He was somewhere north of seventy years old; I was not yet thirty. I don’t know why he decided to be my friend, but he did. He was a retired spiritual shepherd. I was a young preacher who had been preaching less than five years. Still, he was my friend and I was glad. He regularly came by my office and announced, “It’s time for coffee.”
Regardless of what I was doing, when his lanky frame stepped through my office door, a coffee break wasn’t far behind.
One morning, when we were on our way to the coffee shop across from the court house, we took a brief detour by the post office so my chauffeur could mail a couple of letters mail. This was typical. He always took his letters to mail drop inside. This gave him a chance to schmooze a bit with the locals.
He also seemed to get some pleasure in introducing me to his friends. He would ask almost everyone who crossed our path, “Have you met our new preacher yet?” Even people I had previously met would politely await the enthusiastic introductions.
One particular morning we did not immediately go into the post office after we parked. The intensity of our conversation kept us firmly planted in the plush upholstery of his Buick. The topic of our discussion was the church split that had occurred in our little town more than thirty years in the past.
I was more than a little frustrated that this historic event continued to sully the lives of so many in the Christian community. This was especially perplexing since formal reconciliation had occurred years in the past. Reportedly, those who were involved in the original conflict had settled their differences and restored healthy relationships in the Lord. In principle peace prevailed; the practice was something altogether different, though. So, as we sat in front of the post office, I listened as my aged counselor tried to make sense of the confusion.
Momentarily, I asked, “Why is it that some things never change?”
As my mentor was speaking in generalities which I cannot now recall, he stopped in mid-sentence and said, “Get out of the car and stand on the curb. He opened his door and slid out of from under the steering wheel. “Hurry!” he exhorted.
Once we were standing on the sidewalk in front of his car, he began to speak again. With the most somber look on his face, this senior saint said, “Before things can change around here there’s gonna’ hafta’ be some funerals.”
I must have looked bewildered, because he continued, “Really, before there can ever be peace, some people are just going to have to die.”
As the weight of these words settled on my heart like a heavy fog bringing gloomy darkness, he fixed his eyes on something just over my shoulder and said, “Now, I’ll show you what I mean. Very casually, turn around and look at the woman approaching us on the sidewalk. Watch what she does when she notices me standing here.”
There before me was a nicely dressed, very dignified looking older woman. She was walking briskly along the sidewalk. She had several letters in her hand. As she got within about thirty feet of us, she looked from the sidewalk up the steps to the front doors of the post office and then back at us. When she saw my friend, she immediately turned hard to the left. She crossed the street at an angle and disappeared around the corner of the building just across the street from us.
I was stunned. As I looked from her back to him my expression must have contained a thousand questions. He asked, “Now, do you see what I mean? Even though I was not part of the problem which caused the church to split—I didn’t even move here until after it had happened—she refuses to speak to me. She treats me like I’m diseased or spiritually unclean just because I didn’t choose her side when I moved here years ago.”
Then he looked at me and repeated his assertion: “There will have to be some deaths around here before things will ever change.”
We then entered the post office. My brother mailed his letters. I don’t remember if he introduced me to anyone this morning. It didn’t really seem to matter. We had our coffee and I’m sure we enjoyed the time we spent visiting with all the good folks at the coffee shop.
For the next few days my brother’s words haunted me. They just seemed so hopeless, so desperate. Something that really concerned me was the fact that I was likely to be the one who preached the funerals. What would I say regarding those in whom the seeds of bitterness had germinated and become a field of noxious weeds? After thinking and praying about this for some time, a thought came to me.
My brother was right, in a sense. We did need to have some deaths. But, not the kind he was talking about. What we needed was more people who are willing to die to self! That’s the dieing that needed to take place!
Over the next few days I struggled in thought and prayer about the sermon that God was growing in my heart. My struggle was not with trying to determine what to say; instead, it centered on having the courage to say it. A few weeks later I preached that sermon.
Much to my surprise, it was a liberating message. Most members of the congregation were weary of the pettiness. You see, most members did not harbor ill feelings towards anyone. Many people didn’t have any idea what the issues were! They just had an undeniable sense that something wasn’t right. Those who did know, however, kept things stirred up and caused problems for everyone.
Most were fed up with the stubborn refusal of a few hard-hearted individuals to realize that their self-centeredness permeated the whole congregation like cheap cologne. It tainted and diminished almost every aspect of the church’s life.
After I preached the sermon titled The Sin of Selfishness, several told me they were truly thankful they finally had a preacher who was willing to speak the truth about this matter. Not everyone was pleased. Some thought I was stepping on too many toes. I told them I really didn’t mean to step on anyone’s toes; I was aiming for their hearts.
Against the backdrop of this story, I’d like to share a few observations followed by three specific exhortations.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS:
1) Considering the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5, these situations should not surprise us.
1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2) Many of the problems we face in our lives can be traced to a similar source. It is selfishness or self-centered-ness—a refusal to die to self.
3) Many of the problems we deal with in our personal lives and our families and in our churches can be resolved if we are willing to die to self.
4) It is extremely difficult to admit that the trouble with us is me!
1) Take Jesus’ call to self-denial seriously – Luke 9:23-25…
23Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?
2) Take time for sincere self-examination – 2 Corinthians 13:5…
5Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?
3) Make self-surrender the rule, rather than the exception – Philippians 2:5-8…
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
How does this message resonate in your heart?
Is your need for death standing in the way of change?
Are there people in your family, at your place of employment, in your church who believe that the only way for some things change is for you to either go away or die?
What a tragedy! What a shame! What a hopeless and desperate set of circumstances! How utterly unchristian, as well! For it is in Christ that the old is made new. In Christ the old, self-centered person of sin is crucified, so that the new Christ-centered person can be born.
If your death is what is required choose to die to self this very moment, in order that you might live to Christ in every moment for the rest of your life.
© Bill Williams
July 17, 2006