The Unexpected Journey
Chapter 19

Christianity That Is Self-Centered

When I challenge people to consider a common matter from a different perspective, I often am afraid that (1) my point will be misunderstood or (2) people will react without thinking.  I fear both might happen as I present this chapter.

All of us (myself included) tend to think what we think and believe what we believe without question.  We do not want to question.  We want assurance that we are right in our conclusions.  Often, if we are made to question one aspect of a concept, we are likely to jettison the entire concept. Questioning one aspect of our conclusions is not an option. Questioning is difficult, requiring thought.  It (to us) is often easier to abandon a whole concept than to question one aspect of the concept. 

Use prayer as an example.  Prayer is a complex consideration.  Many of us find the whole concept of praying overwhelming.  It seems to me we conclude, “There is an awful lot I do not understand about prayer as a concept.  However, it is my choice to be a Christian.  I accept the fact that Christians pray—so if I am a Christian I must pray. Please, do not make me re-evaluate the objective of my prayers.  If I am expected to re-evaluate the objective of prayer, it is much easier for me to just abandon the whole concept of prayer.”  Thus we may abandon a valid concept entirely to avoid reconsidering one aspect of our use of the valid concept.  The end result is that we rob ourselves of the help of a valid concept because we are not open to reconsidering one aspect of the concept.


Our Common Use of Prayer

Prayer has become a “shotgun” approach to numerous problems—problems that often have little in common.  Prayer is often the “fall guy” for things that happen that we do not like—from the consequences produced by a drunk driver who caused a wreck to the consequences of an unwanted natural disaster.  Either there is not enough prayer, or prayer was woefully ineffective, or there was an effort to justify what happened.  If we pray and something unexpectedly good happens, the happening is a miracle. If we pray and nothing happens, we ask, “What was wrong?”  If visible good results from praying, we celebrate.  If nothing visible results from praying, we feel the burden of guilt—we failed or God failed.

Jesus, in a section of the Sermon on the Mount following an emphasis on acceptable prayer, said (1) a dedication to acquiring the material (Matthew 6:19-22) or (2) anxiety (Matthew 6:32) is not the answer to the focus of existence.  He also (in the same context) said that the focus of life involved more than material concerns (Matthew 6:25, 28-30).

Paul agreed that anxiety solved nothing—in fact it was counter-productive.  Instead, through prayer make requests of God (Philippians 4:6).  However the admonition occurred in the middle of an encouragement for spiritual growth.

In Ephesians 6:18 Paul told people in that congregation that they should pray at all times.  However, that encouragement followed an emphasis on the importance of wearing the complete armor of God to defend oneself against the attacks of evil.  In emphasizing the Christian’s greatest enemy, the emphasis was not on material desires, but on spiritual forces outside of the individual.  The admonition seemed to be for “perseverance” for all who placed their confidence in Christ. 

In 1 Timothy 2:1 Paul instructed Timothy to teach Christians to pray for everyone.  Again the focus of the section (1 Timothy 2:1-7) in which the instruction appeared has a salvation/spiritual development emphasis. 

It is definitely true that things that cause an individual to be anxious threatens the person’s ability to maintain and grow in faith in God.  However it is not true that removing the anxiety is accomplished by addressing only material concerns. 


The Basic Problem

Our society as a whole is basically a self-centered society.  Our focus seems to be on one of these things: (1) a dedication to improving lifestyle as the basic solution to what we consider needs, (2) a definition of personal success that is based on material achievement, or (3) the indulgence of personal desires.  The common denominator in those is “me.”  “I” want “my” lifestyle to fulfill “my” expectations.  If  ”I” am successful, “my” success will be evident in the material things “I” have or use.  If “I” have what “I” want, “I” can afford to indulge “myself” in these ways. 

This is not intended to be an indictment of all people or all groups in this society.  It only seeks to make two observations: (1) in this society there is an enormous emphasis on the individual and (2) there is the enormous conviction that any perceived need can be met through material means.  We have allowed the consumer mentality to overwhelm us as a people.  Our desires in our lifestyles go far beyond survival.

This has a very personal relevance to me.  In 1970 Joyce and I took our three children to do mission work in a West African country for four years.  Near the end of the four years, we faced a very critical choice which I still remember.  Do we come back permanently or return for additional tours?  There were three primary factors to be considered in making that decision.  Factor one: Our children were reaching the age that they would adopt that culture and would not likely ever “fit” in the American culture again.  Factor two: Joyce much enjoyed mission work and the involvement it offered her.  Factor three: For numerous reasons, I was exhausted.  As I remember our decision, the dominant consideration was the children, their opportunities, and their future.  (I realize this is an oversimplification of a very complex, demanding decision.) 

Even as we made the decision, I was afraid for me.  I had changed rather dramatically.  Noticeably my values, priorities, and insights had changed.  I feared the impact the American culture would have on me.  I was quite aware of what I was and what I had been.  I also knew I did not want this society’s culture to swallow me again.  If personal change occurred, I wanted it to be the result of personal growth, not as the result of pursuing personal comfort.

Writing this book has made me acutely aware that in specific ways this society’s culture has swallowed me again.  I could not give a date or a time of day when this happened.  The process is much too slow and deceptively invasive for anyone to say, “That is when it happened.”

I am also aware that in a commonplace manner this culture has swallowed too many people in this society.  The adult missionaries played a game in the early 70’s.  About once a month we would need to return to a city and buy supplies.  For reasons too tedious to discuss here, it was necessary to buy supplies and return home in the daylight hours of one day—or endure the considerable expense of spending the night in the city.  Occasionally we would sit in a sidewalk café, drink a soft drink, and play this game as we prepared to return home.  The rule of the game: you had to make your selection before the person spoke.  The game: pick out an American walking down the street.  It commonly was easy to do.  At least then, most Americans had an aura of self-importance they did not know they exuded.  That this aura existed was obvious to people of other cultures, but the aura was rarely obvious to Americans.  We had “a sense of self” few other people had.

None of this is given as an un-American statement.  I was and am an American!  I deeply appreciate the opportunities and privileges of this society—I have lived for an extended time where those opportunities and privileges do not exist.  Yet, we as a people or society are far from perfect.  No one needs to see and acknowledge our specific imperfections more than do we.  Problems cannot be addressed unless those who have the problems see and acknowledge them.

We continue to become a society with tremendous emphasis on “me.”  A significant factor in the decline of relationships is the importance of “me.”  A significant factor in the inability to make and honor commitments is the emphasis on “me.”  A significant factor in the erosion of ethics and morals is the preoccupation with “me.”  We are increasingly falling in love with what we perceive as the entitlement of “me.”  It seems with some their entire world revolves around “me.”  Their world view seems to be summed up in a philosophy of “me.”


Making Christianity Self-Centered

Too many Christians conclude Christianity is primarily about the salvation of humans.  (Lest the writer be misunderstood, the emphasis should be on the word primarily.)  Those of us who are a part of evangelic Protestantism likely have heard numerous sermons on salvation or some salvation need—forgiveness, sanctification, redemption, atonement, propitiation, grace, mercy, etc.  A high percentage of sermons delivered from evangelistic pulpits or taught in evangelistic adult level Bible classes focus in some way on our salvation, our needs, or God’s love for us. 

The result: We are well informed about the evangelical “me” need.  (That is, as well informed as we can be through the thirty minute sermons and the forty-five minute classes that we hear one to four times a week.)  Is the salvation need a valid human need?  Yes.  Is it really stressed in the Bible?  Yes!  Is that all that is stressed.  No.  Could we get the impression that “me” is all that is stressed in the Bible from what is commonly taught?  Yes.  Is today’s Christian message very “me” centered?  Yes.  Could a person easily conclude everything God did in Jesus was only about us?  Yes.

Again, as an example, consider the Christian prayer life.  Allow me to call something to your attention in the hope you will pursue the concept in your continued personal study of the Bible.  Jesus emphasized two things in Matthew 5:16: (1) those who follow me should not be ashamed of doing good, and (2) the ultimate objective of doing good was the glorification of God.  In Matthew 9:8, after Jesus used healing to validate his ability to forgive, the people glorified God for what had happened.  In the first recorded lesson given to a gentile audience, Peter described Jesus as a man who did good to verify God was with him (Acts 10:38).  In an extensive declaration of all that God did through Jesus Christ for the Christians at Ephesus, Paul said three times that the result of these blessings given to Christians was “to be to the praise of His (God’s) glory” (Ephesians 1:3-14).

The ultimate objective of all God did in Jesus Christ, of the meaning of Christians being in Christ, and of human spiritual development in Christ is the glorification of God.  It was He who lost so much when the humans He made unfairly rebelled against Him.

Consider your prayers.  How often do you pray for a specific material outcome or result?  How often do you pray for the glorification of God?  How often do you request that God address a specific situation as you think best at that moment?  How often do you request that God do what is best for His purposes—even if it means ignoring your personal desires?  Do you believe that human desires/experiences compose the ultimate reality?  Or, do you believe there is a reality so beyond human desires/experiences that no human comprehends all that is involved in the struggle between good and evil?

There is a powerful difference between praying for the strength and insight to endure an undesired situation and praying that God remove the situation—period!  God’s victory against evil is more important than our physical desires.  Even though Jesus understood God’s purposes (John 17:1), Jesus knew the difference between God’s purposes and his desires (see Matthew 26:31-44).

Is it wrong to ask God to remove an unwanted situation?  No, as long as we understand there are considerations bigger than our desires involved.  As good and evil wage war, our wishes often involve complexities we have never considered.  Will you always understand what is happening and why it is happening?  No. 

Consider four questions.  How do you look at yourself?  How do you see the world?  Do you regard yourself as the answer to the problems you see in this world?  Is life about you or something bigger than you?  Are your answers to these questions reflected in your prayers?

Copyright 2010

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