Lovers of God and Lovers of Self
“God just wants you to be happy.”
Sara listened intently as the ministry leader spoke. She’d waited weeks for this one-on-one meeting, and she wanted to absorb every word. She was quiet for a moment as she thought about how to apply the leader’s words to her months-long battle with discouragement. “I believe God wants my happiness,” Sara finally replied. “I mean, isn’t that what the Christian life’s all about? But if it’s true, why is my life stuck? I’m still single, bored at work, and trapped in the same old sins.”
“Maybe you’re not trying hard enough,” the leader suggested. “When it comes to sin patterns, God helps those who help themselves. As for marriage—just keep on being a good person and loving your neighbor, and before you know it, God will bless you.”
Does God Want Our Happiness?
So many today hold to the health-and-happiness view of the Christian life and the belief that blessings can be manipulated from God by means of good morals. We hear such thinking in podcasts, and we read it in books. It’s preached from pulpits and promoted on ministry websites. But it’s nothing new; it has been around since the church began. The apostle Paul addressed it, and living as he did in a culture not yet dominated by intolerant tolerance and trigger warnings, he defined it with ruthless accuracy:
Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people (2 Timothy 3:1–5).
“Lovers of self”—Sara doesn’t see that this is her primary problem, why her life is perpetually stuck in “times of difficulty.” And her self-focused view of God and the Christian life is reinforced by what she’s getting from her church. Paul in his letter to Timothy identifies self-love as a key theme, a primary underpinning, of unbiblical teaching.
We nod our heads in agreement, but the truth is, we’re all susceptible to self-centeredness. Every one of us has the inclination to make the Christian life all about us rather than recognize that it’s all about Jesus. Every one of us has the inclination to make the Christian life all about us rather than recognize that it’s all about Jesus. Click To Tweet We’re susceptible because we are sinful, and because a self-oriented brand of discipleship appeals to our deep craving for both autonomy and pleasure. That’s why it hooks us. It just feels so right.
So we must recognize this inextricable link between self-love and self-focus. Self-love, the sort that the apostle was writing about, naturally directs our energies—our thoughts, plans, choices, and even our theology—inward, making ourselves the center of all things. Not only does this lead to the sort of spiritual depression with which Sara is struggling; it also underlies the large-scale acceptance of sinful lifestyles in the visible church today. And surely self-love is a compelling drive in the hearts of the self-declared deconstructionists, those for whom biblical Christianity hasn’t “worked.” The end result is either adherence to a false gospel or stepping away from what perhaps wasn’t genuine faith to begin with.
The Truth That Sets Us Free
What can help Sara and all those like her? The only thing that’s ever helped—the unvarnished truth. God’s Word offers the only corrective, because only God’s Word gives us the true God, the true gospel, and the path of true discipleship. That’s where Sara will discover what she’s been missing all along—that joy and delight and peace come not from self-gratification but from self-forgetfulness. God’s Word is where she’ll discover that following Jesus isn’t about her best life now but about what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did for her eternally. The happiness that Sara (and all of us) longs for comes as we stop focusing inward and turn our gaze upward and out.
Even so—even with a redirected gaze—we’ll never get there apart from a willingness to suffer. Jesus made that clear, yet it’s not how Christian discipleship is so often presented today. But since we’re afraid of suffering, and since our tendency is to resist it with every fiber of our natural being, we need to cultivate a sound theology of suffering as the Spirit transforms our hearts to know and embrace the truth:
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:16–17). The apostle Paul, the most joyful of men, shows us there what a willingness to suffer looks like, and it strengthens the faith of those shaken up by the teaching that God exists to make their earthly lives a heaven on earth.
The apostle Peter likewise, in talking about the suffering of Christ, instructs us, “Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1–2).
The Sufficiency of Christ
So what about Sara? How does all this speak to her specific complaints? She is dissatisfied with her life and frustrated in spiritual growth. Hopefully someone will come alongside her and serve as a guide to the truth of God’s Word. That’s where change begins. If Sara stops living for her passions and lives instead for God’s will, her discouragement will lift. And so will her doubts. She’ll also discover that her dreams of happily-ever-after marriage and fulfilling career aren’t nearly as valuable as following Jesus and making life all about him:
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39).
And as Sara more fully grasps God’s love for her in Christ, her struggles with sin will acquire an increasingly biblical shape:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:12–14).
Whatever life brings to Sara, or doesn’t bring, she will have the one thing that really matters, and she will echo the apostle Paul and bless many.
I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).