about ‘virtue-signalling’ your social conscience but the rise of social media has turbo-charged these tendencies. So many of us now carry our own personal PR department around in our pockets.

Radical critique

One thing I find compelling about Jesus is his radical critique of self-promotion and self-righteousness. His teaching and example are a great antidote to our struggles with all forms of status anxiety.

Jesus tells his followers ‘Don’t do your good deeds publicly for others to see’ (Matthew 6:1) but the Bible never air-brushes the failure of Jesus’ followers to understand this.

‘Call themselves Benefactors’

In their last meal together, just after Jesus has shared bread and wine and explained its meaning, status anxiety breaks out among the disciples:

“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.”

In response, Jesus says to them:

 “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.

Jesus pinpoints the seductive temptation of being known for doing good. Self-aggrandisement enjoys power and prestige, but it also like to dress itself in benevolence and charity.  

In contrast, Jesus’ followers are to live out a radically re-defined version of ‘greatness’:

“The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25)

Embodied example

Jesus doesn’t just throw out challenging teaching. He embodies it in his example.

In John’s account of the ‘last supper’ in John 13, Jesus takes on the grubby and demeaning task of washing his disciples feet. He then tells his followers they must do the same.

Its a famous passage, but there are two aspects about how Jesus conducts himself that I want to focus on:

1. Security in worth and identity

Firstly, the passage is clear that Jesus’ feet-washing is based on a deep confidence about his own value, identity and future:

‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.’ (13:3)

Jesus was not seeking validation from anyone else. He knew his status before God the Father.

Our service of others is purest and most effective when we are secure in who we are and our own value. This is why faith has been such a motivator for the establishment of social action and work for justice. Acceptance of God’s grace has enabled people to show that grace to others.

In contrast, efforts to help others become warped when they are an expression of frail ego. Charities easily become vanity projects which care more their profile and survival than the actual impact of their work.

2. Assertive boundaries

Secondly, Jesus form of serving is far from being a passive doormat. His interactions with Peter during the feet washing show someone who is clear and assertive about what they are doing. 

Peter initially refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. But Jesus bluntly tells him how necessary this is if he wants to be part of what he is doing. 

This leads to Peter demanding his whole body to be washed. Jesus refuses and explains why what he is offering meets what is required. Jesus maintains his boundaries in the face of someone who wants to be dealt with on their own terms.

When we help others, it is common to be confronted by demands which may be inappropriate or impossible to meet. If we are to sustain our help, we need to express what we can do and what we can’t. Showing grace over the long term will always involve telling the truth.

Following this template

None of us are Jesus, but we can learn from the template he gives:

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (13:14)

But lets not just think that Jesus’ actions were just simple servitude. Jesus’ humble actions were assertive and boundaried. And they were rooted in being secure and confident in his identity.

And the good news is each of us can share in that divine affirmation and validation. And this is the best antidote to any anxieties about status.

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