We are dry bones. Our souls can not be made fat and healthy by our tendency to suck the life out of every relationship, out of nature, out of every beautiful thing, for self satisfying pleasure. No. It turns us into dry bones.
The apple in Eden’s garden was taken in hand to serve self, to satisfy where perfect obedience was imagined not to. Adam and Eve were as unwilling to sacrifice their own rise to supremacy, in exchange for worshipful obedience, exactly as every one of their children has been.
“Self, self, self” – the ultimate in human idolatry has plagued each footstep out of the garden. Across the nation the clatter of dry bones betrays our love of self.
The mother who loves her own comfort, her own need to feed a broken heart, over the well-being of her babies – cries “self!” She is betrayed in the haunted look and acting out of her children though. I’ve seen the hate in the eyes of a first grader, the hate of betrayal, the hate of not being loved. And in turn he begins the frenzied feeding on others to protect his scrawny little self.
From top to bottom in this world the antidote to self is sacrificial love for others. Sacrifice that puts their best above our own. So simple. So profoundly difficult.
Anyone who appreciates the God Man Jesus for any other reason than that he came to put the flesh back on our bones, by covering each treacherously selfish act with his own sacrificial one, has no clue about the most basic need of the human heart.
We were each one made for glorious acts of sacrificial love to our fellow-man, and brave loyal worship to our Creator God. Anything else strips the life out of our hearts, and the heart of all creation.
And we hate it. Sacrifice that is. Even in the church we hate it. For years I’ve written with my eye turned to fame and fortune. In the name of Jesus, of course. Nothing is uglier than self-love masquerading as true religion. It happens every day. And every day it sucks the life out of our own hearts and the hearts of others.
One day I asked God the question that is the antidote. I asked him, “what do you love.” And I really wanted to know. He showed me to love the weak is what he loves most of all. I was reborn in that moment, but it’s been a slow rebirth, if that makes sense.
Self must lay down on the altar of worshipful sacrifice, to be swallowed up in a humble allegiance to the authority of Jesus, or we can never be reborn. Any other act and we’ve just renamed a love of self something prettier. It’s not easy though. All the beauty I had learned evaporated when my self (in the name of ministry) was threatened and called into question. But I’m getting over it.
It seems obvious. Hands that bandage wounds, hearts that cover shame in compassion, backs that bear the brunt of another’s weakness glow with strength. But unless these things are done to the glory of Jesus they are done to our own glory or at least the glory of mankind.
The voice I trust least is a loud religious boom scaring others into right behavior. Self hides behind the rules more tenaciously than anywhere on earth, except perhaps our own rights and the whiny voice of indulgence. But self withers and dies in the face of true love that slips off our filthy robes of self-loyalty and replaces it with self-sacrificial love.
I won’t obey anyone I don’t love.
Anyone read Harry Potter lately? I admit I have a bit of an obsession. The image of flesh sucking selfishness came from the image of the dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban. They sucked the life out of their prisoners, feeding on their joy and happiness, and leaving them with shame and every painful memory from their life. Sounds like hell to me. I’m certainly not going to turn Harry Potter into a Christian allegory but the truth is there – hate kills, love heals. And the source of all hate is a love of self.
Do you take from relationships, feeling nothing is ever fair? Do you blame others for your misery or misfortune? Are you easily offended? Do you shame brothers and sisters in Christ, exerting your superiority over them? I’ve seen enough self-love in the church to choke a horse.
Our motivation for teaching the truth, for holding out God’s superior worth, for leading the way in holiness can only be for the purpose of restoration and healing, for forgiveness and the good of others. Anything else is destructive. Self is a slippery beast. It’s so easy to cloak it in religious or pious language. The heart ferrets out the truth. When the dementors came near in Harry Potter a chill was cast across the heart. Shame and defeat. Our hearts should grieve our own treason to God, but in the same breath we should be swept away by the depth of his powerful love that sets us up on strong legs of hope. There is no room for the curse of shame in the heart that has been healed by Jesus’ act of love.
We weren’t born for shame, we were born to serve. Let the truth that you have been created to fulfill God’s purposes put flesh back on your bones. You aren’t meant to love yourself. You are meant to love God and the ones he loves. His authority tells us what that looks like. We don’t get to make it up, we get to obey. God doesn’t ask us to obey because he wants to lord his power over us. He asks us to obey because every act of sin, every rebellion to his truth, is selfish, it sucks life from our own hearts, our families, and our communities. God’s call to obedience is a call to love.
What does that look like in our dried out, rattling culture? It means instead of prudish modesty we have the privilege of promoting the value of women. We hold up sex as beautiful and life-giving – in God’s context of marriage. It means that instead of snickering at a person’s foolishness that has ensnared them in a mess, we gently pray for opportunities to bring truth and life, to bend down and help them clean a mess we didn’t make, but could have. It means that we gently correct our children, reminding them that the best person they can become is a kind one in Jesus name. It means we don’t give up hope for the addicted, malicious, wounded, cruel, hopeless people around us. It means that we don’t scoff and do battle with those who mock the truth that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, we show them the joy of being what God has made us to be. It means we also recognize there are some things about the complexity of being human we can’t understand. Sometimes we just have to sit with people in the pain of their human experience. It means we recognize one of the most generous things we can do is hold firmly to the faith Jesus has given us, and live in the overflow of obedient servant-hood for the good of our churches and cities.
It means being faithful to our spouses, kind to our children, honest with our bosses, all when it costs us and isn’t easy.
What it doesn’t look like is a loud argument. Or demanding our rights. Because people who loudly argue the truth and ‘defend’ a God, who needs absolutely no defense from his creation, are actually very selfish. People who yell the truth at the top of their lungs and snub everyone who doesn’t agree are announcing that it’s more important to them to be right and win the argument than bearing the fruit of God’s gentle, loving, patient, self-controlled, peaceful Spirit. And that’s a temptation no matter what side you’re standing on, or what relationship we’re talking about.
Sometimes I find myself staring truth right in the face, maybe for years, and suddenly pop! it jumps out in three dimension like a magic eye picture. Nothing’s changed, but I see it from a different perspective. No doubt as followers of Jesus we know about selfishness and love. It bears repeating though, because it is hard. I hope in the context of this generation the reality that death stems from every selfish inclination, and life comes from laying down our rights in worship of Jesus and love of others, smacks you and me between the eyes!