Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires that you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself; My own will shall become yours.’
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances…so you will be My people and I will be your God…
I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Lord God…
When the actor John Wilkes Booth (the George Clooney of his day) jumped from the Presidential Box to the stage of Ford’s Theater in 1865, two things happened. One, he snapped his leg just above the ankle because of an awkward plant, and two, he looked out onto the stunned crowd and shouted, “Thus always to tyrants!”
Moments earlier, he had aimed a pistol at close range behind President Lincoln’s left ear and fired a round into the great man’s head. The bullet traveled a bit crossways and lodged behind the President’s right eye. By 7:30 the next morning, the sixteenth president of the United States lay dead on a bed too short for his legs.
I have a would-be tyrant aping me, called my “flesh”, the carnal mind, the sinful disposition. I, along with many others, call it “self”. It cannot be trained, tamed or ignored. The only way to deal with it is to execute it. Sadly, it won’t stay dead. And if you commute its sentence, it grows larger and casts monstrous shadows over one’s soul.
Self is the ego. It wants to be stroked and coddled, fed and worshiped. Some are so enamored with the self/flesh/ego, they have written lyrical anthems to honor it. ‘Ol Blue Eyes sang one when he did it “my way” and Walt Whitman opted to “celebrate myself” in his egocentric “Song of Myself”.
Another dared pull up the bootstraps of self and fend off any notion of Another who might deem to take over. You may have seen the movie that takes its appellation from the famous soliloquy; I haven’t, only because the title wards me off.
In 1875 William Ernest Henley lost his leg to tuberculosis at the puerile age of 25. From his hospital bed, out came paper and pen, then the splash of self’s regurgitation soiled the fresh, clean page.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
“Head bloody, but unbowed”
“My unconquerable soul.”
“I am the captain of my soul…”
Sends shivers down my spine, how about you? Some slough it off as self-determination and resolute courage in the face of adversity, but I refuse to hyphenate. These are the damnable heresies of self.
In his book Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service, Stephen Seamands illustrates the danger of putting self in the captain’s chair:
Someone once gave Wilfred Grenfell, the great early-twentieth-century medical missionary to Labrador, a powerful new motorboat so he could better navigate among inlets and islands along the coast and respond quickly to those in need. Soon afterward he received an emergency call in the middle of the night from someone who needed immediate medical attention. So he set out in the new boat toward the island where the person lived.
Grenfell knew its location, but in the blackness of the night he was forced to navigate solely by compass. Soon he realized he had embarked in the wrong direction, for when he expected to be nearing the island, no land was in sight. Instead, he was heading out into the dangerous open sea, so he reversed the boat and fortunately managed to return home safely.
The next day when Grenfell checked the compass on the boat, he discovered the problem. Whoever had fastened the compass to the boat had run out of brass screws and had used a steel screw to finish the job. That steel screw attracted the magnetic tip of the compass needle to itself. The night before, Grenfell hadn’t been charting his course by the magnetic North Pole; instead his compass had been charting its course to itself.
You want some hyphenation? Try ego-centeredness. Or self-reference. Call it what you wish, but please call it nixed. Even our gospel has been defectively charted in the direction of self, insisting that the Plan of Salvation is all about me, that I am in the center; the end-all-be-all of the gospel is myself, my getting my sins forgiven, my getting saved and my getting to heaven. No it’s not. Those things are included, of course, but the full course of salvation is that God gets what He wants.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
(Mere Christianity, p167)
When “myself” becomes “Himself” there is salvation. Someone once quipped about marriage: “The Wedding Day is about two people becoming one. The rest of marriage is deciding which one they will become.” Salvation already decides that: to be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29). There ain’t no self plus Jesus in the Kingdom. It’s only Jesus.
What are your selfless thoughts?