Serving Self and Serving God

The video of Victoria Osteen saying that we should focus on our self and our own happiness when we worship and serve because our happiness is what makes God happy has been getting hammered pretty hard by Evangelicals this last month. The coverage of her has been biting enough that I don’t need to pile on. There is a facet of the debate (no wait, there’s been no debate; it’s been outright condemnation) that has not been mentioned, and it’s something I find far more subtle and thus more interesting than the narcissism and idolization of self expressed in the video. That question is: What is the “self” and what is its role in the Christian life?

Scripture is pretty clear that our “selves” are in a pretty sorry state. It is a doubly sorry state because we don’t even recognize the sorry state we’re in. Jesus, for instance, tells a group of very religious people that he can make them free. They’re incredulous. “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:32-34)

And let’s face it, for the most part, being a slave to sin doesn’t seem that bad, unless one manages to fall into some horrible addiction or something. Everyday life that scripture describes as slavery to sin is actually a pretty fun life for most folks. So what’s the big deal?

First, as many others have said, because of a profound societal problem, the question is all wrong. It’s the old and well-known story of Western society taking a terribly wrong turn around the time of the Enlightenment. The focus on individuality and self led inexorably to an emphasis on happiness and self-fulfillment, which led inexorably to our contemporary narcissistic culture.

In this contemporary context if we ask, “What is the self?” We end up with a reductionistic view of who we are. What makes us human? How do we identify the core of our individuality? What makes me, me? (In contrast to you or my pet dog, or someone we look up to, such as Mother Theresa, or someone we despise, like Hitler?) In the modern world these questions lead to common denominator and least common denominator sort of answers.

But instead of going in that direction, what if we ask, “What can I become?” That is a far more interesting question. The Bible itself says very little about it. Paul says we’re “the Body of Christ” and “living stones” making up a living building. Peter says we’re “partakers of the divine nature.” Jesus uses metaphors like “sheep,” “branch,” etc., to get at this mystery. But for the most part scripture is silent. And there’s good reason for this silence, because “what I can become” cannot be put into words and recorded on a page. It is something, rather, that grows organically out of a combination of my own purposefulness and the tutelage of another person. (In Bible language, this is “discipleship” in contrast to book learning.)

In college I discovered that to become a master trumpet player, one not only had to practice, one had to practice particular things in a particular way. There were subtle issues of breathing, embouchure, the pressure (or lack thereof) of mouthpiece against the embouchure, posture, etc. Then there was the relationship of one musician with another, that unspoken communication which allows music to be made rather than just notes being played. Similarly, athletes, soldiers, scholars, and actors have to learn their craft from others, not from a book.

The Christian life is similar. To advance far in the Christian life requires a great deal of discipline under the practiced eye of the correct mentor. The result of all this is the expansion of the “true self.” And with this we get into something that we Westerners who have cut our teeth on Enlightenment presuppositions and Western culture find pretty darn esoteric. But it is neither new nor very secret. These are disciplines that Christians and Jews (and other religious traditions) have been practicing for centuries around the globe.

What dedicated Christians have discovered is that our “self,” our “inner being,” our “heart,” our “true self,” or nous (to use the Greek term that is often used untranslated in technical discussions) has atrophied. It is tiny and quite useless in its “natural” state (which is actually a highly unnatural, sinful, broken, and dead state, separated from the life-giving presence of God).

If I invite God into my heart, that can be a remarkably fulfilling, joyous, and glorious state of being. But precisely because it is fulfilling, we fail to recognize just how much of God we are missing because of the smallness of our heart.. But under the correct conditions God can soften and expand the heart. The more it expands, the more room there is for God. The more room there is for God, the more fulfilling, joyous, and glorious the experience becomes. Unfortunately most Christians don’t take the steps necessary to become a “spiritual athlete,” to become fully alive because that rudimentary experience of having God in our hearts and lives (as tiny as they are) is so wonderful.

The spiritual giants speak of the heart, or true self, expanding so that there is room to take in the whole world. That is something so strange I’m not even sure what it means. But when it happens, the ability to effectively pray on behalf of others is expanded exponentially. When that happens we experience what are true purpose is as a “kingdom of priests.” (And living according to our true purpose is far more fulfilling than merely being “happy.”) Furthermore, with that much room for God, God’s ability to transform us is also increased exponentially and the resulting transformation into something that is truly living and holy (while still living in this world! this is not a description of what will happen in heaven) is simply unimaginable for those of us who have only invited God into our atrophied hearts.

So oddly enough, Victoria Osteen was right. It is all about us, about our “self.” But not in a way that she or her Evangelical critics can even imagine. When our true self begins expanding and making room for God and the world, for which we pray, it is almost as if we become a different being altogether: A living human being free to serve others and worship God, free to give God an expansive place to live. And when that occurs we begin to realize that this is what we are created for, and to return to our former paltry lives, no matter how fun, how happy, how fulfilling they were, would be simply unimaginable. Thanks be to God.

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