Sunday, December 1, 2013

Don't Tell Me What To Do! Self-Actualization & the Sovereignty of God

One of the most powerful motives that lures us away from Christ is the desire for self-autonomy—in other words, the right to shape our own destiny, to “be who we are,” and to pursue the empty goal of self-fulfillment. In an increasingly secularized society that touts tolerance and political correctness over truth and good conscience, and in which moral relativism commands the rejection of the most basic notions of right and wrong, the will of God is conveniently cast aside, even reviled as a concept. 

Self-actualization (“selfism” or “self religion”) theories were first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s and underlie much of today’s psychotherapy [1]  helping to form the ideological basis--and justification--for the increasing self-centeredness of our culture. Self-actualization is a term used in various theories of psychology—most famously in the work of Abraham Maslow and his influential “hierarchy of needs” pyramid [2]—usually to describe the process by which we can reach our full personal potential, and transform our lives. As Maslow puts it, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…It  refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”[3] 

The idea that we should aspire to become more of what we are—in biblical terms: sinful; weak; lost—as opposed to being made new in Christ, represents a fundamental rejection of our need for God. This is the epitome of secular humanism, which is characterized by what Ray C. Stedman so accurately describes as, “godless chatter, profane babblings, talking endlessly about man, his abilities and his wisdom, but never recognizing God.”[4] The impact of such thinking has not been confined within an academic bubble or limited to prevailing theories of psychotherapy alone, but has laid the foundation for many social changes in our society (as ideas tend to do!)—including the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality and the redefinition of the family structure.

Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe's book, The Fourth Turning, is a fascinating depiction of the “unraveling” of contemporary American society. In it, they discuss how, “while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society.”[5] This is because “optimism still attaches to self, but no longer to family or community.”[6] Strauss and Howe predict that America is on the cusp of a complete unraveling, a crisis stage, as part of a cyclical pattern that can be identified in every society throughout history. They claim that the historical pattern they have traced always involves four “turnings” or seasons that end in a societal crisis—the “fourth turning” or “winter” of every cycle, “a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.”[7] Like the other fourth turnings experienced in American history so far—marked by the American Revolution of the 1770s, the Civil War of the 1860s, and the Great Depression and World War II of the last century—Strauss and Howe predict that the fourth turning of this century (by 2050) will also be both completely unexpected and will involve “bone-jarring Crises” so monumental that, by their end, America will emerge in a wholly new form.[8]

Whether or not they are right, we are certainly seeing the effects of the rise of selfism in our society today, just as was seen in the “third turning” stage of previous eras depicted by Strauss and Howe. The quest to self-actualize leads many to seek meaning in narcissistic pursuits and to place the self at the center of everything. It has become commonplace, even clichéd, to make self-centered statements like, “I need to do what’s good for me” or for younger generations, “I need to do me.” The concept of loving oneself and putting oneself first is lauded on day-time TV chat shows as the harrowed housewife’s solution to her woes. Teens are encouraged to explore their sexual orientation in order to find out “who they really are” and to be “true to themselves.” An individual’s sense of identity is to be sought in personal achievement, social status, family, career, sexual orientation, or in other idols.

Selfism has become the prevailing ideology in our culture. This way of thinking veils a deep-seated desire for self-autonomy and self-worship; in essence the desire to be one’s own God. Indeed, if the human heart is not submitted to glorifying God, it will surely seek to glorify itself. As was demonstrated in that fateful act of rebellion—that grasp for self-empowerment—first committed in the Garden of Eden, the human heart has always been prey to a prideful spirit whispering alluring promises of earthly gain. For the heart is always worshiping something, and if it is not God, it will be a cheap substitute. And the idol of self is a seductive substitute indeed.

A fellow believer and friend of mine recently found herself confronting this very idol in a conversation with an old friend, whom I shall refer to here as Jane. Jane had formerly accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior, only to categorize Him some time later as one of several paths to a higher spiritual level of existence. Initially upon accepting Christ, Jane had passionately shared her faith with others, and was even instrumental in leading another to Christ. But like a seed that fell on rocky soil and quickly sprang up, Jane’s faith soon withered as she began to look to other religions and belief systems for further guidance. She began seeking answers in New Age spiritualism, bypassing what she now called the “middle man” of Jesus Christ, and rejecting Him as the only way to God. After my friend spent some time probing Jane with questions to understand why she was blending mysticism and other faiths with Christianity, Jane finally admitted: “The fact is, I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” And there it was: the heart-problem exposed. The innate, rebellious desire for self-autonomy—the potential for which lurks within all of our fallen hearts—had surfaced in Jane’s heart, leading her away from a life of submission to the sovereignty of God. She wanted things on her own terms, and didn't want to be limited by the Bible. 

It is this sinful nature within each of us that leads many to seek out other paths to happiness, and other idols in God's place, rather than accepting His authority and seeking first His Kingdom. As Tim Keller illuminates in Counterfeit Gods“Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness’? We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our hearts deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us.”[9] For our heart's desires can be rooted in pride, rather than in our love of God. Whatever one’s idol might be, even if it is something virtuous, like family or Christian ministry, for example, if it is an idol, it is always going to be tied to a prideful form of self-love. For it is pride that leads us away from God, to be lovers of self (psa 10:4) and lovers of the world (James 4:1-6). 

The fallible self is a shaky foundation on which to base one’s life-meaning and purpose, and many who do so ultimately find themselves sinking in a quick-sand of sin (Matt. 7:24-27). Whether serving in the community, performing warm and fuzzy acts of charity, aging gracefully, or living well through diet, meditation, and exercise, these things can all boil down to a futile quest for self-fulfillment in the wrong places. Christ’s redemptive love has no place in a religion of self that regards the human heart as essentially good and perfectible through human effort. The atonement of Christ can be side-lined, if not completely nullified, in this way for thinking. 

The concept that to “live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) seems absurd when perceived through the distorting lens of selfism. But, being a disciple of Christ is about self-denial and submission to God. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24). The world will tell us that to deny ourselves in obedience to God is to be enslaved. Self-actualization is about advancing our own agenda. But self-advancement leads to narcissism, egocentricity, and ultimately to being enslaved by sin. The only true source of freedom is found in Christ, for "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:1). Let's be encouraged, then, as those made new in Christ, to stand firm in our freedom, and to put off the old self with all it's deceitful desires of the flesh (Eph 4:22-24). 

The nature of biblical truth is often paradoxical (a beautiful manifestation of the supernatural and mysterious power of God's Word). We can be uplifted by the paradoxical truth that we are actually empowered through our submission to God, for it is through dying to self that we truly live!

****See also previous blog post on Selfism and the Real Me.
[1] Vitz, Paul, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, (1977, 1994, William Eerdmans Publishing), 
[2] Maslow, Abraham Harold, (1908—1970) was an American professor of psychology at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research and Columbia University who created Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
[3] Maslow, Abraham Harold, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, (1943). p370-96.
[4] Ray C. Stedman, O MAN OF GOD! (
[5] William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy, (New York, 1997), p1
[6] Ibid, p2
[7] Ibid, p3
[8] Ibid, p5
[9] Keller, Timothy, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, (USA, 2009), p1


Anonymous said...

Excellent article; well researched, written, and presented. I like your style; it's refreshing.

mjnissim said...

Thank you for this excellent article. I am increasingly recognising what an enemy Humanism is, how connected it is with homosexuality and the breakup of the family,and how it has permeated our schools as the only valid religion. But Yeshua is coming back - and He'll put an end to it all.

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