If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself. If there is a challenge that biblical discipleship poses to Americans, it is self-denial.
I’ve benefited greatly from the theological sociology found in David Wells’s five book series beginning with No Place for Truth (1993) and concluding with The Courage To Be Protestant (2008). In 1998 Losing Our Virtue (hereafter LOV), was the third book published in this series and most directly speaks to the issue of Americanism’s self-worship: selfolatry. Self is the Zeus in the American Pantheon. Self is the big daddy god of American pluralism.
The violation of the first commandment, that we are not to have any other gods other than the Lord God, issues into the violation of all God’s commandments. Indeed, lawlessness is the evidence that a man, or a society, is ensnared in idolatry. Consider this evidence of selfolatry from surveys conducted in the early ’90’s. “While the great majority of Americans believe that they actually keep the Ten Commandments, only 13% think that each of these commandments has moral validity. It is no surprise to learn that 74 % say that they will steal without compunction; 64% say that they will lie if there is an advantage to be had in doing so; 53% say that, given a chance, they will commit adultery; 41% say that they intend to use recreational drugs; and 30% say that they will cheat on their taxes. What may be the clearest indicator of the disappearance of a moral texture to society is the loss of guilt and embarrassment over moral lapses. While 86% admit to lying regularly to their parents, 75% to a friend, 73% to a sibling, and 73 % to a lover, only 11% cited lying as having produced a serious level of guilt or embarrassment. While 74% will steal without compunction, only 9% register any moral disquiet. While pornography has blossomed into a 4 billion dollar industry that accounts for a quarter of all the videos rented in shops, seen in the thriving hotel business or on cable, only 2% experience guilt about watching. And, not surprisingly, at the center of this slide into license and moral relativism is the disappearance of God. Only 17% define sin as a violation of God’s will.” (LOV, p.59)
God has disappeared because He is being displaced by the American Idol: Self. Wells informs us of what we already know: the moral orientation of our culture has drastically changed over the last half of the 20th century. This change in social mores is indicative of an extensive rejection of the God of the Bible and an embrace of the more popular deity: Self. The social code of the World War II generation, yet influenced by the common grace effects of a more orthodox and vibrant Church, included self-restraint, self-control, even self-sacrifice. No longer. Any concern for others has collapsed into a pursuit of self-satisfaction as we exercise our individual rights. We now look out for number one. “Our sense that self-gratification is a right stands at the heart of this moral change. The internal ethic of the self – what is right for me – has become the means by which all external standards, external controls, and external expectations are remitted.” (LOV, p.62)
Many temples to Self have been erected across the landscape of our culture, but perhaps the most popular shrine we’ve built has been to The Therapeutic Self. Gone from our conversation is the vocabulary of theology. We now engage in psycho-speak using the vocabulary of the therapist. Our “watchwords are self-image, self-ideal, the true self, the false self, the inner self, and self-actualization.” (LOV, p.120) Again, these statistics are a bit dated, but nonetheless telling. “The United States has half the world’s clinical psychologists, up from 12,000 in 1968 to 42,000 in 1990, when no other nation at that time had more than 400. We have one third of the world’s psychiatrists. In the fifteen years between 1975 and 1990, clinical social workers increased by 320% and family counselors by 680%. By 1990, we had two psychotherapists for every dentist and more counselors than librarians.” (LOV, p.121)
The Therapeutic Idol, as all idols are wont to do, does not satisfy and actually destroys its worshipers. David Myers (The American Paradox , 2000) writes: “We are better paid, better fed, better housed, better educated, and healthier than ever before, and with more human rights, faster communication, and more convenient transportation than we have ever known. Alongside all of this largesse, however, are the signs of life in pain and travail. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide has tripled, violent crime quadrupled, the number in prison has quintupled, illegitimate children sextupled, and the number of those cohabiting has increased sevenfold.” Hmmm… maybe its time Americans got themselves a new god?
It seems that Americans are doing just that – kinda. We are becoming “spiritual.” We are increasingly worshiping at the shrine of The Spiritual Self. Jon Meacham’s April 13, 2009 article in Newsweek, “The End of Christian America” cites the rise in atheistic unbelief, but, as pointed out by Al Mohler (cf. his blog April 27, 2009), the more disconcerting thing is the shift to an individualized, self-manufactured religiosity, a spiritual potpourri arbitrarily concocted from a smorgasbord of world-views, Christianity being merely one of them. The result is a paganized Christianity. What Paul would call holding to a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Tim 3:5). We are increasingly living in a Colossae-like culture with its mishmash of asceticism, angel worship, ritual, mysticism and truncated truth that effects little moral transformation of life and brings no glory to God. Unlike the true God, the Spiritual Self receives worship from lawless people.
It is this Spiritual Self that we must not inadvertently worship. We must not poll it, market it, appease it, accommodate it and allow it to set the agenda for our worship nor determine the content of our doctrine. “It is an idolatry as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament. That this devotion to the self seems not to be like that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the Church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. It is as powerful an organizing center as any god or goddess on the market. 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… [God’s] glory should be a matter of more profound interest to the Church than its self-satisfaction.” (LOV, p.204)
What is needed is a recovery of, a demonstration of, and a heralding of the gospel. American selfolaters need to be told of the God who is. They need to be confronted with His essential holiness and informed that He is our Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. They need to be addressed as dignified but fallen image-bearers, who are innately oriented to worship and are accountable to God for their worship. They need to experience the Spirit piercing and convicting their conscience with the Law of God. Their conscience is constructed so as to resonate with that Law, and the Spirit alone can enable them to discover their violation of the first commandment and the lawlessness that ensues from there. They need to be alarmed and dismayed that they are pursuing a false god, be it the Therapeutic Self or the Spiritual Self, who will only disappoint them and then bring them under the wrath of the God who is. They need to experience their need of a Savior. They need to see Christians who are truly saved: individuals, families, and communities of gospel grace, truth, and love. They need to see a demonstration in our lives of orderliness, moral beauty, compassion, benevolence and grace. They need to hear the good news concerning salvation in Jesus Christ ALONE, by grace ALONE, through faith ALONE. They need to know what Jesus has done, what He has taught, what He accomplished on the cross and what is the significance of His resurrection. They need to know that Jesus is the exalted and enthroned Lord who, as High Priest of the New Covenant, is willing and ready to save all who, in repentance and faith, call upon His name. They need to know Jesus HIMSELF. They need to know that Jesus is about to return as the Judge of mankind, and that they will stand before Him in the Final Judgment that will issue into either eternal glory in His presence, or eternal destruction in hell. They need to be told that they, in union with Jesus, can know the true God, give Him acceptable worship, and live fruitful lives of moral beauty and peace, enjoying a good conscience and the solid hope of an eternal inheritance.
As the prophets of old, we are called to expose the lies of idolatry and call men into the service of Yahweh God. We must graciously, patiently, lovingly summon men to become disciples of Jesus. If any man would follow Me, let him deny himself. Let him repent of selfolatry.Alan Dunn, Pastor Grace Covenant Baptist Church Flemington, NJ