How to Live Beyond Yourself
How to Live Beyond Yourself
I don't know if you are like me, but I imagine you are. I imagine there are times in which you feel boxed in by life; not only by what others have done to you, but also by what you've done to yourself. You feel boxed in by limitations that result from actions in the past. King David is an excellent biblical example of this. A man after God's own heart, David committed adultery, then murder and a cover up. As a result, he had to live with the enormous limitations those activities brought on him. Yet David still found God's grace and became known as a man after God's own heart.
I would commend you to take Paul's words from Philippians 3:1216 to heart. Writing from prison just before his execution, Paul looked back on a host of negative experiences from his youth and the positive experiences of having come to Christ on the road to Damascus. Just a few verses before, he lists his many accomplishments, noting at the same time how these positive accomplishments had become limitations. In the present passage, he gives us four steps for living beyond ourselves.
Acknowledge that you're not perfect.
If you want to live beyond yourself, the first thing you must do is face up to the fact that you're not perfect. If you question the truth of that statement, I'm sure your spouse (if you have one) would be happy to correct you. The reality is that none of us is perfect.
We find humility a very hard commodity to obtain. Paul did not lack self-confidence, but he says in Philippians 3:1213, "Not that I've already obtained this, or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I've made it my own."He is soon to become one of the great veterans of the faith, an apostle born out of season, one who had encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Yet in the last weeks of his life, he doesn't think he's made it on his own. He's facing up to the fact, he's not perfect and encouraging us to do the same.
Our society has a tendency to lean on glass crutches. Glass crutches can support your weight, but if someone throws a cement block at you and hits the crutch, it shatters. That is to say, there's a kind of self-confidence that is positive, but there's another kind that is not humbled by a relationship with Jesus Christ. That kind is like glass crutches. When they shatter, we fall.
Horatio Alger wrote rags to riches novels in the nineteenth century. Following his example, we live with a rags-to-riches mentality in our society today, and we pride ourselves in being self-made people. In fact, there is a Horatio Alger's society in America that awards self-made people for their accomplishments. But if you stop and think about it, there really is no self-made man or woman. Every one of us at least had a mother and a father, even if we don't know who they are. Each of us had someone who contributed to what we are. It's very important for us to understand that we didn't get where we are on our own. We're not perfect.
One of my favorite writers is the Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Tournier. In his book The Strong and the Weak, Tournier says that every one of us is both strong and weak. Those of us in whom strength is the dominant feature get rewarded for that strength. Those of us for whom weakness is the dominant feature get put down. But, he says, both strength and weakness are neurotic, and both can become out of kilter. He writes:
If weakness leads to a sense of failure, strength, too, has its vicious cycle. One must go on being stronger and stronger for fear of suffering an even more crushing defeat, and this race for strength leads humanity inevitably to general collapse. I believe there's a great illusion underlying both the despair of the weak and the unease of the strong and the misfortune of both. This great illusion is the very notion that there are two kinds of human beings: the strong and the weak. The truth is that human beings are much more alike than they think. What is different is the external mass, sparkling or disagreeable, their outer reactions strong or weak. These appearances, however, hide an identical inner personality. The external mass, the outward reaction, deceives everybody, the strong as well as the weak. All persons, in fact, are weak.
All are weak because all are afraid. They're all afraid of being trampled underfoot. They're all afraid of their inner weaknesses being discovered. They all have secret faults. They all have bad consciences on account of certain acts which they would like to keep covered up. They are all afraid of other persons and of God and of themselves and of life and of death.
Live with your back to the past.
If you want to live beyond yourself, the second thing you must do is live with your back to the past. The apostle Paul puts it this way: we should "[forget] what lies behind." You might protest, "We dare not too quickly forget, for that could be called denial. From a psychodynamic standpoint, you can't tell people to simply come to Jesus and then march on with life, because that leads to papering over things from the past that have to be dealt with." Don't worry: Living with your back to the past does not mean choosing to ignore real issues you need to deal with.
Our message is based on the cross of Jesus Christ. God created humankind, and we chose to disobey God. Subsequently, we fell and are subjects to original sin. None of us is perfect. God responded to our situation by breaking into human history. We have a faith that is based on acknowledging what we've done wrong and remembering what God has done for us. It is when we experience graceGod's unmerited favor on our behalfthat we can begin to forget the past.
What do we need to forget? We need to forget the sins we've dumped at the cross. If we have come to God in repentance and claimed his forgiveness, we can put those sins behind us. The Scripture says, "As far as the east is from the west, so far have our transgressions been removed from us." The German poet, Goethe, put it so beautifully: "The glorious fact is not that that past is sullied, dirty, unclean, but that the future is unsullied." Every one of us has a future ahead of us, if we are able to claim God's grace and put the past in the past. We need to forget the negative.
But some of us also need to forget the positive. Gordon MacDonald once explained that he had tried to figure out what he liked about some elderly people that made them stand out from other elderly people he knew. He concluded that the people he enjoyed most were the ones who weren't always reminiscing about the past, but instead were talking about the present and looking to the future. Some of us have accomplishments in the past that we feel we could never replicate. It is crucial for us to live today realizing our future is ahead of us. We must forget what lies behind on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Have a worthwhile goal.
Third, we must have a worthwhile goal.
The apostle Paul writes, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." A number of translations read "the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." With that phrase in mind, is your goal one-dimensional or does it have an upward dimension? If your goal is about investments, popularity, power, and material things, it's not an upward call. If you're not pursuing an upward call, you're playing the commodities market.
Bridgette Bardot was interviewed in Vogue magazine when she was at the height of her career in the 1970s. When she was asked what her definition of getting old was, she replied, "The day I could no longer have the man I'd like." The interviewer then asked, what she looked for in a man. "That he attract me physically," she replied. She went on to describe herself as the most important sex symbol of all time. But, a bit dismayed, she added, "Time will destroy me one day as it destroys everything. But no one else will ever be Bardot. I'm the only Bardot, and my species is unique."
She had objectified herself and made a commodity of herself. She saw herself in the commodity market as a sex symbol, and she realized she was already past her prime. Twenty years later she wrote in her autobiography, "I think about death every day. It's the decomposition that gets me. You spend all your time making your body look so good, and then you just rot away like that."
When we play the commodities market, we can make a lot of money fast, and we can lose a lot of money fast. Ultimately, when you play the commodities market in your life, you lose.
There's a better way: living with an upward goal. I'm reminded of my predecessor at the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Dr. Robert Lamont. An associate of mine, Robert Letsinger, was waiting to meet Dr. Lamont in the outer office of the church, when the door opened and a man walked in and asked to see Dr. Lamont. The receptionist asked if he had an appointment. He didn't. The receptionist informed the man that Dr. Lamont's schedule was booked solid. At this news, the man became sad. "I went to seminary with him some twenty years ago," the man said, "and I've been on the mission field. I'm just passing through town, and I'd give anything if I could have just have two minutes to look him in the eyes and say hello." The receptionist asked his name and then called Dr. Lamont to ask if he could see the visitor. The door opened. The two men rushed toward each other and embraced. The missionary said, "Bob, what's new?" Lamont thought for a moment and said, "I'm just trying to discover the will of God and do it."
That's upward living.
Go for broke.
Finally, if you want to live beyond yourself, go for broke. But for God's sake and your own, don't take step four before you've taken steps one, two, and three. The moral highways are littered with the casualties who were simply going for broke. My Grandma Bricker lived on a farm in Michigan. When she was preparing chicken for dinner, she'd go out and get a chicken, stretch the chicken's neck, and chop it off. Then the chicken would take off runningshowing the greatest exuberant expression of its entire lifeonly to flop over dead in a few seconds.
That's what happens when you try to take step four without taking the first steps first. But if you face up to the fact you're not perfect; live with your back to the past as a person forgiven by Jesus; and have a worthwhile goal, then you're free to go for broke. That doesn't mean you're going to lead a perfect life. Even Paul acknowledged, "I haven't accomplished it." But he was clothed in Christ's righteousness, and he was striving: "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on toward the goal for the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." Go for broke.
I have two symbols on my desk in my office. One is a cross that was given to me by a man named Harry Parish. For forty years Harry had been a deacon in the church. I asked him if he had put his trust in Jesus Christ as his Savior. "Oh no," he said, "I've been a deacon at First Church for forty years; I don't need that. I find reality in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I trust in my higher power." Over the next couple of years, Harry came to declare the name of his higher power to be Jesus Christ. He gave me this crossa gift from the Holy Landand in his will, he asked me to preach his funeral, telling everybody that Harry had discovered Jesus Christ.
The other symbol is the Olympic athlete stripped down for the context. These are two alien symbols in a way. What do the cross and the athlete have in common? We're all called to an athletic life: to press on toward the goal. Take these four steps. Review them periodically and, by the Holy Spirit, they will revolutionize your life.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "How to Live Beyond Yourself."
John Huffman was pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, for many years, and is the author of