Christians are living in perilous times. Dissatisfaction, distress, discomfort, discouragement, despair, depression, divorce, discord, disdain, disgust, dissension, and disobedience are all too common among those people who are called to bear witness to God’s glory and to reflect the image of Christ. Countless Christians have turned to professional counselors and psychologists to help them solve their problems of living, but the problems seem to be increasing.
Problem-laden Christian consumers can also choose from a vast variety of products, books, seminars, and self-help groups, but problems continue to multiply. The more the problems are addressed, the more problem-centered people become. Even those who attempt to solve their problems of living with biblical principles often end up problem-centered without getting to the root of the real problem. Solving problems often only takes care of superficial symptoms, only to be replaced by other symptoms. Some Christians exist from crisis to crisis. Others bear up under a load of care that just seems to get heavier and heavier as the years go by.
There have never been so many books available to Christians in their search for the perfect family, the perfect marriage, and the perfect life. Nevertheless, many Christians fail to reflect the image of Christ in their family, marriage, and life. Could it be that the difficulties Christians are facing are related to living in those perilous times of which Paul warned Timothy? “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves . . .” (2 Tim. 3:1,2).
People are perishing because of love—self-love. They have been taught by modern psychological experts that they should love themselves. They have been told that unless they love themselves they cannot love others. Preachers and other well-meaning people have echoed the words, “You need to love yourself.” Radio psychologists and preachers pound the airwaves with such advice. Love yourself. Esteem yourself. Honor yourself. You are worth it. But more often such temptations to pity or aggrandize self are subtle and easily received because the heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9).
But, notice what comes from people becoming “lovers of their own selves.” These people who are “lovers of their own selves” are “covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4).
A quick view of the words following “lovers of their own selves” reveals a very sinful state of existence as well as sinful attitudes and sinful actions. Such love of self is so powerful that “lovers of their own selves” are “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.” This is in sharp contrast to the Great Commandment:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Matt. 22:36-39).
While promoters of self-love try to read a third commandment (love self) into this passage of Scripture, Jesus made it clear that he was speaking of only two commandments, for he said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). There is no command in Scripture to love self.
People suffer from unhappiness and problems of living because they have become “lovers of their own selves” and “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.” The sinful inclination of humanity is to love self more than God and other people. Selfishness clings to human nature and breeds covetousness, lust, pride, arrogance, disrespect for God, disobedience to parents, lack of gratitude, deceit, and both desire and contention for one’s own way. And it leads to false accusations, which are rampant as people have been encouraged to blame their parents, circumstances, and everything but themselves for their predicaments.
Could it be that people are trying to grow and improve themselves and their circumstances without touching the root of the problem? Could it be that love for self is lurking beneath even the most benevolent gesture and behind the most fervent prayer? What kind of personal growth are people looking for? Personal growth that will enhance their self-esteem or personal growth that involves denying self and taking up one’s cross? Personal growth that will affirm their own worth or conform them to the image of Christ?
Both forms of growth, towards loving self or towards loving God, carry a heavy cost. Loving self more than God leads to spiritual loss, but loving God with one’s entire being leads to denying self and allowing the death blow of the cross to work against the old man (that self so many of us cling to and love) that is to be reckoned dead (Romans 6).
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? (Luke 9:23-25).
While God is the one who saves and sanctifies, He has also ordained that good works follow His Work:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).
These good works include loving God with one’s entire being and obeying Him, for one’s love for God is expressed in obeying Him and in loving one another. One does not gain salvation or attain his own sanctification through good works. Rather, the good works follow what God has already done and continues to do. Thus, Paul says:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12,13).
In addition, all these things are to be done without murmuring or disputing (Phil. 2:14), that is, without complaining or arguing with God about one’s circumstances and how one is to conduct oneself in the sight of God.
Throughout the Christian walk there is the putting off of the old ways (the old man with its deceitful lusts) and putting on the new man, “which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24). This is the daily walk of the Christian. Putting off the old man is equivalent to denying self, and putting on the new man involves taking up one’s cross and following Christ.
While most Christians would agree in principle, how many of us are actually doing that daily, moment by moment? How many of us are trusting the Lord enough to take up our cross, acknowledge Him in all our ways, and look to Him to lead us away from self love to loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to loving one another as much as we already love ourselves? Every day is filled with opportunities to love God first or please self first. Which way will we go?
(PAL V8N2 * March-April 2000)