Felix has a thought-provoking link in his latest blog post, Another splendid article from Spectrum online. The Spectrum is a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist publication, which I know because I attended the New York Metro Adventist Forum when I went to Jewish Theological Seminary.
The article is entitled “Getting Rid of Self and Revival Religion,” written by Harold Weiss. Felix quotes the following passage:
I have been a member of the Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Berrien Springs since it was organized in 1973. I have attended worship services in other churches in the area only on rare occasions. A few weeks ago, however, I could not attend my church because I was sick. On such occasions, I listen to the worship service at Pioneer Memorial Church, which the Andrews University radio station broadcasts by radio. Since I did not have the church bulletin and the radio made no announcements, I did not find out who was the guest preacher. It certainly was not Dwight Nelson, whose style is inimitable.
It pains me to confess that I was unable to listen to the full sermon. I was so upset by what I heard that I turned the radio off sometime before the end. The sermon I was listening to was in no way original; I have heard dozens of different versions of this sermon. The sermon impresses on everyone the necessity to get rid of self in order to become a Christian. Thus, it turns out to be a masochistic exercise whose purpose is to make the listeners feel spiritually sick and bad about themselves. This, it is hoped, will motivate them to raise their hands, stand up, or pass to the front of the church in order to declare their intention to live the Christian life with God. It is necessary to cast self aside in order for Christ to come in. The sentence that stayed with me that Sabbath morning is: “If you don’t get rid of self, you cannot love God.”
This way of looking at the Christian life is in direct opposition to the message of Jesus. According to him, it is absolutely necessary to be in full possession of self and be able to use all its faculties to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The standard by which we should evaluate our love of our neighbors is the measure of our love for ourselves. In other words, what Jesus taught is exactly the opposite of what this preacher told his listeners that Sabbath. Only he who loves self can love God and neighbor.
Like Harold Weiss, I have been baffled by Christian cliches about denying myself and putting others first. When I was a teen, a formative figure in my Christian development was John MacArthur, who said that the Gospel was about denying sin and self. When I was a student at Harvard and attended an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church, a kind lady said that our priorities should be (1.) God first, (2.) our families second, and (3.) ourselves last. And the Bible has passages that can be fit into that sort of worldview. Mark 8:34: “And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (KJV). Philippians 2:3: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”
Esteem others as better than myself? Of course I’m going to put myself first! When I did my homework, I did my homework, not other people’s. I was perfectly willing to help people, mind you, but the majority of my time was spent on my own tasks. And I don’t apologize for that. Why should I? Isn’t that how a lot of people do things? They don’t give all of their income away, after all!
When I was at DePauw University, I encountered the writings of Ayn Rand. I was drawn to Ayn because of her libertarian views on government and the economy, but her views on religion baffled and challenged me. Her problem with religion was not just that one can’t prove the existence of God and that Christian theism has illogical concepts (e.g., the Trinity, original sin). She didn’t care much for Christian altruism, either! That shocked me, since most atheists I knew acknowledged a belief in Christian morality (e.g, love, kindness, generosity), while expressing problems with Christian dogma.
Ayn didn’t care for the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and she flinched at the notion that we should sacrifice ourselves for others. The villains in her story were collectivists who appealed to these mantras to redistribute people’s hard-earned wealth. One point of hers that I liked concerned altruism. She said that the debate over altruism is about who gets the goodies, ourselves or others. If we’re not entitled to goodies, she asked, then why should we assume that others are? Makes a lot of sense!
I don’t think Ayn was crass and totally selfish. She believed in trickle-down economics, which assumed that most would benefit from the innovation of entrepreneurs. As far as I know, she was also open to people voluntarily helping others. She just didn’t care for the notion that we should always take second place, or that the government should force us to be our brother’s keeper.
In terms of my day-to-day life, I try to abide by what a woman told me at AA (sort of): “Ours is a selfish program, not a self-centered program.” Or, as Philippians 2:4 has it, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (The “also” is in brackets in the Greek, so I wonder if it’s in the original.) Of course I’m going to think about myself, but am I thinking only of myself? That’s the question that challenges me, not unrealistic views that I shouldn’t think of myself at all!
Overall, I think this is what the Bible teaches, when we look beyond a literalistic interpretation of individual passages. When the Bible says that we should esteem others as better than ourselves, it’s in the context of avoiding strife, which stems from pride. I can think of myself in my day-to-day life, but not in a manner that devalues others or assumes that I’m the end-all-be-all.
The Bible often encourages us with promises of rewards, or an affirmation of God’s love for us. Why would it do this, if we’re not supposed to think of ourselves at all?
At the same time, I think the Bible is clear that we should believe in a cause greater than ourselves. The New Testament presents believers giving their lives for Jesus Christ. Christ loves us and blesses us, but ultimately he and what he stands for are more important than we are.