Unplugged from Self and Plugged into in Christ

Last week, in this blog we talked about becoming unplugged from human pride and plugged into humility. This week, we’re talking about getting unplugged from self and plugged in to Christ. This weekend is a great weekend to talk about selfishness. There is nothing like April 15th to make me feel selfish!

imgresThe French speak of a disease they call “La Maladie du Moi,” or “Me-sickness.” Despite all the progress the human race has made over the centuries, we have never come close to overcoming human selfishness. The only remedy that has ever been effective was that offered by Christ. His love engenders selflessness because his presence in our hearts, causes “Me-sickness” to vanish.[1] Nothing else works.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of self-interest. It’s natural. We have no choice but to see the world from a center in our own being. We all see and experience the world from a center in ourselves. A bit of self-centeredness is human and natural. Unfortunately, it’s easy for our human selfishness to get out of control. It’s easy for us to begin to care only for ourselves and not for others. It is easy for us to become pathologically self-centered.

Not so many years ago, a member of a local church and his or her spouse went to a local counselor for marital counseling. The counselor advised the husband and wife that they should spend the next few years concentrating on themselves and not the marriage. I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t think a good marriage could survive several years of selfishness on the part of either spouse! [2]

Out of Self and Into Christ.

Our text for this meditation comes from and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is one of Paul’s “Prison Letters.” [3] Paul wrote Ephesians while imprisoned, probably in Rome. imgresEphesus was the leading city of Western Asia Minor. It was one of the most important trade centers in the ancient world, and home to one of the most important churches during Paul’s day.

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church because they had responded to the word of God and become a part of the body of Christ (See Ephesians 1:9-13). Paul loved this church, and he gave them really good advice. To some degree, Ephesians represents Paul’s most mature ideas about Christ, Christian faith, and the Church. For Paul, Christ is the center of God’s revelation to the world. He reflects the very image and being of God. He is the center of God’s saving action in history (see Colossians 1:15-20).

Here is part of what Paul said:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

Let us Pray: God of Love, send your Spirit upon us that we might understand your Word and be filled with your presence and your love, empowered to live differently because of what you have done for us.

 Life Among the Self-Centered.

Some readers may remember the name, “Ayn Rand.” imagesShe was the author of several books, including one that is been made into two movies, “Atlas Shrugged.” She also wrote a book called, “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In her books, Rand explained that Christianity and other world religions that speak of selfishness as wrong were wrong. In fact, selfishness is a virtue. To some degree, Ayn Rand was simply a popularizer of a materialist philosophy and a cheerleader for an outdated way of seeing the world. (She called her philosophy “objectivism,” a view based upon a popular, but much critiqued view of human knowing and of human morals). It mirrored the materialism and self-centeredness of American culture. Although she has been much criticized by experts, she attracted a big following during her lifetime, even among cultural elites. [4]

Although the books were successful, and an earlier movie starring Gary Cooper was successful, the most recent movie wasn’t terribly successful. In a way, this is surprising. It may not be popular to talk about being selfish in a positive way in our culture, but selfishness is one of the biggest problems we face. 74207-64717In fact, many people note that our culture has become so self-centered that it borders on narcissistic.

“Narcissism” takes its name from an ancient fable involving a man named “Narcissus” In the Greek myth, Narcissus was proud and disdained those who loved him. The God “Nemesis” (from whom we get our phrase, “He is my nemesis”) noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Narcissus could not tear himself away from his image in the pool, wasted away and died. To be a narcissist, then,  is to have an excessive, pathological, dangerous love of oneself.

Modern Americans are not the only people to suffer from narcissism. The tendency towards narcissism is, as the Greeks knew, a part of human nature. All humans, all the time, tend towards a kind of pathological self-centeredness. It is the legacy of our self-consciousness and the Fall. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3). In other words, it is just part of the human condition to live according to our own selfish desires. The problem is, in our culture as in the ancient world, no one can achieve happiness, peace, or stability if they’re self-centered. It is only by getting outside of ourselves and our own selfish desires that we can become whole. Selfishness always and everywhere leads to personal and social chaos.

Jesus and Unselfishness.

Jesus was different in both dramatic and unassuming ways. In Mark, there is a story of Jesus that illustrates his unselfishness. In the early part of Mark, Jesus becomes very famous and is followed by large crowds. In Mark 5, Jesus was teaching, and so many people surrounded him and the crowd was so needy that neither the crowd nor disciples had a chance to eat. Jesus, recognizing that everyone was getting exhausted, told the disciples to come with him to a quiet place and rest. They went away in a boat to be alone and recharge their batteries, so to speak.

imgres-1Unfortunately, many of the people who were listening to Jesus recognized that he was leaving and ran ahead of him. When Jesus landed at the place he and the disciples had chosen for their little retreat, there was a crowd of hungry people waiting for him.

His disciples, who were tired and hungry, asked Jesus to please send the crowd away. No one could have faulted the disciples or Jesus if they had done so: Jesus had stopped preaching and healing. He never promised the crowd anything to eat. The disciples and Jesus were tired and needed rest. Nevertheless, Jesus fed the 5,000 people who had followed him. [5] Most of the time when we hear the story, we think of the miracle itself. However, this is also a story about unselfishness. Jesus was unselfish, the only truly fully unselfish person in history. Jesus needed and deserved a rest, but he met the needs of the crowd instead.

One common title for Jesus is, “The Man for Others.” Everything about Jesus was other-centered. He cared about other people. He put the needs of other people first. As a leader, he tried to serve the interests of other people. Jesus demonstrated by his life a healthy psychology that is not self-centered.

Grace as the Way Out.

It is at this point, as you probably expect me to say something like, “So, be like Jesus!” Paul, however, understood that human beings can never be unselfish by our own power. All of us are naturally selfish. All of us naturally are self-centered. All of us by nature try to satisfy our own desires and cravings. Paul understood that, by nature, we find it impossible to escape our own self-centeredness. That is why he says:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).

It was not Paul that escaped Paul’s selfishness by his own effort. It was Christ who by God’s mercy rescued Paul from his selfishness by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The problem of human selfishness is so serious that it is only the cross and the power of the resurrection that can save us. Fortunately, God loves the human race and desires for us to escape our selfishness and experience the joyful,  Spirit-filled life Christ experienced. This is why Paul goes on to say, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves—it is the gift of God not by works so that no one can boast” (vv. 8-9).

Our escape from selfishness is an act of pure grace. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift that we receive by trusting God and being faithful to God, allowing the power of the resurrection to enter our lives and transform us. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to escape our own self-centeredness and live an “other-centered” life like Christ. The idea behind these verses and many like them is that God does the work, not us.

One of my favorite Pauline phrases is the phrase, “in Christ.” For example, in Second Corinthians, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The phrase “in Christ” connotes a situation where we are “in Christ” and Christ is in us, as if we are surrounded and permeated by Christ. How do we get surrounded and permeated by Christ?

  • First we believe and trust. We invite Christ into our hearts, so that we begin to think, act, feel as Christ thinks, feels and acts.
  • Second, we constantly ask Christ to change us. We lift up our lives to God daily in prayer and ask for God’s grace.
  • Third, we begin to learn more about Christ and the Christian life, so that the way we think becomes the way Christ thinks.
  • Finally, we live with Christ in us for a long time. We slowly but surely change as Christ changes us over time. It does not happen over night, but as I mentioned in a moment ago, we are filled with hope because “Christ in me is the hope of Glory” (Col. 1:25).

imgres-2Many years ago, just after Chuck Colson became a Christian, I had an opportunity to see him. I had read his book and seen many pictures of him during the Watergate period. Then, some years later, I saw Colson in person when he came to Houston to give a talk. Interestingly, I could tell the difference years of being a Christian had made in his life. He looked kinder, more loving. The lines in his face no longer had the harsh look that they had that first time I saw him. They had become smile wrinkles. When we allow Christ to dwell in us, we do in fact change, not all at once but over time. This is the power of the resurrection at work in our lives.

The Blessing of Unselfishness.

A foundational commitment of our church is to share God’s love with others. The Great Commandment teaches us to “Love others as we love ourselves” (Matthew 22:36-40). Part of being a Christian is gradually coming to the point where we love others just like ourselves, and when we do, we are being truly “other centered” like Jesus was other centered.

There is an old story told of a spouse who came to a pastor about a divorce. The person admitted that he or she hated his or her spouse. They wanted to hurt the person as badly as possible. Of course, the person wanted a divorce. The pastor recommended that the spouse go home and practice loving their spouse like Jesus loved the church. After a few months, the pastor saw the person and asked if he or she was in the process of getting the divorce. The person answered, “No. We love each other too much.”

This story may be apocryphal, but its message is true: Selfishness destroys love; unselfishness creates love. Therefore, the second thing we have to do if we want to find the blessed life is get unplugged from our own selfish desires and plug into love God.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I found this in a version at More Sermon Illustrations.com/ selfishness (downloaded April 14, 2016).

[2] This is an actual event. One member of the marriage later came to me for counseling. I thought the advice was about as silly as any I’d ever heard of from a counselor.

[3] I am indebted to William Barclay, “The Letters to Galatians &Ephesians” in The Daily Bible Study Series 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958).

[4] See, Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (New York, NY, Random House, 1957) and The Virtue of Selfishness (New York, NY: New American Library, 1964). Among her more or less disciples were and are Alan Greenspan, Rand Paul, Steve Jobs, and Mark Cuban. In my view her views are behind the monetary errors of the Greenspan era.

[5] See, Mark 5:30-44.

Unplugged: Get Unplugged from Pride and Plugged into Humility

With this post, I am beginning a new series called, “Get Unplugged and Plugged In.” Our theme this entire year is, “What’s Next?” We’re talking about and thinking about how we can have more of the joy and fulfillment of Christ in our daily lives and relationships. In this particular series of blogs, we’re talking about things in our lives and society we need to “unplug from” and things we need to “plug into” in order to be the people God wants us to be and to experience the joy and peace God wants us to experience.

We are beginning with the single biggest problem we human beings have – pride. In wisdom literature we are told that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:5). In James, we are told to, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). Without humility, it is impossible to make any progress in the Christian life.

There is nothing that keeps us from experiencing the blessed life more than pride. Therefore, there is no virtue more important to achieving the blessed life than humility. As long as we are driven by our desires, and as long as we feel that we are competent by our own powers to achieve happiness, it will always elude us.

Before we begin, we need to be clear about what we are talking about. We use the word “pride” in more than one way. If I say, “I am proud of my children” I am expressing happiness at their accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with this kind of pride.  The kind of pride we are talking about is an inordinate, unjustified sense of one’s own capacities, abilities, merit, worth, or superiority. It is the notion that I know more than I know, that have greater abilities than I possess, etc. It is this kind of pride that can warp and ruin our lives.

Paul, Corinth, Pride, and God’s Secret Wisdom.

Our text for this blog comes from First Corinthians. The city of Corinth was a wealthy and prosperous town. The people of Corinth had every reason to be proud of their city. When Paul came to the city, he planted a church. This church was in a strategic location because Corinth was on the main trade route from Asia to Rome. imagesAfter Paul left, spiritual pride began to develop and various factions in the church began to argue (I Cor. 1:10-13). Some people claimed to follow Paul. Some people claimed to follow Peter. Some people claimed to follow a man named Apollos. Everyone was sure they were right. Word of these arguments reached Paul, who was probably in Ephesus at the time. In response to the problems at Corinth, Paul wrote what his First Letter to the Church in Corinth. [1]

Paul diagnosed the Corinthian problem as a lack of humility in the Body of Christ. Here is a part of what he said:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (I Corinthians 2:1-8


Let us pray: Eternal God, who came to us in the form of a humble servant, come this morning among us so that we may overcome our own human pride and have the humility of Jesus. Amen.


Pride and the Human Condition.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (or humble) for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). In Romans, Paul diagnoses our fundamental human problem as pride. He says that the deepest problems of human life are caused by our propensity to think we are wise and in the process become fools (Romans 1:21-22). Therefore, we can never enjoy the Blessed Life we seek until we overcome (or get unplugged from) pride and develop (or plug into) humility.

This week, I pondered the quip from the comic strip “Pogo: that goes like this, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” MQ-04062012-Pogo-Enemy-oumgga Think for a moment about the worst decisions you ever made. This week it occurred to me that many of the really bad decisions I’ve made were motivated by pride, by an excessive sense of my own abilities or worth. If we think we know everything, if we think we’re smarter than other people, if we think we’re always right, we never learn anything.

Our church has adopted Booker T. Washington high school in Memphis Tennessee as a mission project. Many people don’t remember Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington was a brilliant student who became the president of the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He was an early leader in the civil rights movement and an advisor to Presidents.

imgres-1There is a famous story about Booker T. Washington. Shortly after he took over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute, he was walking through an exclusive section of the city. A wealthy resident of the neighborhood stopped him. She didn’t know who he was. She asked him if he would like to earn a few dollars chopping wood. Dr. Washington agreed.            

The next day, when the woman understood what she had done, she came to apologize. Dr. Washington did not confront the woman. He just said, “That’s perfectly all right, madam. Occasionally, I enjoy some physical labor. Besides I’m always happy to do something for a friend.” The woman became a close friend of Dr. Washington and a supporter of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington’s humility was a part of his success, just as humility is a part of our success. [2]

Pride and Paul.

As Paul speaks to the Corinthians about their pride, he compares their pride with the “Cross-centered humility” he showed when he was among them.  The part of First Corinthians I read a moment ago is just a small part of a long argument Paul makes at the beginning of First Corinthians. Paul points out that the message of the Cross, the message that Christ came in human form to die for our sins and separation from God, is not the kind of message that appeals to merely human wisdom (I Cor. 1:18-21). It did not appeal to human wisdom in Paul’s day; and, it does not appeal to human wisdom today. We human beings naturally favor pride over humility.

images-1The Jews wanted a Messiah that would do signs and wonders and the Greeks wanted a God of cold logic who would overwhelm them with brilliance (vv. 22-24). Instead, God chose to reveal himself on a cross. The true wisdom of God, the deepest wisdom of God, was revealed in weakness and vulnerability on a cross outside the city gates of the city of Jerusalem. God, it turns out, has all power and authority, but chooses to work in love and humility.

Paul, when He came to Corinth did not try to wow the Corinthians with his wisdom, preaching ability, or other natural talents. Instead, he concentrated on Christ and upon the cross. We think of Paul as a great, natural leader. He does not seem to think of himself in that way. He says that he came in weakness and in trembling (v. 2:3). He was not so much trying to be wise, as he was trying to be Christ-like in the way he shared the Gospel with the people of Corinth. Paul’s example in Corinth is an example to us as we minister to people in our culture: We don’t have to be wise or powerful, just Christ-like.

Jesus and Pride.

Most of us remember this long quote from Philippians:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3-11).

In other words, the reason Jesus is worthy to inherit the earth is precisely because he alone achieved that humility that would make him worthy to inherit the earth. He is worthy to be the leader of the human race precisely because he was willing to be its servant. This idea of “Servant Leadership” is a uniquely Christian development. The idea that before we can be trusted to lead others we need to learn to bear a cross for them comes directly from God’s revelation in Jesus.

Wisdom and Humility.

One of my favorite books is by the legendary investor John Templeton. Templeton, who gave the Templeton Prize for Religion, was a man of humility. [3] Part of his success as an investor had to do with his understanding that he was not smarter than the market nor did he understand exactly how the market worked. images-2Therefore, he spent his life studying companies to try to understand what made them valuable. He found that, when he understood what made a company valuable, he could see if other people were underestimating the company’s value. Many, many people placed their retirement funds with John Templeton because of his reputation as a humble student of financial markets.

In fact, scientists and others will tell you that before progress can be made in science, those involved have to have the humility to accept the limits of human understanding and let nature speak for itself. Most of the achievements of modern quantum physics are deeply non-intuitive. It is surprising and unusual how nature operates. It was only by letting go of some preconceived notions and allowing nature to point towards its surprising and mysterious character that progress was made.

There’s a story told about a very powerful king. He was also a brilliant master at chess. This king sent a message across the land stating that he would give a tenth of his fortune to whoever could prove himself worthy of playing against him. However, if that person were found “unworthy” he would be executed. Many people risked their lives to challenge the proud king. Rich, poor, stupid, intelligent, they all lost—and the king had each one executed as “unworthy” to play against him.

Many years later, a poor beggar came to the palace to challenge the king. Many people tried to dissuade him, but he insisted in confronting the king. When the beggar was brought before the king, the king asked, “What makes you think you are worthy to play me?” The beggar answered, “Because I forgive you for all the evil you’ve done.” The king was stunned. The more he thought about the answer, the more he realized the bigger was right. In his pride and arrogance, he had become unworthy to be king. Therefore he resigned and made the beggar king. [4]


In First Peter, we are told:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:5b-7).

Part of becoming like God—that is becoming like Jesus—is getting rid of our pride and becoming humble.

imgresYears ago, in the midst of Oil, Realestate, and Banking Crisis, Houston, Texas adopted the motto, “Houston Proud.” It was all over the place. Kathy and I decided to have some cards made that read, “Houston Humble” and handed them out in our Sunday school class. You see it was the pride of Houston that created its problems, and humility was the answer, not more pride.

To some degree, this is a message we all need to hear. The problems of our country are very largely problems of pride. The solution to our problems is not more pride, but more humility. So, you see, the first thing we all need to do is get unplugged from our human pride and plugged in to the humility of Christ.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, William Barclay, “The Letters to the Corinthians” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 5-6. The series of letters Paul wrote to Corinth are among the most interesting letters of the New Testament. Corinth was on the Isthmus of Greece that separates the Aegean Sea from the Adriatic Sea. In Paul’s day, it was safer and easier to drag ships and cargo between the two seas than to sail around Greece, so Corinth became a very rich city.

[2] This story comes from Father James, The Virtue of Humility www.fatherjames.org (August 30, 2013).

[3] John Templeton, The Humble Approach (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1981, 1995). He was the founder of the Templeton Funds, which are now part of the Franklin Funds company.

[4] Free stories for kids.com/children/stories-and-tales/unworthy/king (Downloaded April 7, 2016).