Maybe you do, too.
I bet you can at least relate.
By nature, I think from my perspective and often (more often than I'd usually like to admit!) pursue my agenda.
I like to do, what I like to do, when I like to do it, where I like to do it, how I like to do it, and with whomever I like to do it.
I think you do, too.
Sometimes we are good at hiding this self-centeredness. I believe that it is possible to have genuinely altruistic moments--that is, moments where we put others self-interest above our own well-being. Sometimes powerful emotions, like love, hate, and disgust, can cause us to act contrary to our self-centered notions.
As Christians, we are given the gift of God's grace through His Son, Jesus Christ, when we repent of our self-centered ways and trust in Christ alone. In the modern noise that is "Christianity" - if you take the time to really listen - you will often hear a false gospel that appeals to the self-centered, invidualistic nature of human beings.
This false gospel appeals to the desires and felt-needs of the individual.
This false gospel fails to mention or emphasize biblical repentance.
A gospel without repentance is no gospel at all.
Don't take my word for it, just read what Jesus said in Luke 13:1-5, where He boldly tells His hearers that unless they repent they will perish. Those verses happen to be right before the parable where the name of our ministry comes from (Fourth Year Ministries), which are related to unrepentant, fruitless individuals and ministries.
The prophet Isaiah declared that we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us to our own way (see Isa 53:6a), which is a prophetic description of our own self-centeredness. We each go astray, each to our own way.
This sin of self-centered, self-willed, rebellion against God-centered living (which is required) was put upon the Messiah, as prophesied by Isaiah in the second half of that same verse: But the LORD caused the iniquity of us all / To fall on Him (Isa 53:6b).
To receive this gift of salvation, we must repent and believe the good news. We must stop living self-centered lives (each of us going astray, each to his own way), and must turn toward the living God, and begin living God-centered lives.
This is the genuine gospel call, and Paul was excited to see that those who believed on Jesus for their salvation in Thessalonica did just this: For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:9-10)
Wrath from God is due towards our self-centeredness. To give people a gospel call without repentance is to encourage them to continue living self-centered lives that are not God centered, but God flavored.
This type of false conversion is an understandable response by a person who wants to continue living their own way, but also wants to go to heaven when they die. Their lives in this life are marked by professions of faith, which are denied by their deeds and lifestyles.
We are not the first generation of Christ followers to deal with this. In fact, it has happened since the beginning.
They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed. (Titus 1:16)
For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (2 Tim 3:2-5, bold added for emphasis)
When I notice the self-centeredness in myself, as a follower of Christ, I don't need to try harder. That's the self-centered, American way of responding. This is sin and going my own way, albeit in a God flavored way.
Instead, the biblical response is confess my self-centeredness is a sin, die to myself, so that Christ can live through me. In order to make this possible, Christ has given every follower of His the indwelling Holy Spirit, who desires to live in and through His people, for the praise and glory of God.
Hopefully, everything above is basic to you. After all, these are the fundamentals of the faith and simply are part of the foundational teaching of Christianity. Hebrews 6:1 makes this plain: Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God... (Heb 6:1).
The purpose of this post is to direct our attention to something else, that is less basic and more subtle: the affect of our self-centered nature on our theology.
Even Christians who understand biblical repentance still revert back to self-centered reading of the Scriptures and self-centered consumption of Christian teaching, seeking what they believe will best benefit themselves and their personal relationship with God.
The very terminology "personal relationship with God" emphasizes the self-centered and self-oriented emphasis of modern Christianity.
Don't get me wrong - one of the coolest truths of biblical Christianity is that individuals are redeemed to God through faith in Christ. I genuinely have a personal relationship with my Father, through Christ, and I hope you do, too. However, to stop here is to be too narrow in our focus.
God is not primarily interested in redeeming individuals.
I have heard it preached as part of teachings and also as calls to salvation that Jesus would have come and died if it was only for you. That is a powerful statement.
It is also false.
If Jesus came only for you, then He would be a failure and the entire mission of God - to redeem a people for Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation - would be a failure, too.
This is self-centered, man-pleasing preaching at its finest. It appeals to the flesh and makes the individual the major focus of the gospel. That's what we want to hear, if we are self-centered.
The genuine gospel is much bigger than the individual. It is a genuinely God-sized gospel. A genuinely God-sized gospel is wayyyyy bigger than the supposed "hole" in any one individuals heart.
God is interested in redeeming a people for Himself. This people is to be reconciled to Himself, through Christ, from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Listen to how Paul describes his personal ministry from the risen Christ:
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. (Eph 3:8-12)
To really understand this, we have to take off our "ME-centered" glasses and put on "God-centered" glasses. God gave a ministry to Paul, which was to proclaim the mystery which was previously hidden in the Creator God. Preaching this mystery is intended to bring to light the unfathomable riches of Christ and to reveal what God is really up to in this world that He has made.
This amazing wisdom of God is supposed to be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. All of this is in accordance with God's eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ. It is through Christ that we - all who have repented of their sin and put their faith in Him alone for salvation from the wrath that is to come - have boldness and confident access to our relationship with God.
Really let that sink in.
God has an eternal purpose, which is bound up in His eternal character. To think of this another way, this is related to answering the most important questions about meaning in all of existence: Why did God create the world at all? The answer is because it was His eternal purpose (before the world was made) to reconcile a people to Himself in Christ, and through those reconciled people to make known his amazing wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
When I resort back to self-centered living, my self-centered reading of the Bible will naturally lead to me focusing on my individual relationship with God. However, if I allow a God-centered reading to dominate, then I can see that God intends for me to emphasize my relationship with him within the ministry of the church, which is to proclaim His excellencies and make His kingdom and gospel known.
God is reconciling a people to Himself through Christ. This completed work of the Messiah has disarmed the powers of the kingdom of darkness (Col 2:13-15) and made it possible for the captives of sin, death, and the devil to be set free in Christ. As a result, these who have been raised to spiritual life from spiritual death are now called to live God-centered lives, which means we are to live in accordance with God's eternal purpose.
We are supposed to live to declare the awesome grace of God.
This doesn't mean that I I should live my life like everyone else in the world, who is pursuing the various lusts and impulses of their flesh (things like retirement, memories, or anything else from this fading world), but that I get a "go directly to heaven when I die" card, even though their pursuit of their various lusts and impulses will result in judgment.
Your relationship with God is not about you.
Jesus did not die so that you could live however you want and escape the condemnation that is due to you. Following Jesus is so much more than "going to church."
Following Jesus means being the church, and being the church means living in accordance with God's eternal purpose in Christ.
Our relationship with God is about declaring to the world, including the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, the manifold wisdom of a God who redeems sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus in accordance with the Scriptures. We are reconciled to God through Christ, and we exist to make this awesome truth known.
It is no longer supposed to remain hidden. It is definitely not simply personal. It is both profoundly personal and public, at the same time.
It is meant to be declared boldly and publicly.
Are you a victim of self-centered theology? If so, repent. Let Christ live through you in accordance with His plan, which He determined before the world was even made.
We can trust Him - this is truly life.
This also explains why Paul is able to boldly assert that God is able to do abundantly more than all we ask or think, through His power which is at work through the church, just a few verses after declaring this eternal purpose of God in Ephesians 3:20-21.
It is also why it is so important to not stray from the leadership that Christ gave to ensure that His church grows up together in unity, maturity, love, and the knowledge of Him - growing up together as we all speak the truth in love (see Eph 4:11-16).
Our local churches are dominated by pastors and teachers, who compete for the "sheep" who sit in different local churches all around the same city. In order to keep many of these "sheep" interested and attending, the self-centered theology is emphasized, so that people feel fed and satisfied and do not go looking for greener pastures.
By forsaking Jesus' design, and leaving Evangelists out of the local church leadership, we have de-emphasized the main truth (the thing that makes pretty much all of us uncomfortable) that the church exists, each individual member, to proclaim the glory and grace of God which we have freely through Christ.
Until we repent of our man-made traditions - which elevate the "senior pastor" to the head of the church in direct rival of Christ Himself, and seek to honor Jesus' design of a plurality of elders in mutual submission to each other, with a genuine pastor/teacher and genuine evangelist to oversee the corresponding internal and external missions of the church, then we will continue to walk in our own ways and designs, nullifying the commandments of God with our man-made traditions.
Together, when we walk the narrow path with Christ, we can keep each other focused on Him and not be deluded by our own self-centered theology and lifestyle. If we're honest, our self-centered lifestyles are nothing more than God flavored worldiness. It is a form of godliness, which denies His power to really live in and through us, not according to our will, but according to His.
Lord, help us by your grace we pray - not because we deserve it, but for your Names' sake.