Every human being is living within a story. Of course the story that brings the most life is the one where God is a Merciful Redeemer and we are the lowly beneficiaries of His grace. Where Jesus alone is Lord and King and worthy of worship and our identity is firmly established and rooted in Him. While that should be the only story that dictates everything about our worldview and sense of self, more often than not, we tend to exist within a narrative where we are at the center and every experience that we have is filtered through the belief that everything revolves around me, myself, and I.
We exist within a society where narcissism and self obsession are not only common practice but often touted as necessary pathways to success and fulfillment. While the cross of Christ is constantly bidding us to come and lose ourselves in pursuit of Jesus, we are being told to build our own brands, express our individuality, put ourselves first, and set ourselves apart. While all of those things are not inherently antithetical to being a disciple of Jesus, they sure can make it muddy and confusing. How do we steward every single thing that God has given us well, for the sake of His name, with Christ remaining at the center, in a culture that promotes self-exaltation over all things - the struggle is very real.
I can testify first hand that self centered people are fragile and exhausted people. Especially in the realm of leading worship and creating art, I have often found myself trapped in the cycle of drawing confidence from praise and affirmation, or spiraling in insecurity because of the lack thereof and it is an absolute dead end. It takes life instead of giving it because we simply were not created to be the center of our own universe. We were created to worship and serve the One who made us and to live lives that point back to Him. We may be able to convince ourselves for a time that it’s possible to find worth and identity in our own success and performance, but eventually it all comes crashing down. The moment that our inevitable limitations and failures expose who we really are - we are forced to face the reality that only God is God and we are only broken people, beholden to His mercy. Even in the instances where we are able to bear any fruit or do any good at all for the kingdom of God, it is because we are being carried along by His grace.
So how do we break free of the vicious and destructive cycle of self obsession which only leads to disappointment?
One of the first things that we can do is begin the real work of getting under the hood of our own hearts by identifying specific lies we believe govern our behavior, and then combatting them with the rich truths of the Gospel. Are you desperately performing for people in order to get them to love you? Are you preoccupied with wanting attention? Do you obsess over what specific people think and feel about you? Does your joy rise and fall with people's responses to you? Do you struggle with idolizing validation and encouragement from others? Meditate on the glorious truth of God’s immovable affection for you which isn't tied to anything that you do. A love so great that it was set on you before the foundation of this world. What are the lies you’ve believed and the longings you spend your life striving to satisfy? Write them down. Call them out. Confess them to your community. Invite the Holy Spirit into your struggle. Your struggles are real and His grace is more than sufficient.
Undergirding every single one of these longings for affirmation, acceptance, love, and praise is a more fundamental longing that only Jesus Himself can fulfill. Once we self-reflect and identify our unique pitfalls, we can bring them before the Lord in prayer allowing the healing balm of the Gospel to heal us and draw us closer to Jesus.
Another really helpful discipline in finding freedom from self obsession is what Tim Keller calls “self forgetfulness”.
In his book “The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness” Tim Keller presents the idea that “the essence of gospel humility is not thinking more of ourselves or less of ourselves, it is thinking of ourselves less”. In other words, the way forward is not simply working to not have too high a view of ourselves, or too low a view of ourselves, it’s learning to think of ourselves less often all together. Talk about a struggle. I don’t know about you, but this is very contrary to all of my most natural inclinations. From the moment that I wake up in the morning to the moment I go to bed at night, I am constantly fighting the temptation to filter all of my experiences through the question “how does this affect me?”.
But Jesus has shown us a better way. He has shown us a life laid down for the sake of others and the glory of the Father. When Paul exhorted the believers in Philippi to “do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit”, it was a call to imitate Jesus. A call to have the mind of Christ who, being the only person in all of history who has infinite reasons to boast, made Himself nothing to the point of death….for YOU!
Now seated on His throne, in the center of all things, He invites us to lay down the burden of everything having to be about us. That’s a heavy load that we were not fashioned to bear. Instead, we’ve been invited to live lives of sacrifice and servanthood that make much of Jesus and a mockery of our sinful inclinations. By taking our eyes off of ourselves we are not only able to look, listen, and enter into the lives of others, but we are also able to see God rightly and thus worship Him rightly.
“To become humble and self forgetful is to become truly human so that we might truly know God” - C.S Lewis.