The Obscene Obsession With Self

As Christians we are called to love one another as our Lord Jesus Christ has loved us. The Church Christ is still building is called to be a fellowship of love. Jesus told His disciples that their unconditional love would be the mark of their discipleship, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).

The depth and length of His love is not only seen in His selfless life – that in His incarnation the Eternal Christ was willing to lay aside some of His divine rights (Philippians 2:6-7) – but is seen supremely in His sacrificial death, His willingness to lay down His life for others: “No one has greater love that this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

The apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, uses a very interesting expression when he tells us that Christ “emptied himself” (2:7). He wanted his readers to understand that the historical Jesus was who Peter had first claimed Him to be, “The Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), the One “…who, though he was equal with God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (i.e. something to be exploited, to be used for selfish purposes), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (even more literally “a slave”, for the Greek word is “doulos”), being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

So, if you want to know what real love is, look at Jesus. Look at His life of selfless service. Look at His self-giving in His ministry of mercy, His willingness to make Himself available, even when He was exhausted from His travels, responding to every cry for help, ignoring the claims of self when His own body was crying out for rest (Mark 6:31-32). He had compassion on the crowd that had been following Him, until the close of day, when He and His disciples were tired and hungry, but He took time to perform one of His greatest miracles – feeding the multitude by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish until there was more than enough for all to eat (6:3-42). Our Lord’s concern was always for others. In His humanity He had the same needs that we have, but He put the needs of others before His own. But if you want to see the greatest example of His selflessness, look at Jesus on the cross! Even then, when His body was racked with pain, in the throes of an agonizing death, He was thinking only of others, committing His mother to the care of John (John 19:26-27), praying for those who had crucified Him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The soldiers who were kneeling beneath His cross, not in prayer and adoration, but casting lots for His seamless robe, did not know that He was giving His life for them, that He was paying the price for their sins, that He was praying for them, asking God to forgive them for they did not know that they had crucified the Lord of Glory. And the jeering crowd? What about those who had cried out in vulgar jest, “He saved others, himself he cannot save!” They did not know that He had the power to save Himself, but if He had saved HimselfHe could not save others. If He saved Himself, He could not save them! If He saved Himself, He could not become the Savior of the world!

jacob-meyer-32136On that fateful Friday when Jesus was elevated between heaven and earth as the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), it was prophecy fulfilled, for seven hundred years before it happened God’s prophet, Isaiah, penned these words: “He was despised and rejected by others…He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities…All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:3-6). That is the essence of sin, the desire to go our own way, to do our own thing, to be the master of our own fate, to put self on the throne at the control center of our lives, to let our own conscience be our guide, to answer to no one but ourselves. That is the human condition. All of us are turned inward. In his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul describes vividly a spiritually dysfunctional human family, saying “All have turned aside…There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:12, 22-23).

All of us are a part of this rebellious company we call humankind. The story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis is our story. We are actors in this drama, humanity’s rebellion against God, doing that which God has forbidden, ignoring God’s commandments, yielding to temptation in order to satisfy our own appetites for the things our human instincts. To sum it up, self-gratification. It may sound simplistic to many, but the one word that describes it best is just plain selfishness, which lies at the heart of the human condition. It is the major problem in human relations, in marriage, in family life, in the vocations of our common life, in government, in the court of world opinion – in all relationships, where two or more sovereign wills are locked in a struggle for supremacy. Who is going to have the last word? Who is going to get his or her own way? Who is in charge? Who has the most power? Who is going to win? Most people want to be a “winner.” Have you ever wondered why there are more troublemakers than peacemakers? Why there are almost as many divorces as marriages? Why those who represent us in Washington are so contentious, so seldom not even able to compromise for the common good? Is it not becausethere is a “deep gonewrongness” at the very center of life? Jesus told His disciples that there were too many people in this world who lived to “lord it over one another,” but He said, “It shall not be so among you.”

Jesus modeled a different kind of lifestyle, a different style of leadership. He said, ”All authority and power, in heaven and on earth, has been given to me,” but He never used His power for Himself, to Lord it over others. Satan tempted Him to use His power to turn stones into bread when He was hungry, after forty days and nights in the wilderness. He tempted Him to use His power to impress the crowds, to prove His deity by throwing Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and not being killed. But He never yielded to such temptations. He was not seeking recognition or reputation. He did not crave the things this world offers. He had the remedy for sin, the answer for this fractured and fragmented world: LOVE! He knew the cause of conflict and alienation in this world is self-centeredness, rather than hate. Yes, hate is divisive, disruptive, and destructive, but I do not believe that the people who truly hate are in the majority in this world. But all of us, without exception, are turned inward, and I am convinced that the opposite of love is not hate, it is selfishness!

The Apostle Paul, in his great discourse on love in First Corinthians, chapter 13, says “Love is not selfish.” Love is other-person centered. Loving is serving. Loving is caring. Loving is being more interested in giving than in getting. Love knows it is “more blessed to give than to receive.” When will we ever learn? We have allowed this world to squeeze us into it’s own mold. We have conformed to this world, a world where narcissism has reached epidemic proportion. We are living in a materialistic, consumer oriented, and success driven society that puts an overpowering emphasis on the SELF – self-awareness, self-realization, self-affirmation, and self-gratification with all of its amoral and immoral consequences.

Dr. John M. Mulder, former President of Louisville Seminary, a church historian, author, and another retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says this “is the tragic malaise of our age…We live for ourselves. We answer to ourselves and no one else. Presidents answer to themselves, not to the Constitution or the people. Politicians answer to themselves, not to their constituencies. Wall Street bankers answer to themselves, not to the people who entrust money to them. Television preachers answer to themselves, not to the Lord they proclaim.” Well, what about us? Who do we answer to? That is the question each of us needs to ponder. For those of us who bear the name of Christ, and who are called to be followers of Jesus, we need to examine ourselves in the light of His words, and the demands of Christian discipleship. He understood the human condition better than anyone else. Those who answered His call to discipleship would have to leave other things behind if they followed Him. He required absolute surrender to His claim on their lives, and total submission to the will of God. The claims of self, self interests, other commitments, must be forsaken. Jesus did not make it easy for any one to follow Him. It seems He spent almost as much time trying to persuade people not follow Him, as He did to follow Him.

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He asked prospective disciples, “Are you sure you want follow me? The birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Luke 9:58).  Have you counted the cost? Are you sure you want to follow someone so poor, so disenfranchised? A rich young ruler asked what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. He knew his possessions, were his first love; that he loved his savings more than he could ever love Him, as his Savior! There was another potential disciple who said, “Lord, I want to follow you, but first let me go home and bury my father” (i.e. “return home and wait until my father dies, and then I will follow you,” for that was the duty of the eldest son). But Jesus knew the time was short. He had only two years to train his followers to continue His ministry after His departure, following His crucifixion and resurrection, so He said, “Follow me…Let the dead bury the dead!; as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (vs. 59-61). On another occasion, He said, “Truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (i.e. those who love their life in this world, satisfying the claims of self, more than they love Him in submitting to His claim on their lives). Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:24-26). Perhaps His absolute claim on the lives of His followers is summed up best, in regard to all other claims, in these familiar words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose their own soul (i.e. forfeit their own life)” (Matthew 16:25-26).

Is it any wonder that Christ’s words and claims are so difficult for people in our contemporary society to accept, with its obsession with the self and its claims, with the insatiable appetite for the things this world offers, for “enough” is always “more”? Surely we can see how greed and covetousness are incompatible with the claims of Christ. The apostle Paul calls covetousness idolatry! He had learned the secret of contentment, which was found in his own deliverance from bondage to those things the self desires, such as success and security, the way this world defines both, in terms of position, possessions, power (Philippians 3:4-11). Paul wanted his friends in Philippi to know that he was rejoicing, even though he was in prison, because he had been brought from bondage to freedom in Christ: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly…For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret…I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:10-14).

However, it is in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we find the greatest secret of all, not only the secret of contentment but the secret that has eluded so many Christians – how to experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from not striving or struggling to live the Christian life in our own strength, but denying self and submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives. It was J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, who called this secret “the exchanged life,” as shared by the apostle Paul in his own personal testimony: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Exchanging our life, the self life, for His life, given for us on the cross; exchanging our weakness for His strength; exchanging our inadequacy for His sufficiency; exchanging our poverty for His riches; exchanging our sinful self for His sinless self. It is recognizing and confessing that the old life, the sin life, the self life, was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Christ not only died for me; I died with Him! “I have been crucified with Christ; and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

My friends, Christianity is not a “do-it-yourself” religion! Living the Christian life, contrary to what some people suggest, is not a matter of “imitating” Christ, in the hope of gaining a state of righteousness like His, making ourselves righteous in the sight of God by striving and struggling to be more and more like Him (and always being troubled by the thought that we know we are failing), for it is not only difficult to ever make ourselves like Him, it is impossible! The righteousness that is pleasing to God is not our own righteousness, which at its best is still “filthy rags”, as the Bible tells us – not a righteousness “gained”, but a righteousness “given” – the righteousness of Christ that is a the gift of God, a “grace gift,” for we are “His workmanship,” we are “what He has made us” (Ephesians 2:8-10; see also Romans 3:21:”…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”) – THIS IS THE TRUTH, THIS IS THE SECRET, THAT COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE TODAY!

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