The Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl in 1973 and 1974. After the second title, coach Don Shula was exhausted. He and his wife took a vacation, but he said he wanted to go somewhere nobody would recognize him. So they took a vacation in a small seaside town in Maine.
When they arrived, it was raining so they decided to go see a movie. When they entered the theatre, the house lights were on and the Shula’s were surprised that the small handful of people gave them a warm round of applause as they took their seat.
Secretly pleased, Don Shula whispered to his wife, “I guess there isn’t any place I’m not known.”
“I guess not,” she replied with a touch of sarcasm.
A man came across the aisle with a friendly smile and shook hands with Shula and his wife. “I’m surprised you know me here,” Shula said.
“Should I know you?” the man replied with a questioning look. “We’re just glad to see you folks—the manager said he wouldn’t start the film until at least ten people came in.”
The ego is probably the trickiest part of us. It’s a necessary part of us, because it helps us function psychologically, as well as helps us adapt to the ways the world threatens our ego. Our ego’s are effective problem solvers, successfully coping with life’s challenges.
But problems arise when our ego defenses get overly defensive. That’s when ego rationalization takes over and we begin to distort the facts, make excuses, and believe our own lies. We experience threatening events and we see them not as part of life but personal attacks. Self-protection becomes more important than the truth. We slip into the twin modes of blaming and anger in an attempt to avoid unpleasant feelings in the self.
Fully fanned, these ego defenses become what is called “ego psychosis.” It’s a runaway complex in which we convince ourselves that we are the perfect embodiment of something special. That only we have been called upon to deliver our unique gift to the world that was unavailable to humanity until we arrived on the scene.
Someone caught up in ego psychosis will rant on and on, sounding like their own ad copy, studded with superlatives about being the best, the highest, the first, the last, the only, etc. etc. It shouldn’t take you long to put a face to this description.
One of the protections against this kind of ego problem is having a sense of humor about yourself—to be able to laugh at yourself. Like Don Shula did in telling his vacation story. You can tell how deeply a person is into their psychosis when they take themselves so seriously they can’t laugh at themselves. Humor is an effective form of self-criticism. Without it, you will sink fast into psychosis.
That is just one extremely thin slice of the pie of the ego. Ego is both resilient and treacherous at the same time. A piece of pie, like the ego, can hold together, or it can slurp all over your plate and make a mess. It has to be dealt with.
And Jesus does, in this statement in the verses read by Shannon.
If anyone wants to follow me, he must say no to himself...If he wants to save his life, he will lose it. But if he loses his life for me, he will find it.
That was the New International Reader’s Version. In other translations, the phrase, “...he must say no to himself...” is a bit different. In the Revised English Bible, it has, “...renounce self.” In the English Standard Version, it has “...deny himself.” In the Good News Translation, it has, “...forget yourself.” And in The Message, it has, “Let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat.”
The word Jesus used literally means, disown, abstain, or lose sight of. These words make sense when you are dealing with some negative behavior trait. Disown gossip. Or, abstain from filthy language. Or lose sight of pornography.
But Jesus is talking about the self. The very core of who we are. The very things by which we define ourselves. Disown your self. Abstain from your self. Lose sight of your self. Wow! That is major.
I did a lot of thinking about this stuff about self and ego this week. It was kind of quiet in the office with Jennifer being gone. Don’t get me wrong. I missed having her there in the office to chat back and forth with, but I kind of needed a lot of quiet thinking time with this one. So it worked out well. Or, at least you can judge, after I try to take you through what I came up with. So bear with me. Maybe I thunk too much.
I first asked myself, How did we get this sense of self in the first place? How did this relationship with ourselves come about? What were the intentions of this relationship with our selves?
Let’s say God created our sense of self, our egos. As believers in God, that’s a logical place to begin. God created human beings. Thus God created our sense of self—our relationship with our selves. We can’t know what God intended that sense of self to look like because we have so disfigured that by sin. By self. We could say that the relationship with self was the very thing that messed up our relationship with the self. We might call that sin—original sin: Allowing the self to mess up our selves. Because, if we are honest, we are our own worst enemy.
Looking at Jesus’ statement, though, maybe it is a glimpse of what our God-intended relationship with our self was supposed to look like. Look at the different words the different translations use to get at what Jesus was saying we should do to the self: give up, forget, deny, renounce, say no to.
All of these words or terms imply an act of will. An act of will is not easy. Remember last week’s sermon—we need to give up any notion of life being easy. This dealing with the self, with the ego, is something we have to force ourselves to do. Since Jesus is telling us this is what we have to do, then this selflessness must have been a part of the original human condition—the way we were originally made to be.
The fact we have to shape ourselves by will power means that something powerful intervened in God’s intentions and got in the way. Now it has to be willfully fixed.
Say no to your self.
Renounce your self.
Deny your self.
Forget your self.
Give up your self.
Get your self out of the driver’s seat.
So maybe, in the purity of creation, with the first humans, there was no sense of self. Rather than individual self, there was only wholeness with the entirety of creation. Maybe rather than individual self, there was God. People only were as they fit in with God. You only mattered because of how you fit in with all else, rather than demanding your individuality above all else.
I’m only speculating here. I’m trying to imagine what a human being would look like, would be like, who was self-less.
What does a human being look like who says no to, renounces, denies, forgets, gives up self? Can we even imagine it? Yet, we must, since Jesus demanded that we do it. And if Jesus demanded this shift from self, he must be assuming it’s doable, or he would have made the demand. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The words, “life” and “self” appear to be interchangeable here in Jesus’ statement. “Whoever wants to save his self will lose it, but whoever loses his self for my sake will find it.” If all you are worried/concerned about is your self, you will never gain your self. People who are constantly in the self-help section of the book store, who are self-absorbed, who are trying to constantly figure themselves out—do they? Are they ever satisfied with themselves?
If the answer to those questions is “no”, why? Maybe Jesus is right. The search for self is counter-intuitive. It’s not by constantly being absorbed with self that you find self—but by totally letting go of self, that self is found. Self is discovered when self is not looked for. Self lives when self dies.
What if you look your whole life for your self, but you get to the end of your life and you are still looking? You have spent your whole life—your whole self—in vain. You end up saying to your self, “If only I could have found my self.” But Jesus is saying, before you get to that point, say, “If only I could have let my self go.”
I know this all sounds screwy and totally mixed up. I’m just trying to think through what Jesus said, and imagine (because I think all of what I am saying takes a huge amount of imagination) what it would be like to let my self go, and by so doing, find my self.
There is a qualifier in Jesus’ statement. “...for my sake...”. “But whoever loses his life (self, ego) for my sake will find it.” For my sake. For the cause of Jesus. On account of Jesus. In the interest of Jesus. For the benefit of Jesus.
Here seems to be the difference maker. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “For me to live is Christ and die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Again, if the words life and self are interchangeable, then it is, “For to me, self is Christ...”. To find your self is to find Christ.
Ultimately, our life, our self, our ego, must be bound up in God. Not self within self, but self within God. What our selves looked like before our self took over, was a person immersed only in God. Ego only made sense in God’s ego, as it were. It took no will at all to be a self in God. Now it must take all of our will to say no to your self. To renounce your self. To deny your self. To forget your self. To give up your self. To get your self out of the driver’s seat. And find your way back to your most true self for Christ’s sake.
Think of what the opposite is of all those: To say yes only to your self; to announce only your self; to indulge only your self; to remember only your self; to grasp only your self; to put only your self in the driver’s seat. Like I said, I’ve been trying to imagine, all week, what I would look like, what I would be like, if I could give up my self, my ego. But you know what? It doesn’t take anything at all to imagine myself the opposite. To be full of my self and my own ego. I can imagine that clearly. I can see exactly what that would look like.
It would be so easy to give in to that.
But I am so intrigued by what Jesus said. I want to find out. I want to use my energy, imagination, and will to say no to self, to make that happen. I hope you do to. For His sake. Not ours.