Friday, February 5, 2016

Selfish or Selfless, I’m Still Self-Centered: Where to turn when all you can see is you.

Sometimes, all I can see is me.
Noel Schaak, a friend serving Christ as an educator in the northern-most of Jefferson’s counties, recently posted a blog entry entitled “Selflessness.” (You can read the full piece here.) In it he writes, “At the heart of sin is selfishness and selfishness has a way of perpetuating itself.  A continual turning inward spiraling into infinite emptiness.” The question I find myself asking in response to that is, “How do I fix this, without further turning inward to examine my faults, even my selfishness itself?” The first step, I believe, is to turn elsewhere for guidance. The pattern and purpose set for accomplishing good is externally located. As many who know me can attest, I regularly seek an answer to this first question.
What would Jesus have me do?
For many, finding the answer to this question is a matter of moral introspection that relies on lists of prohibitions. The most popular of those lists, of course, is the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17 –  Don’t worship false gods. Don’t make idols. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Don’t work on the Sabbath. Don’t dishonor your parents. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet.) This list is simple, though never easy. And there are several other lists of vices to avoid (e.g., Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 1:5,8).
Probably not the question you want to ask...
Though all the subsequent lists fall into the general categories of The Ten, two things become clearer with each new list we examine. First, if we achieved immeasurable success in this negatively-measured godliness, maintaining our avoidance of all these sins, we still could not revisit our past and prevent what has already occurred. Second, within or accompanying each list of “don’ts,” there are positive activities to be pursued. This prevents us from spending our time and effort on addressing the damages we have already caused, lest we fail to accomplish that which is ours to do today.
Despairing of self-correction, we may find that the very real sense of our failure causes us to turn inward even more severely. Instead of selfishly lavishing accolades and extravagances upon ourselves, though, we cripple our souls by criticizing everything we find there. Worse, in doing so, we also turn away from any real answer to the second question I regularly ask, which is only answerable by pursuing the first question.
What would Jesus have me be?
In Ephesians 2:10 we learn that we are not created in order to fulfill tasks that God requires to be accomplished. We are not the workers He needs to fill the factory’s quotas, or to finish the farm’s chores. The tasks He sets before us, instead, are designed to help us find, fulfill, and find our fulfillment in being what we were created to be: His “masterwork” (poiema, also translated “workmanship” or “handiwork”). In living out the life He sets before us, we discover more and more in our passions, gifts, and experiences, often finding that what we are being made to be aligns with what we find so fulfilling and effective to do.
Noel Schaak
Toward this focus on being and doing together, there are two other commandments to consider. They are unique in several ways. First, they are among the shortest and simplest. Second, they are positively stated. And third, they encompass every other commandment God has ever included in His word. You could even say that they embody everything it means to be and do as we were created.
Jesus gives a two-fold answer to a singularly-important question in Matthew 22:36. “Teacher,” He is asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Part one, the way Jesus phrases it, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Though it is translated “the second is like it,” the wording suggests that Jesus intended us to understand the rest of this one commandment as indivisible from any claim we make about loving God: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Lutheran Extrospection
If, as my friend Noel writes, the selfishness at the root of my sin involves an introspection, “a continual turning inward spiraling into infinite emptiness,” our mutual mentor, Paul Louis Metzger, offers two directions in which to focus what I would call our “extrospection.” Dr. Metzger references “the gospel according to Luther” as a means of shifting our focus. “As we ascend to Christ in faith because of the outpouring of God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5), we are free to descend to our neighbor in love (See Luther’s early Reformation treatise, “Freedom of a Christian”). There is no need for self-concern. Like God who is for us, we are not free to exist for others, especially those who are marginalized.” (You can read the full text of his post, “The Crucified God Confronts Gendercide,” here.)
Paul Louis Metzger
Looking both upward and outward prevents me from self-consuming introspection and promotes the self-developing activities that arise from and fuel my passions, gifts, and experiences. Focusing on the love of God and His love of others enables me to be more of what God is continuing to create me to be. As I wrote in response to my friend Noel’s post, I find the same emphasis in the pattern Jesus gave us for our ongoing conversation with the Father.
Praying My Way Out of Self-Centeredness
When I pray as Jesus taught us, I am called to be occupied in seeking the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of His kingdom (which I see as a geographical and relational expansion, not merely a temporal anticipation of a future event) as synonymous with the doing of His will just as fully here and now as it will be then and there. To do this, however, I must be freed from the self-concern that seeks to ensure the basic human necessities of air, warmth, water, and food—and definitely from the self-interest that seeks to elevate my status and increase my inventory so as to further enhance the air, warmth, water, and food supplies I enjoy. So, I ask that He be the One to provide my sustenance (daily bread), my willingness to pursue relationality (forgiving on the basis of knowing our own need for forgiveness), and an awareness of the path through or past temptation (despite the predicaments perpetrated by the enemy of our souls). And I ask all this on the basis of my trust that He alone is in charge of me and mine and everything we may ever encounter, and solely worthy of being credited with all of it, always.
I think he's got it.
How does the Lord’s Prayer sound in your conversation with God? Does it turn you inward toward your shortcomings? Or does it focus you on the upward and outward calling of Jesus Christ, even as you trust Him for the provision and protection that would otherwise consume your attention?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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