“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
Self-fulfillment? Or self-denial? Which characterizes you? No self-respecting Christian would claim the former, for we all know we are supposed to deny self. The scripture this week, however, alerts us to a potentially lethal spiritual problem. Our self-fulfillment desire may be so deeply ingrained that we are not even aware of it. Thus any pretense to self-denial is simply another rationalization, only this one is in religious garb.
I came of age in the 1970’s, and have since been able to reflect on the tremendous shifts in spirituality during that tumultuous period. Daniel Yankelovich, a social scientist probably best known today for the polls he conducted for the New York Times (now for CBS), noted that during the 1970’s the self-fulfillment ethic overtook the self-denial ethic. Previous generations knew well how to delay gratification and work for a common good whether in a nation or even in a marriage. These earlier generations were well-suited for meeting the demands of world wars or a depression.
In the 70s, however, we began listening more to our “felt needs” and emotions. The effect has been huge, and you can see it most any Sunday at a church service. If I were to read, and read well, a sermon from one of the leading preachers of the first half of the 20th century, a modern congregation would either revolt because of its length (35 minutes!!) or walk out of the sanctuary puzzled over what they heard. Everyone in ministry is trying to engage an increasingly uninterested audience who is clamoring for something that interests or excites or entertains them. And all we have to offer is a gospel with self-denial at its core.
Forget the huge cultural shifts. Think about the implications of the self-fulfillment doctrine on personal spirituality. I’m not talking about the gross and overt sins we all see and publicly loathe. I’m talking about the more subtle sins that we can gloss over because we produce a modicum of good works in other areas. Otherwise good church people can be involved in activities so plainly wrong, yet if you were to suggest to them the wrongness they would look at you in wonder, denial, and likely anger.
Prophets like Jeremiah are unsparing in their warnings about deep seated spiritual corruption that touches us all. My heart is deceitful. I truly do not understand some of the actions I engage in or thoughts I entertain.
Lent calls on us to honestly confront the things in our personalities that do not need to be there. We must further look deeply into ourselves, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and seek out the alienation from God lying at the root of these sins.
This task is enormously difficult, and precisely the reason we need a season of Lent, not just a day or a weekend retreat. Even Paul at the full flourish of his theological insight wrote in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Perhaps he had just read Jeremiah, and had become acutely aware of the spiritual narcissism plaguing us all.
So can you trust your heart? Consider carefully your answer in light of the prophet’s message. Have you become so accustomed to some patterns of action and thought that you do not even realize their harm? Can you honestly confront certain areas of your life that render you spiritually vulnerable?
As you move through this day and week admit that you are at the mercy of some very deep spiritual currents and some of them are dangerous undertows. Be certain also, however, that Christ is always trustworthy. He will never ask you to confess, deny, and turn away from anything that is not in your long-term best interest. Beware of the subtle and deceitful traps of self-fulfillment. Embrace Christ and find the life you’ve always wanted.
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 26, 2012