“Self” on Trial: A Look at Christian Motivation

As Christian leaders speak out for missions, some have set up “self” as a bogeyman. I regularly hear pastors rail against “self.” Apparently, the lowest insult is that a person be “selfish.”

Wanderer over a sea of fog

I don’t accept this understanding of Christian motivation. In fact, “right and wrong” are categories for guiding us in pursuing life; and for any individual man, this means: his own life. Therefore, “self-interest” (a.k.a. selfishness) is the very foundation of morality.

But Christians don’t know it. A leading missions expert, Ed Stetzer, recently wrote in Christianity Today, “Mission is the opposite of self.”

In Radical, David Platt writes, “We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.”

“Death to self” has become the new moral ideal. But can that phrase be found in the Scripture?

Our mission requires self-denial, but we cannot make self-denial be the mission.

As Christians, we work for a reward. There is no “death to self” here.

John Piper encourages us to seek our highest pleasure in God. C.S. Lewis dismisses the idea that morality means being “selfless.” Randy Alcorn advocates an unblushing pursuit of God’s rewards, based on his promises to us as individuals.

God’s promise to his people has always been to bless them with riches, with a home, with peace. Long before there was the American Dream, there was the Hebrew Dream. And they look a lot alike. The mistake is not to desire blessing, but to desire it out of context. While Piper makes this point clear in Don’t Waste Your Life, I have to criticize Stetzer and Platt for implying a confusion.

In Matthew 10:39, isn’t Jesus pointing people to their own self-interest?

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

So let us not preach missions as the “opposite of self.”

To follow God’s mission is the most self-interested thing we can do.

The 19th Century African missionary David Livingstone shows the proper view of mission work:

“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

(quoted at http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/i-never-made-a-sacrifice)