Along with my morning Bible reading, I’ve lately been reading the English Puritan Thomas Brooks’ classic book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Beneath its slightly archaic but nonetheless warm 17th century prose, every page of this book sparkles with gems of practical advice about living as a Christian. He addresses problems as common today as they were 350 years ago, such as (to take one example) our tendency not to feel the same joy in the middle of our Christian life as we did at the beginning, and on that basis to start questioning the strength of our relationship with God. And to each of these devices the devil uses to discourage or derail us, Brooks offers honest, biblical, challenging—yet always encouraging—remedies.
This morning I read a section on the danger of self-seeking. Starting with biblical rulers (like Pharaoh, Saul, and Absalom) who put their own self-interest above the concerns of their people, and moving on to average individuals’ habit of doing the same thing, Brooks shows how self-destructive this practice is. In trying to protect or promote ourselves, we ruin ourselves. Attempting to lift ourselves up, we bring ourselves down. “Cain sought himself, and slew two at once, his brother and his own soul… The princes and residents sought themselves, in the ruin of Daniel, but ruined themselves, their wives and children…Every self-seeker is a self-tormentor, a self-destroyer, he carries a hell, an executioner, in his own bosom.” Strong words, but to judge from his examples, true ones. When we put our interests first, we finally do ourselves no favours.
But we wouldn’t do this, would we?
Parents would never find themselves arguing with their children more to reaffirm who’s boss than to exercise genuine care, would they? Academics would never cling to untenable ideas because being right and saving face is more important than discovering the truth, would they? We would never insist on doing a difficult task ourselves just to prove that we don’t need anyone’s help, when we could be twice as efficient by sharing, would we?
The truth is, self-seeking—or self-protectiveness, or defensiveness, or whatever other form it takes—is a danger for all of us. Sadly, it’s even true in our service as Christians. God has given us all gifts to use in this world and in God’s church. These gifts are given so that God’s work will be done. We are only vessels, but we all too easily take an inappropriate ownership and personal pride in our efforts for God. When we make our service for God into something that is mostly about our own appearance or acclaim or admiration, we get in the way of God’s work and degrade ourselves in the bargain.
Brooks wisely points us to 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive (i.e., as a gift from God)? And if you did receive it why do you boast as if you did not?”” Expanding on 2 Kings 6:5, he comments, “Alas, Lord! all I have is but borrowed from the fountain that fills all the vessels in heaven and on earth, and it overflows. My gifts are not so much mine as thine.”
Personally, I know this can be a struggle. The desire to preach a good sermon or to be a supportive pastor can actually be a desire to look capable rather than to pass on the Word of God or to bring Christ’s comforts to someone who needs it. Though the form it takes varies, I suspect I’m not alone. But Brooks is right: “There is not a greater hindrance to all the duties of piety than self-seeking.”
Our lives are gifts. Our abilities and strengths are borrowed, loaned to us by the Lord to use for his glory and plans. Self-seeking, contrary to all appearances, is not only sinful but counterproductive. The freedom to be used by God is our true destiny.