Part of the misery of sin is that it makes us to be both self-absorbed and self-distracted. The Bible teaches us that we were made by God to be in loving relationships, with God first and then with our neighbor. Yet sin ruins our capacity to love and fills us with personal shame, with dread of God, and with fear that our neighbor will discover our shame. Therefore, we don not only clothes that cover our bodies but also images of ourselves that we put on for others as we want them to see us, not as we truly are. We also tend to project upwardly, presenting ourselves as better than we are. When we find people failing or refusing to accept our projected self, we then resort to determined domination of others wherein we seek to force them to respect and submit to our inflated self-projection. This is what Jesus describes as our lording ourselves over others. Accordingly, our relationships with others are more or less ruined. We can track this ruin in Adam’s change in his relationship with Eve. He who had delighted in Eve and declared her to be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, came to regarded her after his sin as the woman whom God had forced on him to wreck his life.
We are all born into such sin-infected relationships and apart from God’s redeeming grace and power we would only go from bad to worse in those relationships. Thankfully, our Lord has called us into new life with new appetites, resources, and priorities. Because we have the seed of His holy and loving nature planted in us at our regeneration and nurtured in us by His Holy Spirit, we are growing in our sincere love for God and for our neighbor.
However, sin has not only made us self-absorbed with our guilt and shame and dread of God and man. Sin has also distracted us from ourselves so that we become absorbed in attempts to manipulate people and situations outside of ourselves. We see this pathology very clearly in the materialism that captivates so many in our western culture. People devote themselves to acquiring and keeping things in a futile hope that possessions and high positions will satisfy them. Theirs is a hope as vain as that of the rich fool who built large barns to contain his earthly treasure, only to find that his soul was required of him. Jesus adds to His telling about such rich fools the question: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
Materialism is a soul-destroying distraction. Such distraction, however, can manifest itself in subtle but not less soul-damaging forms. There is the distraction of ethical refinement, where we develop a social consciousness and seek at least not to harm our neighbor, even if we do not love him. There is also the religious distraction of the legalist. He deludes himself into thinking that he has successfully made himself worthy of God and, since so few of his neighbors have failed to make themselves worthy, he flatters himself with a sense of superiority over them. In these forms of self-distraction, we are drawn to focus on others, even thinking sincerely that we are loving them when we do so.
Are we, then, not to focus on others more than upon ourselves? Is it not sinful to be self-absorbed? These are complex and subtle questions that take into consideration parts of the truth but not all of the truth. While it is true that our new calling, equipping, and growing desire in Christ is that we love others and seek to serve them and not only to be interested in ourselves, it is also true that we are in not to allow others to distract us from God or from ourselves.
In His summary of the Ten Commandments, Jesus tells us to love God first and totally. That would seem clearly enough to tell us that there is little if any room or requirement for us to love anyone else. Yet, Jesus also tells us to love our neighbor and to do so as we love ourselves. How do these various requirements fit together? Our Lord tells us in clear and arresting terms. We love God because He first loved us. Through our loving Him who commands and enables us to love others, we begin to love our neighbor.
But we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and this presupposes some kind of self-love. What is greater self-love than when we cast ourselves entirely upon the person and work of Christ for our salvation and for our working out of that salvation as He dwells in us to will and do good pleasure? Pleasure for whom? It is pleasure for others whom we learn rightly to love; it is pleasure for God who rejoices immeasurable in the turning of one sinner to Him; and it is pleasure for us to sit at the feet of the fountain of eternal joy and hang on His every word.
It is the devil who tells us that we must love others in such a way that we regard ourselves as being responsible for their welfare. Jesus tells us shockingly to hate others—even family members. Our Lord tells us this in the heart of Luke’s Gospel account (Lk. 14:26), where we find Jesus on His way to die in Jerusalem. As He makes His way to His death on the cross, He encounters various people who were concerning themselves with the rights and wrongs of others. Repeatedly and pointedly Jesus turned the proposition to: You must be born again. Never mind others: are you in the kingdom of God? No one can believe unto salvation for you nor can you believe for a soul other than for yourself.
Over the years of my ministry, many people have kindly thanked me for my preaching and writing labors. The secret to any vital fruitfulness in my ministry, however, is not that I love the sheep more than I love the Shepherd. I view all of my researches and writing and all of my sermon preparation and presentation first and foremost as my own personal sitting at the feet of Jesus and feeding upon His every word. If I ever started viewing my work as a job I do primarily for others, much if not all blessing will be lost for me and for others. Where is the love in that? When we delight in our God and sit at His feet as though we have no other care or friend in the world, we find it to be the most loving thing we can do for ourselves. And when others see the light of our love for God shining through us, some of them will be drawn not to us but to Him. Nothing we can do for others could ever be more loving to them than that kind of sanctified hatred of them.
Yours ever growing in His love,