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What the Bible says about Self-Centeredness
(From Forerunner Commentary)

What is pride, the subtle yet powerful influence that most commentators believe is the father of all other sins? Hebrew, Greek, and English share the sense of the word's basic meaning: to be lifted up; to have an undue sense of one's importance or superiority.

Pride motivates us to exaggerate the value of our thoughts. It causes us to elevate our opinions and raises the importance of the fulfillment of what we perceive as our needs even above God's and, of course, decidedly higher than our fellowman's.

To be even-handed, the Bible shows that there is also a narrow, positive application of the word, and thus, depending on the context, it can be translated as "dignity" or "glory." For instance, Proverbs 16:31 reads, "The silver-haired head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness." This verse provides us with a slender sliver of insight that there is a natural pride to which God gives His approval. However, He qualifies it with "if it is found in the way of righteousness." Righteousness is the very thing pride sets itself to resist, making achieving a proper sense of pride more difficult. With God's own Word describing man at his best state being "altogether vanity" (Psalm 39:5 KJV), it certainly makes one wonder what we really have to be proud of!

In the context of the relationship between God and man, the overwhelming number of usages of the six Hebrew words and four Greek words translated as "pride" or its synonyms are negative and damning. These words are translated into such terms as "arrogance," "lifted up," "presumptuous," "loftiness," "proud," "proudly," "exalted," "overbearing," "condescending," "haughty," "superior," "disdainful," "scornful," "boasting," "self-esteem," and "contemptuous." Not all of these synonyms are in the King James or the New King James versions, but various modern translations use them depending on the context.

Pride carries, not only a lofty self-centeredness, but also a lively competitiveness against others that easily becomes a lustful, destroying enmity. It is highly critical, envious, and impatient, and it can be effortlessly stirred to anger, possessiveness, and suspicion of being taken advantage of. These characteristics are part of Satan's spirit. Each of them is destructive to loving family unity within the church.


Living By Faith and Human Pride

Proverbs 8:13

Proverbs 8:13 is one of the definition verses of the Bible, along with "sin is the transgression of the law" (I John 3:4, KJV) and "the love of God [is] that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (I John 5:3), among others. Here, the fear of the Lord is defined as "hating evil."

In the Bible, "evil" is used in a wide variety of ways, but as we might expect, its basic meaning is simply "bad" or "negative." It appears in both the passive and active senses. When used passively, it describes distress, misery, misfortune, calamity, or repulsiveness. Proverbs 8:13, however, does not express the passive form of evil, but the active form, which is used in two ways in the Bible. The first can be defined as "what is wrong with regard to God's original and ongoing intent," while the second is narrower in scope: "what is detrimental in its effects on mankind."

People are most familiar with the second definition. When we think of evil, we typically imagine something that is purposefully injurious or intentionally unkind. It is not merely bad in the sense that a hurricane may be bad; it is more than merely unpleasant, but rather terrible by someone's design. In this definition of evil, there is intent to harm—or at the very least, ambivalence toward harm done to another. Evil does not care if harm is done.

In his book, People of the Lie—subtitled "The Hope for Healing Human Evil"—Dr. M. Scott Peck provides a simple yet profound definition of evil: "that which does harm to life or liveliness." The book is about "malignant narcissism": self-centeredness so extreme and pervasive that those possessing it continually injure others around them, not with physical wounds, but with subtle assaults on their emotional or spiritual well-being. This evil cannot be observed directly—the malignant narcissist is a master of deception—but can be seen only in its effects on others, in subtle violence perpetrated against the human spirit in others. Even as these people are doing harm to life and liveliness, they are putting on a pretense of righteousness and piety, terrified at the thought that others might see them as they truly are or that they might actually have to face themselves.

This second way that "evil" is used in the Bible—"what is detrimental in terms of its effects on mankind" or "that which does harm to life or liveliness"—can be quite subjective, thus the Bible also defines it as "what is wrong according to God's intent." A common description in the Old Testament is that a certain person or group "did evil in the sight of the LORD." This description is key because the people did not consider their deeds to be evil. In their view, they were harmless acts. Nobody was getting hurt, and nothing detrimental occurred (that they could see), so they did not consider their behavior to be evil. But what they did was evil—in God's sight.

Israel and Judah justified blatant idolatry and even child sacrifice by saying that they were not doing any harm, or that the harm it might do to the child was insignificant compared to the "greater good" that they believed would come from the sacrifice. The same justification is used for the practice of abortion today.

Israel did not consider temple prostitution to be harmful either, but in the eyes of God—the only eyes that see objectively—what they did wasevil. It was evil not just in terms of going against God's intent; it went against God's intent because it was injurious to those involved in it, even though they could not see it. In their myopic pride, they were unable to see that what they were involved in would ultimately bear horrible fruit. So God had to define right and wrong, good and evil, because man is so shortsighted that he often cannot see what will cause harm to himself or to a neighbor.

Halloween is a good example of this, for it is nothing short of the glorification of evil. Its roots go back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, who was the "lord of the dead." It was a boiling mixture of drunkenness, revelry, licentiousness, vandalism, treachery, superstition, anarchy, and rank demonism. Today, this festival is dressed up in a creative costume and dubbed "fun for the kids," but its essence is the same. The world calls it "harmless fun," but it is obvious from Scripture that it is "evil in the sight of the LORD." The seed from which Halloween grew was paganism—really just a softer term for "demonism"—and if the seed is evil, the fruit will also be evil, even if presented in a "fun" way. Yet, many people enjoy this annual dose of witches, vampires, and werewolves. They have no problem indulging in the occult, if only in their imaginations.

However, Proverbs 8:13 says that those who fear God instinctively and earnestly loathe those things that do harm to life and liveliness, even if the harm is not immediately apparent. The elements of Halloween, no matter what guise they are in, are contrary to eternal life with God. If we fear God—if we respect Him and what He stands for—then we also oppose all that He is against, which certainly includes anything associated with "the evil one" or his subservient "evil spirits."

David C. Grabbe
Hating Evil, Fearing God

Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

Ecclesiastes 2:26 says that God gives gifts. We need to consider another wonderful gift He has given, not to His children only, but to all mankind, named in Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has put eternity in their hearts.” This wonderful gift contains an aspect that can work against us if we are not careful.

Unlike animals, we have thoughts of immortality. We normally do not want to die; we want to live forever. Yet, we also know that we are caught between time as it is for us right now and eternity. As God reveals Himself to us, to live eternally with Him and to be like Him become major desires for us.

The filmmaker Woody Allen, an atheist and without revelation from God, nonetheless makes an insightful observation about mankind, which he learned at least partly from his occupation as a writer and movie-maker:

The universe is indifferent, so we create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world, a world that, in fact means nothing at all, when you step back. It is meaningless. But it's important that we create some sense of meaning, because no perceptible meaning exists for anybody.

Why is it "important that we create some sense of meaning”? Our thinking is what creates a sense of purpose for our existence and therefore gives direction for our use of life. Will our conclusions be true or false? Our minds can only work with what they already have, which accrues as we move through life's events.

Allen observes that the universe tells us nothing about the purpose for life. While not entirely correct, it is close enough for the unconverted. How much spiritual truth does the unconverted mind really have to work with? Therefore, humanly, we attempt to create our own meaning and purpose, fitting ourselves into what we have imagined. What are the odds that a person will come up with exactly the same purpose and meaning that the Creator has planned for us?

In addition—and this is essential—what are the chances that a person will fit himself into that divine plan on his own? The correct answer is zilch, nada, nothing. Therefore, since the universe tells us nothing, the true purpose of life must be revealed through God's calling.

Of supreme importance to us, then, is whether our thinking creates a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives from what God has revealed in His Word. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reveals that God has given mankind thoughts of eternity, that is, of time both backward and forward endlessly. However, He has not yet given mankind His truth about eternity. Consequently, most of mankind believes that they already have immortality within them! In this way, their false thinking becomes their enemy!

Understanding and fully accepting what He has given to us are not always easy because our former, carnal experiences make us susceptible to the pulls of the world. We become sluggish in living by faith because we allow our former education from the world to lure us into self-centeredness. Our challenge is to focus on the purpose of life that God has revealed to us, not on what we have imagined for ourselves.

When we add other truths gleaned from other passages of God's Word, we realize that verse 11 implies that we are being created for another world, an entirely different one within the realm of eternity. God's gift of His Holy Spirit has given us an ability to transcend mankind's fixation on the present and the material. We are being created for the spirit world of the Father and the Son and of the angels (which were made to be ministering spirits for our benefit). We are being created for the Kingdom of God.

To find satisfaction and fulfillment, Solomon attempted many different avenues and thought deeply about life as he saw it. However, we must come to understand that God has ordained that we must live by faith while awaiting our change. That time must be spent within a relationship with Him so that we come to know Him and His way ever more fully. Now is the testing time, the time for trials to prepare us. We must learn that our satisfaction in life must come from an “over the sun” spiritual relationship lived by faith.

Those who pursue this relationship with God will be given eternal life because they know Him and He knows them. This is the task to which Ecclesiastes 3:10 alludes. God has given us this task to accomplish to be prepared for living in His Kingdom. To fulfill it, we must live by faith, trusting His sovereignty in every situation. That means being at peace, content, comforting ourselves with the truth that God is fully aware of what is happening in our lives and is in control of the big picture.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Three): Time

Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

This person may have neither the drive of the workaholic nor the pleasure-seeking aims of a lazy man, but he shows no evidence of contentment either. As a person uncommitted to sharing his life with another, he is perhaps quite selfish. The description indicates that he wants to keep the produce of his labors for himself. He does not share them with a wife and family, and he has no partners or family to inherit what he leaves behind. The context also gives no indication that he enjoys the use of his profits. He simply works and exists.

Solomon's final comment regarding this worker is intriguing: This situation is not only vanity but a grave misfortune. He seems to conclude that this is the most seriously flawed worker of them all. His description gives the impression of complete self-centeredness. Does anybody benefit from a life as devoted to the self as this worker is?

The New International Version translates what Solomon calls a “grave misfortune” as “a miserable business.” Ecclesiastes teaches us that work can be a God-given pleasure, but this description tells us that it will not be pleasing if we work only for self-centered purposes. It counsels us to ask ourselves, “For whom am I working?” God has worked from the foundation of the earth, but He is not consumed by it (John 5:17). God has given us work at least partly for us to learn not to be self-centered, as well as to enable us to share life with others. God wants us to labor, to create wealth in the right spirit and for the right reasons. His counsel in this context is that a major reason is to create benefits for others.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 gives the impression that Solomon's experiences regarding the man who remained alone in his labors motivated him to think of the importance of friendship and the value of doing things within a partnership:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Five): Comparisons

Ecclesiastes 5:8-12

Matthew 19:21-24 adds an important truth to help us understand these verses:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

First, the rich young man was so preoccupied by his material wealth that he really did not hear that Christ was offering him eternal life. Second, anything of this earth that we truly treasure can potentially influence us to so increase our fear of losing it as to cause us to choose not to hear Christ. The treasure does not have to be money. Third, no matter how great the distractive power of what we consider valuable, God stands ready to save us from it. Jesus did not say it was impossible.

No doubt, Solomon wants to help us with this spiritual struggle. He uses money as his main illustration because everybody easily relates to it. However, he does not introduce the subject of money until Ecclesiastes 5:10. Instead, he writes of social injustice within the worldly system we live and function in. Why? Because the system itself is a constant source of distraction through its constant barrage of news reports in which we hear of social injustice. Most often, the poor are its targets.

He cautions us not to be astonished by the vanity of all this injustice, but at the same time, he wants us to be aware of it. He does this in verse 8 by mentioning “a high official watches over a high official, and higher officials are over them.” He seems to be saying that from bottom to top, the entire system is corrupt; every stratum of the culture struggles to make its way by taking advantage of others. Nevertheless, none of this injustice is an excuse for us to involve ourselves in the “everybody's doing it” routine and sin too.

A key to understanding what Solomon is driving at is the word translated “watches.” In Hebrew, the term can be used either positively or negatively. Positively, a person watches to protect or help, and negatively, he may have circumstances under surveillance to gain personal advantage from them. The present context is definitely negative. Solomon is still describing the self-centered attitudes of those “working” the system. Like their political leaders, ordinary citizens also greedily watch to gain the best and most for themselves. Their approach is not to serve and share. Verse 9 confirms that this self-centered attitude goes all the way to the top—to the king. He, too, is served by the corrupt system.

God has deemed it our responsibility to prepare for His Kingdom by overcoming, growing, and being loyal to Him and His way within such a circumstance as Solomon describes in these last few verses. Our hope is promised in Isaiah 9:6-7:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

The solution to this present evil world is on the horizon, but it will not come until Jesus Christ is here with us on earth. Thus, God has willed that we must deal with the corrupt and unjust system that now is, looking forward in hope to the relief of Christ's return.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Six): Listening

Ezekiel 20:21

Ezekiel 20:21 appears in the midst of God's charge that He was sending Israel into captivity because of idolatry and Sabbath breaking. There are three possibilities regarding Israel's Sabbath breaking:

  1. They rejected God's Sabbath for another day entirely;
  2. They polluted what they did have of God's true Sabbath by careless, self-centered observance; or
  3. Most likely, it was a combination of both. Some completely rejected it, others treated it carelessly.

Whichever it was, it resulted in their captivity. Keeping the Sabbath day properly is a serious issue to God.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part Two): Christ's Attitude Toward the Sabbath

Luke 12:1-3

We need to understand that it is God's purpose, because He is love, to do everything in His power to cover sin. He does not want people to be exposed. He will do whatever He can to keep us from being embarrassed, but if we refuse to repent, then He will follow through with this principle. Because He loves us so much, He will embarrass us to tears to get us to repent.

He will hold us up to shame and scorn, as He did to His beloved David, who would not repent after committing adultery with Bathsheba. Eventually, God had to send a prophet to bring him to repentance, warning David that, athough what he did was done in secret, but what will happen as a result will be done in public.

What we do means a lot—because there is a God who loves us! He does not want to see us as victims of our own sins. He also does not want to see innocent people victimized even by things that we do privately, in secret. There is no such thing as "the perfect crime." The effect of what we do is going to show—unless a variable occurs to forestall it, we repent, and God is willing to cover it.

However, all the while, that sin is like an active, living organism which affects other organisms (usually, other human beings). We need to ask ourselves: "Why are we so insensitive and so indifferent to the things we do?" It is, of course, our self-centeredness.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Every Action Has a Reaction

John 8:44

This is the spirit—the attitude, the mind, the heart—that is driving humanity. For anybody whose father is Satan, it is in his or her nature to break the commandments. This is why God says that "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:7). It is impossible! There has to be a change, a conversion, to the divine nature. Thus, Satan cannot help himself. He gathers things to himself because he is self-centered, and he gathers them for the purpose of killing or abusing them.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Love's Importance and Source

Colossians 3:5

The Greek word underlying "covetousness" is pleonexia, which means "the desire to have more." This is among the ugliest of sins because it involves idolatry as well as its effects on others. The Greeks defined it as "the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others." It is further described as "ruthless self-seeking," the kind of attitude that the arrogant and callous person has, assuming that others and their things exist for his own benefit.

The desire for more money can lead to theft; the desire for more prestige, to evil ambition; the desire for more power, to tyranny; the desire for a person's body, to fornication and adultery. Paul identifies covetousness as idolatry because, in the place of God, it puts self-interest for illicit things. A man sets up an idol in his heart because he desires to get something from it. So he serves it to get that something rather than to obey God's commandment. That, very simply put, is idolatry.

The essence of idolatry is to get for the self in defiance of God. However, we have to give ourselves to God if we want to overcome illicit desires. Paul says to "mortify" (KJV) or "put to death" (NKJV) whatever is sinful. That does not mean to practice ascetic self-discipline—it means to kill. The Christian must kill self-centeredness. In his life, he must make a radical transformation, a shift of the center of his life. It is the same principle as described by Matthew 5:29. Everything that keeps a person from fully obeying God and surrendering to Jesus Christ must be surgically excised from his conduct.

The tenth commandment, then, has a function similar to the first. They both act as governors, controlling whether we keep the others.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Tenth Commandment

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Paul addresses I Thessalonians 5:16-18 directly to us, and its commands can greatly affect our attitudes during trials so that we make the best use of them without getting down on life: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” These are quite challenging! But since God commands them of us, they are things that He will enable us to accomplish. Therefore, they are not impossible tasks.

These are attitudes and actions that we can control. Other scriptures reveal that God permits us to be saddened or disappointed about what is happening. For example, the gospels say that Jesus sorrowed about various things. Here, Paul's concern is that, in our relationship with God—as the mention of prayer establishes—we will not remain depressed for an extended time because of our contact with God. We should be able to come out of our funks. If we do not, it is because we are too focused on ourselves.

These commands guard against allowing ourselves to sink from an upbeat, positive, and hopeful attitude of a child of God to a discouraged and self-centered one. How? By doing spiritual work directly in relation to God, holding onto God in the midst of all circumstances in life. Peter writes that if God is our hope, He will lift us up (I Peter 5:6-7).

I Timothy 6:6-8 reminds us of an important reality: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” This passage's central issue concerns wealth. Great discontentment and discouragement are generated through coveting wealth. However, the attitude of a reasoned, faith-based contentment, regardless of economic circumstances, causes great spiritual gain.

Within a relationship with God, this faith-based attitude greatly assists in enabling a Christian to live an “over the sun” life. In a converted person's mind, because he is living such a life, God is the Central Figure, and he accepts whatever life throws his way. A Christian with that focus works his way through his trials, overcoming the pulls toward self-centeredness because he knows God is with him.

Without God being the beacon that provides guidance and encouragement, a person can much more easily drift into an easily discouraged, discontented, covetous, “life is down on me,” self-centered existence. When that happens, spiritual progress grinds to a halt.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Three): Time

James 1:13-15

This pattern of producing sin began in the Garden of Eden when Satan tempted Adam and Eve by stimulating their desire for the forbidden fruit. From that small beginning, sin entered and blossomed. It is easily seen that every problem produced by immorality, whether individual or national, is caused by allowing temptation to develop into sin. Sin is illicit desire brought to fruition, and everybody from peasant to king is subject to wrong desires.

From the beginning of time, it seems to have been a human instinct to blame others for our sins, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. James sternly rebukes that view. God does not cause sin and neither do things. Sin would be helpless if there were nothing in man to which it could appeal. Sin's appeal is to human nature's self-centeredness, which then builds through our desires. If a man desires long enough and intensely enough, the consequence—action—is inevitable.

It is because we desire our own way that we dishonor our parents and murder; because we desire a thing, we steal; because we desire being well thought of, we lie. Illicit desire can be nourished, stifled, or by the grace of God, eliminated. If one gives himself to Christ by submitting entirely to God, there is little or no time or place left for evil desire.

The tenth commandment pierces through surface Christianity, truly revealing whether a person has surrendered his will to God or not. The spiritual requirements for keeping this commandment are in some ways more rigid than any other because they pierce right through to the thoughts.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Tenth Commandment


 




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