Monday, August 10, 2009

God-honoring Selfishness

Last Monday I considered the question, "What's wrong with being selfish?" from a feminist author who says it should be accepted that women be selfish enough to not want to have kids and give up their lifestyle. Eventually I answered her question by saying something to the effect of, "Nothing is at all wrong with being selfish and living to get the very best for ourselves. The problem is not knowing what's best for ourselves."

We considered C. S. Lewis' famous "we-are-far-too-easily-pleased" quote, and were admonished that, given the staggering promises of reward in Scripture, "Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak." Passion, strong, constraining desire, and the relentless pursuit of pleasure are foundational to Christianity, not antithetical to it.

Let's consider some of the "unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of rewards promised" in Scripture, and note how seeking our own good and greatest pleasure is God-honoring, how it is glorifying to God, how it is His will for us.
  • Luke 12:32 - Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.
  • Matthew 13:44-46 - The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
In Luke 12:32 we are given a command: Do not be afraid. Then we have a grounding clause. That is, we see the ground for that command signaled by the word For. Do not be afraid, for, or because. Why? Because our Father has chosen gladly -- or, it is His good pleasure, He's happy -- to give us the kingdom. This is the way Jesus is reasoning. It makes sense to him, and it should make sense to us. There's no need to be afraid when we will inherit the kingdom of our Father.

And then in Matthew 13 we're told that this kingdom is like a treasure. It's worth giving up everything you have to get it. And having such a kingdom, even at the cost of everything else in your life, inspires joy in the one who has it.

So, we have a command. And the ground for obeying the command is the promise of inheriting something that is invaluable and causes exceeding joy. So we should seek our joy in, and not be afraid because of, our inheritance of the kingdom of Christ. And when we disobey that command to not fear, what's happening? We're letting something other than the kingdom (other than God) capture our affections. Our joy, delight, and satisfaction is in some other positive circumstance. The way to fight that sin of fear is to seek our highest satisfaction in the kingdom of God that is promised to us.
  • Luke 6:35 - But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.
Here we have the command that is the most contrary-to-our-fleshly-nature that we can conceive of: Love our enemies. Why? What is our motivation to do such a radical thing? Answer: We will be sons of the Most High! We will get to enjoy the privilege of being true sons of our Father! We are to see the prospect of intimacy with our Father, and so desire that – so desire HIM! – that that compels us to joyfully obey this otherwise ridiculous-sounding command. We are to pursue our greatest pleasure in a thriving relationship with our Father.

Now, some people hear these things and they don’t like it. They say, “Well now that’s selfish! You should be obeying because it’s the right thing to do, not for what you can get out of it!” That’s Pharisee talk! That's hypocrite talk! Jesus says to obey this command because you treasure the reward that comes as a result. And all of Scripture paints that same picture as well, as we have seen and do continue to see. This post is written to help you break free from such a conception of the Christian life, and enter into joyful, Spirit-wrought, God-honoring obedience.)
  • Matthew 25:21 - His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.
Enter into the joy of our Master. What kind of joy is that? What kind of joy does our Master have? He has infinite exuberance -- He is thrilled -- because what is most delightful (His own glory) has been presented to Him for all eternity in the face of His beloved Son in the fellowship of His Holy Spirit (Heb 1:3; John 17:5, 24)! So as a motivation for being a good and faithful slave with the things of our Master, we are to hold before us the reward of the most ineffably wonderful joy imaginable.
  • Hebrews 11:24-27 - By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.
Why did Moses choose to endure ill-treatment with God's people instead of enjoying all the treasures of the greatest empire in the world? Because he considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the other treasures of Egypt. He considered the treasures of the knowledge of Christ and the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil 3:10) as better than the passing pleasures of sin. He endured, seeing Him. The sight of the glory of Jesus captured His affections. He was looking to... the... reward!
  • Hebrews 11:16 - But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
And this last text is wonderful. It's massively important to see the writer's reasoning here. The Scripture says that those who act in faith desire a better, heavenly country. And then immediately after that we have Therefore. The therefore tells us that what he just said is the ground for what's about to follow. Because the faithful desire a better country, God is not ashamed to be called their God. God is not dishonored by those people because they desire a country where God Himself dwells.

And then we have another grounding word - for - that tells us what the basis of all that is. Why is it honoring to God that the faithful desire a better country where they enjoy uninhibited fellowship with Him? "For [God] has prepared a city for them."

God has promised to bless them. It is the will of God to benefit, to bless, His people. And when He reveals that that is His will, the proper response is to desire that blessing with all our might, and to rejoice in the God who blesses so lavishly.

We serve God by treasuring Him so much that we shape our whole life so as to benefit from
what He can do for us.
- John Piper -


So then, given the way the writers of Scripture -- as well as Jesus Himself -- reason, we have no other choice but to conclude that, as Lewis says, "Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak." These texts have demonstrated that God wants us to be radically committed to our own good and greatest pleasure... because our own good and our greatest pleasure are Him. As Piper's been saying for 25 years: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Our greatest satisfaction is enjoying the glory of God. And the greatest honor done to God is for us to see His glory -- the emanation of all His manifold perfections -- and enjoy it as infinitely precious and satisfying!

So the above author's problem is not that she's selfish; she, along with the rest of the world, just tragically mischaracterizes what is most satisfying. As Lewis might say, the world is not selfish enough! We're willing to settle for lesser delights, and even give up our lives in pursuit of them, when infinite joy is to be had in our great God and Savior. A radical commitment to pursuing that joy, that happiness, my greatest pleasure at all times -- namely, God Himself -- might be described as selfishness.

But it is a God-honoring selfishness.

Be greedy for God, dear friends. Do everything, give up everything, to be able to get Him!

They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house;
And You give them to drink of the river of Your delights.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.
- Psalm 36:8-9 -

Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
... the nearness of God is my good.
- Psalm 73: 25-26, 28 -

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