The other day I set out to do something I thought was pretty cool. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But, sometimes what I set out to do doesn’t turn out quite the way I think it will.
I was reminded of a story I’d read many times before. Since I thought it might be helpful for one of my coaching sessions, I picked up the green colored children’s book by Shel Silverstein, pulled out my microphone, and recorded myself reading “The Giving Tree” out loud.
When I did, I felt sad. And a little angry.
This book left me feeling tender in places that hadn’t come to the surface when I’d read it years ago. I remember feeling happy back then. Compelled even. Driven to give more and love fiercely no matter what.
This time, I read it with a different set of heart-eyes, aged from years of experience.
In this story a young boy spends a lot of time with a tree, swinging in its branches, eating its apples, and laying in its shade. The tree is happy to give and the boy is happy to receive. While the boy grows older, he spends a lot of time away from the tree. The tree is sad when the boy is gone. When the boy returns, the tree is happy to give whatever he can. Whatever the boy wants, the tree gives and gives. The boy keeps taking. He doesn’t want what he used to get, so the tree finds something else to offer him. Over time, there is less and less to give because there is less of the tree.
Finally, the boy becomes an old man and sits on the tree’s stump. It’s what the boy can use and the tree offers it gladly. It’s all he has left.
When I used to read this book, I saw generosity, kindness, and a beautiful life given away.
Now, I see that, but I also see selfishness and ungratefulness. I see a tree without boundaries who doesn’t see its own value and a boy who thinks only of himself.
I see me. I’m both the boy and the tree.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about codependence lately. Or because I’ve known what it’s like to be so painfully broken and aware of the way we can take to get our needs met, or give and give to the point of depletion. And it’s not really the same thing as denial of self which the Bible talks about, even though I used to think so.
Giving in order to make others happy is a never ending game, much like the game of approval. We may call it denial of self, but it’s more like devalue of self. It could even be an over-valuing of self. Bear with me on this. The give in order to get (happiness, approval, time with another person) is still really about self-fulfillment.
Self-Denial or Self-Devalue?
Denial of self chooses God’s will and purposes over our own. It requires surrender, obedience, and trust to a God who is good and brings about good even in really hard and painful circumstances.
Devalue of self rejects God’s declaration of truth and refuses to accept the way God views and values each man, even ourselves. This includes others whom we think don’t deserve the same value. To devalue self requires self-will over God’s will. It is a twisted view of self-denial.
This point hits me hard. To devalue self is to actively disbelieve what God says about who you are and what you’re worth. It denies God’s view as true and good.
Self-devaluation causes an inflated or deflated perception to reign instead of God-led perceptions.
For us to deny self for the sake of Christ means we must value what he values.
Romans 12:3 tells us we are to think of ourselves with sober judgment.
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone of you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
If you’re not thinking with a sober mind, you won’t be able to think clearly or make right judgments about what you’re saying, where you’re going, or what you’re doing. To think clearly about ourselves is to think as Christ would have us think. To see ourselves as He sees us.
Also, not less.
We are created in God’s image, designed to reflect His image to the world around us. In order to reflect Christ, we must remember that we reflect His value in and through us. This value is based in who He is and what He says.
Are you sticking with me? This can go a number of different ways. We can make excuses and turn this into something it’s not intended to be and make this line of thinking all about us. It’s not. It’s about Christ in us and Christ leading us. His ways over ours. His plans over ours. It’s about a desire for our heart to align with His.
These thoughts go selfish-south real quick if we do not keep this in mind. Self-denial God’s way means God’s way in all things pertaining to self.
This includes how he values us and others. It also requires an active faith life that seeks to hear from, and talk with, the God of all creation.
As I look at this children’s story today, I see a number of possible themes and some are still good and meaningful. Yet, I can’t help but also see a tree who gave without truly valuing itself or the boy. It gave to make the boy happy and there the relationship ended. Neither of them had a healthy way of relating. The boy’s taking never satisfied him. The tree’s giving resulted in sadness and loneliness, not deep joy and inner gladness for being used as God intended it.
I could go a lot deeper but I won’t go too far. Just a little more. After all it is a children’s book, but I do wonder if it was really targeted to adults.
Both the tree and the boy looked to each other for value in order to be happy. Neither were ever fulfilled. Apart from God we can never find true fulfillment that lasts.
Looking to give or take in such a way devalues self to merely something to be used. This is not how God sees us. Being used by God is a very different thing and it requires a different motivation of the heart. When we are used by God it can feel just as depleting as giving all we got, but his design for such efforts result in our good and His glory.
In this story, two entities looked to each other and said, “This is who I am.” A giver. Or a taker.
Too often, I act like both.
But that’s not the end of our story. It’s not the way we’re called to live. The tears of my heart when I re-read The Giving Tree remind me I’m still growing into the acceptance of God’s value for me.
What if each of us looked to God for our fulfillment? What if we found happiness in mutuality and respect in relationships?
Perhaps we would be less inclined to find our value in what we get or what we give.
What if we turned heavenward and simply said, “Father, tell me who I am. I give you me and receive more of you.”
Denial of self is about choosing God’s will and purposes over our own. To devalue self is to not believe what God says about who you are and what you’re worth. To deny self for the sake of Christ means we must value what he values. Self-denial God’s way means God’s way in all things pertaining to self.
Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval and Seeing Yourself through God’s Eyes by Jennifer Dukes Lee