The Problem of Self

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 10
In today’s world, we are continually bombarded with self. While walking through a shopping mall in the U.S.A. recently, my wife and I could not help but notice several posters displayed at strategic places, telling the passers-by, “You are powerful!” In many magazines and other forms of news media, as well as in many public schools, we are taught to think of ourselves first — that for “me,” “I” am the most important person in the world. Most of our readers are familiar with “selfies” — pictures of oneself taken with one’s own cell phone. Although estimates vary, some have concluded that the number of these taken daily in the world is as high as 93 million. In the last few years, Facebook has provided a forum where millions continually announce what they look like and what they are doing, to all who wish to listen and watch.
Empathy Deficit
Even the world is beginning to recognize the problem all this creates. A recent article in a prominent magazine noted that those who have the potential to be happy and successful in this world are those with empathy — those who understand and appreciate those around them. The author notes that in America “we have a serious empathy deficit,” calling it the “selfie syndrome.” Among other things, she notes:
“Today’s kids are more self-absorbed than ever; one study estimates that narcissism rates among college students are up 58% versus three decades ago. And this has given rise to a culture of bullying, cheating and unhappiness. One in five middle-school students contemplates suicide as a solution to peer cruelty, 70% of college students admit to cheating in class, and one-third of all college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning.”
In still another prominent magazine, a group featuring a television program raises the question, “What does it mean to believe — really believe — in oneself? When does healthy self-esteem become self-idolatry?” Yet the answers to such questions remain elusive, and the exaltation of self continues to increase in this world.
From the Beginning
It is clear from man’s history that self has been a serious problem right from the beginning. Eve chose to believe the serpent’s lie because that lie ministered to self, while Cain killed his brother Abel because he could not face the fact that “his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:1212If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3:12)). Fallen man has always sought to place himself at the center of his world and to make himself as happy as possible, even if it came at the expense of the happiness of others.
Prior to the widespread influence of the Bible, man’s general attitude was for his self-interest — a mind-set of “every man for himself.” We can thank God that the spread of Christianity in the world has mitigated this, and it is to Christianity and its principles that we owe much of the altruism that is evident in at least parts of the world today. But all this is gradually changing, for as God and His claims are increasingly disregarded, the Word of God discounted, and Christianity despised, once again man’s sinful nature is beginning to assert itself.
It is beyond the scope of this article, and even of this issue of the magazine, to discuss all of the aspects of self that are around us and all that could be said about an antidote to the present glorification of self. However, there are several reasons given in the Word of God that show us why the elevation of self is wrong.
God’s Glory
First of all, self-occupation robs God of His glory. As creatures, we are to be subject to our Creator and to honor Him, for we were created for His pleasure (Rev. 4:1111Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:11)). Solomon reminds us that “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Eccl. 5:22Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)). The creature that is occupied with himself is inevitably proud — a sin that takes away from God’s glory and gives it to man.
Man’s Sinful Nature
Second, the exaltation of self brings man’s sinful nature to the surface, a nature that does not hesitate to trample on others in order to gain its ends. The rise of cheating, lying, immorality, bullying and other forms of violence in modern society are a direct result of the worship of self. Self is always a taker, never a giver, and when most people in a society are takers, the result is disaster. Fallen man is a taker, but God is a Giver.
Third, and connected with what has been mentioned in the previous paragraph, the one who is occupied with himself is never happy. Man cannot exist without his Creator, and yet the world of today is patterned after Cain’s world, that wanted nothing to do with God. He did his best to satisfy himself with what was available in a fallen creation, yet found out, and continues to find out, that nothing in this world can satisfy his heart. He finds out that “God has set the world [or eternity] in their heart” (Eccl. 3:1111He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)), and that he was created for eternity, not merely for time. Like Solomon in his day, he finds that, in this world, “all is vanity and pursuit of the wind” (Eccl. 1:1414I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Ecclesiastes 1:14) JND).
The Example of Christ
Fourth, and perhaps the most important, we can get a right perspective on everything only by bringing Christ in. The One who had a right to please Himself, who “thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2:66Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: (Philippians 2:6)), was the One who “made Himself of no reputation,” and finally “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-87But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:7‑8)). Can we dare to exalt self in the presence of the One of whom it could be said, “Even Christ pleased not Himself” (Rom. 15:33For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. (Romans 15:3))?
Finally, we are occupied with Christ, and learn of Him, in humility, not when self is before us. He could say during His earthly ministry, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:2929Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29)). In the same way Peter reminds us, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). We learn more of Christ when self is forgotten and only He is before us.
God’s Place
Of course, we cannot expect unregenerate man to appreciate all that Christ is, or has done for him, but we can present the gospel in such a way as to show God’s purposes for the exaltation of His beloved Son, and not merely for the blessing of man. When God is given His rightful place, He is glorified, and man is blessed, because the blessing flows down from God to man. But when man’s need is paramount, man becomes a “taker” in reference to God, rather than a worshipper. It is true that the gospel is for the blessing of man, but that is only one aspect of it. God’s primary purpose is the glory of His Son.
When we start with God, then we as creatures take our rightful place before Him, realizing that as sinners, we deserve nothing but eternal judgment. But then we see grace flowing out from His heart of love, and this makes us worshippers, not takers. This attitude should carry over into our Christian lives, for it is easy to make ourselves the center of Christianity, instead of Christ. It is easy to allow our hymns, our ministry, and our prayers to focus on self, rather than on Christ. But if Christ is before us, He receives His rightful place, and we are far more blessed, for we are united to Him.
Self will have no place in a coming eternity; Christ will fill our eyes and our hearts. It ought to be more so now!
W. J. Prost