Up high and proud my boasts I declare
I brag and I crow with my head in the air
Til I look in the corner and see him down there
Why is that poor sinner locked up in despair?
I abstain from eating two days every week
I give money too freely, Thy thanks I now seek.
Why is that man crying, the tears stain his cheek
He’s beating his chest, must be some kind of trick.
Lord, I’m not like the swindler, the philanderer, the cheat,
Or even like that tax collector with whose prayer I compete,
I’m walking out now, Lord, my preening’s complete,
But I’ll see You here next time my boasts to repeat
While scarcely detected a man whispered his plea
His face to the floor, if not on one knee
All the sinner could say was, “Be merciful to me!”
And he left more justified than the proud Pharisee.
It is said to have housed between 400,000 to 700,000 scrolls containing essentially everything that had been written up to its point in time. But the Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, was eventually destroyed. The first residential university, home to perhaps 2000 teachers and 10,000 students from the fifth to the 12th century in Nalanda, India, was destroyed by the Turks and never rebuilt.In the heart of Germany was an opulent room, a thing of beauty so incredible some called it an eighth wonder of the world and said to be worth $142 million in today’s money. But the Nazis destroyed The Amber Room. The same can be said of Herod’s Temple, the first library of Japan, the first Byzantine encyclopedia, and countless other artifacts, buildings, and writings (via historyofinformation.com).
How many considered these institutions and items that which would endure forever? Of course, Jesus warned that the things of this world cannot last (Mat. 6:19-20; cf. 2 Pet. 3:10ff).
Most Christians understand that principle. We know material things cannot and will not last, being eventually effaced by the hands of time. But what about us? We rightly preach how the church needs us and that each of us fills a unique, needed position in the body of Christ (Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:18). As long as we have health and opportunity, we need to leverage our talents for the good of the Lord’s kingdom. Wherever we’re planted, preachers, elders, teachers, deacons, professors, directors, presidents, house parents, custodians, secretaries, counselors, etc., we need to give the Lord the best we can for as long as we can.
But, no matter how effectively we are doing our work and what results we are seeing, we are not irreplaceable. What a horrible day it must have been for the church when Paul and Peter were martyred. Yet, the church continued its work (cf. Dan. 2:44). The same is true today. This will prevent any of us from feeling too big for our britches. It’s also a good reminder for the church itself, who may place too much importance on a single individual. Truly, some people leave big shoes and large holes to fill. But, it shall stand until Christ comes again. Perhaps one’s leaving a work (however that occurs) will force someone (or several someones) to step up and carry on the work. So much good can come from that!
Let’s do our best for as long as we can and trust that God can continue to work through men and women to continue his work after we no longer can!
The idea of restoring New Testament Christianity is “that God set forth His standard of acceptance in salvation, worship, church organization and daily living” and “to follow the teachings of God, revealed in the New Testament, to direct our lives in the same way as He did first century Christians” (therestorationmovement.com/about.htm). We can open our Bibles and find a pattern for what the New Testament church is to look like, not in customs and culture, but in commands and cause. Yet, a tendency we must guard against is a haughty spirit that portrays the idea that we have already arrived. Consider four areas where we need to keep at the restoration plea and overcome neglect.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE. For years, I have seen this referred to as “the forgotten commandment.” At times, people will say of it things like “it doesn’t work,” “it’s harmful,” “it runs people away,” etc. Were we to substitute that argumentation for subjects like women’s role, worship, or baptism, wouldn’t we cry heresy or apostasy? However, in far too many instances, we have simply ignored and failed to practice this plain, New Testament teaching (Mat. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thes. 3; Ti. 3:10-11).
EVANGELISM. It is so much easier to focus upon ourselves, to devote all our resources to internal issues. Is there a spirit of evangelistic zeal running rampant among us? Is this an area to restore, to be like the early church? Perhaps we may be intimidated by the culture of political correctness. It could be the risk of ruining relationships or even rejection that causes us to avoid efforts at soul-winning. It could even be that we need to build our conviction for or commitment to this imperative given by the resurrected Savior Himself (Mat. 28:18-20;Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-47).
CHURCH ORGANIZATION. It is very likely that the number of churches of Christ which have elders are in the minority. At times, the reality of a shortage of qualified men is to blame. At other times, preachers or others prefer not to have elders. But, even where churches are “scripturally organized” (i.e., having elders and deacons), there is room for restoration— Preachers preaching and evangelizing, elders leading and shepherding (pastoring), and deacons actively carrying out and administrating the ministries and works of the local church. At times, there is a need to restore the roles of each of these works so that the proper, appointed men are doing the work Scripture outlines for them.
BROTHERLY LOVE. This is difficult, in a world increasingly characterized by hate, discord, and general worldliness. In our culture, where it’s easy to become disconnected with others—even our Christian family—we must strive to restore the beacon and central identification mark Jesus urged when He said, “ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Isn’t there room for more concentration upon this command, which will be reflected in how we treat each other locally and in the brotherhood as a whole (1 Pet. 2:17)?
I love to spend as much time as possible talking about what the church is doing right. It is doing so much right. By following the New Testament pattern regarding salvation, worship, the church’s purpose, and the like, we stand out in a religious world that has lost its way. Meanwhile, however, let us stay at the business of restoring the church to the pattern revealed in Scripture, even in areas that are more difficult and demanding though just as necessary.
Jesus showed the greatness of service by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:12-17). As they fought over who was the greatest, Jesus revealed that He came to serve and not to be served (Mat. 20:25-28). God refers to Him in the great prophesy about His suffering as “My Servant” (Isa. 52:13; 53:11). Why, then, are we more apt to jockey for prominence, position, power, and prestige? Is it not that, in such times, we’ve lost our focus and stopped “looking unto Jesus” (cf. Heb. 12:2)? What are some practical ways we can reflect Jesus through service? Consider the following as a pump-primer:
Write a note of encouragement
Pleasantly let a merging driver merge in front of you
Fervently pray for the good of someone who has been hurtful to you
Meet a widow(er) for lunch or coffee
Volunteer to babysit so a young couple can go on a date
Anonymously send a small amount of money or gift card to a college student, preacher student, or missionary
Visit a shut-in
Participate in a feeding the homeless event
Tell an elder you love and appreciate him
Pay for the meal of a young family who looks like they could use the help
Ask a neighbor if there is something you can be praying about on their behalf (and, if they’re willing, pray for that on the spot)
Text or email someone you know is in a stressful circumstance and express confidence in them
Take a small group to go sing for someone confined to a hospital or nursing home
Volunteer to work with small children to make a craft or baked good for the elderly
Police the bathrooms and pews at church and tidy up little messes you see
Make visitors to our assemblies feel welcome and help them find a class or a seat (with a pleasant smile)
There may be profound ways we can serve, but realize that any act of service may be far more profound than we think. We may not know in this life how a simple act opens a heart and opens a door of opportunity for Christ. Think like a servant and seek ways to serve! The greater others think you are, the greater your need to serve. But however much or little you think of yourself, think of others. Then, serve them!
Hans Kaltenborn was an ardent admirer and defender of Adolf Hitler and the “new Germany” ushered in with the Nazi regime. Despite diplomatic warnings of assaults upon Americans, Kaltenborn, an influential American commentator for CBS and NBC and of German descent, dismissed it as flawed and skewed information gathering by biased personnel. About to return home to the states to speak against such reports and warnings, his family went to downtown Berlin to do some last minute shopping. While out, the family found themselves in the middle of one of the endless S.A. parades. When his family refused to offer the Nazi salute, his son was physically assaulted and injured. Finally, someone intervened and the incident ended with no further harm. However, the transformed Kaltenborn was apoplectic. He made a report with the American Consulate in Berlin, but no charges were filed. As Eric Larsen writes, “the senior Kaltenborn ‘could remember neither the name nor the number of the Party identification card of the culprit, and as no other clues which might be useful in the investigation could be found’” (In The Garden of Beasts, 164). Despite this, Kaltenborn was now of a different mind!
There are many ways in which life can do the same thing to us. We may be dead certain about marriage when we are single, about childrearing “pre-kids,” about our career when still in the classroom, about home ownership when in our parents’ home, dorm room, or apartment, and so on. But, life so often has a way of rudely awakening us from some well-meaning beliefs.
Sometimes, this can happen to us in the all-important area of religion. As we stay in our Bibles and gain wisdom and experience life, we may reaffirm but also clarify and even change certain positions we have long held. This can certainly be a dangerous affair, and some have allowed life to change their positions from what is true to what is false (what Jesus says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage because of a family situation, unscriptural changes in worship because of children attending church who have adopted such, etc.). But few of us will go all the way through life without reconsidering especially some conscience or judgment matters.
There are also a great many of our friends who have been taught religious error on God’s plan of salvation, the singular, undenominational nature of the church, what God wants in worship, women’s role in church and worship leadership, and the list goes on. This can be such a difficult challenge for anyone, to revisit long-held and deeply-believed positions in light of what the Bible says.
For all of us, there must be an abiding humility that approaches scripture without the blinders of prejudices, preconceived notions, and influences like family, friends, church, and so on. That is uncomfortable, but essential—for all of us! We may come to find that something we’ve clung to so tenaciously must be rejected or that something we rejected must be embraced. If we ever get to that place, may we have the kind of heart that puts the will of God above our own will. Without such, we cannot hope to make heaven our home.
The preacher who dazzles with his insight, personality, influence, popularity, or following?
The teacher who is the students’ favorite?
The member who is “balling” (making a lot of money and having a lot of success in business)?
The family with the biggest house and nicest automobiles?
The one with the best academic pedigree, with the proverbial alphabet soup behind their name?
The folks who are best known and most influential in our community?
The ones who are incredibly fit and attractive?
The greatest debater, philosopher, and reasoner we know?
The elder who is most successful in his career?
One who seems to combine a great many or even all of these attributes?
It could be one of these individuals, but despite and not because of the specifics just mentioned. But, we so easily fall into the trap that causes us to think that those criteria are what make one greatest. Such can cause us to vest blind trust in them or put them in a higher place than is right. Worse, we can try to be motivated to define and promote ourselves as greatest through these means.
The tendency is so fundamental. Jesus warned against it in places like Matthew 20:25-28 and 23:12. His disciples, like James (4:6-10), Peter (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5-6), Paul (2 Cor. 10:12-18), Jude (16), and the rest, at least implicitly, address the same trap. We all fight the desire to be seen so as to be admired. We may do so through our marriages, our children’s accomplishments, our economic status, our apparent importance, our having it all together, our professional prowess, or any other asset we feel responsible for having. If we use these things to place ourselves above and/or push others below, we are disqualifying ourselves for greatness in the only way that matters—God’s way. False modesty isn’t the answer, either.
We must look at ourselves as dependent creatures. It’s all His and without Him we’d have nothing! We must look at ourselves as devoted stewards. It’s all His and He expects us to use it wisely, on His behalf! We must look at ourselves as divine instruments.It’s all His and He works through us to do His will! We must look at ourselves as dutiful slaves.It’s all His and so are we, living and serving at and for His pleasure!
The warning and disclaimer is that this transformation must happen at heart-level, rooting out thoughts and attitudes that, while fleshly, are so easy to embrace. If the weeds of pride aren’t dislodged from deep within, this effort will prove impossible. But, if it could not be done, God would not have spent so much time instructing us to live and walk by the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh and mind. It is the old song, “None of self and all of Thee.” To the degree we adorn that mindset and make that transformation, to that degree we will achieve greatness God’s way!
A church marquee read, “If we could mind our biscuits, life would be gravy.” As somebody who loves to make biscuits, I appreciate the sentiment. Only a few ingredients–self-rising flour, shortening, and milk (sweet and/or butter). A simple, consistent temperature (I prefer 450 degrees). The time is pretty precise–10-13 minutes. The rack placement is fairly straightforward and there are only a few slots to choose from anyway. But biscuits are still burned. Why? Typically, it’s because we’re distracted. Maybe we’re multi-tasking. Maybe we get caught on another errand, out of the kitchen. Sometimes, only the smell or maybe the smoke alarm jolts them back to the biscuit business at hand.
What does it mean? Why would a church put it on their sign? Obviously, it is not a cooking tip! However, it is sage advice for our interpersonal relationships.
When gossip is being dispensed, do you walk (run!) away? Do you show the gossiper that you disapprove (cf. Prov. 25:23)? Or does it distract, amuse, and pique your interest? Be careful about your biscuits!
When it comes to your spouse, do you work on being content, engaged, and fulfilled in that God-ordained relationship? Do you work on wooing them and keeping them won? Or do your eyes, heart, and mind drift toward another’s? Be careful about your biscuits (Prov. 6:26-29)!
When there are church problems, do you feel the need to make your contribution, taking sides, or even fueling the fire? Be careful that the fire you are fueling doesn’t burn your own biscuits (1 Cor. 1:10; Psa. 133; Prov. 16:28; 17:9; etc.).
When it comes to how others raise their kids, are you a ready, open fount of wisdom which you are eager to spill on the public square? Do you have the answer regardless of whether you’ve even heard the question? Be careful about your own biscuits!
There’s nothing like the satisfaction of pulling out those huge, cathead biscuits with just the right color of light brown on top. When you peel the top off of it, it’s flaky but light. It certainly beats blackened, burned, inedible and charred carbs that are unfit for consumption. Not even good gravy can cover that problem! Let’s be careful to examine ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5)! This pleases the Lord (cf. Mat. 7:1ff).
“It’s all about me.” I would see that saying on a car tag frame nearly every day. Is that really the message we need? Aren’t we self-centered enough, as it is? Truly, the man who lives only for himself runs a very small business. What a bankrupt business it is, at that.
According to the Bible, it’s hardly about the individual at all. In fact, the Lord makes a strong point of it to call our attention to others. Paul says, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). “Selfish ambition” is condemned in Scripture (Phil. 1:17; Gal. 5:20). In fact, James says, “For where envying and strife (literally, “selfish ambition”) is, there is confusion and every evil work” (Js. 3:17).
That is both provable and measurable. Abortion is a horrid, evil practice–the most literal way one could shed innocent blood (cf. Prov. 6:17). What is at the heart of the commission of every such abomination–whether one pleads inconvenience or hardship or any other reason given? Self-interest is. Selfishness is putting self above others, in this case taking another human life to protect selfish interest.
Adultery is a contemptible crime, ripping families apart and giving what may be the most intimate heartbreak a human is capable of experiencing. What compels someone to lie to God and others (breaking vows and covering indiscretions)? What drives one to fill physical and emotional wants in ways that fly in the face of God’s written will? Selfishness does! For that matter, selfishness drives every sexual sin, every departure from God’s design and structure for sexual needs and fulfillment (cf. pornography, homosexuality, fornication, etc.).
Every New Testament writer roundly renounces false teaching (Matthew–7:15; Mark–13:22; Luke–Acts 13:6; Paul–Galatians 2:4; Peter–2 Peter 2:1; John–1 John 4:1; Jude–Jude 4ff; James–2:14ff). Untold millions of people will lose their souls because of false doctrine. Hell will be populated with followers of false teachers (cf. Mat. 7:21-23) and the teachers themselves (cf. Jas. 3:1). The New Testament gives insight into some common motivations that drive men and women to teach false doctrine. The motives are so often selfish. Jude says of them, “Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (11). Greediness propels fold to “practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4:19). What is the problem? Often, it is unmixed, shameless selfishness.
I will never make it to heaven if my attitude is that “it’s all about me.” It is not all about me. It is all about Him. It is about Jesus–serving Him, obeying Him, and imitating Him. It is about the lost–loving them, teaching them, and winning them. It is about the church–helping it, strengthening it, and supporting it. Selfishness is unattractive, but common. Remember, the one who lives for self alone usually dies the same way.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly all the top 1o most common U.S. occupations are in the service industry—retail salespersons, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives, just to name a few (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf). But one of the most common complaints you hear is about poor customer service, rude or unhelpful customer service staff, being overcharged or neglected, or a bad attitude. There may be a great many reasons behind this, but one may well be that our culture is not conditioned to serve, but to be served. Those in positions of service may just be reflecting the culture.
This is not a new problem. Jesus addressed that mentality with His followers in Matthew 20:25-28. In a world insistent upon being the chief and asserting their own rights, Jesus’ message does not play well today. Yet, it did not play well even when He taught it on earth. Jesus was very clearly the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11), and how did the masses ultimately react to Him? They shouted, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13-14).
The concept of serving others turned out to be a struggle for the church at Philippi. To that end, Paul urged them to adopt a better mindset, a proper attitude (Phil. 2:1-4). Paul reminded these Christians that they were in the spiritual service industry. It was their job to serve one another. We can understand why this teaching is a bitter pill to swallow. We all know those members of the spiritual family who are difficult to deal with, the ones who can be like fingernails on the chalkboard to us or who set our teeth on edge. We might enjoy doing for the benign brother, the sweet sister, or the friendly family. The real test comes in serving someone who does not make serving a pleasant, happy task. A servant heart was lacking among some at Philippi (cf. 4:2), and an unwillingness to put others first will have a dangerous, negative impact on a church if such a spirit is allowed to grow unchecked.
Gordon MacDonald said, “You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one.” Paul is urging a united, humble, and serving attitude on Philippi and on us. Our task is not to gauge how others are growing in service, but to examine self. May we live what we sometimes sing to God, “Make me a servant, Lord, make me like You, for you are a servant, make me one, too!”
I came across the term “selfism” in Dick Meyer’s 2008 book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium. He defines it as “American individualism redefined by the age of marketing, self-help, moral relativism, and the belief that the “self” is something that can be deliberately found or made” (36). He warns that “it is different than the older, can-do, self-made-man American spirit because it substitutes feeling for doing” (37). Later in the chapter, Meyer ties this hyper-emphasis on self to a growing belligerence in society. He writes, “On the Internet, belligerence can be anonymous, faceless, and hence risk-free. In schools and offices, for example, the Web is a problem, because parents and workers say nasty things in e-mail that they would never say in person. Chat rooms, blogs, and online comments are clogged with vitriol and hate-mongering…the need to make others wrong has turned into an addiction” (44). One of his points in the chapter is that the elevation of self is not just a problem of narcissism, but it has become commonplace to vaunt self by stepping on, insulting, and ridiculing others to do it. We are witnessing an ever-growing game of “King of the Mountain,” where in a rush to get noticed we are shoving off anyone who might eclipse or overshadow us.
Selfism is Satanic rather than sanctified behavior, but each of us must wrestle with it. The temptation to join them rather than “beat” them through Christlike humility is ever-present. What is “one-upmanship” if not an effort to present self as above another? In certain circles, the ability to respectfully and civilly discuss differences has been assassinated by hired killers like vanity, self-importance, animosity, and contempt.
Do we have a more difficult task than obeying Jesus’ command to deny self (cf. Mat. 16:24)? When Paul urges Philippi to eliminate selfish ambition and conceit while esteeming others as better than self (Phi. 2:3), do we appreciate the polar opposite this is to the cultural arch-hero of selfism? Jesus came into this world to show us the selfless life. It is scary to live that way, especially in a world full of adherents to the cult of self. We fear that being selfless with selfish people will lead to being walked over, preempted, or mistreated. What will help is developing the faith to trust that living the way God commands leads us to the best life possible. The best life possible is one where self is suppressed in deference to Christ and others. Such a life will be noticed as a beacon in our choppy seas of selfism!