How can we be so self-centered if we are a Christian family?” This lament has been uttered in virtually every Christian home, and with good reason. Every family, non- Christian and believing, is afflicted with the corruption of sin. Just as every marriage involves two sinners saying, “I do,” everyone born to that union is afflicted with the family disease. Therefore, it is without fail that a Christian mother will tear her hair out while kids bicker over who gets to sit where, who gets to use the remote control, who gets to play with the toy, and every other form of the sin category that amounts to “me, me, me.”
All in the Family
It is not just the kids who play the self-centered game in the Christian home. Self-centeredness can be seen in a father who demands that his career dreams take priority over the wellbeing of the family. Self-centeredness takes place when the mother’s need for control acts like a whip, keeping Pharaoh’s little slaves dancing in the mud pits of Egypt. When it comes to self-centeredness, there is a place for everyone: it is a true “family-friendly” activity. Self-centered grandparents demand attention and emotionally manipulate; self-centered parents impose unhealthy expectations on kids; and self-centered boys and girls turn the family room into a social Afghanistan, at least until they individually check out for a self-centered retreat into their books, cell phones, and self-absorbed peer groups.
This description may seem overly cynical. To be sure, it is far from the only dynamic working in Christian families. But if my experience as a pastor is correct, most parents reading this paragraph will respond not with a condemning “how dare he say that about us” but with a relieved “thank God we’re not the only one.”
Self-centeredness is so pervasive because it is the very essence of sin. Sin demands the autonomy of self instead of submission to God, the service of self instead of the love of God and neighbor, and the glory of self instead of the magnification of the glory of God. In the first family counseling session, Adam gave the first self-centered defense of a transgression, pushing the blame for breaking God’s covenant onto his wife and onto God (Gen. 3:12). To make matters worse, from a human perspective at least, God’s curse on sin injected even more self-centeredness into the human family. The woman was cursed with a self-centered obsession that ensured conflict in the marital relationship: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (v. 16). The man was cursed with a self-centered obsession about work and play: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (v. 19).
All we really have to do to see the condemnation of our own self-centeredness is reflect upon the earthly sojourn of Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus, we see self-sacrificing servanthood as the living definition of divine love. Jesus summed up His whole lifestyle when He said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
Sometimes the question is asked, “I wonder what love looks like in the divine family of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” The answer may be found by examining the person and work of God the Son, who came as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and bore “the exact imprint of [the divine] nature” (Heb. 1:3). The life of Jesus was a living exposition of 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” In Jesus we see the very opposite of a self-centered life, especially as He voluntarily submitted to death on the cross. Jesus sacrificed Himself out of love for God the Father (“that the Son may glorify you”) and the whole family of God (“to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]”) (John 17:1–2).
Christ, the Only Cure
Understanding self-centeredness as the fruit of a deeper root of sin makes it clear that a true remedy cannot be applied to the problem’s surface. The issue is not one merely of behavior, as every parent who has sought to overcome self-centeredness with a “compliments jar” or by draconian punishments designed to drive out “me, me, me” bickering can tell you. Self-centeredness, like all sin, is ultimately a matter of the heart. And the only remedy that gets to the heart of the fall and all its bitter fruit is the Savior, Jesus Christ.
According to the Bible, experiencing Christ’s salvation and its practical results in the home requires us first to receive Christ’s saving work for us by faith alone and then for us to imitate Christ in practical obedience. The classic statement of Christ’s self-sacrificing love was given in Philippians 2:6–8:
Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The cure for sin, including both forgiveness and spiritual rebirth, results from trusting in Jesus and His saving death for us. Only union with Christ through faith is able to redeem us from our captivity to all sin, including self-centeredness.
As spiritually empowered believers, we are then called to enter into the life and love of Christ through practical obedience. Paul, therefore, prefaced his summary of Christ’s sacrificial love with a call to renounce the self-centered life:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:3–5)
A Christ-Centered Family
Practical experience will soon teach Christians that the transformation of our lives is a gradual, progressive work of God. Justification takes place immediately when we first believe. Every believer is instantaneously forgiven and justified through Christ. But sanctification involves a lifetime of faithful diligence and application. For this reason, even Christian families in which every member has professed faith in Christ will not automatically exhibit the ethics of Christ’s love. We must deliberately turn from being a self-centered family to a Christ-centered family.
What, then, are some of the characteristics of a family that has renounced the love of self for the sacrificial love of Christ? I would assert that a Christ-centered family is one driven by three commitments, each of which begins with d: doxology, discipleship, and delight.
Doxology means worship, and a Christ-centered life is one that is motivated above all else for the glory and praise of God. If I am a Christian family member, why should I happily concede the best seat to my sibling, hand over the toy with a smile, tolerate some mess in the family room, or turn off the computer so as to read a book to my children? Answers abound: to benefit individually, avoid conflict, feel better about myself, and escape punishment — all of which are good reasons in their proper place. But the true motive for loving servanthood, and the one that will abide in transforming us, is gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the desire for Him to be praised in my life. This is the motive that should be pressed upon Christian hearts — young and old — in a Christ-centered family. Oh, how wonderful it is to praise and please the Lord, and how worthy He is that we should follow His loving example.
Discipleship means the deliberate following of Jesus Christ through the study of His Word, prayer, and church membership. In a Christ-centered family, the Bible is opened before the computer is turned on, the Word and prayer are taken in for strength in grace together with the food that gives vigor to our bodies, and the family is committed to the body of Christ, in which He dwells through His Spirit. Discipleship flows from doxology, which highlights the importance of family worship and diligently attending to the means of grace in the home and church.
Delight means rejoicing to look upon others in the way that Christ has looked upon us. Doxology and discipleship promote this delight, as we imbibe the Spirit of our Lord. Paul said, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. . . . Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:16–17). Paul’s emphasis was not only on how we see ourselves as born again but on how we now see fellow believers. What delight there is in realizing that we live in a Christian family where Christ is working for His glory. In a Christ-centered family, there is a sense of wonder at what God is doing in our lives that is more captivating than Barbie or Star Wars. John wrote, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Is this a chore? No, it is a delight when we realize how God has loved us through the sacrificial service of His Son. The more clearly we see Christ and God’s amazing grace at work in us through Him, the greater is our delight in sacrificing ourselves for the glory of God in the life of our families, and then from the home into the church and the world.