Monday, August 15

The Cult of Self

Selfishness is epidemic in our day. We are systematically taught from our earliest days to “look out for number one,” to “pamper ourselves,” and to “encourage self-actualization, self-awareness, and self-esteem.” As a result we have become self-absorbed, self-concerned, and self-consumed. Oddly, we have also become supremely unhappy and unfulfilled. As psychologist Paul Kellerman has pointed out, this is precisely because “The only path to genuine happiness and fulfillment is through service to others. It is only as we give ourselves away that we can truly discover ourselves.”

The cult of self-service and self-satisfaction is contradicted by the whole of history. The great lessons of the past are invariably told through the lives and work of men and women who put the interests of other before their own, who put the safety of others before their own, and who put the happiness of others before their own. Compare the life stories of men like George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Quincy Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt with our modern day obsession with self. The contrast is immediate and enormous. The heroes of the past were always those who resisted the siren’s song of self. They fought for justice, the cared for the needy, they worked for mercy, they fed the hungry, and they rescued the perishing. Their greatest accomplishments were always the result of their comprehension that servanthood was ultimately the key to significance and success.

The modern cult of self beckons us to “find ourselves” by turning inward. It entices to “satisfy ourselves” by “being true to ourselves.” But one of the most basic principles of sociology is that satisfaction, purposefulness, contentment, and success are all directly connected to selfless service. In other words, authority ultimately resolves itself upon the servant not upon the tyrant.

This basic concept of social development is understood all too well by the administrators of many of our contemporary social service institutions. They recognize that whatever agency serves the needs of the people will ultimately gain the allegiance of the people. So, they serve. And, as a result of the entitlements they bestow upon others, they gain more and more authority.

This is what Jesus taught His disciples as long ago as the first century: “And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” (Luke 22:25-30)

Sadly, all too many of us have not fully comprehended this link between charity and authority, between mercy and influence, between kindness and leadership. We have not fully understood that power comes through service not through ambition. When people are needy, or fearful, or desperate, they will seek out protection. They will seek out benefactors. They will seek out leaders with whom they can exchange allegiance for security.

Early in our nation's history it was largely the church which operated the hospitals, orphanages, alms houses, rescue missions, hostels, soup kitchens, welfare agencies, schools, and universities. The church was a home to the homeless and a refuge to the rejected. The church willingly took up the mantle of servanthood. As a result, the church had cultural authority. It was able to demonstrate its cultural significance. It tasted genuine success. It earned its place of leadership by loving the unloved and the unlovely.

Canvassing neighborhoods is fine. Registering voters is good. Evaluating candidates is important. Mobilizing phone banks, and direct mail centers, and media campaigns are all necessary. But, if we really want to make a difference in our nation and our culture, we must not simply organize ourselves socially, economically, and politically. Instead we must begin to authentically care for those around us. We must offer sanctuary to the poor, the aged, the handicapped, the unborn, the abused, the marginalized, the lonely, the sick, the stigmatized, and the needy.

The way to cultural reformation is through a practical, Biblical rebuke of the cult of self--in both word and deed.

The Old Testament prophet said it well: “If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your souls in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.” (Isaiah 58:10-12)


Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Dr. Grant,

Could you speak to the issue of how to carry out service ministries without becomeing what Laurence Windham calls "The Prodigal Son Relief Society" -- helping those who ought to be helping themselves or those whose suffering is the result of their own sin and folly (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10)? Who are the needy we are to feed/clothe/shelter -- all in the world? Our neighbors? Our fellow believers? Why does it seem as if churches that focus more on mercy ministry, even those in theologically conservative denominations, tend to allow that focus to push things like discipleship out of the way?

That's sort of a cluster of related questions. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Mark Stubblefield said...

Dr. Grant,

Thank you for your wise words. As we develop personal relationships and truly become involved in covenant community, the true blessing becomes ever apparent in the lives of individuals, families, and ultimately the church as a whole as we witness all dwelling in unity and serving one another without the idolatry of personal ambition. It is a beautiful thing to witness Christians serving Christians for the Singular glory of Christ and Christ alone.

Thank you again Dr. Grant. Your blog is a continual encouragement to my life.

JFred said...

Is it any surprise that Joel Osteen's book hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list? Even those who scoff at the likes of Osteen, Joyce Meyer and others seem to be afflicted with forms of "MeIsm". What percentage of our prayers are concerned only with our needs?