The Sin of Self-Preservation
Our organizations avoid at all costs a theology of death, but the opposite is not a theology of life, for life is not what you will find in churches that strive to avoid death. I don’t know how it happened, but sometime in history we bought into a theology of safe. We think that we should do what is safe, for ourselves, for our families, and for our churches. In fact, we are convinced that anything that is unsafe must be outside of God’s will and is thoroughly un-American and un-Christian. A theology of safe is put in place as a defensive measure to avoid death. This leads us right down the path of self-preservation.
We often approach church and ministry with a theology of SAFE.
Self-preservation = our mission
Avoidance of the world and risk = wisdom
Financial security = responsible faith
Education = maturity
Does that not describe many of the churches, denominations or ministries you have encountered? Some of you have been on elder or deacon boards that are perfectly described by this acronym. I know I have. In fact, it almost seems like our default response. Our instinct is to preserve our life. It seems so natural to surrender to the current that is self-preservation. It is a fight to stay close to a theology of death.
Johannes Hoekendijk, a Dutch theologian who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York during the 1950s, once defined the church’s well being as, “when she cannot count on anything anymore but God’s promises.” That is life!
Self-preservation is actively choosing an alternative to the life of our God. It is a direct move away from faith in the life giving and sustaining Savior. God created us with an instinct for self-preservation. It is not a sin to want to live. It is human instinct to want to survive. It is a sin to want to live without God’s life source. Use that desire to live as motivation to die, for that is the only path that leads to true life in God’s upside-down kingdom.
Preserving oneself separate from God’s life is not just a sin; it is blaspheme. It is taking your own place as the life-giver. Self-preservation means that you are the one who gives and sustains life, which is blasphemous. It is also the path to self-destruction, not life. As Jesus said so strongly and repeated often: “The one who finds his life loses it.” (Matt. 10:39) As a consequence of the sin of self-preservation, literally tens of thousands of Christians and churches are deceived into a “churchianity” that is carried out by men, for men, under the name of God. I wonder if God likes getting the credit for all of the crap we do.
When presented with the choice: self-preservation or the cross, for the servant of God there should be no choice. We follow Christ to the cross or we do not follow Him at all. He said, “If any wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23-25)
Jesus said clearly, “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39)
Why is death to self so important? Well consider this, without death you cannot have a resurrection. Without death there would not be any Gospel or salvation…or even life itself. Perhaps it is time that we embrace a theology of death.
This is what a theology of death looks like…
Die daily to who we are
Empowerment of others (not self) is our life
Acceptance of risk is normative
Theology is not just knowledge, but practice
Hold tight to Christ with an open hand for everything else.
Unless we are willing to die we will not live. It is that simple. Death is the path to life. Conversely, holding on to life appears to be the path to death. We are to die to self because it is the only way we can live for Jesus. We can only have one master. Either we will live for ourselves or we will live for Jesus. This is why we must put ourselves to death every day.
The words of Jesus having to do with death are usually only applied to an individual—a disciple. And the verse should be applied in this way. I have found, though, that the truth contained is a universal principle, which also applies to any organization made up of disciples, such as a church.
More then once, In fact, I have found myself in a place where I was a voice of leadership to a dying organization. I have “pulled the plug” on ministries a few times. I am the Doctor Kervorkian of Christian organizations. I have had to preside over the deaths of a bible study, a Sunday School, a church and a publishing ministry board. In each case I have led the people involved to understand that death to the organization is the best solution.
What is ironic is that all the organizations I have had the courage to lead toward death have never died. If anything, they were already dead; I simply said it out loud. When we actually “pulled the plug” publicly the ministries all were reborn with new life and new vision. The actual acceptance of death ignited a spark of life for each one and a new identity for the organization followed. That is when I discovered that these truths that Jesus is giving to us are universal laws that can also have a corporate application, and not merely individual.
Just as Jesus said, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake is the one who will find it.” Every time I have decided to acknowledge a dying ministry and we decide to die, we have actually chosen the very thing that brings life!
In fact, I have come to believe that the health of any organization can be evaluated in direct proportion to its willingness to die. The more vested they are in self-preservation the less health they will have. The more willing to die so that the Kingdom can flourish, the healthier the organization is. Perhaps you should take a minute and do a little self-evaluation in this regard with your own church or ministry.
Imagine all that would happen if our churches adopted a theology of death in a city. What would happen if the First Baptist Church viewed the First Brethren Church as their own family and sought their welfare above their own and vice versa? What if the Pentecostal Church was more interested in the success of the Presbyterian Church than their own? What if these churches shared their resources freely and generously? I guarantee you that God would be pleased and honor such love. I also am confident that the people of the city would notice it. I imagine that the entire spiritual climate of the city would be shifted.
This is counter intuitive. It is the opposite of the norm, and it is so right. The results would be a vibrant faith and life.