The Christian and the Self
We cannot escape the modern obsession with ourselves.
Modern Western society seems to be all about the self. People are raised to believe they can be and do whatever they desire, and they should diligently pursue what provides them with personal meaning and satisfaction. Marketers encourage people to consume products and services in order to enjoy themselves and to become and pursue their best self. Self-help resources are ubiquitous. Politicians win the most favor, and get to advance the policies, which they privilege the pursuit of individual freedom and fulfillment over anything else.
Western society has become this way thanks to the overwhelming victory of philosophical liberalism. Liberal philosophy, which can be seen across the spectrum of American politics, privileges the freedom, reason, and rights of the self above almost everything else. As a result, any commitments which might hinder or obstruct people from fully developing, expressing, or finding themselves are looked upon with hostility, skepticism, and suspicion. No wonder communal bonds, obligations, and ties have steadily corroded over the past couple of centuries!
We might be tempted to think liberal philosophy is entirely antithetical to Christian faith and practice. Christians should find many of the tendencies resulting from liberal philosophy, especially the uncritical acceptance of liberal philosophy as “the way things are,” quite troubling. Philosophical liberalism is certainly not “the way things are” in the witness of Scripture (Colossians 2:8-9). Nevertheless, we must recognize how liberal philosophy was only made possible because of the influence of Christian principles on Western society: the valuation of each individual as maintaining dignity, integrity, and standing before God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fundamental equality of all human beings in God in Christ (Romans 3:23, 14:10-12, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Yet do these Christian principles demand philosophical liberalism? How much emphasis and weight should Christians place on the self?
The overall portrayal of the Christian life, and thus the primary framework through which Christians should understand the self, is embodied in Jesus: specifically, self-emptying in humility to serve, even to the point of death, so God would exalt according to His purposes (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus established how He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28); any who would come after Him would have to likewise take up his or her cross, the object of humiliation, shame, and suffering (Matthew 16:24). Jesus set forth a paradox for us: the one who would save his or her life must lose it, but the one who loses his or her life for Jesus’ sake will find it (Matthew 16:25). As a disciple of Christ Paul declared he no longer lived, but Christ in him, for he had been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
As Christians we also do well to keep Jesus’ perspective in mind, especially in such an individualist age. Jesus prayed for Christians to be one with one another and with God in Christ as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-23); the ancients well explained such kind of unity as perichoresis, “mutual interpenetration without loss of distinctive identity.” Jesus powerfully and vividly portrayed a picture of such unity before John in Revelation 21:1-22:6: the people of God in the presence of God for all eternity, no longer suffering, glorified with beauty beyond comprehension. Such perichoretic unity is the ultimate goal of the believer with Christ as it is for fellow Christians with one another as well as husbands and wives in marriage (Matthew 19:4-6, Ephesians 5:22-33). In Christ God is saving a people for Himself, a people who have worked diligently to serve one another and consider the interests of one another above themselves (Ephesians 2:1-3:12, Philippians 2:1-12). Jesus expected people to be known as His disciples by their love for one another if they loved one another as He had loved them (John 13:31-35). God is love (1 John 4:8); God has demonstrated His love for us in Jesus (1 John 4:9-19); thus we are to love one another as He has loved us (1 John 4:7, 20-23). Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:1-8); if we would live to glorify God in Christ, we cannot pursue our individual freedom, meaning, purpose, rights, and/or satisfaction as our ultimate good. We must orient our lives around loving and serving one another, maintaining confidence in God’s love and service for us in Christ, entrusting ourselves to God and His people.
While the dignity and integrity of the individual and the fundamental equality of all people before God in Christ remain confessed and upheld by Christians, we can see how these principles by no means necessitates the full embrace of philosophical liberalism. We can see how philosophical liberalism and the maximal freedom of the self easily runs contrary to the spirit and ethos of self-emptying and joint participation in God in Christ.
But we should also not overstate the case. In order for a person to be able to empty themselves, he or she must have a “self” to “empty.” Both Jesus and the Apostles assume a level of self-care and self-concern: Jesus’ “Golden Rule” would have His disciples treat others the way they would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12), and Paul’s exhortation about husbands and wives in terms of Christ and the church demands no one hating his (or her) own body, but instead nourishing and cherishing it (Ephesians 5:29-30). Likewise, Paul did not rule out a level of self-interest in Philippians 2:4, encouraging Christians to be not only concerned about their own interests, but also the interests of others. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus spoke of servants given different numbers of talents; both Paul and Peter speak of Christians as having different abilities, all of which should be used to serve one another and build up the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:10-11); in order to use one’s abilities and gifts, one must first have enough self-awareness to know what one can do and how one has thus been gifted by God.
How, then, should Christians relate to the self? Christians do well to recognize “they” are “themselves”; there is no objective or disembodied “self.” God made human beings in His image with a base natural impulse toward self-concern and self-preservation; while such impulses can be abused, corrupted, and distorted, they maintain their purpose, and we do well to make sure we appropriately cherish and nourish the bodies which God has given us. Each person has value to God, and God has given each person dignity and integrity before Him, for each one will stand before Jesus in judgment (Romans 14:10-12). God calls every person to come to faith in Jesus; each person is called upon to cultivate and develop their personal faith in God in Christ, and to nurture their personal relationships with God and God’s people (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:1-3:12). Every believer in Christ which God adds to the church has his or her place in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Yet all such concern for the individual is not an end unto itself; God has not called individuals to remain entirely disconnected autonomous beings, but welcomes and trains all those who come to Him to become one with Him and one another as He manifests perichoretic relational unity within Himself (John 17:20-23). We cherish and nourish ourselves but also cherish and nourish one another, as Jesus nourishes and cherishes His Body, the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). We treat others the way we want them to treat us; we serve others as we wish to be served; we use our gifts and talents to serve one another as we encourage others to use their gifts and talents to serve as well.
While much of the Christian life is focused on others, Christians must remember how in matters of judgment we are to keep to ourselves. Jesus is Lord; each of us will stand before Him in judgment, and before Him we individually will stand or fall; as Paul asks, who are we to judge the servant of another (Romans 14:10-12)? If there are two or three witnesses to a believer participating in sin or promoting false teachings, and such a believer refuses to repent, then other believers have a responsibility to separate themselves from such a person until they might repent (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); note well how this is not an individual judgment, but a collective determination based on evidence from witnesses, and the ultimate decision regarding the eternal fate of such a person belongs to Jesus, not to us. Christians therefore do well to cease acting as judges but strive to be doers of what God has made known in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, James 4:10-12).
Thus Christians do well to recognize the value of the self but not place significant emphasis upon it. Christians in Western society must strive to prioritize, maintain, and uphold the importance of self-emptying love and service in a time and place which desires to instead glorify the self. While Christians generally see how philosophical liberalism has influenced social and political liberalism and progressivism, they must also see how philosophical liberalism has influenced social and political conservatism and libertarianism and the ethos of the American middle class, and respond accordingly. Christians cannot just be concerned about themselves or their near friends and relations and glorify God; Christians cannot strive for self-sufficiency or demand a level of personal responsibility which they themselves could never manifest, for none of us are sufficient unto ourselves, and all of us remain in need of God and the people of God for strength and sustenance. We must consider ourselves part of something greater than ourselves, the Body of Christ, the Reign of God in Christ, and must strive to empty ourselves so we might be able to more fully embody Jesus to one another and to all. But we each will stand before the judgment seat of God in Christ; each of us will stand or fall before Jesus. May we have a self to which we can die, die to such a self, and live for God in Christ to glorify Him and share in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry