For several years we lived in a quiet, midsize city in the heart of the American Midwest. It seemed to be a safe haven against violent crime. One summer, however, a series of murders rocked the town.
After reading an article in the local newspaper about the senseless killings, I sent the reporter an e-mail with a few comments on her article. She wrote back asking about an interview for a follow-up story. I returned her e-mail with my phone number. She called soon after.
For 20 minutes the reporter asked questions about the violence that had plagued the city. We shared our sorrow over the loss of young lives and our frustration with the lack of solutions. The next day her follow-up story appeared in the newspaper. She did not include anything from our discussion, so I forgot about it—until I saw the front page of the Sunday edition. She had written another follow-up story, and the article began with a quote from our conversation: “We can’t sit idly by at home, shaking our heads, praying that it does not come to our home. . . . The challenge is, we care, but we don’t know what to do. The problem is too big.”1
The story generated some interesting feedback. After reading the article Sunday morning, I received a call from a retired citizen who said he knew what we should do. “People need to sell their big SUVs parked in the driveway and make their wives stay home from work to take care of the kids.” Another call came from a sociologist at a local university. He said, “I believe the problem is that we just do not smile enough. When you’re in a convenience store and see a member of a local gang, smile at them.” He then added, “I have a mountain bike, and I ride it around the city at night. I see a lot on my bike rides: I hear gunshots, arguments, and I’ve even been shot at. But what I think we need to do is smile at people more; be nice.”
These people believed they had found solutions to the problem. But did the solutions they proposed address the magnitude of the issue? Would selling an SUV or smiling at people really end the violence in our city? The problem seemed bigger, and their suggestions a little inadequate.
Solutions created while holding an inaccurate perspective of the big picture cause problems. This same principle holds true in our relationship with Jesus. When people try to reduce their relationship with Jesus to just “saying and doing” the right things, they miss the big picture. Using behavior alone as evidence for salvation provides a false sense of security.
“If we ignore the power of our own dark motives, then we ignore the power of temptation.”
Christians also miss the big picture when Jesus asks them to “take up their cross,” and they say, “No, thanks. I’m comfortable. Not today.” When someone takes up their cross, they will stand out, be different. To honor Jesus becomes a source of joy. They desire to honor Him with what they watch, read, hear, and talk about because of His love in their hearts.
Embracing a complete picture of Jesus’ love can be difficult. It means facing failure and learning from our mistakes. In fact, the humble believer who allows Jesus to confront their toxic (and possibly hidden) motives can best grasp the power of His love. The book Steps to Christ says it like this: “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature. This is evidence that Satan’s delusions have lost their power; that the vivifying influence of the Spirit of God is arousing you.”
Ellen White adds, “No deep-seated love for Jesus can dwell in the heart that does not realize its own sinfulness. The soul that is transformed by the grace of Christ will admire His divine character; but if we do not see our own moral deformity, it is unmistakable evidence that we have not had a view of the beauty and excellence of Christ.”2
We are often unaware of the power of our own selfishness. In this process Jesus plays a part, and so do we. For our part, we give Him permission. We let Him lead. We want to have His help, even when it means that conviction of our hidden motives strikes us like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky.
If we ignore the power of our own dark motives, then we ignore the power of temptation. James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” We’ll all face situations in which we can be seduced with things that do not honor Jesus. If we realize the danger, however, we can live with a healthy fear of those desires.
A healthy fear of our selfishness can actually empower us. It’s part of the big picture of Jesus’ love. But fear has two sides. It also can be seductive, almost addictive. That’s why the TV show Fear Factor became so popular. You could tune in and watch people attempt to eat camel spiders (a large nonspider arachnid found in desert regions of the Middle East). Or you could watch as a contestant sat in a specially designed chair and chewed through six stretched-out cow intestines, which, when separated, released a pendulum that in turn dropped a key into the participant’s lap. With this key, the contestant could unlock the shackles that restrained him or her to the chair. Once freed, the participant could release their partner, who waited in a small caged pit with 3,000 live roaches. If you liked tuning into the TV version, you could also purchase a Fear Factor Factory Playset for your kids.
Have you ever wrestled with an unhealthy fear? I have. I’ve done the right thing because I was afraid of what might happen if I didn’t. I have also rationalized choices that represent the less-than-best alternative. In other words, excusing behaviors Jesus wanted me to surrender.
I admit that at times I’ve been seduced by an unhealthy fear. That kind of fear yielded a frustrating relationship with Jesus; however, I’ve also discovered the ways a healthy fear of selfishness can lead me to make a deeper commitment to Jesus.
I remember a conversation that took place more than 20 years ago that helped me to understand how a healthy fear fits into the big picture of Jesus’ love. Needing a job, I put on my best (and only) suit and went to a local employment agency. I filled out the paperwork and gave it to the clerk at the counter. She inquired about work experience, asking for qualifications, and then queried, “Are you available to work on weekends?” I’d recently been baptized into the Adventist Church and didn’t know how to respond. Should I blurt out some verses about the Sabbath? I finally just replied, “I have a prior commitment on Friday night and Saturday.” Without a pause she looked straight at me and said, “Some Seventh-day Adventists who come through here will work on Saturday and some will not. Which kind are you?”
I felt embarrassed. I could see the church through her eyes, and we were phonies. She was being too honest. I replied, “I do not.” That some Seventh-day Adventists believed employment on the Sabbath posed no danger to their spiritual lives was sobering. Would I come to that same conclusion in the future? With enough pressure, might I trade God’s priorities for the world’s priorities? That fearful realization led to a deeper commitment to Jesus.
Today an honest healthy fear of self-centeredness helps keep Jesus’ love a first priority.It’s humbling, but it draws me closer to Him. I can rejoice in the power of His forgiveness and celebrate the depth of His love. Striv
ing to acknowledge Him in all my ways, I can live with a healthy fear of my selfishness. That’s the bigger picture—an honest relationship with Jesus that reveals His love as the only source of real help.