Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.

Christian Reconciliation

It truly is amazing how at certain moments in life something that was once very baffling suddenly begins to make sense. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps like me you’ve experienced situations where you felt as though you were immersed in uncertainty, but then suddenly, and for whatever reason, you saw the framework of the challenge in a different light, and by this, the solution stepped to the forefront.

I liken it to the Rubik’s Cube we have at home. My kids will jumble it up and hand it to me. It takes me a little while, but usually I can figure it out. I just need some time with it. And I know what to expect of that time. It’ll be a procedure of turning the cube’s various multi-colored pieces this way and that way, all the while observing and calculating the potential of each piece’s role in the puzzle—and I’ll do it with the hope that I’m actually making progress rather than confusing the device even more. In other words, even as I’m doing what I can to solve it, I’m acutely aware that as a fallible human being, if I’m not careful, I’m more than capable of making things worse. This means being very mindful. It means thinking several turns past the present turn.

But there’s something else I expect from the process. While humming along steadily—because I’m not a quitter, and also because I don’t like to lose—I stick with it. As I do, there always seems to be that moment when persistence and fate meet one another. In other words, after a while of determined laboring, I’ll turn the cube just right and I’ll see all of its parts in a different way, ultimately revealing what it is that I need to do to solve it.

And then I do it.

I suppose like the Rubik’s Cube, the theological observation in all of this is multi-dimensional. Of course in one sense, for me as a pastor, it’s reminiscent of something that’s not all that uncommon—which is  to get handed a mixed-up problem between people with the expectation I’ll be able to fix it. In another sense, it has me thinking this morning on what can actually solve fractured human relationships in the Church when they occur.

And they definitely do occur. We certainly have our share here at Our Savior.

To start, it’s good to recognize that everyone in the situation is different—just like the individual pieces of the cube. All are in certain places as a result of various circumstances. All have individual personalities and mindsets shaped by the same. And yet, all remain a part of the same cube, which means all are part of sinful humanity, for indeed “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). This means that every single person involved in the conflict is more than capable of self-love aimed at self-preservation. It means every single person is more than proficient at cruelty, deceit, betrayal, and so much more. Perhaps worst of all, most don’t even need a reason or motive to act on these darker inclinations in order to hurt others. They only need the opportunity. That’s the way of the sinful flesh, and everyone involved in the situation is infected by it.

It’s good to recognize this stuff. It’s even better when everyone in the situation recognizes it, and not only are they on board with it in principle, but they are ready and willing to humbly confess it personally.

That carries us to something else we can keep in mind when sorting through conflict among Christians. Unlike the world around us (which pretty much always has our demise in mind), I’d hope that Christians who know their sinful nature and know their Savior could safely assume such faith is at work in the life of their opponent, that the people involved in the conflict truly are believers in Christ who’ve staked their claim of salvation on the fact that even as they are sinners, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8). If this Gospel is indeed surging through their spiritual veins, then you, their opponent—someone mirroring this truth—can labor by the premise that all involved are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25).

Beholding one another through this Gospel, acknowledging that forgiveness is already abounding between God and everyone involved, the stage is set for Christian opponents to seek genuine peace in ways unavailable to the unbelieving world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, all involved are enabled in some way to take hold of the cube, to diligently turn it this way and that way in search of an avenue for solving the problem. And we’ll do this, not with a desire to win or to find an endpoint that ultimately proves our side right, but rather a solution that proves faithful to Christ and His Word.

God promises to bless such laboring (1 Corinthians 15:58). Interestingly, one of His blessings is diligent hopefulness. That is to say, one very important fruit of faith in the whole experience will be that you actually make an effort to pursue a solution.

I mentioned before that eventually the solution to the Rubik’s Cube is revealed, but usually it takes time and attentiveness. If I really want to solve it, I can’t give up and walk away. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, I can give up. Giving up is probably the easiest thing anyone can do in the face of challenge. But by doing it, the endpoint—which is failure—is already pretty much predetermined. Personally, I appreciate the hopefulness Helen Keller described when she said something along the lines of, “Don’t dwell on today’s failures, but on the successes that may come tomorrow.” For as burdened by struggle as she was, she always looked to the next day as fertile ground for better opportunity. That’s pretty great. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes, but still it’s a great way to live. Pitching her words against the endurance required for reconciliation among God’s people is very near to hearing the Lord whisper by way of King Solomon in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” It is to hear the Lord urging through the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

A lot of bad things have happened in the last six months. Christian friendships were by no means immune to the badness. I’m certainly no exception in the mess. By my own faultiness, I’ve seen things go south in a hurry. Nevertheless, the call goes out from the Word of God to all of us: Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Be absolved by the God who loves you. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ. If they receive you, rejoice at the refreshing rain shower of grace God is most certainly sending to both of your souls. If they turn you away, while it may be a telling moment as to the condition of their heart, still, don’t give up. If anything, be ready to receive them if they have a change of heart. Do all of this in pursuit of that rain shower you know is forming on the horizon. Chase after it for as long as you can. Eventually you’ll reach it, even if you reach it alone.

On second thought, rest assured you’ll never be in it alone. Jesus will be there, too. And that’s pretty great.