journey post 21-b: Writing my history — a footnote on the selflessness of God
I love to write. I love the process itself, I think, for writing is inherently creative, and being creative is one of the ways in which we humans, made in the image of God, reflect our Creator. We can originate something of value and make a contribution to our world. If I want to put on paper something that communicates what I intend and makes a worthwhile read, I will call on every bit of my experience, knowledge, ingenuity, and every odd thought that my ever-associative brain brings to the fore. The process often draws me into unexpected pathways, even outside the box. The payoff is sometimes a new insight or a new way of expressing old truth. The satisfaction in that is great, but also fraught with risk.
Take my previous post, for instance.
As I set out to write it, I had planned to move on from conscience and the conviction it brings, to think about how we can say that God is “good.” This is the progression that C.S. Lewis follows in his book, Mere Christianity. When I conceived this blog, I had intended to devote perhaps five posts to his book and thought. I did not anticipate being confronted with so much that I had read carelessly back then. This time through, a simple statement Lewis makes caught my attention in a new way. He says that considering conscience tells more about God than looking at the universe. I’ve often gazed at the stars and the beauty of creation as we all have, but I’ve given scant thought to what that little voice tells me about its Installer. Hearing the voice of conscience tells us something that is evidently important to the Creator about how we treat one another. That inside voice leaves humanity feeling what Lewis calls the “great unease”—the nagging question about accountability for not living up to the expectations of what we commonly refer to as the golden rule.
C. S. Lewis
On the day before I started writing the post, I found myself wondering what else conscience says that I might have missed. After all, it was just a few years ago that I had been awakened and “surprised by joy,” as Lewis might say, to the fact that God delighted in me as a father his son. Until then I had viewed him more as distant and uninvolved, like my earthly dad. Now I’m playing catch-up. One of the things Lewis mentions about conscience in cultures across the board is that selfishness is never appropriate, never right. Selfishness and self-centeredness are something with which I’ve had all too much experience. And if any one idea could communicate what God says is the origin of the “s” word (sin), selfishness would be my choice. I’m not sure at what point my brain plugged in the association of selflessness and altruism, but I found myself asking, “God is not selfish: Could it be said that God is selfless?”
I figured that my statement, “God is himself selfless” would be challenged by some believers, in writing or not, and my expectation has come true. So, for now, I will address the concern by turning to one of the most striking passages in Paul’s letters. In his letter the church in Philippi, Paul wrote the following:
“…make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness….” —Philippians 2:2-7, NIV
I did not intend to include much in the way of Bible quotes at this point or argue about its meaning because I am dealing with what humans can know or suspect apart from what is contained in the Scriptures. That’s why I refer to this post as a “footnote.” I’ve included the above quotation for those who want to think on this more or explore it. I will also say the following: Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the revelation of God in human flesh, a member of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I personally believe wholeheartedly in the Trinity, but I will not spend much time debating what is referred to as “the deity of Christ.” Based on my own long-time reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, I will make the following observation: Jesus spent little time seeking to prove he is God; he waited on his Father to reveal to his followers just who he is. He was more concerned to show people who God is, what he is like, what is important to him.
He once told his followers, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well….” When finally asked by a disciple to “show us the Father,” he said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:7,9). Yes, Jesus made explicit claims to being deity (which hardly qualify him as “humble” if he was not). His concern was to honor the Father above himself. The word “selfless” is not in the New Testament, but Jesus’ life and death demonstrate the selfless character of God more than many other things. Jesus also claimed to do only what his Father showed him to do. That being the case, I find it difficult to argue that the God who desires his creatures to be unselfish in their relationships with others is not himself the same.
We are not used to thinking about selflessness. The three English dictionaries I rely on most, the American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition, the New Oxford American Dictionary, and dictionary.com, describe the word “selfless” as being “unselfish,” identifying a person as motivated by no concern for self. I can think of no greater word to describe Jesus’ life, or the Father’s, with whom he is one.