The perils of self-preservation

One of the glories of being created in the image of God is that we are invited to live at a higher level than instincts or feelings.

By Bill Wilson

A young pastor recounted the events that led to his dismissal. Throughout the painful ordeal, he had relied upon a small group of spiritually mature trusted advisers to help him navigate the uncertainties he faced.

As events unfolded, he was devastated to discover that one of those advisers had actually conspired with others to bring about his eventual dismissal. His trusted adviser was guilty of distorting facts and revealing confidences. The betrayal and abandonment made an already hurtful situation even more so.

What happened? How did someone who seemed to have a deep faith stoop to such inappropriate behavior? There is no simple explanation, but I suspect that part of what happened is that the stress of the situation led this person to act out an agenda of self-preservation. 

When stress escalates, congregations and ministers are often surprised to find people reverting to decidedly un-Christian behavior. As a pastor I marveled, and sometimes grieved, at these phenomena. When under duress, people move toward self-preservation and safety at all costs.

It’s actually a valuable part of our human nature. Self-preservation keeps us alive when our instincts kick in and we jump out of the way of a speeding car or duck to avoid a low-hanging branch. Self-preservation is wired into our brains for good reasons.

One of the glories of being created in the image of God, of course, is that we are invited to live at a higher level than instincts or feelings. We can move from simple self-preservation to a self-giving care for others. The biblical story is, at its heart, the account of God’s self-giving love, and his invitation to us to join in that enterprise.

Every time I moved from one congregation to another, one of the awkward parts of the transition unfolded around revealing the news to my current church that I felt called to another place of service.

Inevitably, the first response from nearly everyone was filtered through a blatantly obvious filter. I could watch it in their face and demeanor. My news immediately raised a question for them: “What does this mean for me?”

Thus, their response upon learning I was leaving:

-- “But I thought you would do my funeral!”

-- “Who will baptize my child?”

-- “How will we pay off our debt?”

-- “Who’s going to play golf with me?”

Eventually, most would move on to a more self-giving stance and offer congratulations or genuine affirmation and words of gratitude and encouragement. Some never got past their sense of personal betrayal and abandonment.

Of course, I have to admit my own selfish reaction to the news of the loss of a key leader or donor. As a pastor, such news always caused me to immediately wonder: “What does this mean to me? How will we replace this teacher/tither? I wonder if she left us in her will? There goes the baked ham at Christmas!”

Not only individuals react out of self-preservation. While parroting pious platitudes about God’s providence and their trust in his care, I have seen many a congregation launch out upon their own agenda when they encounter difficulty. When a crisis erupts, some go to their knees for guidance. Sadly, many forego spiritual commitments and instead live out of raw feelings and emotions. The result is nearly always ugly.

Much of the conflict that is consuming congregations today can only be understood as selfish people pursuing their own agendas with little regard for the higher calling of self-sacrifice. When people live at the level of self-preservation, the inevitable result is conflict and chaos.

Scripture calls us to a higher standard. The final fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians is “self-control.” Used repeatedly in Scripture, the phrase means, among many things, that we are to monitor and throttle our selfish inclinations for service to a higher calling.

In Colossians 3 Paul exhorts us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” It is an invitation to willfully wrap around our basest and most primitive instincts a more appropriate garment of thoughtfulness as God’s people.

As he faced betrayal and abandonment, Jesus embodied the ultimate act of rejecting self-preservation for the higher calling of self-sacrifice. In the Garden, he moved from asking, “What does this mean for me?” to asking, “What do you want from me?” That monumental shift is one we struggle to make, of course. It is against our nature and forces us to seek a higher agenda than ours.

Is it even possible? Sometimes we wonder. Self-preservation seems to trump every good intention. And yet, there are those people and those moments that give us hope. Find those who embody self-giving love and build your church and your life around them. Such people can turn the world upside-down. Thank God.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.