Unplugged from Self and Plugged into in Christ

Last week, in this blog we talked about becoming unplugged from human pride and plugged into humility. This week, we’re talking about getting unplugged from self and plugged in to Christ. This weekend is a great weekend to talk about selfishness. There is nothing like April 15th to make me feel selfish!

imgresThe French speak of a disease they call “La Maladie du Moi,” or “Me-sickness.” Despite all the progress the human race has made over the centuries, we have never come close to overcoming human selfishness. The only remedy that has ever been effective was that offered by Christ. His love engenders selflessness because his presence in our hearts, causes “Me-sickness” to vanish.[1] Nothing else works.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of self-interest. It’s natural. We have no choice but to see the world from a center in our own being. We all see and experience the world from a center in ourselves. A bit of self-centeredness is human and natural. Unfortunately, it’s easy for our human selfishness to get out of control. It’s easy for us to begin to care only for ourselves and not for others. It is easy for us to become pathologically self-centered.

Not so many years ago, a member of a local church and his or her spouse went to a local counselor for marital counseling. The counselor advised the husband and wife that they should spend the next few years concentrating on themselves and not the marriage. I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t think a good marriage could survive several years of selfishness on the part of either spouse! [2]

Out of Self and Into Christ.

Our text for this meditation comes from and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is one of Paul’s “Prison Letters.” [3] Paul wrote Ephesians while imprisoned, probably in Rome. imgresEphesus was the leading city of Western Asia Minor. It was one of the most important trade centers in the ancient world, and home to one of the most important churches during Paul’s day.

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church because they had responded to the word of God and become a part of the body of Christ (See Ephesians 1:9-13). Paul loved this church, and he gave them really good advice. To some degree, Ephesians represents Paul’s most mature ideas about Christ, Christian faith, and the Church. For Paul, Christ is the center of God’s revelation to the world. He reflects the very image and being of God. He is the center of God’s saving action in history (see Colossians 1:15-20).

Here is part of what Paul said:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

Let us Pray: God of Love, send your Spirit upon us that we might understand your Word and be filled with your presence and your love, empowered to live differently because of what you have done for us.

 Life Among the Self-Centered.

Some readers may remember the name, “Ayn Rand.” imagesShe was the author of several books, including one that is been made into two movies, “Atlas Shrugged.” She also wrote a book called, “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In her books, Rand explained that Christianity and other world religions that speak of selfishness as wrong were wrong. In fact, selfishness is a virtue. To some degree, Ayn Rand was simply a popularizer of a materialist philosophy and a cheerleader for an outdated way of seeing the world. (She called her philosophy “objectivism,” a view based upon a popular, but much critiqued view of human knowing and of human morals). It mirrored the materialism and self-centeredness of American culture. Although she has been much criticized by experts, she attracted a big following during her lifetime, even among cultural elites. [4]

Although the books were successful, and an earlier movie starring Gary Cooper was successful, the most recent movie wasn’t terribly successful. In a way, this is surprising. It may not be popular to talk about being selfish in a positive way in our culture, but selfishness is one of the biggest problems we face. 74207-64717In fact, many people note that our culture has become so self-centered that it borders on narcissistic.

“Narcissism” takes its name from an ancient fable involving a man named “Narcissus” In the Greek myth, Narcissus was proud and disdained those who loved him. The God “Nemesis” (from whom we get our phrase, “He is my nemesis”) noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Narcissus could not tear himself away from his image in the pool, wasted away and died. To be a narcissist, then,  is to have an excessive, pathological, dangerous love of oneself.

Modern Americans are not the only people to suffer from narcissism. The tendency towards narcissism is, as the Greeks knew, a part of human nature. All humans, all the time, tend towards a kind of pathological self-centeredness. It is the legacy of our self-consciousness and the Fall. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3). In other words, it is just part of the human condition to live according to our own selfish desires. The problem is, in our culture as in the ancient world, no one can achieve happiness, peace, or stability if they’re self-centered. It is only by getting outside of ourselves and our own selfish desires that we can become whole. Selfishness always and everywhere leads to personal and social chaos.

Jesus and Unselfishness.

Jesus was different in both dramatic and unassuming ways. In Mark, there is a story of Jesus that illustrates his unselfishness. In the early part of Mark, Jesus becomes very famous and is followed by large crowds. In Mark 5, Jesus was teaching, and so many people surrounded him and the crowd was so needy that neither the crowd nor disciples had a chance to eat. Jesus, recognizing that everyone was getting exhausted, told the disciples to come with him to a quiet place and rest. They went away in a boat to be alone and recharge their batteries, so to speak.

imgres-1Unfortunately, many of the people who were listening to Jesus recognized that he was leaving and ran ahead of him. When Jesus landed at the place he and the disciples had chosen for their little retreat, there was a crowd of hungry people waiting for him.

His disciples, who were tired and hungry, asked Jesus to please send the crowd away. No one could have faulted the disciples or Jesus if they had done so: Jesus had stopped preaching and healing. He never promised the crowd anything to eat. The disciples and Jesus were tired and needed rest. Nevertheless, Jesus fed the 5,000 people who had followed him. [5] Most of the time when we hear the story, we think of the miracle itself. However, this is also a story about unselfishness. Jesus was unselfish, the only truly fully unselfish person in history. Jesus needed and deserved a rest, but he met the needs of the crowd instead.

One common title for Jesus is, “The Man for Others.” Everything about Jesus was other-centered. He cared about other people. He put the needs of other people first. As a leader, he tried to serve the interests of other people. Jesus demonstrated by his life a healthy psychology that is not self-centered.

Grace as the Way Out.

It is at this point, as you probably expect me to say something like, “So, be like Jesus!” Paul, however, understood that human beings can never be unselfish by our own power. All of us are naturally selfish. All of us naturally are self-centered. All of us by nature try to satisfy our own desires and cravings. Paul understood that, by nature, we find it impossible to escape our own self-centeredness. That is why he says:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).

It was not Paul that escaped Paul’s selfishness by his own effort. It was Christ who by God’s mercy rescued Paul from his selfishness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The problem of human selfishness is so serious that it is only the cross and the power of the resurrection that can save us. Fortunately, God loves the human race and desires for us to escape our selfishness and experience the joyful,  Spirit-filled life Christ experienced. This is why Paul goes on to say, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves—it is the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast” (vv. 8-9).

Our escape from selfishness is an act of pure grace. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift that we receive by trusting God and being faithful to God, allowing the power of the resurrection to enter our lives and transform us. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to escape our own self-centeredness and live an “other-centered” life like Christ. The idea behind these verses and many like them is that God does the work, not us.

One of my favorite Pauline phrases is the phrase, “in Christ.” For example, in Second Corinthians, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The phrase “in Christ” connotes a situation where we are “in Christ” and Christ is in us, as if we are surrounded and permeated by Christ. How do we get surrounded and permeated by Christ?

  • First we believe and trust. We invite Christ into our hearts, so that we begin to think, act, feel as Christ thinks, feels and acts.
  • Second, we constantly ask Christ to change us. We lift up our lives to God daily in prayer and ask for God’s grace.
  • Third, we begin to learn more about Christ and the Christian life, so that the way we think becomes the way Christ thinks.
  • Finally, we live with Christ in us for a long time. We slowly but surely change as Christ changes us over time. It does not happen over night, but as I mentioned in a moment ago, we are filled with hope because “Christ in me is the hope of Glory” (Col. 1:25).

imgres-2Many years ago, just after Chuck Colson became a Christian, I had an opportunity to see him. I had read his book and seen many pictures of him during the Watergate period. Then, some years later, I saw Colson in person when he came to Houston to give a talk. Interestingly, I could tell the difference years of being a Christian had made in his life. He looked kinder, more loving. The lines in his face no longer had the harsh look that they had that first time I saw him. They had become smile wrinkles. When we allow Christ to dwell in us, we do in fact change, not all at once but over time. This is the power of the resurrection at work in our lives.

The Blessing of Unselfishness.

A foundational commitment of our church is to share God’s love with others. The Great Commandment teaches us to “Love others as we love ourselves” (Matthew 22:36-40). Part of being a Christian is gradually coming to the point where we love others just like ourselves, and when we do, we are being truly “other centered” like Jesus was other centered.

There is an old story told of a spouse who came to a pastor about a divorce. The person admitted that he or she hated his or her spouse. They wanted to hurt the person as badly as possible. Of course, the person wanted a divorce. The pastor recommended that the spouse go home and practice loving their spouse like Jesus loved the church. After a few months, the pastor saw the person and asked if he or she was in the process of getting the divorce. The person answered, “No. We love each other too much.”

This story may be apocryphal, but its message is true: Selfishness destroys love; unselfishness creates love. Therefore, the second thing we have to do if we want to find the blessed life is get unplugged from our own selfish desires and plug into love God.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I found this in a version at More Sermon Illustrations.com/ selfishness (downloaded April 14, 2016).

[2] This is an actual event. One member of the marriage later came to me for counseling. I thought the advice was about as silly as any I’d ever heard of from a counselor.

[3] I am indebted to William Barclay, “The Letters to Galatians &Ephesians” in The Daily Bible Study Series 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958).

[4] See, Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (New York, NY, Random House, 1957) and The Virtue of Selfishness (New York, NY: New American Library, 1964). Among her more or less disciples were and are Alan Greenspan, Rand Paul, Steve Jobs, and Mark Cuban. In my view her views are behind the monetary errors of the Greenspan era.

[5] See, Mark 5:30-44.