The cult of self is of course endemic in Western culture. Yet to a large degree, the kingdom of self has invaded the kingdom of God as well. In many ways the church today has traded self-denial for self-fulfillment. Christians have exchanged the denial of the world for worldliness. They have sold their souls for a bowl of porridge. Many perceptive Christians have noted this overemphasis on self in contemporary evangelicalism.
Os Guinness is one observant Christian who has long charted these worrying trends. In one book he has a challenging chapter on this “triumph of the therapeutic” which plagues much of Western Christendom. Says Guinness, “The overall story of pastoral care in the United States has been summed up as the shift from salvation to self-realization, made up of smaller shifts from self-denial to self-love to self-mastery, and finally to self-realization. The victory of the therapeutic over theology is therefore nothing less than the secularization and replacement of salvation.”
Craig Gay has written an incisive book entitled The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As if God Doesn’t Exist. In it he echoes the thoughts of Guinness: “In effect, the modern therapeutic disposition mortgages eternal destiny for the sake of comfort. It reverses Jesus’ question about the prudence of gaining the world at the cost of one’s soul (Matt. 16:26) and asks instead: What good will it be for someone to gain his ‘soul’ and lose this world?”
James Davison Hunter noted in 1983 that American evangelicalism had gone through a major shift in the latter half of the twentieth century. It has tended to downplay self-denial, sacrifice and suffering while fulfillment, happiness and emphasis on self were stressed. “Subjectivism has displaced the traditional asceticism as the dominant attitude in theologically conservative Protestant culture.”
David Wells has written a number of books on these and related themes. In a recent book he devotes most of his discourse to this theme of the triumph of the self in modern culture. Says Wells, “Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the lists of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word sin. We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. . . . The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves.”
Or as he says elsewhere, “This kind of self-fascination is by no means an excrescence of an otherwise robust sector of religious life. It is at the very center of evangelicalism.”
Charles Colson is another astute observer of culture. He put it this way: “Outwardly, we are a religious people, but inwardly our religious beliefs make no difference in how we live. We are obsessed with self.” And elsewhere he adds that “much of the church is caught up in the success mania of American society. . . . Suffering, sacrifice, and service have been preempted by success and self-fulfillment”
The remarks of Christian sociologist David Lyon could also be mentioned. In a penetrating analysis of the intersection of postmodernism and religion entitled Jesus in Disneyland, he speaks of the “sacralization of self”. He too is aware of the transformation of religion where the “idea of making up your personal bricolage of beliefs, choosing what fits and what does not, appears to be a popular mode of religiosity or spirituality today, especially in North America.” While some may think he is referring to the New Age movement here, he especially has in mind the evangelical church.
Interestingly it was the earlier secular analyses by social observers like Reiff and Lasch that paved the way for later evangelical critiques. Back in 1966 Philip Reiff released his The Triumph of the Therapeutic. There he states that faith after Freud has made a remarkable journey: “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.” A little over a decade later Christopher Lasch spoke of this “therapeutic sensibility” with prophetic insight: “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden era, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”
Other secular assessments could be noted. Back in 1985 Robert Bellah and his colleagues observed in their influential Habits of the Heart the “tendency visible in many evangelical circles to thin the biblical language of sin and redemption to an idea of Jesus as the friend who helps us find happiness and self-fulfillment.” And in 1987 Allan Bloom could write, “The self is the modern substitute for the soul.”
In fact, way back in 1958 this trend was noted. Two sociologists did a study of popular inspirational literature from 1875 to 1955. They concluded their survey this way: “The [evangelical] literature presents a man-centered rather than a God-centered religion. It is preoccupied with power, success, life-mastery, and peace of mind and soul and not with salvation in the other sense of the term.”
Thus both secular and Christian critiques of modern culture have noted this drift to self. If the Christian subculture is guilty of unwarranted appeal to self, it is in many ways simply reflecting the wider secular culture, of which it is a part. As Wells reminds us, “This fascination with self is not a uniquely Christian or uniquely American phenomenon; it is the calling card modernity leaves behind wherever it goes.”
A good indication of this drift to self in the church can be seen in any contemporary Christian book store. The shelves are filled with books devoted to self. Titles abound on such themes as how to lose weight for Jesus, how to overcome self-doubt, how to improve self-image, how to find inner healing, how to achieve peace of mind, how to achieve self-realisation, how to find fulfillment and success, prosperity and peace. Indeed, the “how to” type of book seems to be proliferating in Christian publishing circles. I would estimate that books which offer such an anthropocentric emphasis far outnumber books which rightly emphasise the theocentric. Bubble-gum religion has replaced serious theology.
Now there is a place for self-improvement and self-help books. But ultimate self-improvement comes from a right relationship with God, not a fixation on self. My critique of Christian bookstores could also be extended to many sermons heard in our churches, seminars and conferences being offered, and Christian magazines and videos. The point is, self dominates in contemporary Christianity. And when anything other than God predominates, it becomes idolatry.
Turning the tide
So how do we respond to all this? In one sense, the answer is as simple as it is obvious. We just need to start taking Jesus at his word, and start doing what he said. And what did he tell us to do? Consider Mark 8:34-35: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’.”
There you have it. The gospel is not about feeding on self, gorging self, flattering self, or cuddling self. It is about denying self, even putting it to death. Until this message is rediscovered and once again proclaimed, we will see the church continue to hemorrhage to death, unable to make its mark on the surrounding culture.
The contrast between today’s weak, anemic and self-fixated Christianity and that of the early church could not be more pronounced. The early disciples turned their world upside down (Acts 17:6). Today’s church, in contrast, is being turned upside down by the world. And so many believers either do not know about this, or do not care.
Leonard Ravenhill was right to exclaim: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a few men like Paul? He said, ‘I’m dead!’ Dead to self… dead to ambition… dead to feelings… dead to be offended… dead to be flattered… dead! Paul died to everything!”
Or as A.W. Tozer remarked, “When will Christians learn that to love righteousness it is necessary to hate sin? That to accept Christ it is necessary to reject self? That to follow the good way we must flee from evil? That a friend of the world is an enemy of God? That God allows no twilight zone between two altogethers where the fearful and the doubting may take refuge at once from hell to come and the rigors of present discipline?”
I conclude with a final insight from Os Guinness: “The cross of Jesus runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking. A rediscovery of the hard and the unpopular themes of the gospel will therefore be such a rediscovery of the whole gospel that the result may lead to reformation and revival.”
Let it be so.