February 16, 2012

Escaping the Womb of Self


Sometimes words are so aptly put that they seize you with conviction and you find your head nodding in assent. Such were these by David F. Wells in his rather scathing review of modern evangelicalism:

Our is a ‘Christian faith that is conceived in the womb of the self’ rather than in the forge of God’s truth. Compared to historic Christianity, ours “is a smaller thing, shrunken in its ability to understand the world and to stand up in it…Where the self circumscribes the significance of Christian faith, good and evil are reduced to a sense of well-being or its absence, God’s place in the world is reduced to the domain of private consciousness, his external acts of redemption are trimmed to fit the experience of personal salvation, his providence in the world diminishes to whatever is necessary to ensure one’s having a good day, his Word becomes intuition, and conviction fades into evanescent opinion.  Theology becomes therapy, and all the telltale symptoms of the therapeutic model of faith begin to surface.  The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one’s selfThe world shrinks to the range of personal circumstances; the community of faith shrinks to a circle of personal friends.  The past recedes.  The Church recedes.  The world recedes.  All that remains is the self.
(No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, pp.172,182-3)

I haven’t read the book yet though I read an extensive precise here  and my interest is definitely piqued! Wells has written with scholarly passion for nearly twenty years warning the church of its dangerous departure from solid theology in favor of a worldly self-focused pragmatism. I ordered my first sampling of his books today!

But, about this quote…does it ring true to you? I’ve been reading and re-reading it for several days now and I admit that at first I read it with a smug “Yep, I see that (in others)”. But it didn’t take more than a little reflection to realize that this self-styled form of faith has fingered its way into my life. I have been shaped by culture as well. The pre-occupation with self that pervades the world and makes self’s pleasure the measure and motive for just about everything…has crept into my life.  The question must be asked:  Who is at the center of my universe?

Imagine a universe where we are gods. Where our pleasure is of paramount importance—after all God wants us happy (doesn’t He?), and our concerns are what matter most (aren’t they?). Just as God declares who He is and what He wants us to know about Him in the Bible, so we have Blogs! And like frogs in a world-sized frying pan we have warmed our egos to a deadly temperature quite far from the manufacturer’s specifications. It’s so cozy in here that it’s hard to see how far we’ve come from a God-centered faith. David Wells summarizes our contemporary evangelical generation: “Where we should expect, for all the opportunities we have for hearing God’s Word, a vibrantly repentant, gloriously sanctified, humbly serving, boldly outspoken, and energetically activist community, instead we find a religious people stretched out on the therapist’s couch, endlessly fixating on their personal needs and hurts.” 

The question is, how do we get out (or stay out!) of this frying pan and take our proper position as creatures designed for God’s glory and pleasure above all else?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering today and here’s what I have to offer. First of all a new-to-me Twila Paris song came to mind. It ran through my head yesterday driving and later, exercising...the refrain says: “One small sacrifice—I give you all my love, I give you all my life—a token for a prize, that never could be worth the honor you deserve…” (from her “Small Sacrifice” 2007 album) The song succinctly puts my life’s significance in perspective by contrasting it to God’s own sacrifice. I am indeed not my own. I’ve been bought with a price. “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service”  was Paul’s way of saying it and by his own life he exemplified this expenditure of His life for God’s glory:

“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” Phil.2:17NASB

What does that look like for a 21st century home-maker with a dwindling supply of offspring to launch into the world? My body a living sacrifice… Could it be that faithfulness in the small things is what’s required? The meals, the schoolwork help, the housekeeping, and the trips into town for orthodontic appointments….Today I made a quick trip, just time to run to the mall and get some recyclables refunded before picking Rachel up again… but in this tiny bit of errand-running I ran into three different people I know… one standard ‘How are you’ turned up the unexpected news that Al has just been diagnosed with ALS. Already his speech is slurred and his hand affected. He can see the end of his life rushing toward him but hopes that God will spare him. He is a believer, but now has contact with others with ALS who don’t know the Saviour… As a fellow member of Christ’s body, what do I have to offer Cal that will leave him refreshed as though he’d just passed by a spring of living water? Or the young mom battling persistent cancer whom I ran into on the way into the Dentist’s office…what is there to say? I came home keenly aware that for me opportunity comes in little unexpected chunks—and that I have need to be overflowing with something other than ‘self’ if I’m going to have anything to offer at these moments.

This morning I had a chance to dip into Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality. In a chapter expounding the implications of our salvation, past, future and present he made this statement: “Whatever is not an exhibition that God exists, misses the whole purpose of the Christian’s life now on this earth.…We are to be living a supernatural life now, in this present existence, in a way we shall never be able to do again through all eternity” –a life that is by faith, not yet having seen Jesus face-to-face. He goes on to say that Christians are to be the demonstration to the world that the normally unseen world does exist, and more than that, that God exists. (True Spirituality, 72). How do we do  that? At some length Schaeffer amplifies on the experiential, moment by moment reality of living as the bride of Christ, letting the Bridegroom bring forth fruit in me through His indwelling Spirit, by faith. The reality of the resurrected, glorified Christ working through us is the supernatural life we are called to live out…

I confess, this is  far more theoretical to me than I would like. But I’m eager for it to become more and more the reality in which I live. I love Mary’s story—when the angel came pronouncing her assignment—you’ve been chosen to bear the Son of God… In a distinctly different sense this is true of every believer. What a daunting idea! Flesh and blood to show Christ to the world. She could have run in panic or balked in unbelief at the preposterousness of such a thing. But instead she said: “Behold, your handmaid—be it unto me according to Thy Word.” (Luke 1:38) No exertion of her personality or any amount of energy could accomplish this thing. But she could offer herself, a living body, into God’s hands to do with as He would. And so she did.

As self is yielded up with all its members ‘as instruments of righteousness’ (Rom.6:13) I escape the womb of self and Christ lives through me. That’s what I want—a life yielded and expectant, looking to God to accomplish with my lifestory what I could never do by myself.  Then mine will be a story that shows Him to be the reason for life, the universe and everything!


“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.” (Gal. 2:20)


MKF said...

Struggling, at times willingly, at times less so, with similar themes myself recently. Wanting to serve, yet wanting time for MYSELF and feeling I "deserve" this day. Realizing that I don't even know many non-christians, and that I haven't really shared Christ with those I do know...because I don't know how to bring it up, don't want to be bothered sticking my neck out?? Too much self.

Linda said...

You and I have much in common. And I think our 'thinks' are not always His, our senses of obligation not always true, our 'guilts' not Spirit-induced... We cannot rid ourselves of self but we can say: "Behold your handmaid; be it unto me according to Your Word" IOW I'm yours, Lord, everything I am, everything I'm not. Bless you. LS

The Atheist Turtle said...

You certainly have posed a great deal to think about. Self has always been the problem. When I taught children's Sunday School I used to write the word 'Flesh' on the chalk board. After the 'h' I would write the letters in reverse order so 'flesh' becomes 'self'. The lusts, not merely sexual, of the flesh become the inward focus of the self. If we look at the model of the early church, they were much more focused externally. Some of that was the Jewish culture/tradition/religion. They had a true sense of community. It was much less me and much more us. That continued in the nascent church. Group meetings, meals, worship were the norm. Sharing was so important that when self interfered it resulted in lies and death. Oops, I am going to end up with a blog instead of a comment. Great post Dawn. Keep pondering!

Val said...

I didn't find the article *scathing* at all.....just true....but that may just be my personality....right up my alley in expression!

Regarding the part you wrote... I struggle with this as well. I can argue with God when He presents and opportunity to me, and make a million excuses in seconds it seems! It is my fervent desiree to break out of this mould and do better....just not sure how. It starts with asking Him and being attentive and obedient when He responds to us!

Linda said...

Thanks AT for your thoughts...It is very true that we have lost a sense of how interconnected we are meant to be as the Body. We think of faith so independently--starting with a personal salvation and a personal Saviour--which are of course valid, but we forget we're all in this together! I suspect we don't know what we're missing. Persecution seems to change the paradigm.

Linda said...

Val...Thank God He works in us both to WILL and to DO His good pleasure...And He's patient as we learn to yield our wills to the good works He has planned for us from the beginning (Eph.2:10)

A Daughter of the King said...

Why am I finding myself rebelling (and admittedly a little angry) against what I understand to be the thrust of this post? Perhaps it is because I am finding such JOY in the understanding of my utter inability to be anything other than a "self,"created and redeemed by a forgiving God, who promises to lead me without failing.

That we are "self" is undeniable. Self is our individuality - - designed by our creative God. Why can't we just accept this? Why do we think that denying self is noble! I think it is because we think too much of being "better."

We are flawed by our disposition toward sin, true!...This is not new. Nothing in the Christian realm is new. Historic Christians were not different than we are. History has "glamorized" them. Why do we think we can be any "better" than the flawed creatures that we are? Why can't we just find joy and blessing in his GRACEFUL, forgiving, daily leading.

"Behold your handmaiden," isn't a denial of self; it is a recognition of self.

So I say, happily, joyfully-- behold your selfish little handmaiden...only you can figure out how best to use me. Use away!

Linda said...

Thanks Becky for your honest reactions shared here. I think some of the trouble is semantics—i.e. what is meant by ‘self’—is it just my uniquely created personhood? What then is meant by ‘if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself’ (Mk.8:34,35)… As you may already have guessed I have struggled much over this very issue. And I always appreciate your peaceful (and joyful!) outlook on living as the ‘somebody’ you’ve been created to be. The sense in which Mary denied self is in her yielded response to God’s desire to use her body rather than her insistence on doing what she wanted with it. In yielding her right to her ‘self’ she was ‘losing her life for Christ and for the gospel’ (Mk.8:34,35) and thereby saving it. Denying self is not a denying of who we’re created to be but of ‘no longer living for ourselves but for him who died and was raised to life for us’ (IICor.5:15) I see that as what you are doing in offering who you are for God to use however He will.
Thanks again for your candid comments!

Linda said...

C.S. Lewis lends clarity to this topic in Mere Christianity in a chapter titled: Counting the Cost. See a reprint of it here:
Excellent reading!

A Daughter of the King said...

Linda, thank you for your late-at -night, early-morning reply and your deep and challenging ponderings.

I read the link to CS Lewis' discussion on self. Thank you.

I think what I rebelled against was the indication of a pre-occupation with perfection. I think the pre-occupation with perfection is just as misleading as the pre-occupation with enjoyment. Why? Because the search for perfection puts us back in the seat of the CEO of our own lives, instead of understanding the need to clear out of that office altogether.

I'll try to explain what I mean.

I do understand the importance of denial of sin-self, or if not denial, admission of our need for reconstruction in areas.

That we are flawed MUST, indeed, be clear to every believer. But Mary, Mother of God (as a teenager) and those souls Jesus was talking to about denying self and following him -- they were not "believers." They had not received (yet) the indwelling Spirit, given to any soul chosen and called by God for the "instantaneous" remodel. We are new creations! Praise God. He doesn't plan to make us better, He already DID that by scrapping the whole place when we came to him. Our coming was the denial of self if it was real.

Anyone who has come to God, confessing his sin-debt, and believing in God's solution for his bent toward self-serving, sinful imperfection, who has confessed that this transformation has occurred -- this soul has received the Rebuilding, in a sense: It is finished!

I believe the best thing we can do is admit (upon arising from slumber each day) that we are re-created and ready to be used...then, come what may -- we MUST trust the one who made and REMADE us to use us as he sees fit.

The joy comes, like sunlight through a clean window, when one observes with delight what God can do with the stuff of life. Whether it be from a hospital bed, or a helicopter, or a hammock...God is faithful to lead. I've been thinking about the height and depth and breadth of a one-line quote that I think sums up this whole subject pretty well:

"God is ready to assume full responsibility for the life that is wholly yielded to Him." Hudson Taylor

Thanks for listening...I love you, Linda.

Linda said...

...a preoccupation with perfection...you read between my lines so well, Becky ( :
This is the self I guess I need to die daily too, this one that thinks it needs to be CEO when in fact there's a Boss in charge already...I was at a friend's today and saw C.S.Lewis' God in the Dock essays, in particular one called: Two Ways with the Self. In finding a site to quote it from I found this blog which says it all quite well. http://strengthandsong.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/self-love-vs-self-love/

The principle distinction is stated this way by C.S. Lewis:
Now, the self can be regarded in two ways. On the one hand, it is God’s creature, an occasion of love and rejoicing; now, indeed, hateful in condition, but to be pitied and healed. On the other hand, it is that one self of all others which is called I and me, and which on that ground puts forward an irrational claim to preference. This claim is to be not only hated, but simply killed…(p. 194)

Ugh. I love the refreshing turn you put on this whole topic. Thank you for your kind but insistent words:
we MUST trust the one who made and REMADE us to use us as he sees fit.
You bless my soul!

A Daughter of the King said...