The Beauty of Shadow Boxing – Part 1


My favorite definition for the term  spiritual formation comes from M. Robert Mulholland: “the process of conforming to the image of Jesus for the sake of others.” And my favorite expression of that process is a phrase that Eugene Peterson borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche (of all people): “a long obedience in the same direction.”

But what is the “image of Jesus?” And how does one conform to that image? And what is the “long obedience?” And even if we know, how do we do it?  The answers are well-nuanced, but I think I have a new understanding.

We all have a public self and a private self.  That is, we have have a “self” we present to the outside world, and then we have the person we are when no one is watching.  But even deeper than those two selves is someone we don’t know very well, someone we don’t really want to know very well.  That is the person who has been formed by all the outside influences during our growing-up years: our parents, our culture, even the church we grew up in.  It is the person who operates blindly out of the false narratives we learned from these influences. It is the person who keeps saying yes to requests for help when she is already exhausted and depleted.  It is the person who is warm and approving at work or at Rotary Club but is verbally abusive at home.  It is the person who always deflects a compliment even though he subconsciously hungers for approval.

In Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and The Twelve Steps, Fr. Richard Rohr names this person our “shadow self.” This self operates in the dark allowing us to do “evil and cruel things – without recognizing them as evil or cruel” (p. 33). This is the self we cannot see, will not see, dare not see.  It would destroy our public and personal self-image.” Having spent many years trying to uncover my shadow self, I understand how powerful that self is and why we spend a life time trying to deny its existence.

However, if we want to become like Jesus, we must conquer this denial.  Because Jesus had no shadow self!  Jesus was, for want of  better terms, authentic and congruent.  Jesus was the same person in every circumstance – with his disciples, with his mother, with the crowds, with the Pharisees, with Pilate, and with the thief on the cross.  And when he was alone.

So how can we possibly become like this Jesus? One way is to be willing to shine the light on our dark corners and reveal our shadow selves.  Rohr calls that process “shadow boxing.” Shadow boxing involves allowing the light to shine on who we really are.  It involves taking our “conflicts, relationship difficulties, moral failures, defeats to our grandiosity, even our seeming enemies” and putting them under the Holy Spirit’s spotlight.

We cannot deal with what we cannot see or admit.  However, when who we really are is exposed, we can begin to choose differently. It’s similar to what happens when we stand in full sunlight in an open area; we can see our full shadow.  We can stay in that sunlight and see ourselves or we can step back into the shade and the shadow will go away.  In the same way we can choose to let our shadow self continue to govern, or we can choose to become the new creation Paul promises us we will be when we follow Jesus.  (Paul should know; look what his shadow self allowed him to do! and then look at what he became!  Interestingly enough he had to become physically blind before he could see. )

Many years ago, I was a chronic enabler, dedicated to rescuing anyone and everyone who crossed my path.  My fixing nature (a hidden need to control) caused problems everywhere I walked, but mostly in my own family.  As these problems cropped up, I attributed them to the natural result of my being obedient to God’s call to my life – helping others.  You see, I didn’t recognize that my shadow self with its insatiable need for love and approval was determining my “helping” behaviors. And I really didn’t want to see because that would mean I had to change my behavior- and then where would I find love?

I chose blindness – until everything came apart and I didn’t want to live anymore.  And then, finally, with the help of counselors and teachers and the Holy Spirit,  I began the life-long process of scraping away the denial, the way we scrape off  the layer that hides the amount of our winnings from an instant lottery ticket.  And the prize for all that shadow boxing?  Becoming more and more authentic and more and more like Jesus.

And with that journey comes the privilege of being a wounded healer.  For the blessing of going through our own hell is the honor of helping lead others out of theirs.   Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 7: 4-5, when he tells us that we have no right to judge another for the splinter in his eye (nor may we attempt to remove his splinter!) until we recognize the log in our own.  I think that shadow boxing is recognizing and dealing with our logs and making it possible for God to use us to help remove splinters – which is the process of conforming to the image of Jesus for the sake of others and certainly a long obedience in the same direction.

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2 Responses to The Beauty of Shadow Boxing – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Gritty Christian | Living as Apprentices

  2. Ruth Evenhouse says:

    Wow! I am trying to breathe, as I ponder the raw honesty and profound truths stated in this blog entry, Karen.
    “And with that journey comes the privilege of being a wounded healer. For the blessing of going through our own hell is the honor of helping lead others out of theirs.” So once again, you lead us back to gratitude for “holy chaos”. Thank you.

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