I know our focus on self is nothing new. It’s human nature. As Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes “There is nothing new under the sun.” Since Cain killed Abel, man’s priority has been himself. The degree of self-absorption in the world is a cycle – it peaks, and then subsides. Each generation feels more justified in elevating self and the consequences of decisions made during the peak times are disastrous – the value of human life declines , violence increases, God is put on trial, morality becomes relative, selfish desires overtake morality as a basis for personal and political decisions, and individuals emphasize their rights without acknowledging responsibilities. As self-absorbed as we are today, I often wonder what life will look like for my grandchildren.
Luke 9:23-24 -“If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
In my 20’s I told myself that I wasn’t going to waste my life being unhappy. I read somewhere that if I was unhappy, my spouse and children could not possibly be happy as they would suffer the effects of my misery. That sounded logical and I bought it hook, line and sinker. If something in my life wasn’t going the way I thought it should, I changed it or got rid of it. The few times I did stop to think about how my lifestyle was affecting others, I was convinced I was saving them from having to live with an unhappy me. The thought that this way of living was me-centered never crossed my mind. I was afraid of getting old and having regrets. Living a life centered on me became such a habit that much of the time I wasn’t even aware that’s what I was doing.
As I struggled with confidence and trying to fit into the world, I bought into the idea that it was a self-esteem issue, my locus of control was out of whack, as I learned in a college class. The gist of this theory is that in order to enjoy life we must believe that we have the ability to control the events in our lives. My boss once said to me, “Stop walking into a room wondering what everybody thinks about you. Walk in and ask yourself what you think about them.” He was getting closer to the right answer, but still missed the mark. Even the solutions to my “me problem” left me focusing on myself!
Despite being assured that putting myself first in life was a sure path to a happy life, at fifty years old I had nothing but regrets. I was no closer to feeling comfortable in the world than I had been in my 20’s and 30’s. We justify putting ourselves first in so many ways – we have a “right”, we expect life to be fair, the world tells us to put ourselves first. We live in a self-centered society that approves of all of this. We’re told to build our self-esteem, achieve self-actualization or self-realization. We’re encouraged to find ourselves and never get so involved with others that we “lose our identity.” It doesn’t work; we only end up getting buried deeper in ourselves.
Philippians 2:3 – “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself.”
Then I committed my life to Christ. I thought my “me problem” was solved. After all, I was living for Jesus now. But it crept into my Christian life. I went to church waiting for people to come to me. I quit going when I wasn’t getting what I needed. I waited for people in the church to help me without asking. I expected my church to provide the things I needed. I hesitated to make friends because I dwelt on my past life and used it as an excuse to keep people at arm’s length. My husband didn’t attend church so I felt lonely and sorry for myself. It was all about me and the problems I was encountering as a new Christian. I wasn’t focusing on Jesus – I was still focused on myself. I had moments when I was aware of what I was doing and I would tell my daughter “Me is a hard habit to break.” Finally, it sunk in. God began making me aware of how many times I thought about my Christian walk in terms of “me, my, I.”
Romans 7:15 – “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.”
I began to look for the part of God’s truth that would put me on the right path once and for all. Each time I thought I had found it, I failed again and each time found it harder to forgive myself for not being able to master this problem. I began to think that my “me habit” was unconquerable.
Then I ran across Steven Cole’s Bible Study “Following Self or Jesus” at Bible.Org (Lesson #43). He assures us that “dying to self is a daily task.” I found comfort in that. It gave me a different battle plan. Rather than looking for one single answer that would rid me of the problem, I had to begin to look at it as a daily battle with the potential that each day’s struggle may demand a different answer. But the answer will always be found in God’s truth. When my emotions or desires tell me to act in a way that’s opposite of God’s commands, I must choose God’s way. And I can only do that by being silent and remembering God’s Words. In order to do that, I must be familiar with them. Reading my Bible every day is the key. Praying for strength and wisdom is the other tool I use. While Steven Cole reminds us it’s a daily struggle, I suggest it is a struggle in each situation we deal with.
Read Steven Cole’s words on the role of self-esteem in Christian life (Following Self or Jesus? Lesson #43): Thirty years ago, the teaching that Christians should love themselves and have proper self-esteem was virtually unheard of in evangelical circles. …, for many years I taught that we need “proper” self-esteem. But then I came to see that the entire teaching is opposed to and condemned by Scripture. And I have grown increasingly concerned that because of the pervasiveness of this false teaching, there are many who think that they’re following Jesus, when actually they are only following self. They have been taught that the Christian faith and even Christian ministry are the avenues toward self-fulfillment. They’ve been told that Jesus will help you learn to love yourself, when in fact Jesus taught nothing of the kind.
Taking up your cross is not something you accomplish in an emotional moment of spiritual ecstasy or dedication. You never arrive on a spiritual mountaintop where you can sigh with relief, “I’m finally there! No more death to self!” Nor are there any shortcuts or quick fixes to this painful process. The need for dying to self is never finished in this life; it must be a daily thing. …When selfish thoughts (“I have my rights! I don’t have to take this!”) crowd your mind, you nail them to the cross by praying, “Lord Jesus, You gave up all Your rights, took on the form of a servant and became obedient to death on the cross for me. Help me to display that same attitude right now” (Phil. 2:5-8).
If, like me a few years ago, you have been taken in by the self-esteem teaching, I encourage you to re-evaluate it in light of all Scripture, especially, Luke 9:23. You won’t find a single verse telling you to build your self-esteem or to love yourself more.
Love Christ, put Him first. Listen to what you’re saying to yourself in each situation. When you hear any reference to yourself, consciously make yourself focus on Jesus. It’s an ongoing struggle because our sin nature still resides in us, but you can build the habit of re-focusing on Jesus and doing things His way. You’ll find your value only in Him. He counted you worthy to die on the cross for.
Romans 5:7, 8 – “ (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.)But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”