Sep 3rd, 2012

Increase/Decrease

By Nick Robison

He must increase, but I must decrease

-John 3:30 (ESV)

Tonight I worshipped at _University Presbyterian _and watched as the church discovered a ‘new’ song (Beautiful One by Tim Hughes copyright 2004) and experienced a strong move of the spirit. It was awesome (in the truest sense of the word). The pastor spoke out of John and this verse formed the fulcrum of his sermon, as he spoke I wondered to myself (and now I wonder to you) ‘what does it take for someone to to minimize the self for the benefit of another?

This is a question that has moved far beyond the circles of the religious, in fact, it forms a central tenant for John Rawl’s seminal treatise A Theory of Justice

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of sciety as a whole cannot override.

In other words, there is something within us that refuses to be compromised even for the sake of others. But is this really a bad thing? It’s something so primal and basic that it is litteraly coded into the adrenergic receptors of the human body, the so called ‘fight or flight’ response, but as much as it’s primal it is also barbaric, human society has been the cumulative struggle to surpress the animalistic in favor of a higher social order, which is of course, a good thing.

But it has its limits, socialist theory works to remove the sense of the self, the sense of ownership in favor of collective rights, in favor of a society where the individual is fully subjected to the will of the community. While on the surface a noble goal it has resulted in complete (or attempted) suppression of the individual (complete selflessness) this has in fact not made a more ‘human’ culture but one devoid of that which separates us from the animals. The outworking of this as been ‘lost years’ for societies and a crumbling economic system that masks a deeper thread of social collapse and moral poverty (for a more detailed look enjoy Chapter 6 of Allan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence).

As Christians we should also be aware of the dangers of collectivism and blind ‘selflessness’, our selves are in fact something special, something to be protected and cherished.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed,

for God made man in his own image.

– Genesis 9:6 (ESV)

Being made in the image of God has far greater implications then we perhaps realize, consider the greatest commandments:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

– Mark 12:30-31 (ESV)

Here the phase ‘as yourself’ is often overlooked, we are called to love others to the same measure that we love ourself, which for some (myself included) is still a momentous task. Still, the theme continues, our selves are something worth loving, something worth preserving.

By this point there are probably a few people who are quite miffed with what I’ve written so far. ‘Bollox! We are to be selfless in our love, just as Christ was’ ‘You’re just building an abstract argument in order to justify your own self preservation and success!’ To which I reply, I agree with you, it’s a paradox, because we are called to be both selfish (to borrow a phrase of Ayn Rand, which means to be full of self) and selfless (in the biblical sense of putting others first), so how do we do this?

The traditional answer has been to force submission either by social guilt or social contract, neither of which has proven to be particularly effective. I submit to you that society’s failure to compel selflessness has been because it has a tremendous history of abusing that sort of sacrifice or trust. Socialism destroyed the individual identity because it was unable to handle the complexities of the human nature, utopian communities abused the voluntary communitarianism by forcing individuals to go beyond what they wished, they   fractured the traditional social bonds that always seem such a nuisance to social reformers, yet never seem to be overcome. Through this we’ve arrived with a society in which people can at times perform selfless acts, but as whole seem unable to become something greater. True, oikos (to borrow the term) has long been an illusion.

But it seems to me, that if there was some higher power, some binding force that could be a trustworthy guardian of sacrifice, some commonality that bound people not only to it but also to each other, something that promised to value the individual along with the community and could compel even greater levels of self sacrifice without violating trust, well dear friends, that might just be something.

When discussing selflessness invariably the conversation turns to the parental bond (though again, social reform has historically taken a battering ram to the familial structure, but I digress) it seems the ideal relationship is one of mother/child, father/child, parents who would sacrifice everything for their child, who would risk it all for their safety and success, that is the ideal social picture, if we all felt that way towards others, the world would be a much nicer place. The problem has always been exporting that time of bond to society as a whole but what we’ve found is that this type of relationship is driven merely by genetics or social placement, but my love. True love, deep love, is what compels sacrifice, when push comes to shove, we as humans will always react stronger to those we love then to others, it may not be ideal, but it’s a fact of life, and one that I’m afraid is unlikely to change in the near term.

There is; however, another answer.

Too late loved I thee, Oh thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late have I loved thee!

– St. Augustine ‘Confessions’

The answer to the hatred of the world, to the selfish society is complete, loving surrender to the Almighty God. In him we find love, love that compels us to follow, that compels us to worship, and compels us to die to the sinful flesh, to become ever new in him.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

– Galatians 2:20 (ESV)

Only in Christ can we find complete surrender of ourselves and not lose that image of the divine, because only in Christ are we fully known.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

– Jeremiah 1:5

Only in Christ can we find that surrender does not absolve us of our uniqueness, for in Christ we are not called to the generic ‘betterment of humanity’, but to a unique and purposeful life.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

– Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)

And so we arrive by the long path to this simple statement, the love and beauty of Christ compels us to surrender our selves for his glory. Only here do we find the answer we’ve been searching. The world has tried to create a counterfeit ideal, one where man is pitted against himself in an unending struggle to be better then he is (the proverbial ‘pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps’), he alone, by his own power, a trial that is destined to fail (if it’s even begun).

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

– Matthew 11:29 (ESV)

The promise of rest, the promise of purpose, the promise of unviolated love, that is what Christ offers, and that is the hope that is in the world. Society requires sacrifice, but only through Christ can this sacrifice be made complete.

He must increase, but I must decrease

-John 3:30 (ESV)