The Secret of Biblical Self-Improvement - Part Two |

McMahon, T.A.

As we noted in part one of this series, everyone wants to improve himself or herself, whether it’s one’s situation, condition, image or whatever else people feel would make them happier. The world has conjured up a host of approaches in attempting to accomplish that goal, but its successes are rare and, at best, short-lived.

The biblical approach, on the other hand, has, as its objective, temporal improvement and eternal outcomes. In His Scriptures, God has given mankind instructions that will vastly improve one’s condition on earth as well as prepare us for eternal rewards to come. As our Creator, God alone knows every aspect of every human being, from the most minute part of our physical bodies to every thought our mind thinks. In other words, there is nothing that God doesn’t know about us. Therefore, as we deal with situations and circumstances that come our way, we can’t do better than to turn to the One who knows us best.

According to the Manufacturer’s Handbook (the Bible) the first humans, Adam and Eve, were created in perfection but then disobeyed God, which resulted in the corruption of their natures and subsequently the natures of their offspring (Romans:5:12). Their sin affected their relationship with God, separating them and all mankind from Him spiritually and physically for all eternity (Romans:3:23; 2 Thessalonians:1:7-9). Yet God in His mercy sent Jesus to pay the infinite penalty required for mankind to be reconciled to Him. Our Lord’s sacrifice satisfied God’s perfect justice and made the way for all who by faith accept Christ’s payment on their behalf to receive the gift of eternal life (Romans:6:23).

Those who put their trust in Christ are born again spiritually. Their nature has been changed from one that is in bondage to sin and under God’s condemnation to one that belongs to God and is no longer controlled by sin. A born-again Christian still retains his old nature and can therefore choose to sin, but his new nature enables him to refrain from sinning. Although his sins—past, present, and future—have been completely paid for by our Savior Jesus Christ, thus securing his eternal destiny, whatever sins he may commit nevertheless still have temporal consequences. They adversely affect his relationship with the Lord, the answers to his prayers, and his relationships with others. He will reap what he has sown, experience the ill effects of immoral activities, will have to pay penalties for breaking civil laws, and so forth.

Those consequences can be avoided by simply obeying the instructions that God’s Word presents. That’s the “secret” to biblical self-improvement, which, as I mentioned in the first part of this series, is only a secret in the sense that too few Christians know their Bibles well enough to be aware of the instructions of the Scriptures. Even if a believer is willing to obey God, he can’t do what God wants if he doesn’t know His instructions.

That brings us to the first imperative of biblical self-improvement: we have to know what God says, and that can come about only by diligently reading His Word. A habit of reading the Scriptures daily is not only the best habit a believer can have—it is critical to his having a fruitful life in Christ and maturing in his relationship with the Lord.

Self-improvement, biblically, as we have noted, is diametrically opposed to the world’s way of going about improving “self,” as well as being contrary to the world’s understanding regarding “self.” The world sees “self” as inherently good; it is to be highly esteemed and held foremost in one’s endeavors; it is to be loved above all, and even deified, according to some religions and psychotherapies. The Bible, in contrast, deems “self” as mankind’s major problem, as inherently evil, as continually biased toward the person himself. Even among believers, it is their greatest hindrance to a life of following Jesus, which is what Christianity is all about. In Matthew:16:24, Jesus declared to His disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Nothing and no one must come before our Lord. Moreover, believers are to consider others before themselves. That’s what the Bible teaches, and when we do what it teaches, the effect is that our temporal lives, whether as individuals, families, or churches, are transformed because we are drawing closer to the Lord.

Biblical Christianity is all about selflessness. It is about being “other-directed,” putting others first. Jesus exemplified that and taught it: “…But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [servant]; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant [slave]: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto [served], but to minister [serve], and to give his life a ransom for many.” “And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Matthew:20:26-28; Mark:9:35).

Our Savior’s sacrifice for us on the Cross was the supreme act of selfless love, as Charles Wesley noted in his hymn: “Amazing love! How can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Jesus not only paid an immeasurable ransom for our salvation; He gave us a commandment that reflected His sacrificial love in our relationship with others: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John:15:12-13).

Too often we think of astounding acts, such as a sacrificial death on someone else’s behalf, and miss the everyday opportunities that we have to manifest selflessness. Jesus gave us such an example when He washed the feet of His disciples: “So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John:13:12-17).

Foot washing is certainly a wonderful act of humility, but the Lord’s example is much more than that. Jesus is telling us that serving one another needs to be the rule in the realm of everyday life. Foot washing was a very common activity when the chief mode of traveling to and from was walking on dirt paths in sandals.

Consider verse 17: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” This is the “secret” to biblical self-improvement, which has been displaced in our Laodicean, humanistic, psychologized, self-serving end-time church. The church is not “happy” because it isn’t practicing what Jesus, our Lord of lords and King of kings, demonstrated and taught. The consequences are that there is little difference statistically between the ills of the world and the problems that beset Christendom, i.e., both professing Christians and true believers.

Take, for example, divorce among believers. If there is a case in which one’s self-interest on the part of one or both is not the root problem, I haven’t seen it in my experiences over the years in ministering to couples considering divorce. What about relationships that are mostly in turmoil among family members—husband and wife, parents and children, between siblings themselves? Pick an issue and consider whether or not self has raised its ugly head in causing dissension. That is the battlefield we are all in. The Apostle Paul in his letters (inspired by the Holy Spirit) describes the battle regarding “self” and the condition of the combatants. The troubles among the Philippians were caused by their doing things through selfish ambition and conceit. Paul’s corrective instructions zeroed in on the “self issue”: “…but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other[s] better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Paul underscores the fleshly “me-first” bent that we all struggle with from time to time: “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philippians:2:3-4; 21).

Again, being a bondservant of the Lord, putting Him first, serving others and putting them before ourselves, are the marching orders for those who have received the “unspeakable gift” of eternal life. Scriptures abound with teachings regarding selflessness: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians:8:9). “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Romans:12:10). “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities [scruples/conscience] of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me” (Romans:15:1-3). “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more” (1 Corinthians:9:19). “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth [well-being] (1 Corinthians:10:24). “Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians:10:33).

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, who were racked with selfish leanings, he wrote a profound chapter on love, in which he stated that true love “seeketh not her own” (1 Corinthians:13:5). In other words, biblical love is concerned first and foremost with others.The Corinthians of Paul’s day were not the only believers with a “self” problem; it was a characteristic of many believers in all of the churches, with notable exceptions such as the church of Philadelphia (Revelation:3:7-13) and others of similar mindsets down through history. Yet Paul prophesied of a “perilous” time prior to Christ’s return when a chief characteristic on earth would be that “men shall be lovers of their own selves” (2 Timothy:3:1-2). That prophecy, as noted in Part One of this series, not only has been manifested in an unprecedented way in the last hundred years in the world, but incredibly, it has become a false doctrine in the church and is taught by many popular evangelical preachers and Christian psychologists. This is a shocking development in the face of so many Scripture verses that clearly teach the opposite. Yet in light of another prophecy by Paul, we can see how it was possible for such false teachings (self-esteem, self-love, self-image, self-worth, and on to self-ad nauseam) to enter the church: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Timothy:4:3).

Prophecy, however, is not deterministic. God’s foreknowledge of events that will take place doesn’t predestine individuals to fulfill the prophecies regarding these events. His knowing that the “me generations” will manifest themselves in our day does not relieve those generations of being held accountable for their self-serving choices. Although the acts and consequences of selfishness are seemingly everywhere, that doesn’t mean that believers have to conform to them or be controlled by them. The solution to preventing our lives from reflecting the destructive “self” litanies of our day are hardly complex. In fact, many of those problems of living can be averted by implementing two words: Stop it!

Temptation comes along, whatever it may be, and we can either buy into it…or not. We can stop it before it becomes sin. The “stop it” solution can certainly be overstated, but too often we bypass the truth that correcting a sin or a potential sin is always a matter of our wills. Scripture, for example, tells us to flee youthful lusts. That’s what Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. We don’t find him standing around hoping and praying that the Lord would take his lust away as she grabbed him by his garment. No. He split, leaving his garment behind. James tells us to resist the devil. Peter writes that we are to “resist stedfast in the faith.” Obviously, we are to make choices. We either choose to serve ourselves and sin or serve God by acting in righteousness. In our willingness to please God rather than self, we have God’s grace, we have the true wisdom from the Word of God, and we have the help of the Holy Spirit, the prayers, encouragement, and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Here’s a very short “self” checklist for our consideration and correction: 1) Am I making decisions based on what pleases me rather than what pleases the Lord? That’s a self-love issue: Do I love me more than Jesus? Think about our situations regarding the opportunity to sin. Guess what I’m going to decide if I love me and want to please me rather than loving Jesus and pleasing Him! 2) In a marriage situation, are we giving preference to ourselves rather than to our spouses, and in the process not treating each other with loving kindness, affection, and respect? 3) What about the way we talk to one another? Does our communication with others reflect a sharp tongue, sarcasm, and put-downs rather than loving and esteeming them? Regarding 1 through 3, two words need to be implemented to correct the problem: Stop it! 4) As parents, are we teaching our children to obey the Scriptures in the way that they treat their siblings and friends? 5) Are we examples to our children regarding the Bible’s instructions, and do we consistently and biblically correct them when they act selfishly toward others?

Although this list is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the application of God’s Word for living our lives as biblical Christians, I guarantee that even those few things, when obeyed according to the Scriptures, will have a transformational impact in our personal lives, our family relationships, our relationships outside our families, our witness to unbelievers, and, most important, our growth in our relationship with Jesus. Why am I so confident? Simply because we are doing what God tells us to do, and in doing so, we will be enabled and supported by an abundance of His grace through the Holy Spirit.

So the “secret” of biblical self-improvement has been exposed in the light of the Scriptures. Let it no longer be so removed from our lives that it seems a mystery to us. Rather, by God’s grace and enablement, let the application of biblical service and selflessness help to demonstrate to the world the truth of the Bible and the reality of a Christianity that obeys what our true and living God has communicated to us. TBC