Selwyn Hughes, the author of my devotional booklet on idolatry, says that there is no greater idol than the idol of the self. Since I don’t bow down to worship me, or sing songs of praise about me, how does this idolatry present itself? What does it look like that I might avoid it?
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14–15)
These verses talk about Christ’s death and my death, but they don’t seem the same. He died a horrible and painful way, crucified by His enemies. That likely will not happen to me, but there is a different kind of dying that is true of Jesus and can be true for me. It is the death of self-rule. Jesus never lived for personal gain of any kind. He wasn’t making decisions that would protect Himself, or give Him personal advantage. In fact, He made no decisions of His own, but always did the will of His Father.
Described that way, I can easily see the shrine of self. It could be called practical atheism, living as if God does not exist. It is also living as if God does not matter, that my opinions, thoughts, and wants are far more important than His. It is going through the day without considering or consulting God or even thinking about Him. This is the idolizing of myself.
When a young man asked Jesus how to have eternal life, Jesus went right to the core of the matter and exposed to this man what was keeping him from it. The Lord used the commandments. The young man said He kept them, revealing that he didn’t know what God really wanted – not external obedience but obedience from a surrendered heart. Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:20–22)
His heart was not willing to leave all that he wanted and trusted to follow Jesus. The disciples were also on shaky ground. Jesus noted the impossibility of rich people leaving their riches to follow Him, and Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:27–30)
It seems that Peter was looking at total surrender as a means to an end. What would they have if they did it? I can think like that too. God, if I give all to You, what will happen to me? Jesus answers that question with a promise of future glory in heaven and abundant life on earth, but He also says what will happen for those unwilling to give up the idol of self . . .
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24–26)
Whatever I save for me will be lost. I might gain the whole world, but that world will not enter eternity with me. Further, I cannot do both. That is, I cannot be absolutely surrendered to God and also hang on to personal gain. Like Jesus said about money, I cannot serve two masters for I will love the one and hate the other.
Martyred American missionary Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” A God-centered person is one whose life revolves around Jesus Christ, not me, myself, and I. If I am at the center, that is all that I will have. If the eternal God is at the center, what more could I ever want?