8. Selfless or Selfish

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 8. Selfless or Selfish

Phil 2:3  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Self-Centred Pasts: I have, over the years, come to define ‘Sin’ as the propensity to self-centred godlessness that results in unrighteousness. The big thing about our lives before we came to Christ is that they were utterly self-centred. We were the focus of our thoughts and our desires and our hopes and aspirations and ambitions for our future. Now to recap on where we are in this Part, we said that we were considering aspects of our ‘old life’, of our ‘old nature’ that are supposed to have been ‘put to death’ but which, if we can express it in a slightly different way, have a tendency to be resurrected afresh in our new lives. They are things that Satan would encourage in our new lives because he knows they will harm our relationship with the Lord and stunt and prevent growth.

Recapping the Past: We have considered already the matter of sovereignty within our lives – the Lord or me reigning, the struggles we have with people, and especially when we have been harmed by others, we considered how easy it is to make people or things the focus in our lives as we seek for meaning and purpose and a sense of fulfilment – to the exclusion of God – and we considered how trust or its absence can create a climate of anxiety within us. These are the things that were prevalent in our lives before we came to Christ and which are to be put to death in our present lives to enable growth to proceed as it should.

Self-orientated schemers: Now there is a sense whereby selfishness or self-centredness is the environment in which all these other things can flourish, and maybe I should have dealt with it earlier. In the teaching of the New Testament, selfishness is often linked with ambition (Gal 5:20, Phil 1:17, 2:3,  Jas 3:14,16) and ambition is about what we want for ourselves, our goals, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. Before we came to Christ, as we looked to our future and wanted good for it, we thought and planned and schemed how we could achieve it, and it was all ‘self’ orientated.

Jacob Style: Jacob is the classic example in the Old Testament of a grabber, a schemer and a twister, a man solely motivated by self. It wasn’t until he had met, encountered and wrestled with God and was broken, that he surrendered to God’s purposes and completely reoriented his life. I know that is what the ‘natural’ me is like and it is still there to be confronted and put to death. We might think that when we surrendered to God that was the end of it, that from then on it would be entirely a life of Him only, but if you believe that, you are deceived. Every situation, every confrontation requires me to put to death that self-desire that wants to control the situation, plan and scheme how I can be an overcomer (overcoming other people that is). We do it in the most simple of ways sometimes that we would deny that we’re even doing it. Whenever we are working to get people to like us, get people on our side, get people to agree with us, and so on, we are subtly doing the ‘self’ thing.

Negotiating Reveals….  But it is a tricky thing because there ARE times when we need to negotiate with others and, we might say, what is wrong with being nice to other people so they are nice to us? Probably nothing at all, but as with so many of these things it is why we are doing it. The other afternoon I spent four hours negotiating for a new car with two different car salesmen. It was just an example of the many times it is right to discuss through a problem or a need with other people. Perhaps the heading of this study could also be ‘godly or godless’ rather than ‘selfless or selfish’, because that, for us who are Christians, is what is at the heart of how we go about things today. Selfishness can be equated with godlessness, and when we look at how two different people go about such things – the selfless/godly versus the selfish/godless –  we will see entirely different approaches.

Take the matter of the negotiation I referred to. The actions and words of the selfish/godless are likely to exhibit tension, stress, even anger, putting pressure on the other, even rudeness. In my negotiating I started by praying and asking for God’s wisdom and grace. In the course of the conversation with the two different salesmen I sought never to put pressure on, never to be rude and never to use anger as a negotiating weapon. When we declined the offers and figures of the first salesman, who lost his sale as we walked away, we sought to do so with the utmost politeness and graciousness and thanks for his help. In the second encounter, when the salesman left us and went to check with his manager on figures and availability – for fifteen minutes – there was, I confess, a wrestling within to overcome impatience, so that when he returned we were as gracious as before.

Now I take little or no credit for this encounter because there was a simple lesson involved that I have not told you about – my wife was present throughout and she is brilliant at the selfless/godly/gracious thing and will challenge me if I don’t live up to it. Ah, you may say, it wasn’t a godly thing it was a ‘fear-of-the-wife thing. No it wasn’t; she simply helped me keep on the track that I knew was the right one.

Establishing the Structure: I once heard this approach – to behaviour, attitudes, thoughts, words and deeds – likened to a building site where they are casting concrete columns. They put up formwork or shuttering into which the wet concrete mix is poured, and then left to harden and strengthen. Only when it is hard and strong can the formwork be struck, taken down. There is a process in the Christian life whereby we need help, we need support, we need ‘shuttering’ to help us form our attitudes or behaviour. It’s called discipline, it takes effort and initially it needs help. Now, the more we do this, the more we get set in our behaviour-attitude patterns, and no longer need the help, we do it automatically. Now where is the Holy Spirit in all this?  He is there helping us and helping the attitudes-behaviour get set in the selfless-godly mould.

You think this is self-help? Consider Paul’s teaching: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3) First see the motivation: we’ve been raised, because we first died. Then the actions we have to choose to take – set our goals (hearts) on heaven where Jesus rules, set our thinking (minds) on our heavenly home from which our resources come and to which we will one day go.

Our Part: Having orientated our hearts (will) and minds (thinking) he does on, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” (v.5) and later “clothe yourselves with …. And over all these virtues put on love,” (v.12-14). We might add the word, ‘you’ to emphasise that this is an act of the will, for this is what Paul means: “YOU put to death…. YOU clothe yourselves…. YOU put on love.” The godly-selfless approach WORKS to achieve the end goal of getting rid of the old life and putting on (bringing about, creating) a new life in the image of Christ. The more we do it (work at it) the more natural it becomes. You find this same sort of language in Eph 4. Look for all the ‘Do’s and ‘Do-not’s. This is the way to growth. Let’s follow it.

40. Practical Love

Meditations in 1 John : 40 : Practical Love

1 John  3:16,17   This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

You sometimes hear silly complaints about the Christian faith that it is ‘pie in the sky’ or that it is of no earthly use to anyone. Communists make great play on caring for all classes but it is an enforced (and unreal) caring that is a poor copy by the enemy of the Christian faith. Our verses above lay the axe to the lie of the Christian faith being impractical and it all starts with love.

There can be much debate about what love is but you have to come to the Bible to find any real meaning. If you belong to the school of “no God, world just a chance accident, material is all there is”, then love is just an odd jumbling of the molecules in the body, something that somehow in millions of years has become a genetic oddity. But John challenges the world and says, “You want to know what love is all about? Then look at Jesus Christ! He, the perfect, sinless Son of God laid down his life for us very imperfect sinners, so that our sin could dealt with in such a way that justice is satisfied, and we can be forgiven and even brought into a living relationship with God Himself. This is a demonstration of what love is all about.” This brings me to conclude that real, genuine love is ‘selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards all others’. Watch a mother’s feelings towards her small child: selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards her child. See a young man who has fallen head over heels in love with a young woman: selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good-will towards her!

And the model for that love is Jesus. But it doesn’t just stop in describing Jesus’ love for us, because we have now joined his family and we are becoming like him and so “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”   If he is like that, our goal is to be like that because we are becoming like him. But what does that actually mean, this laying down our lives for one another? Is that just a nice religious platitude? No, John doesn’t allow us to make it that; for him it has very practical outworkings: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  To lay down you life for another means you put others first.  The apostle Paul writes, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:4)

It has been this outlook that has stirred Christians through the ages to stand up for others, to care for the weak and the poor or as one writer put it speaking about the activity of the Church down through the ages, it was known for its care of widows and orphans, its alms houses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on.”  Yes, down through the ages it has been the church that has worked into society providing the things that today the Welfare State tends to provide. When there was no Welfare State, when no one particularly cared for the needy, it was the Church who stepped forward, expressing the love of Jesus to his world.

But let’s apply this to our own church group, for it must have very practical outworkings right on our doorstep otherwise it is mere words. If there are people who come in with real physical or financial needs, how do we look at them? Do we leave it to the ‘church administration’ to do something or does compassion move us to provide when we see need? Of course it is very easy to say, “Well here in the Western world there is no real need because the State provides for the really needy.” Is that always so? Are there people in your congregation who cannot do things they would like to do, because of lack of funds, things you can do because you do have the funds? What does love say?

Are there opportunities just waiting there, for us to bless young people who would love to enter some particular career but don’t feel they can afford it?  Is there someone yearning to set up a small business but just don’t have the funds to do it? Yes, we not have the chronically poor with us, but we may have those not so well off as us whose lives are restricted because of that, restricted in ways that we could deal with. The difficulty here is getting people to open up and share such needs or desires, and that only comes about in a loving, caring, accepting and compassionate community of God’s people, where each one feels sufficiently secure in the love of those around them, that they feel they can open up and be honest. There is the real challenge.

But the big challenge to all of us is to make love real, not just something we talk about: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (v.18) The apostle Paul in 1 Cor 13 says we might have various spiritual gifts but if we don’t have love we are just like a noisy gong. John goes further than that and challenges us to ensure we don’t just talk about love, but make sure that our actions reflect love and flow from love, and that we are thus being truthful. If we say we have love but don’t show it through our actions we are not telling and living the truth. Beware!