Thursday, June 11, 2015

Who Stands between You and Christ? Is It You?

"Something between me and Jesus?
What could that possibly be?"
We know what Jesus said. “I came not to be served, but to serve.”[1] “If I, your Lord and Master, serve you (literally, wash your feet), how much more should you serve one another?”[2] I serve a congregation who offers that we are “your servants for Jesus’ sake.”[3]

So, how is it that so many Christians seem so self-centered, so eager to demand that their rights be upheld, and so eager to restrict the rights of others with whom they disagree? How do the followers of “the man for others”[4] end up being all about themselves?

I think I might be, at least partly, to blame.

My Contribution to the Problem
I am, have been, and will likely continue to be competitive. My intensity in church-league bowling and softball, for example, used to draw harsh criticism from concerned church leaders. Ironically, these were leaders in churches where we always kept score. Monthly, quarterly, and annual reports measured attendance, membership, conversions, baptisms, giving, and a host of other calculations. Like most other pastors I know, I have been trained to constantly ask the late New York Mayor Ed Koch’s famous question, “How’m I doin’?” It should not surprise me, then, to find so many congregations following their pastors’ lead. Thus we develop the habit of evaluating our spiritual lives by checklists, bar graphs, and spreadsheets, whether literally or mentally.

"Maybe if I just hide from me...?"
We can quote Jesus’ teachings about looking to Him to provide the strength, wisdom and resources necessary to provide for others’ needs. But most of our emphasis on spiritual development, spiritual guidance, and spiritual disciplines focuses our attention on ourselves. As we stand in the gap between the power plant and those needing the light, why do we let the wiring remain so entangled and connected only to itself?

I hear the Lord’s question to me this way: “Are you still standing between you and Jesus Christ?” Yes. I am.

The Traditional Pattern: A Positive Self-Interest
I understand my rebellion against being a servant, from being held to my position between the resources God provides and the needs of the community He’s called me to serve. Like many, I measure success by the extent to which I experience freedom.

Our society regularly sacrifices on behalf of a liberty in which individuals are seen as autonomous. Each of us has the right to self-determination, we claim, at least to the extent that we are self-sufficient to do so.

"What I can I do to appease me?"
Still, we recognize that some boundaries are necessary. Otherwise others’ pursuit of their own self-preservation might infringe upon our ability to pursue our own self-centered preferences and privileges. Thus, when we have effectively self-promoted ourselves over against some other group, we believe our own self-aggrandizing propaganda. From our perspective, we deserve to be protected from others’ self-determination so that we can more comfortably live out our own self-sufficiency (even though our benefits are directly tied to the costs imposed on others). And so, in the service of sustaining our own liberty, we most often negate and sacrifice others for the sake of our positive self-interest.

Our selfish pursuit of such benefits costs others, even the brightest and best of our young men and women, their freedom, their health and well-being, and far too often their lives. But there are alternatives.

"Wait, why don't I just try being me?"
The Usual Alternative: A Negative Self-Interest
If unfettered selfishness can so easily be rationalized and allowed to run rampant over the lives of others, then it would seem logical to pursue self-discipline, limiting our appetites, desires and preferences. Self-denial works well for us in some areas, while our occasional lapses into excess (whatever vice it is on which we binge) give us opportunity for self-deprecating humor. But even those who most successfully implement a pattern of self-giving, and even the self-emptying that follows Christ’s pattern, are focused, still, on self.

Whether we keep score by how much we have, how much we give, or how much we suffer, we are still self-serving, self-centered, and self-focused. If the alternative to being selfish is not to be self-less (since that requires us to evaluate whether we, ourselves, are considering our selves), then what hope can we possibly have?

As that hope, I would offer…

"Okay, so that didn't work
out quite so well as I'd hoped."
An Alternative to Self-Interest
In The Beatitudes,[5] Jesus pronounces blessings to those in whom certain characteristics are found: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness. There is much to be said about these eight characteristics and the blessings that accrue to those who embody them. But to my point here, I would simply note that each category is plural. “Blessed are you” is addressing not me, but us.

In fact, most of the references to “you” in the New Testament are plural. So, as I preface what will be a series of reflections on The Beatitudes as they apply in the context of my life, my family, my ministries, and my other pursuits, I will be trying to look beyond my interests. But I want to start by exploring our interests, most directly in considering next who we are.

And hopefully this will be a collaborative efforts. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, concerns, or confusions in the comment section below.

[1] Mark 10:45
[2] John 13:14
[3] II Corinthians 4:5
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reference to Jesus Christ in his Letters and Papers from Prison.
[5] Matthew 5:3-12


Anonymous said...

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less... not sure who said it originally, but the problem is, when so inculcated by our culture we become unable to see our own twisted by sin selfishness we have a hard time understanding how this differs from the God-ordained self-preservation instinct. The "plural you" is a great place to start our ruminations, because if I stop to think "how will this make OUR lives better," I will consider both myself and my neighbor, which Jesus commanded us to do. It saves us from thinking we will ever extinguish self-centeredness completely, and allows us the process of gradual sanctification by which all great old saints I know now truly experience their blessedness in relation to the benefit of the larger community, and this is their great joy.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

As much as A.B. Simpson, A.W. Tozer, and others have written of "Entire Sanctification," or being "Wholly Sanctified," as I listen to Tozer's sermons, I find that his experience of complete selflessness was intermittent. Your point about being saved "from thinking we will ever extinguish self-centeredness completely" correlates to my observations of this in Tozer, and myself. (Wow, that seems like an arrogant sentence to write!) And I agree that as a place to start our ruminations, "how will this make OUR lives better" is a vast improvement on the usual self-serving evaluations.

My thought this morning, however, is challenging me with the Simpson/Tozer perspective. If my consideration is "how will this serve the cause of Christ best," then will any word or action necessarily result in the greatest good for myself and others as an indispensable side-effect? Even if I were to be, perfectly, the servant of others, if it were in the absence of doing so "for Jesus' sake" (I have II Cor. 4:5 in mind.) it is probable that in service of their self-interest I would be bringing curses rather than blessings.

So, the question I am contemplating this morning is this: If I ask and affirmatively answer, "What would Jesus have me do?" will I then be providing the kinds of service that cannot help but make OUR lives better? Of course, as I ruminate upon this, I have to admit that one of the ways Jesus directs me to the answer is through the relationships and communities in which I serve--and I should account for the evident needs as part of the "guidance-system" He uses to direct my attention to the work He's given me.

Thanks for you thoughtful, as well as thought-and-prayer-provoking comment!

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