A Secret Log in Our Eyes
Over the summer, a well-known co-pastor of a huge church proclaimed in a church service: “When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God … we’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we are happy. Do good ‘cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that is what makes God happy.”
The short video in which these words were preached became infamously viral and sparked lots of criticism. And, rightfully so. These words reveal a self-referenced, self-absorbed view of God and the world. Intuitively, not to mention Biblically, we know that love is “not about me.”
While the critique of these statements is valid, they merely reveal the “secret” that lies in our hearts: we all have a tendency toward being self-referencing, self-absorbed people in our approach to God and the world. This person simply said it out loud, normalized it, and encouraged people to live from that place.
I would humbly suggest that we need to make sure that we are looking at the log in our own eyes. (cf. Matthew 7:1-5) I humbly suggest this because I see this in my life and desire deeply to move progressively closer to genuine selflessness. I desire deeply to move away from simply looking at God as someone who can do something for me … such as fulfilling my dreams, healing my hurts, and making my life better. Certainly, love is about relating to someone for their benefit, not mine. In addition, as I once heard Larry Crabb say, “If God was committed to my comfort, He’s not doing a very good job. Maybe He’s committed to something else.”
What is that something else? What is it that God might be up to? Put simply, He is in “the business” of graciously liberating me from a prison of self-focus into a life of others-centered passion.
I admit that quite often my motive for doing what I do is about me, including my “worship” of God. I can be just like those who “honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mark 7:6) Why would someone “honor God with their lips” (i.e., worship Him/obey Him) if their heart is somewhere else? Because “the honoring” fulfills another purpose … a self-referenced purpose. It is easy to engage in “good things” because we like the feeling it gives us. To be honest, it feels good to have a good reputation and to do things for other people. So, we can easily fall into a trap of “honoring God” through our lifestyle and “acts” of obedience, but it’s not really about Him. Throughout the Gospels, the religious leaders of the day criticized Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath when He healed on that day.
So, what might it look like to have lips that honor but a heart that is far? I know what it looks like in my own life. It can look like refusing to even consider giving the person begging on the side of the road money without even having a conversation with God about it. It can look like singing a worship song but inwardly criticizing the way it’s being led.
We can criticize others but it might just be a way for us to not look at own hearts. We can look at a list of things and self-righteously proclaim that we don’t do any of those things without honestly coming up with our own list.
None of us are immune from seeing God as a means to our own ends. In Matthew 16, the Apostle Peter argued with Jesus when Jesus shared that He was going to be crucified. Jesus being killed would have been the end of the plans that Peter had for Jesus. We are similarly challenged to follow Jesus in living a crucified life … learning to die to our own agendas and plans.
Part of the challenge is that the American church, in particular, has believed that morality is more important than spirituality. The French philosopher and theologian, Jacques Ellul, wrote: “Christianity is not moral, it is spiritual.” When we pursue morality, we are pursuing the fruit of relationship with God (spirituality) instead of the root of the matter. When morality (actions) are the focus, the heart can go on with unchecked motives and desires. This can easily lead to a “lips honor but heart being far away” reality.
C. S. Lewis, in his classic Mere Christianity, said: “Christianity leads you on, out of morality, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we shall call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.”
The joy and the vision for life with Christ is a life where we become “unintentionally self-forgetful.” (James Houston, quoted by Tom Ashbrook in Mansions of the Heart) How amazing to stop thinking of myself as a result of being so enraptured by the glory of who God is!
So, how do we cultivate this kind of life? Where do we start? Let me share a couple of ideas …
1. Remind yourself daily of your propensity toward self-referential living and your opportunity to live in the joy of a self-forgetful life.
2. Become aware of your inner dialogue. Pay attention to your heart. What are you telling yourself throughout the day? Does it push you toward self or toward God?
3. Surrender, moment by moment, to God of the universe and His goodness … letting go of your agendas and choosing His. Seek dialogue with Him over the internal monologue that often prevails.