A look at Christian selfishness
Savonarola once wrote, “In the primitive church the chalices were of wood and the prelates were of gold; to-day the prelates are of wood and the chalices are of gold.”1 Paul told the Corinthians that we are less than wood, we are clay (“ostraka”) vessels. “Clay vessels are cheap, utterly common, the least valued, used with small care, bound to break sooner or later.”2 Yet the sage was right, we desire the earthly rather than earthen.
I should not presume to write on selfishness. This tap root of our sin nature is more deceitful than any of us could imagine or master. This is “where passions have the privilege to work and never hear the sound of their own names.”3 One cannot tell a selfish man he is selfish, and every last one of us is selfish to the core. But when we are commanded by God to pay attention to something, we must give the best of our efforts and ask the Holy Spirit for help. It is because this trait of ours is so comely that we must give it more comeliness.
The church at Corinth was not unlike many churches throughout our history, nor its individuals unlike many of us today. They displayed their selfishness, however, in every way they could. Whether through their preference of showy gifts and flashy individuals, or their propensity for excluding the poor and overlooking the sinful, their self-centeredness manifested itself in almost every area of their Christian lives and ministries. Francois Fenelon wrote, “This is the decision of man, and it is the judgment of God, who would not have us so occupied with ourselves and thus, as it were, always arranging our features in a mirror.”4
Paul told the Corinthians, rather, that, we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3:18). If we look at the image of Christ in the mirror long enough, we will eventually be formed into that same image. But the surprise to our selfish nature is that Christ is not selfish but caring, not strong but weak, not defensive but defenseless, and that to be like Him we will be always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (4:10).
How is it that Paul had such power with God? As Dr. Harju used to say in class, he was a hook-nosed, runny-eyed, little Jew! How could he be so persuasive among the diverse world in which he ministered? Is it not because he knew that Jesus said, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (Jn 12:32)? Hadn’t Paul realized, in the midst of his own thorns that God insists, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9)? And didn’t he know that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us (2 Cor 4:7)?
It is when the earthen vessels start to become earthly that we lose our power with God. Whereas “earthen” means made of the earth; of baked clay, “earthly” means worldly, nonspiritual, sensual, carnal, corporeal, natural, temporal, mortal. Of course, the reason we are “earthen” is to be broken, disposable, easily shattered. When this happens to the vessel, the Light within can shine through! The power is not in the vessel but in the Light! But the vessel often disagrees. As the old proverb goes, ham and eggs is a contribution to the chicken but a total sacrifice to the pig. But God will not have the eggs without the ham, and He will not give the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God (4:4) until the vessel agrees to break.
Haven’t we all learned by experience and observation that in Christ’s ministry we are too often in the business of avoiding breaking the vessel. Because our selfishness is so deceptive, however, we almost always feel we are making great sacrifices for God when, in fact, we are only protecting ourselves from being broken. Diogenes Allen wrote,
Our existence is more real to us than the existence of anything else because the existence of everything else is evaluated in terms of its usefulness and attractiveness to our purposes. Everything is subordinate to our will. To do evil is to attempt to retain that perspective and relation to others. To refuse to do evil is to recognize that we are not at the center and that all things are not to be judged with ourselves at the center.5
Self-preservation and self-aggrandizement are both part of our selfish nature. Yet by these we protect our vessel and keep it from being broken. In the “thorn in the flesh” passage, Paul concludes his lesson on strength out of weakness by writing, Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor 12:10). We would do well to examine ourselves in the light of these five “vessel breakers.”
Infirmities: Our human weaknesses
C.S. Lewis wrote, “In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself.”6 Few of us see a difficulty very clearly when we are in the midst of the difficulty. For all of our talk about having experienced it, we usually are much more objective, and therefore more correct, before the trial.
Our human weaknesses drive us to cover up for ourselves. It is embarrassing for others to see us as we really are. Therefore we let our infirmity defeat us by not using it to bring glory to Christ. William Wilberforce once wrote, “One may almost say that the main object and chief concern of real Christianity is to root out our natural selfishness and to correct the false standard it would impose upon us.”7 This is a basic human weakness.
Reproaches: Our open vulnerabilities
Why is it that we don’t like reproaches? If we are right; if we told someone the truth who needs it very badly; why do we withdraw because of that person’s reaction? Did we stop giving our children medicine because they fought against us? There is no one so vulnerable to reproach as the one pouring in the oil and the wine. So we often avoid it! Tozer wrote, “The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect.”8 And it saves our self-respect as well. But evangelism is going to cost someone his self-respect; either the saint or the sinner. The sinner, if he is going to find repentance; the saint, if he is going to show it to him.
Necessities: Our unmet needs
Whether real needs or perceived needs, we do not like to be left with unmet needs. Did you ever see a child throw himself on the floor, kicking and screaming, because he didn’t get what he wanted? Isn’t that because he was not able to see the whole picture the way his father could see it? His father knew what he needed and when.
Very few believers could ever live as Paul lived. What he calls mere necessities would be abject poverty and ruin to most of us. We would throw ourselves on the prayer closet floor and scream until God changed things. Yet we go far beyond necessities to what Ravi Zacharias called “non-profit envy: a man with ten sheep looking at his neighbor’s hundred sheep would wish that ninety of his neighbor’s sheep would die.”9 Our “needs” are too often a comparison of our status with others’.
Persecutions: Our enemies’ victories
Here we must remember that our Lord’s cross was a victory to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Yet it became the power of God for the salvation of the world. Paul prayed, That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (Phi. 3:10). Too often, persecutions from the world are conceded as failures to the Christians rather than victories for the cross of Christ. Heaven forbid that we might be despised by the world! I am not advocating ignorant provocation, but rather the attitude of Christian history, as Calvin said : “Let men do their utmost, they cannot do worse than murder us! And will not the heavenly life compensate for this?”10
Distresses: Our difficult circumstances
It is not speaking well for our generation that the distresses of life cause us to fail the Lord. The divorce rate is as high today among believers as among non-believers (though I doubt the definitions). Church drop-out rates fluctuate with the economy and the stock market. It is true, today’s society is fast-paced, pressure-packed and full of over-night calamities. In the midst of these, can we let the peace of God rule in our hearts? Can we lose everything in this world and still praise Him? We know we should, but we’re not sure if we will! Only our selfish desires will keep us from it.
Paul wrote, In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes 5:18). When our selfishness asks out of the race, we need to trust in the fact that God knows what He’s doing. I believe history is God’s will and we must accept the fact that God has done right and done best. Anything less would be earthly rather than earthen.Notes: 1. Savonarola, “On the degeneration of the church,” Mayo Hazeltine, Ed., Orations: Homer To Mckinley, Vol 3 (New York: Collier and Son, 1902) 1281. 2. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation Of Second Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963) 974. 3. C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 190. 4. Francois Fenelon, “Simplicity and Greatness,” Orations, Vol 4, 1637. 5. Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville: W/JKP, 1989) 106. 6. Quoted by Michael Aeschliman, The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 68. 7. William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 107. 8. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill, Penn: Christian Pub, 1997) 148.
9. Ravi Zacharias, Just Thinking, Winter 1999, p. 3
10. John Calvin, “On Enduring Persecution,” Orations, Vol 4, 1379.