What Is “Selfism”?

Neal Pollard

I came across the term “selfism” in Dick Meyer’s 2008 book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.  He defines it as “American individualism redefined by the age of marketing, self-help, moral relativism, and the belief that the “self” is something that can be deliberately found or made” (36).  He warns that “it is different than the older, can-do, self-made-man American spirit because it substitutes feeling for doing” (37). Later in the chapter, Meyer ties this hyper-emphasis on self  to a growing belligerence in society.  He writes, “On the Internet, belligerence can be anonymous, faceless, and hence risk-free. In schools and offices, for example, the Web is a problem, because parents and workers say nasty things in e-mail that they would never say in person. Chat rooms, blogs, and online comments are clogged with vitriol and hate-mongering…the need to make others wrong has turned into an addiction” (44).  One of his points in the chapter is that the elevation of self is not just a problem of narcissism, but it has become commonplace to vaunt self by stepping on, insulting, and ridiculing others to do it.  We are witnessing an ever-growing game of “King of the Mountain,” where in a rush to get noticed we are shoving off anyone who might eclipse or overshadow us.

Selfism is Satanic rather than sanctified behavior, but each of us must wrestle with it.  The temptation to join them rather than “beat” them through Christlike humility is ever-present.  What is “one-upmanship” if not an effort to present self as above another? In certain circles, the ability to respectfully and civilly discuss differences has been assassinated by hired killers like vanity, self-importance, animosity, and contempt.

Do we have a more difficult task than obeying Jesus’ command to deny self (cf. Mat. 16:24)?  When Paul urges Philippi to eliminate selfish ambition and conceit while esteeming others as better than self (Phi. 2:3), do we appreciate the polar opposite this is to the cultural arch-hero of selfism?  Jesus came into this world to show us the selfless life.  It is scary to live that way, especially in a world full of adherents to the cult of self.  We fear that being selfless with selfish people will lead to being walked over, preempted, or mistreated.  What will help is developing the faith to trust that living the way God commands leads us to the best life possible.  The best life possible is one where self is suppressed in deference to Christ and others.  Such a life will be noticed as a beacon in our choppy seas of selfism!

“NO, HE’S ABOUT LIKE YOU!”

Neal Pollard

A new preacher was moving to work with a church in a community where there were several more congregations. Two of the preachers already working in that area met for lunch and the conversation soon moved to the new preacher. One of the men asked, “Have you ever heard of this guy before?” The other said, “Yes, I know him very well.” The first, picking at the second, said, “Oh? Well, does he preach as well as you?” The second dryly said, “No, he preaches about like you!”

That second preacher had healthy self-image, didn’t he? He was obviously joking, but you probably have met his counterpart-someone who took such self-evaluation quite seriously. We call them the “one-uppers,” “the toppers,” and the one most likely to say, “Oh yeah? You think that’s something.” You hear them at work, at your kid’s ballgame, out with a group of friends, at family gatherings, and even with spiritual family members. Different things may make them tick-arrogance, low self-esteem, insecurity or feelings of inadequacy, a felt need for being the center of attention, and any number of other things. Typically, such behavior is thought boorish and overbearing and only rarely endearing.

The Bible tells the church, with its many and varied “parts,” that no one should “think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). You are precious and valuable in the sight of the Lord, no doubt! However, you are not more special or valuable than any of His other children. Your soul is not even more valuable than the lost, as yet unredeemed soul of that wino in the gutter, that prostitute walking the street, that murderer on death row, or that blind mute living out a short life in the obscurity of an orphanage in Albania. My Grandpa Mitchell was known to often say, “Remember that nobody is better than you are and you are no better than anyone else!” What an even-handed, level-headed way to look at life. You are better at some things than others, you do better in certain areas of life than others, and there may be one of more things at which you are incredibly talented, competent, or proficient! Be grateful to God and give Him the glory for it or them. But never let it turn to sinful pride or an over-inflated ego. That is a turn off to men and God!

WRONG QUESTION: “WHO’S THE GREATEST?”

Neal Pollard

It was the late ’70s and I was spending the night with my best friends, Patrick and Jody Smith.  We had just finished watching The Bionic Man on TV, and there was a special on Muhammad Ali.  I can still remember his banter with Howard Cosell and the gifted boxer looking at the camera and saying, “I-am-the-greatest!”

“Who is the greatest?” is a burning question in men’s minds.  We want to know who’s the greatest.  Whatever the profession, endeavor, or skill, there are folks vying for the top spot.  People once immortalized for feats and accomplishments, like Tom Courtney, Neil Armstrong, George Washington, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, or Muhammad Ali, fuel future competitors to meet and exceed their successes.

The disciples wanted Jesus to tell them, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1).  On a journey to Capernaum, they argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mk. 9:34).  Here were twelve men who were selected by Christ to have a part in the greatest work on earth.  That was honor and purpose enough, but they wanted more.  If that was good, being the best of the best was better.  Such thinking was way off base, which Jesus repeatedly demonstrated through His humility, sacrifice, and service for the good of others.

Today, we wrestle with the same affliction.  Whether in our daily lives or even within our function in the church, we can get caught up in being recognized as the best.  This is a destructive exercise and misses the point.  If we are Christians, we are among God’s chosen on this earth.  What a privilege!  We have the highest, most important business to do.  Let us do our best and work our hardest, but let us never get caught in the trap of showing others that we are the best.  The very attempts disqualify us.

 

Happiness (POEM)

Photo by Ying Prinyanut

Neal Pollard

What do I need to make for joy?
To beat those troubles that annoy?
Can it be bought or taken from others?
What would I get if I had my druthers?
Would I find it in possessions, investments, land?
A car that’s new or a house that’s grand?
That perfect someone to make me satisfied?
A high position to feed my pride?
When I have seen some with hardly a possession
Who know nothing of materialistic obsession
Anonymous to paparazzi and heads of state
Facing perils and diseases with no way to abate
Living contentedly, day after day
Trusting God gladly to provide them a way
Loving their neighbors and spiritual siblings
All without virtue of a bevy of things
That tells me something, I’d better take notice
Of something the apostle Paul long ago wrote us,
“Whether you have or don’t, or you spend or are spent,
Whatever you face, in life be content.”

The Value Of Self-Forgetfulness (Poem)

Neal Pollard

Imagine a garden of flowers

With a rose in its midst in full bloom

This one blossom feels that it towers

Over all others sharing its space and room

It’s sure that its pedals are most plush

No other more red in its hue

No stem greener, no rival more lush

It sought every admirer’s view.

One day the gardener visited the flowers

For a customer desired a bouquet

They’d shared the same sun and showers

Shared the same rich soil day by day.

But the proud flower stretched tall its red blooming

Puffed itself to its broadest dimension

But the man searched out ones unassuming

Their modesty drew his closest attention.

For the budding roses would bloom with more vim

In the care of the interested client

Trusting food, water, and housing to him

The posy proved itself quite reliant.

But the abandoned, proud rose surely wilted

His pedals dropped one by sad one

By each customer it felt painfully jilted

Til finally it was dead and gone.

The moral of the story conjures sadness

But its truth we ought never to hide

Fullness of self is pure madness

We hurt self most when we’re full of pride

Forget self, be more modest as you grow

Don’t seek glory and men’s adulation.

The Gardener sees all and surely does know

How to use us. Trust His perfect estimation.

THE GLORY-HOG

Neal Pollard

There are people who die some very gruesome deaths in Scripture–Eglon, Jezebel, the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, Judas, and others, too.  But maybe none is more disturbing than the death of Herod the Great.  A wicked, godless ruler, Herod  Agrippa I had just overseen the execution of the apostle James and intended to do the same to Peter.  About this time, Tyre and Sidon sought to appease and flatter him, subjugated people in need of food from Galilee but who had somehow offended this Judean king.

What happens next is recorded in Acts 12:21-23, but is also found in The Works of Josephus.

Josephus writes that at a festival in honor of Caesar, Herod appeared before the people in “a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful” (344). The sunlight hit the garment making it shine “after a surprising manner” and caused the crowd to spontaneously shout that he was a god.  The people cried, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature” (345).

Josephus says that after he had not rejected their praise, “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner” (346). His pain then became violent and severe, and he lingered five days before he died at the age of 45 in A.D. 44 (347).  The inspired Luke tells us the cause of death–“He was eaten with worms” (Acts 12:23).  Why?  Because he did not give God the glory!

When I understand God’s reaction to those who take for themselves glory that only belongs to God, it should humble me to the core!  If it is a sermon, a program, an idea, an act of kindness or benevolence, a rendered service, an article, a Bible class, a Bible study, an evangelistic success, or any spiritual triumph, I should go the second-mile to deflect and divert that praise! We who preach, teach, and otherwise serve the Lord in any way on any occasion must have a healthy sense of who we are.  Paul says that we have the glorious gospel treasure “in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7).

May we be deeply impressed with that, especially when faced with the flattery and praise of men.  The sports analogy, “Don’t believe your own press clippings,” holds true.  Paul was quick to deflect such praise, saying, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5-6).

The next time we are tempted to be a “Glory Hog,” may these biblical truths rush to the forefront of our minds.  After all, thanks to Herod’s demise, we know how God feels about it.  To God truly be the glory!