What's Missing From the Needy Self

Sermon audio (October 5, 2008): Jesus Invades Your Experience The other day, I was riding with our old Dutch dairyman Pete in his massive red truck. Over the grinding of the diesel engine, we talked about today's young men, and Pete observed that they seem to take years to figure out who they are, and what they should be doing with their lives. "I see it over and over, even in good families. There's something missing in these guys."

His comment made me think of my three-year-old son Malcolm, a tough, thick-set package of nuclear energy. He knows what he wants and he lunges for it. He had wanted, for instance, a ride in Pete's red truck, thinking it was a fire engine, and he cried angry tears on my porch when we left. I wondered why our society dissipates boys' drive and potency, and what I need to do to ensure that Malcolm keeps a healthy sense of self and grows up strong.

The woes of boys are getting increasing comment these days, but the problem of the formless, unmotivated, needy self is everywhere. Many people seem to lack solid identities, to be unable to form healthy relationships, seem to drift from one thing to the next like so much channel-surfing through life.

In this context, a pastor's temptation is moralism. Every month or so, after surveying someone's personal wreckage, I think, "I really need to do a series on time management," or, "I've got to preach on financial priorities." I wonder whether I give enough "practical application," telling people what's what.

If moralism is a temptation as a pastor, it is doubly so as a father. It is enticing to think that I can build up my son's identity through his submission to my authority.

Moralistic preaching and parenting tries to rebuild crumbling boundaries using precepts. Thou shalt and Thou shalt not. If you allow entertainment to suck your time, then of course there won't be enough hours in the day for your responsibilities. Thou shalt turn off the T.V. If you blow your money on toys, restaurant food, and mortgage-backed securities, then of course you won't have a financial chair when the music stops. Thou shalt not go into debt.

But moralism has been the downfall of contemporary Christianity. The precepts of godly wisdom nurture life in those who already have life; but among the legions who do not, the Get a clue! method of preaching doesn't edify. The "practical applications" of moralism merely compound people's guilt.

Moralism has been the downfall of Christianity because it is not the gospel.

For the needy contemporary self, the only hope is God-focused individuality, the unique expression of God's glory in a reborn personality. As we are seeing in our series on the man born blind in John 9, Jesus himself has to invade a person's life, not merely to reset what a person does, but who a person is.

Consider an observation: Human beings cannot define themselves, but are only defined in relationship.

There are two common myths about the self. One is that you can be true to some wisdom or potential inside your personality, wisdom defined by you alone -- the Oprah storyline. The other is that you can improve yourself, work hard, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- the moralistic storyline. The two myths are equivalent in the sense that they both portray individuals having potential on their own.

Malcolm is growing up in a society that preaches these myths, and that requires him to invent himself according to one or the other, and sometimes both.

The reality is, Malcolm doesn't have any sense of self autonomously. His definition of who he is comes from his relationships -- and it always will. He learns about himself through the process of relating to me, to his mom, to his grandparents, to other adults in the community like Pete. His self-awareness as an adult will grow in the context of interaction. He defines himself in relationship.

If I surrender to the temptation of moralism, then I will raise Malcolm using precepts. I will portray Jesus as the person with high standards, who is forgiving of Malcolm's faults, but who is all too frequently "disappointed." Malcolm's relationship to this Jesus will teach him a sense of self that is sickened by failure.

This is not the Jesus of John 9, who heals the blind.

Jesus is Malcolm's creator, and designed Malcolm to display the works of God. All of Malcolm's traits have the potential to make God's glory visible. Because Malcolm has this potential, Jesus is invading his experiences. Jesus is not waiting for an invitation. Having paid for sin, and bringing new life with him, Jesus is able to slather Malcolm's eyes with mud and give him spiritual sight. As Malcolm is defined more and more by his interactions with Jesus, even Malcolm's limitations and faults will become visible marks of divine love.

The gospel calls for a new individuality in Christ, a uniqueness forged by loving relationship. The gospel resets who people are. I don't know if the passive, disappointed Jesus who is just waiting for people to be interested in him is the sole cause of today's unformed, unmotivated, needy self. There may be more causes than Christian moralism.

But I do know that what's missing from people today is Jesus himself.