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Inside and Outside the Self


Many of you may be familiar with the statement by C.S. Lewis that for every one book we read by our contemporaries we should read five books written in another age. His premise is that every age has its own set of blind spots and that the best way to become aware of the blind spots in our own is to expose our selves to an age that did not share them. All week long, as I reflected on the lesson passage, Luke worked to that end in me, giving me a glimpse of an age not nearly so preoccupied with the self as our own.

I say the self, but I best define it more clearly before I go further. I do not mean the existence of the individual, as in the idea that you and I both possess a self that is distinct and separate. I don’t even mean a concern for the self and its well being, for this we can hardly escape. But I mean rather an excessive obsession with the interiority of the self, that is that which is experienced within, to the point that the objective, (that which is not the self), is nearly banished from the consciousness, or becomes at best a mere occasion of further sensation. The young German pilot, who two weeks ago flew so many others to their death, epitomizes in the extreme the nature of this modern mindset.

The difference between this outlook and what I will call for sake of argument the Lukan outlook is made strikingly clear in the account of the Baptist’s preaching and the subsequent discussion in regards to repentance. Note that his starting point is not the individual selves of those who came to hear him. Nor are they at the center as if all things existed for them and their pleasure. No, he takes as his starting point the great objective realities: God, the just anger of God, the intent and action of God, and the final purpose of God. These objective realities are arrayed before the self that it might have opportunity to conform to them, not co-opt them to its own ends.

This same objective/subjective balance can also be seen as the Baptist responds to his hearers cry, “What shall we do?” I know many preachers who would answer, “Surrender,” or “Just believe.” These are proper responses in one sense, but all too often in the cultural climate of our day they have been stripped of all objective referents. The Baptist, however, begins with the objective. He points to the concrete. He directs the self outwards. Do this and don’t do that. “Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words surrender and belief are more than merely internal events.

The same can be seen in the Spirit led movement of Jesus into the wilderness. He did not go there for the sake of the self, to have a good experience, or to increase his fun. No. He went as a self responding to great objective realities, realities that were known both in the call of His Father and the need of the world. And when the devil tempted it was not his own feelings or experience that he referenced as a guide or defense, but rather the objective Word of the Father.

The point is this. A self preoccupied with itself is a dead end. And yet the world today, having lost all confidence in objective truths and realities has no other option but to collapse into itself—into the self and the service of the self—as the primary end of living. My experience, my opinion, my feeling, my rights, my passions: for many there is nothing left beyond these things and this is tragic. But we as Christians dare not allow this cultural current to capture us and sweep us along in its flood. To do so would be to fail God, the world, and ourselves.

It is not that the Bible knows no sensitivity to the subjective aspect of human experience, but rather that it refuses to allow the subjective the formative place and rule. God knows, and the Bible writers came to understand that the self only finds its proper place and life when the objective (all that is beyond the self and especially the reality of God) fills the heart and preoccupies the mind and draws the self into the life that is not its own.

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