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The Weakening of the Soul through Self-interest

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God made us in His image, but we are not the substance of God. Therefore, anyone who spends all life fixed on the self will not last. With eyes fixed on Christ and hearts full of love for him, may we recover the lost art of denying the self for the sake of others.

It is surely a different age in which we now live. Philip Rieff’s understanding of the “Triumph of the Therapeutic” has arrived at the expense of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Much of what happens today in the name of “mental health” would cause my grandparents to scratch their heads in confusion. A generation that lived through the Great Depression and two World Wars and learned to scrape and sacrifice for the greater good would have had little understanding of avoiding sacrifice in the interest of the self.

I’ve recently stumbled across two prime examples without looking too hard.

Not sacrifice and denial, but “me.”

Amazon Prime has come out with its take on the class fairytale, “Cinderella.” The main characters in the movie are the same as in the original, but at multiple points, the classic tale takes clear progressive turns. The most striking turn comes just a few minutes before midnight. This scene is the peak of tension in the story: the handsome prince declares his love and intention to marry Cinderella. Marriage will mean they are forever together, living in royal wedded bliss. The modern Cinderella is appalled by this idea. She has her own dreams and aspirations of becoming a dressmaker. Instead of sacrificing for the sake of two becoming one, she quickly turns down the proposal by saying, “I chose me,” repeating the vain mantra of our present age. Not sacrifice and denial, but “me.”

From fiction to real life

What is more concerning, though, is when this thinking moves from the fictional world and into real life.

A recent article on Yahoo News was about Danielle Epstein and her decision to leave her fiancé because of his brain cancer. The couple was in the process of moving toward marriage and buying a house together. Then her fiancé received a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, and with it came the terrible course of treatments, side effects, and a bleak prognosis. It became too much for Danielle. “I felt like the most awful person, leaving somebody because they have cancer, but it was damaging my mental health.” I have no doubt that she genuinely felt terrible. But actions speak louder than words, and the story ends with a cancer patient alone.

Danielle has moved to a different country and is now training to run a marathon in her ex’s honor. On Instagram, she has a post trying to raise money. She might feel like it’s a nice, public way of assuaging her guilty conscience, but we can all see right through it. Although they are not yet married, the traditional vows of “till death do us part” ring hollow.

Previous generations sacrificed. Ours runs from it. We commonly use the phrase “self-care,” but all too often, self-care is replaced with selfishness. Instead of giving we have become a culture of receiving (Acts 20:35).

The end result

Henry Scougal was a young Scottish theologian who, sadly, died just a few days short of his 28th birthday. His life was short, but his impact was significant. In his most well-known book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Scougal writes, “the worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” What you love most is the determining factor in determining the type of person you are. You become what you love. That makes sense. What you spend the most time thinking about has the power to speak backward and transform you. Our thoughts and affections are not neutral but deeply formative. We are in the process of becoming what we behold.

This is a very insightful observation in our modern age of endless entertainment and spectacle. Those who center their hearts on the sturdiness of God and his word will become as sturdy as the oak tree in Psalm 1. Those who center their lives on the vanity of the self will become as flippant as the chaff that is quickly blown away in a gentle breeze. The obsession with the self is not the path to long-term strength but rather the opposite. It’s self-destructive. While the culture promotes the idea of “I chose me” as a form of liberation and strength, it ironically does not seem to be getting stronger but rather weaker. Anxiety, loneliness, and fear are on the rise.

Deny yourself

Pastor, our job is to help people look out in faith, not in. To preach the kind of news that sees a righteousness that is manifested not in us, but in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). That’s where we find true freedom. And that freedom culminates when this righteousness is manifested in service to others. Perhaps many mental crises of the day might find some relief through acts of sacrifice and service. Don’t ever shy away from calling people to see God and others beyond the vanity of self because that is the path to healing.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” Matthew 16:24-25).  Jesus knows what is best for us, and his call is for a move out of the self, not inward.

Constant introspection and naval gazing will go nowhere. It only promotes more introspection and naval gazing. God designed us not to look in, but to look out, to love God and our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). We find true life not in self-preservation but in the pursuit of denying ourselves for the sake of others.

God made us in His image, but we are not the substance of God. Therefore, anyone who spends all life fixed on the self will not last. We need a sturdier anchor. With eyes fixed on Christ and hearts full of love for him, may we recover the lost art of denying the self for the sake of others.


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