By Ben Swift
‘Never forget that only dead fish swim with the current’ (Malcom Muggeridge)
Dr Nakashima Atsumi, in his preface to ‘True Path of the Ninja’, suggested that to live with spiritual richness within modern society, amongst the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, you need to change your sense of value and be confident in yourself. I find it interesting that even in the pages of ancient Japanese philosophies, the promotion of ‘the self’ still takes centre stage. Who could ever forget the famous line from Mohammad Ali’s lips, “I am the greatest! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.” Ali, while voicing these words, highlights just how far the heart of humanity has strayed from the truth as revealed through Christ.
If we really seek truth as it exists in Christian Scripture, that is to desire the message of Christ and what He asks of us, we will find a message so profound and so challenging that it will tear us away, if we allow it, from the very fabric of worldly wisdom. It will lead us into a truth that exists poles apart from the messages that have been imbedded into our consciousness and cultural DNA since the first bite of that forbidden fruit. This truth however, comes with a cost.
Several years ago while studying at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, I came across a guy who was changed by the Gospel message. He had come to university with plans to complete a degree in commerce and then enter the world of finance, a high-powered corporate arena that would set him up well by worldly standards. The challenge for him came when the Gospel message transformed his goals into those of Christ. This didn’t go down very smoothly with his atheistic father who simply saw his son throwing his future down the toilet. But this story isn’t unique and shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jesus never inferred that He came to make our lives easy or filled with wealth and pleasure. Consider His words as recorded in Matthew 10:34-36: “Don’t suppose I have come to bring peace to the Land. It is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword! For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, so that a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” These are hardly comforting words but words that ring true, especially for those who have become isolated and banished from places such as Jewish and Islamic households for the sake of Christ.
As human beings the struggle for survival is in our DNA. The idea of choosing to die to ourselves for the sake of gaining life through Christ is counter intuitive. It goes against the grain of everything we feel. It is far removed from our role in the ‘survival of the fittest’. It is for this reason that the goals of Psychology and Theology often don’t see eye to eye.
Psychology can give us some interesting insights into human behaviour however. It has been recognised for instance, that human beings show an overt desire for conformity and to be part of a group. It is therefore natural for the human being to want to conform to the world’s way of thinking in order to avoid exclusion and suffer a demotion of self-worth through popular opinion. After all, who wants to be caught wearing a skinny tie in a fat tie year?
In 1954, psychologist Maslow proposed a theory for human motivation which he represented using a pyramid consisting of multiple layers. This ‘pyramid of needs’ was used to show the hierarchy of needs that must be met to achieve self-actualisation. Maslow suggested that these needs provide the motivation for all human endeavour. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most fundamental physical needs (physiological needs, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem) and at the apex lies self-actualisation, the ultimate universal goal of the human being. Once again, we come to a way of thinking that suggests the serving of the self as the ultimate goal. (The Story of Psychology, Anne Rooney)
An interesting question for Christians to ask then would be, “What does it mean to live in the world but not of the world and how does this relate to taking up my cross?”
C.S. Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’ writes: Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out.”
C.S. Lewis has a brilliant way of illustrating things and his writings point clearly to a very challenging part of what Jesus asks of us all, laying down our life only to take it up again in Him.
‘Then to everyone He said, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him say ‘No’ to himself, take up his cross daily and keep following me. For whoever tries to save his own life will destroy it, but whoever destroys his own life on my account will save it. What will it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but destroys or forfeits his own life?”’ (Luke 9:23-25)
To die to oneself for the sake of following Christ is a challenge to say the least. It requires a humility that is very rare in this world and goes against everything that the world equates with success. No doubt this is why Jesus himself recognised that the task is impossible as He spoke to the rich young ruler seeking eternal life. This upright man was unable to deny himself of his wealth in order to gain eternal life. Consider Jesus words, “Furthermore, I tell you that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus doesn’t leave us without hope however. He adds the words, “Humanly, this is impossible, but with God everything is possible.” (Matthew 19: 24 & 26)
While it’s true that Jesus asks the impossible from us, it is possible to be transformed as the Holy Spirit works within our hearts and minds, helping us to develop the childlike humility needed to surrender to Christ. Kyle Idleman in his book, ‘Not a Fan’, suggests, ‘When you finally surrender all that you have and all that you are, you will discover the strangest thing. It’s only by becoming a slave to Jesus that we ever truly find freedom.’