Who is the center of your life? Is your answer Jesus, or is it your children, your friends, or your spouse? What if I told you that the answer to that question is you? And what if I said that is OK? Let us be clear: the question is not if you are the center of your universe — you are. This is what philosophers and psychologists sometimes call the egocentric predicament. Put simply, we cannot escape ourselves. Whatever we feel, think, speak, or believe, it is we who are doing the feeling, thinking, speaking, or believing. When we engage God, others, and the world, our reference point or center is inescapably our ego.
Now here is the surprise: we do not need to repent for this kind of “self-centeredness.” Instead, we must recognize how much we are affected by a weak doctrine of creation. To be a creature, including our finitude and particularity, is a gift from God. Trying to “escape” ourselves and to have some other “center” can easily slip into an abstract form of spirituality that undermines our creatureliness. To deny the “I” completely is to cease to exist. Let us be careful of pious-sounding talk that undermines our humanity, for once this happens, all advice about sanctification and dealing with sin becomes skewed and ultimately self-defeating for the Christian. We are not called to apologize for or repent of our humanity.
But there is another kind of “self-centeredness” that is destructive and for which we must certainly repent. This is what we call selfishness. Knowing the difference between creaturely self-centeredness and sinful selfishness can help us grow in grace and truth. And it may lead us to empty the dishwasher for our spouses a little more often.
Sin creates a perversion in our creaturely self-centeredness so that we assume that not only are we the center of our own world, but we are indeed the center of everyone else’s world. We forget that we are part of God’s majestic and interconnected creation, and a narrow and destructive selfishness results. We are noble and glorious creatures, made in His image, but we are only part of this creation; we are not its sum and total. While it is true that we are inescapably the center of our own worlds, this is a far cry from saying we are the center of the world. Only the triune Creator is rightly understood as the center of the universe, for it is His creation: all things are from Him, through Him, and to Him (Rom. 11:36).
So here is the dilemma: On the one hand, as creatures we cannot — and should not — aim to escape our “selves.” On the other hand, our “selves” have become twisted by sin, and we no longer rightly relate to God or the rest of His creation. Because of our sin, we are, in a word, selfish. Sin has affected how we think, feel, and desire. Consequently, when we engage the world, we seek to bend God’s handiwork to serve our own selfish longings. When driving, don’t we assume that our timetable is the most important one in God’s world? When we fail to see and value others, we reveal a corrupted self-centeredness that undermines the Creator and His creation. In the process, this selfishness eats away at our own lives.
All of creation was designed to relish the Creator’s goodness, to worship Him as the Lord and Maker of all things. Consequently, each part is to value and love the other parts. A sinister side of sin is that it has turned us in upon ourselves. In disturbing ways, we subtly act as if we are the Creator rather than creatures, as if all things were made simply for us.
But here we also discover the Christian hope. When God redeems His people, He also begins to bring us back into harmony with how He originally designed us to live. The creator God is also the Re-Creator. As those who are redeemed by Christ and set free in the power of His Spirit, we see our worlds begin to change. Whereas sin continually bends us inward so that we become consumed with self, the gospel draws us back to an appropriate love for the Creator and His creation.
Soaked in the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the strong fellowship of the Spirit, we are enabled to bask in God’s forgiveness. We are freed to love others, not just ourselves. Whereas sinful self-centeredness tends to undermine the individual and relationships, the life-giving power of God works to restore the individual and relationships. We stop worrying exclusively about our world, and we start caring about God’s world, the world that He so loved that He gave His only begotten Son for it (John 3:16).
To use biblical vocabulary, the question is not if you have a “self” but if it is the “new self” or the “old self” that governs you (Eph. 4:20–24; 1 Cor. 5:7). As Paul writes to the church at Colossae, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9–10). Lying to others is acceptable only when you believe you are more valuable than they are, which is a dangerous misunderstanding of creation.
When God gives us a new self, we are freed to worship the Creator as the Lord Almighty, enabling us to leave behind the old self and its practices that are mired in self-interest and self-preservation. As those who are liberated in Christ, we are freed to love God and neighbor, seeking the good of others even when it costs us personally. The old self practices a perverse self-love that ultimately leads to self-destruction, whereas the new self practices cross-shaped living, which aims to bring the life and love of God to the people we encounter.
Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, warns about “the last days,” when this perverted love of self will become ever more manifest:
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Tim. 3: 2–5)
By turning this warning around, we can also see how Paul envisions Christians living for the good of others. Believers are called not to be “lovers of self” because they recognize that they belong to God and have been created for His good purposes. In our sinful world, this means we are called by Christ to give ourselves away for others so that they might know the power of His love through us. That is the radical freedom of the gospel.
We belong to God, and thus we are free to love the Creator and His creation fittingly. Again, think of the flip side of what Paul says above. Christians are free to give our money away to those in need. We are free to turn from arrogance to humility, recognizing both our finitude and confessing our sinful perversions of reality. We are free to be grateful, full of respect and honor for others, since we acknowledge all we have is a gift from God. We are free to have big hearts, cultivating a sense of empathy for others as we enter into their stories and pain, seeking their welfare and good. We are free to love God more than we love our own pleasure; therefore, we are enabled to pick up the cross of Christ, follow Him, lay down our own selfishness, and seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We are free from deadening religiosity (the appearance of godliness), which speaks often of sin in such a way that we become the focus, instead of raising our gaze to Christ and His Spirit’s transforming power. Put simply, in Christ we are free to love rightly and joyfully the Creator and His creation.
Godliness does not call us to deny the reality of the egocentric predicament, but it does call us to put away selfishness. God opposes the proud. When we are arrogant, we forget that we are creatures and our sin makes us “scornful” toward others (Prov. 3:34). But God gives grace to the humble, for the humble recognize their dependence upon Him and others, and so they are mindful and merciful toward those around them (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6). While we may not be able to escape the creaturely realities of the egocentric predicament, we can cultivate a Spirit-empowered mindfulness and love of others. Taking our place within God’s re-creation, let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, promoting the good of others before ourselves, and always aiming through our words and deeds to draw others back to the triune Creator, who alone can free us from the dark trap of our selfishness (James 1:19; 1 Peter 2:12). So go ahead, let that other driver go before you, and maybe even empty the dishwasher when no one is looking.