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.