ELF-SACRIFICE AND SELF-DENIAL ARE ROYAL ROADS TO AUTHENTIC spirituality. Yet we live in an age, in and out of the Christian church, that is little disposed to accepting them as a guide to life.
Nothing has been more characteristic of the early twenty-first century than the fact that we are far more ready to insist on our rights than to perform our divinely appointed duties.
Consequently, the gospel of grace is no longer the rule of faith, but rather the right of each person to absolute liberty and self-indulgence. It causes people to be impatient with authority and have little regard for their responsibility to the body politic. This soul-destroying form of evil is the “self” that often appears in the guise of license masquerading as liberty, a most harmful of the many shackles needed to be radically removed from the limbs of humanity.
Self, in this discussion, is defined as the carnal nature gone wild. A. W. Tozer wrote: “Self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding Victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace and gain strength by its efforts. To tell the truth,” he added, “it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible conference than in a tavern.”1
To avoid or avert the destructive influence or power of the self, generations of preachers and pastors, myself included, have taught believers that their only way out is to kill self. On the contrary, Jesus actually said we must “deny,” repudiate, say absolutely “no” to self (Mark 8:34, 35). Indeed, we’ve all made valiant attempts at fulfilling these instructions and failed miserably. Experience has taught us that the more we focus on the attainment of such an impossible goal, the larger self looms.
As a result, we’ve learned to hide behind illusions that exact heavy tolls on our personal faith: church attendance, generosity to missions, and the belief that we have been truly saved and set free by the blood of the Lamb.
To become whole, we must confront our haunting “ghosts from the nursery”2 and focus on the realities of life to find healing of heart, soul, mind, and body, no matter how long the process. This comes only by discovering our own personal truth, especially from early childhood, for therein lies the real sphere of freedom, deep sense of morality, and social solidarity. Returning to our early childhood developmental experiences, or lack thereof, is necessary because “self” is usually driven by unconscious memories or repressed feelings and needs. These impact nearly everything we do or fail to accomplish.
For example, the repression of brutal abuse or neglect, two of the commonest early experiences of hypervigilant fundamentalists, drives them to distraction when they really want a deepening, intimate relationship with God. It causes extreme liberals who are quick to toss out the baby with the bath water to not really trust God, destroying their lives and relationships with others. In the name of religious beliefs, patriotism, or doctrinal purity, people use a variety of destructive behaviors (i.e., fanaticism, perfectionism, cultism) to hide the truth from themselves and avoid feeling the despair of the tormented children they once were.
Because the roots of a whole life are hidden and entwined in its childhood, no one can truly “deny himself and take up his cross and follow” Christ (Matt. 16:24) by maintaining or fostering an illusion. When opportunities to change and grow are made available, those who refuse them and content themselves with intellectual wisdom or psuedospirituality based on doctrine or dogma alone will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception. In such a state, when Jesus comes He will have no choice but to say, “I know you not!”
Why take such a risk when we have the resources and opportunities to go back to the basics?
1A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine (Camp Hill, Pa.: Christian Publications, 1982), p. 43.
2Title of a book by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
Hyveth Williams is senior pastor of the Campus Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, California.