I am a very self-centered person. I desire my own comfort and happiness. Quite often I will go to any length to accomplish something that I want for myself. I will endure hardship and overcome great obstacles when it benefits me. I am always willing to serve myself. Yet, when it comes to helping someone else, I am not always willing to work as hard to be inconvenienced. We all have a self problem.
This may shock you, but when we serve self we are actually serving Satan. There is a cosmic battle underway between almighty God and his enemy, Satan. In the Scriptures we see two adversarial kingdoms. We can either align ourselves with Christ and his Kingdom, or Satan and the World. Satan is indeed the ruler of the kingdom of the world as seen in Eph 2:2 where, in reference to the world system he is referred to as the “prince of the power of the air.”
When we love the world and thus it’s ruler we are in opposition to God and his kingdom and therefore, make ourselves enemies of God.
4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
If loving the world makes us an enemy of God then it is important that we understand what loving the world is. Look at how the Apostle John describes love of the world.
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
John describes love of the world as simply the love of self and it is a testimony to the fact that the love of God and his kingdom are absent in a person’s life.
Our self-love reveals that we reject the Lord’s kingdom and have aligned ourselves with the rule of his enemy. Just a few examples from scripture are needed to make this point. Jesus says:
23 …“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23-25)
Jesus makes it clear that an unwillingness to deny self is synonymous with man’s desire to cling to the kingdom of the world. This is futile because the one who seeks to preserve his life in the world, will ultimately lose it when Christ establishes his kingdom in its fullness. The one who loves himself loves the world, but the one who denies himself loves the Lord and his kingdom.
Earlier I mentioned Ephesians 2. In this passage Paul likewise equates love of self with love of the world.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph 2:1-3)
Prior to being reconciled to God each of us were actively following the course of the world in submission to its ruler. We lived in and pursed the kingdom of the world with the result that we lived in the passions of our flesh carrying out the desires of the body and mind. We were lovers of self! As a result we were children of wrath; enemies of God.
In Romans 12, Paul urges followers of Christ to no longer be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
What does this non-conformity to the world look like? It’s simply the denial of self as an act of worship to God. By deduction we conclude that the love of self is the result of conformity with the world. Loving self communicates alignment with the world, while the act of self-denial communicates that the believer has been transformed and changed his allegiance to the kingdom of God.
It is clear that when we practice the love of self we are aligning ourselves with the kingdom of the world and serving Satan. It is equally true that when we deny self and love others we are aligning ourselves with the kingdom of God and serving God. This can also be illustrated with a few examples from scripture.
In Mark 10 Jesus gives a very clear example of serving God by serving man. While the disciples were fighting for prominent positions in the kingdom of God, Jesus pointed to his own humble service to man as the model of kingdom life.
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”… 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-37, 41-45)
Having just heard Jesus foretell his death, James and John could only ask the Lord to guarantee them the most prominent spots in his coming kingdom. The other ten disciples are infuriated by this not because John and James asked, but because they asked first!
In rebuke, Jesus points out how the kingdom of the world operates; it’s rulers lord over those they lead. This is not the case in the kingdom of God. To the contrary the leaders in Christ’s kingdom humbly serve those they lead. They become their slaves. This principle is illustrated in that the incarnate Son of God came not to be served but to serve and his service is defined by the cross.
By serving man Christ was also serving God. His atoning death on the cross was service to man in that it allowed us to be reconciled to God. However, it was also service to God because it was the Father’s will for Christ to die in our place as a ransom.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;…. (Isaiah 53:10)
This is a great kingdom principle. Christ’s service to man in obedience to the will of God demonstrated his love for the Father. He served the Father by serving man.
Love of God and love of neighbor are so interconnected that they cannot be separated. When asked what was the greatest single commandment in the Law Jesus refused to give only one. Instead he forever connected service to man and service to God.
37 … “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)
The Law and Prophets were summed up in love for God and love for neighbor. You simply cannot love God without loving your neighbor; nor can you serve God without serving your neighbor.
The Apostle John likewise connects love for neighbor with love for God. This is seen in his First Epistle.
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:2)
In other words we love our neighbor when we love God. Like Jesus, John joins love of God and love of neighbor together in such a way that they cannot be separated and he defines love by the self-denial of the cross.
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
The motivation of our self-denying love for one another is that Jesus denied himself and laid down his life for us.
9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)
Likewise, the Father sacrificially demonstrated his love for us by sending his son to die for our sins. Again, the self-denying love of God seen in the gospel is our motivation to love God and our neighbor.
It is clear that for Jesus and John the love of God is directly connected to our love for our neighbor. It is equally true that love is defined as the sacrificial denial of self. Thus, for the Christian, we serve God when we align ourselves with his kingdom by denying self and sacrificially serving our neighbor in obedience to the commands of God.
This is of course a problem for all of us, because as we have already seen, we have a self problem. Paul described every one of us when he was writing to Timothy.
2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power… (2 Timothy 3:2-5)
Paul could easily have been referring to me in this passage. I am guilty as charged, we all are! What’s the answer? Work harder? Be nicer? We can’t do that; we love ourselves too much! The solution has already been discussed.
It’s the self-denying love of Christ that transforms us from serving self and Satan to serving others and God.
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:3-8)
In the gospel, when we repent of our sin and place our faith in Christ we identify with his death. Our old self is crucified with Christ and a new self is raised with him to walk in a new way; a way that is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our new life, like the life of Christ, is marked by self-denial and service to God that is fleshed out in humble service to man.