Can a Christian Be Set Free From Self-Centeredness?

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“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

In our first sermon, we discussed self-centeredness as mankind’s basic problem and noted that the process of renewing the image of God begins at the new birth.

This sermon seeks to answer: “Can a Christian be set free from self-centeredness?”

But first let’s make sure we understand the difference be tween “self-centeredness” in the life of a sinner versus “self-centeredness” in the life of a Christian.

Self-Centeredness in the Life of a Sinner

Self-centeredness is not a sin we commit like other sins. It is a condition of our heart and will that resulted from The Fall. Rather than coming from the womb of our mothers with a God-centered focus, we emerge into this world warped and twisted on the inside with a self-centered focus. David described it like this: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa. 51:5).

The term “iniquity” speaks of an inner crookedness and warped mind and will, and “sin” speaks of our inability to function as God designed humans to function. The Psalmist tells us that humans are “estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies” (Psa. 58:3).

It is self-centeredness that motivates a person to commit acts of willful sin. The primary terms the New Testament uses when speaking of “self-centeredness,” or as theologians prefer, “inherited depravity,” “inbred sin,” the “carnal nature” or the like, are: “sin” (Rom. 7:8); “sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17); the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:23); the “flesh” (Rom. 7:18; 8:1); and “fleshly minded” (Rom. 8:6).

However, as previously noted in our last sermon, when we become Christians, God forgives our sins and begins the renewal of God’s image in us through union with Jesus.

According to Apostle Paul, the power and control of inherited self-centeredness” (that is, the flesh) is broken at the moment of the new birth (Rom. 6:1-23). This means that the Christian is freed from the controlling power of self-centeredness.

However, there remains in Christians a predisposition to self-centeredness. This predisposition is not a “sin” to be forgiven; it is a condition of the heart that God must cleanse.

Unconscious Habituated Self-Centeredness in the Life of a Christian

Self-centered choices that are repeated over and over become habituated self-centered patterns of be havior that bypass the conscious thought processes of the mind.

For example, something triggers an habituated pattern, and we react without thinking. Many times these habituated responses are self-centered and as such are not in harmony with God’s Word. A Christian purposes, by the grace of God, to stop doing everything he knows is wrong and to start doing all that he knows God requires (1 John 1:7). This rules out deliberate willful disobedience (1 John 3:9).

However, habituated self-centered patterns of behavior will continue until God’s Holy Spirit gives the Christian light on the specific issue and shows him he must change. In obedient response to the Spirit, the Christian begins the difficult task of reprogramming his mind for change.

The biblical exhortations in Scripture to Christians to stop criticizing each other (Gal. 5:15), to stop quarreling with each other, and to stop causing division among the body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-11), are examples of unbiblical self-centered attitudes and behaviors.

This shows that habituated self-centered ways of thinking and behaving show up in the lives of Christians. Additionally, in Galatians Paul exhorts that Christians are to live a life of love one for another and that a major key in the change process is to learn to walk by the Spirit! He writes, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). In other words, the Holy Spirit can empower Christians to love one another.

Further, if they are willing to obey the guidance of the Spirit and continually yield to His desires, they will never fulfill the desires of the flesh—that is, react to each other in self-centered ways (Gal. 5:16). Why?

Because the Spirit and the flesh oppose each other and work against each other. If Christians would live out in practice (follow the imperatives of God’s Word) what was true of them in Christ (the indicative statements of fact; see Rom. 6:1-18), the Holy Spirit would keep them from the self-centered practices of conceit, provocation, and envy (Gal. 5:26).

God’s Cure for Habituated Self-Centeredness in the Life of a Christian

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, describing his discovery of self-centeredness in his life, wrote, “I was a believer; I knew Christ. But I kept a finger on a corner of my life and I wanted to do a little bargaining with God about what He did with me.” It was through a growing awareness of not being totally surrendered to God in every respect that Dr. Kinlaw came to see his need for a thorough cleansing from this predisposition.

He was motivated to make a full surrender to God and consequently experienced the fullness of the Spirit whereby his heart was thoroughly cleansed from self-centeredness, and he received power to be the Christian example God wanted him to be (Acts. 1:8).

Whether or not a Christian fully recognizes the tendency toward self-centeredness remaining in his life, God gives all believers various commands such as, “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), and urges all believers to present themselves to God as a living, holy, sacrifice to God. In other words, God wants each Christian to yield fully every aspect of his or her life to God’s control (Rom. 12:1).

Earnest Christians want their hearts to be cleansed from self-centeredness so that it can be a pure and spotless throne for God. Listen to David as he cries out to God. After asking God to have mercy on him and to forgive him, he recognizes that he needs something more in addition to forgiveness, as wonderful as that is. He prays, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psa. 51:7).

Earnest Christians want their hearts to be cleansed from self-centeredness so that it can be a pure and spotless throne for God.

Did David understand the chemistry of snow? We do know that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he did ask to be made “whiter than snow.” Why whiter than snow? Isaiah wrote, “Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18).

Yet David asks to be made whiter than snow. Did he know that at the heart of every snowflake is a speck of dirt? Could it be that David was asking God to deal with the very heart of his problem: a self-centered heart? Could it be that David was asking God to deal with the very heart of his problem: a self-centered heart?

Growth in Grace After a Christian’s Heart is Purified from Self-Centeredness

It is important to distinguish between the cleansing of unconscious habituated self-centeredness that occurs at the moment a Christian offers himself to God in full surrender and becomes filled with the Spirit, and the on-going healing of the mental and emotional consequences of habituated self-centered ness that takes place as we continue to walk in the light.

Let me illustrate. My oldest brother was born during World War II. My father was in the Navy, and my mother was a homemaker. Having very little income, my mother bought powdered milk for David. She did not know that the powdered milk was not fortified with vitamins and minerals like it is today, and as a result, David developed “rickets”—a condition that results from a vitamin D deficiency. In David’s case, rickets caused the bones in his legs to bow.

Mother, deeply concerned, took David to the doctor, and he diagnosed his bowed legs as weak bone structure due to a lack of vitamin D and insufficient calcium absorption. He gave baby David a vitamin D shot to jump-start calcium absorption. He also told our mother to give David whole milk every day. An immediate cure for vitamin D deficiency that caused the rickets was effected at a point in time by the injection of vitamin D. However, the physical consequences caused by the prolonged deficiency of the vitamin were not healed immediately. The appropriate diet and a long, painful, process of therapy and metal braces were necessary to straighten David’s legs and “heal” the results of a deficient diet.

The application of this illustration is this: the predisposition to self-centeredness in the life of a Christian can be cleansed in a moment, but the habituated mental and emotional consequences of self-centeredness may take a long time to reprogram.

 

When the Psalmist prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psa. 51:10), he chose a Hebrew verb (“create”) that is limited to God’s activity.

No one, apart from God, can create a clean heart in fallen creatures. A clean heart is a heart that is cleansed not only from the guilt of sinful behavior, but also cleansed from the pollution of self-centeredness.

A clean heart is a heart that is cleansed not only from the guilt of sinful behavior, but also cleansed from the pollution of self-centeredness.

Once God has created in us a clean heart, it remains clean only as we continue to walk in all the light that God’s Word and Spirit shed on our pathway.

A clean heart begins with getting saved, and is furthered by fully surrendering to God (Rom. 12:1) and being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). It is maintained by walking in the Spirit and making the on going changes He prompts us to make.

Have you, my Christian reader, asked God to cleanse your heart of all self-centeredness and yielded full control to Him? If not, why not do it now?


Originally posted in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.

Allan Brown
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.
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