Self Denial and Self Affirmation

(Psalm 8)

Intro: Like the psalmist in the 8th Psalm, I sometimes find myself contemplating the starry heavens and asking “what is man that you are mindful of him?” This leads to thoughts about another area requiring balance in the Christian’s life: the call to affirm ourselves and to deny ourselves, the call to love ourselves and to confess our depravity.

         The ninth commandment says that we are not to bear false witness, and this includes false witness to and about ourselves. The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this in question145 which says among other things that we violate this commandment by “thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others . . .”

I. Creation

            The biblical creation account places man squarely in the center of God’s plans for planet earth and beyond. Here is the most sublime of stories in which God himself breaths into the humans the breath of life, and makes them, male and female, in his own image and likeness. This is beyond anything to be found anywhere else in all the literature of humanity.

II. Fall

         It did not take long for something to go wrong. His glorious creature, the pinnacle of the creation, failed miserably.

         1. Adam and Eve acted in accord with self rather than the will of God. (Gen. 3:6)

         2. Cain murdered his brother Abel (Gen. 4)

         3. Lamech became the model of self-centered sin (Gen. 4:23,24)

         4. Babel: “then they said, ‘come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves . . . “ Gen. 11:4)

         5. Jesus’ disciples: “also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” (Luke 22:24)

         6. Man of lawlessness: “ He opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” (II Thess. 2:4)

         These are but a few samples of the biblical account of human selfism that replaces the will of God with the will of Man, the love for God with the love for self. The summary prophetic statement concerning this condition is in II Tim. 3 where Paul says that in the last days there will be terrible times, which will include the fact that people will be “lovers of themselves .  . . rather than lovers of God.”

         This selfism can appear in the church, and we are warned to watch out for the self-deception it brings:

Ps. 36:2 “for in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.”

I Jn. 1:8 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Gal. 6:3 “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”

Rev. 3:17 to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

And, of course, Jesus said we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.

III. Creation (again) and restoration

         Along side all this negative critique of the human condition we must note carefully that humans are still the repositories of God’s image. We are commanded to love others as we love ourselves. In Christ, Paul tells us we are restored to God’s image in “knowledge, righteousness and true holiness.” Thus we are simultaneously called to deny ourselves, to be suspicious of ourselves, and yet to affirm ourselves. When we studied the balance of rest and work we noted that God made the Sabbath for us, and Jesus took time to leave the crowds and seek rest. There is clearly a mandate to take care of our selves as well as others.

         The individual and cultural balance we must find here is entirely contextual. What must be emphasized at any particular time depends upon our circumstances. We always must begin where we are.  This is why no formula can be offered, no mathematical way to determine what constitutes correct self denial and self affirmation.

         I have at times explored some areas of woods and swamp, where people seldom go. To aid in my personal safety I have carried a compass and more recently a GPS. It occurs to me as I use the GPS that it is analogous to life in many ways. This particular device has several built-in programs to give various kinds of information, but its main function is to tell you where you are. But knowing where you are is of minimal value if you do not either have a map, or other entries in the GPS that tell you where you want to be. But no matter where you want to be the GPS always orients you to that place from where you are. You cannot get anyplace except from where you are! Therefore it is essential that the account of where you are is accurate. Do you see this? Years ago one of my seminary professors told us that we should look at what direction a person is going as well a where they are. And wherever we find ourselves it is vital to stay in the action and not drop out of the fellowship of fellow pilgrims.

         The shelves of bookstore today are filled with self-help books. The business of liking oneself is an industry today. It is what one Christian author has called “the good news of the psychological gospel.” (Psychological Seduction. 36) Kilpatrick goes on to say, “self-help books, for example, will often start off by asking you to love yourself, but before long they are telling you you’re not responsible for other people and that you shouldn’t waste time living up to others’ expectations.” Most of us know also that ‘feeling good about myself’ is sometimes a handy excuse for doing self-centered or even selfish things.” (36, 37)  Liking ourselves does not remove the twist in our nature (37).

         “Christianity wants you to feel good about yourself, but not until there is something to feel good about. It would like to get us on the road to recovery before it congratulates us on our good health.” (38)

         Yes, we are to love ourselves, but on what grounds? On the grounds that we are created in God’s image and are redeemed and being restored to that image by Christ. Without these reference points it is difficult to see on what basis we should love ourselves. Unless something is built into the GPS that tells it where it is in relation to a larger context of true locations, its news about were it is at the time is of little value. We humans who are to love ourselves and our neighbors likewise need orientation to the source of all directions, the One from whom comes all good destinations, the one who made the directions and the destination. Like a well-made GPS program He has given directions that will lead us back to himself from anywhere.

Conclusion: You may have known where you were yesterday, or in years gone by, but do you know still? You may have had the balance between self-affirmation and humiliation in the past but do you have it now? In the deep woods of the Green Swamp the canopy is at times so thick that the GPS cannot get the relatively weak signals sent by the satellites upon which it depends for orientation. If the signal is lost disorientation sets in. God’s signals are often hindered by obstructions in ourselves or in the world. At such times we need to get a fresh reading, we may have to remove the obstructions, or find a place where we can again receive the precious guidance. This never changes, whether you are a seasoned Christian with much experience or one who is young in faith, there is the constant need of direction from the Source. We’ll give the last words to Paul:

“If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each on should carry his own load.” (Gal. 6: 3-5)