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Selfless Theater: It's Not All About You

My mom talked excitedly as we drove home from church. Her words floated in one ear and out the other. Frustration with the children's musical that year occupied my mind––I wasn’t given a solo.

Mom called my name from the front seat. I looked up to see my mom’s eyes looking at me in the rearview mirror. The church choir director gave her a solo, she said.

Big deal, I thought. Without responding to her news, I began to vent about my role in the play. It wasn’t long before she stopped my tirade to correct me. She wanted me to be happy for her, but instead, I could only think of myself.

I was hit with the knowledge of my selfishness. It struck me that my mom, always the devoted choir member, had been especially excited to share this news with me, and I’d missed my opportunity to share in her joy.

I replayed that moment in my mind for years to come, acutely aware of the self-absorbed heart of my ten year old self. It was still with me as I worked toward a degree in theater nearly a decade later.

At my Christian college we were told to engage in “selfless theater.” It was a beautiful idea, but there was one problem––we had no idea what that meant. With no instruction on how to accomplish such a feat, we flailed in our attempts to throw down our pride and perform only for the glory of God.

Like many theaters, we were stuck in a cycle of jealousy and favoritism––the very opposite of selflessness. In his book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Timothy Keller gives a striking picture of what it looks like to be self-forgetful.

“When someone whose ego is not puffed up . . . gets criticism, it does not devastate them. They listen to it and see it as an opportunity to change. . . . The more we understand the gospel, the more we want to change. Friends, wouldn’t you want to be a person who does not need honor––nor is afraid of it? . . . Wouldn’t you like to be the type of person who, in their imaginary life, does not sit around fantasizing about hitting self-esteem home-runs, daydreaming about success that gives them the edge over others? . . . Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did?”

Yes, I wanted to be that person. But I wasn’t. I’m still not.

I walked away with a theater degree in hand but a heart full of bitterness. I couldn’t perform anymore. It was too hard. I had failed for years to let go of my pride and desire for recognition.

Even more present than pride and self-importance came the temptation of low self-esteem––the pride of comparing myself to others and failing to meet a standard other than God’s.

So I quit.

For the next seven years, my involvement in anything musical or theatrical was half-hearted or non-existent. If I couldn't do it right, then I wasn't going to do it at all.

I thought I was making the right decision by being obedient to Matthew 5:30 which says to cut off your right hand if it causes you to sin. Instead, I was allowing myself to be ruled by fear. I thought that if I couldn’t be perfect and avoid pride altogether, then I should flee.

Theater haunted me during that absence. I couldn’t look back on my time in college without wading through a sea of deep regret, hurt, and shame. On the rare occasions I sat in an audience, my heart physically ached at the sight of the performers. “I can do that too,” I thought. But I walked away knowing I wouldn’t be performing any time soon.

Instead of finding solace in the gospel of grace to fuel humility, I fled the theater with my pride intact. What I thought was obedience was rooted instead in fear of my own sinfulness. And yet, if that gospel is true, then my sinfulness has already been washed away. What is left to fear?

Click here to read the concluding part!


Marian Jacobs lives near Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She occasionally finds time for photography and writing stories about monsters and magic. Her work has been featured at Desiring God and Speculative Faith. You can find more about her and her work at her personal website.

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