The Evangelical Attack On Self

On the new album there is a song entitled “Who I Am”. It’s a very personal song (aren’t they all!) about a sensitive subject. The opening lines are:

Does it matter who I am?

They told me it was OK

That the way that I was made to be

Should all be wiped away

When I was going through my divorce, I struggled mightily with my sense of self. You see, from my church I understood that I was supposed to ignore hope, pain, or really anything that felt good or bad. I was supposed to put off myself and take on Christ, and if I was doing that then it wouldn’t matter what happened in this life. So for the longest time my goal was to rid myself of anything that was ME and “replace it with Christ”, whatever that meant. This is a popular construct in many evangelical churches, where the concept of “self” and “selfishness” are often implied to be one in the same.

I’ll admit, I swallowed that lie for a long time— that what it really meant to be a “living sacrifice” was to rid myself of anything that was Jeff and replace it with Jesus. If I was in pain, this was because I was too focused on self, and I need to rise above it and focus on God. There’s a certain beauty about the idea . . . and simplicity. Jeff is completely evil, Jesus is completely good, therefore Jeff needs to go away and become Christ. The problem is, this is NOT Christianity.

The first problem is how we think about ourselves as evil. Any good evangelical will quickly quote Romans 3:23 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), and I’m among them. But what we can miss is the notion that all people, Christian or non-Christian, have been created to be the image bearers of God. We have a stamp of Him on and in us, and The Fall did not wipe that stamp away. Beyond THAT, though, is that in Christ I am a new Creation, as are all Christians. I am not the man I was once, hopelessly beset by sin. I am a man being improved by the Holy Spirit, joining with God in the work of my sanctification. So what am I fighting against in this life? Am I fighting against Jeff, to make him go away? I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind:

So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:17-20, ESV)

Yes, we still struggle and we still sin. We still do evil. We do not posses the ability to do the good that we desire. But what is the source of evil? Is it “Jeff” or is it “the flesh”? It seems pretty clear that it is the latter— for Jeff, the new creation, does not WANT to sin. I HAVE sin, and I DO sin, but I am NOT sin.

I think the second problem is how believers view what it means to be a “living sacrifice”. What exactly are we supposed to be sacrificing? Here is what Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.(Romans 12:1-2, ESV)

What is in view here is not saying the “self” is bad, but that all that we are and all that we have must be devoted to God. So it’s not that Jeff must be gone and replaced with Jesus, but that Jeff must take all that he’s been given and use it for Jesus. That’s a big difference. And honestly, I think most Christians would agree with this distinction. There may be many scratching their heads wonder just who it is teaching that we should be emptying ourselves of our identity.

Few people explicitly teach that we empty ourselves of our identities, but the implication is all over modern evangelical Christianity. Christian pastors take a certain sense of pride about how bad they can portray themselves (“I’m the worst sinner I know!”) and our songs constantly emphasize this point (“You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me” or “Rid me of myself, I belong to you”). The line is thin (and dangerous) between dealing with our sin and just accepting the sin and moving on with spiritual sounding words about how we are depending on Jesus. With this constant message in the evangelical church, it’s easy to walk away from a worship service thinking that the things that make up ME are bad, and only God is good. And this echos the ancient heresy of Gnosticism that matter is evil and only spiritual is good. The things that make up me— my hopes and dreams, they should go away so that I can truly follow Christ.

But this is not the way the God of the Bible views humanity. God loves individuals and who they are so much that he used their unique voices to tell the story of Redemption. The Bible is written by many different authors with different skills, outlooks, and styles, each book bearing its writer’s individuality while being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And what’s more, God is personally involved with creating each individual person:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14, ESV)

These are not the words of God who wants us to lose our identities, but rather to embrace how we’ve been made and use ourselves for His Glory.

This attack on self is not just found in our theology, but is also practiced in our modern worship. Many services are built around the idea of getting people to a heightened emotional and mystical state where they are no longer focused on themselves, but only on God. This sounds pretty good, right? If we are truly worshiping then we should be focused only on God— doesn’t that make sense? It does, but I think the kind of worship I’m describing here is more like an eastern mystical concept of “joining the over-soul” than it is what Christian worship looks like in the Bible. A worshiping Christian is responding to God by bringing who he or she is and devoting it all to God. He or she hasn’t forgotten self, but rather is applying self wholly in an act of worship. Look at Isaiah— he is aware of who he is and he responds to God’s calling very clearly.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8, ESV)

We need to tread very carefully, church. VERY. We need to confess sin and be repentant. We need to turn from sin and depend on God. But what we must not do is try to take ourselves out of the equation. We each have a “self” and we are stuck with it. We can respond by trying to get away from that self, or to be like Isaiah and say “Here I am! Send me”. The latter is the pattern of scripture.

Selfishness is bad. Taking stock of who we are, understanding why we feel the way we do, and  figuring out which of our hopes and dreams are God honoring and which are just the products of sin— those are not bad things. These activities are what a Christian who is concerned with the Kingdom does. This is what a Christian who wants to bring himself as a living scarifies does. Sometimes in our pain and suffering we are to flee like Paul and Jesus both did on numerous occasions. Or sometimes the pain and suffering will bring Glory to God and we are to submit to it with confidence in his plan. But what we must not do is ignore what our sense of self tells us about the goodness of something. If something being done to us feels evil, our answer should not be to disengage and search for a higher spiritual plane away from self, but to understand how our “self” and all that God has put in it is to respond for the glory of his Kingdom. It might not look the same for every individual, for we are all different with different paths.

I’ll finish this post with some more lines from the song “Who I Am”, because ultimately this all comes back to God. What he has created in me IS good, and everything good I have is because of him. I don’t want to lose that, I want to embrace it:

Your voice is growing stronger and I hear you speak to me

As you tell me that I always was your plan

So I lift up all that I have to worship and adore

And thank you for who I am