The Death of Self

What Christian is there who cannot sympathise with Paul’s words as they battle against sin and self? ‘For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practise’ (Romans 7 v 19). We have been saved, by God’s grace, from slavery and bondage to sin, but yet there is still that selfishness in us which will trouble us for the rest of our life.

A. W. Tozer wrote these striking words about our innate selfishness in his small book, ‘The Knowledge of the Holy’: ‘So subtle is self that scarcely anyone is conscious of its presence. Because man is born a rebel, he is unaware that he is one. His constant assertion of self, as far as he thinks of it at all, appears to him a perfectly normal thing. He is willing to share himself, sometimes even to sacrifice himself for a desired end, but never to dethrone himself. No matter how far down the scale of social acceptance he may slide, he is still in his own eyes a king on a throne, and no one, not even God, can take that throne from him.’

Isn’t that an accurate description of fallen human nature? It’s so easy, even for us who have been brought to submit to Christ’s Lordship, to do the best and most self-denying of things for self-centred reasons. We all too often want to be praised and noticed for our ‘good deeds’. And so we cry out, ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death’ – this sinful selfishness which pursues me at every step of my life? How can I overcome it?

Thanks be to God that there is an answer to our cry; that we don’t put sin to death in our own strength, but through Christ Jesus our Lord. Tozer writes: ‘To save us completely Christ must reverse the bent of our nature; He must plant a new principle within us so that our subsequent conduct will spring out of a desire to promote the honour of God and the good of our fellow men. The old self-sins must die, and the only instrument by which they can be slain is the cross.’ The power by which God works in us is the same power ‘which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Ephesians 1 v 19-20). So ‘[We] can do all things’ – even overcoming our self-obsessed tendencies – ‘through Christ who strengthens [us]’ (Philippians 4 v 13).

By Naomi Wells

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  1. Thank-you for this, Naomi. Certainly the selfish nature is a 'thorn in the flesh' for all Christians, and kicks in from time to time, frustrating and troubling us. Indeed, we can see that the root sin of the selfish nature is pride, which can only be overcome when we surrender ourselves to the Lord and ask Him to help deliver us. Whenever we put 'self' first above Christ, we are really setting ourselves up as a 'god', and thus breaking the first commandment. If we continually put 'self' first and thus display such pride before our Heavenly King, He will humble us in one way or another, which is a sobering thought. "...God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble." (James 4:6) "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up." (James 4:10).

    Pride is listed as one of the six things that God hates and that are an abomination unto Him in Proverbs chapter 6. As Christians, we should live all unto Christ (easier said than done, I know! Sadly I fail often myself).

    May we be able to truly say with Paul, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Php 1:21).

  2. Thank you for this post, Naomi.

    It is something that really applies to everyone. Even when we are doing good works for others we can be doing it for selfish motives! It is an attribute that we totally LOATHE in other people, but are so reluctant to admit in ourselves!

    One quote from Samuel Rutherford I like is "For every one look to self, make ten looks to Christ". We have to keep focusing on Christ and Him alone! He should be who we put first.

    A family we know has this painted on their window "God first, others next and yourself last". It makes you think twice about putting yourself first in their home!

    You are right about pride, Rebekah! It is certainly at the root of selfishness. Indeed, don't you think that it is at the root of most sins (e.g. lying, hatred, etc)? Nobody is immune to pride- we can even be proud of our humility! That always starts a vicious cycle, and one hint of pride leads to another.

    Thanks again, Naomi,

  3. Naomi
    Thank-you for this article. When reading this I am thinking:
    '' I haven't got this problem. Selfishness... nope.'' But now thinking about it ,yes it IS problem!! I find that most of my day is selfish. I am quite cruel to my siblings. Why? Because I am selfish. When my Mums ill, I don't take her drinks etc. Why? I am selfish. This is an area which could do with a change.
    We need to realize, that as Christians we need to have our priorities straight:
    1. GOD
    2. OTHER(s)
    3. US
    You notice that 'US' is at the bottom. In my life that isn't normal!!!. Its more like God(sometimes.In the sense of diligence in devotions,service etc)Us and lastly Others.

    How can we change this? Could you give some advice concerning this?anyone....

    thank you again

  4. David van den Broek17 December 2009 at 18:22

    Jonah, good question!

    I agree that each of us has a problem with selfishness, and the worst of it is the fact that the more you are conscious of it the more you see it everywhere! And you can even start to be 'unselfish' for selfish reasons!

    FI - the bible teaches that if a man is generous he will inherit great wealth, so if I believe the bible and I want to be very wealthy is it appropriate to use generosity to accumulate wealth? The answer is that the Christian is to be generous because God says so -not for the selfish motive of great riches.

    And if you are starting to think that avoiding selfishness is hopelessly impossible then good... because that brings me to the answer to your question Jonah.

    The way that we sort out our motives is by putting God at the top of each category:

    1) God -because God says so.
    2) Others -because God says so.
    3) Us -because God says so.

    And as always -prayer is the key to success in pleasing Him who hears and delights to answer our prayers.

    I hope this is faithful and helpful.

  5. David van den Broek17 December 2009 at 18:26

    And (having just been reminded of Elspeth's words) it is right to say that for every one look at ourselves we should make ten at Christ -not because looking at ourselves is wrong and we want to sin as infrequently as possible -it is right to think of ourselves -in a godly and biblical way.

  6. When I speak to people on the streets I often find there answers to this question very interesting.
    I will ask something anlong the lines of: "what do you think is the root cause of the problems we face in the world at the moment." That answer very often comes as "nobody has any time for others" and "everybody only thinks about themselves"

    I thing that these answers are actually right in the majority. I think that it could be right to say: Pride or selfishness is thinking of yourself as you ought not to think. We should instead think of ourselves as God says.

    C.S. Lewis has some very insightful thought on the subject of pride in his Screwtape's Letters which is set up in the style of a senior devil giving instruction to a junoir/trainee devil about how to tempt a christian young man (God is refered to as the enemy).
    this is the link to a very good little segment on our church website:

    "The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another." I have a feeling that there is much truth in that....

  7. I agree with you that selfishness is an issue and that we have to put others first. However, sometimes we have to think of ourselves too!

    First of all, God didn't create us to be doormats for others to walk over. :-)

    Secondly, sometimes to obey the commandment to 'love your neighbour as yourself', you have to say no or look after your own interests so that you can look after theirs. For instance, if you're a mother and you're ill, if you don't stop and rest you could prolong your illness and actually make things worse for your family.

    David, I like the way you suggest putting God at the top of each category.



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