Sacred 4-Letter Words: SELF

Pastor Craig Carter

Last week I introduced a new sermon series called “Sacred 4-Letter Words.” In it, we are going to explore some English words to live by, consisting of four letters each, that help us become what God wants us to be – holy as He is holy.

Before we get to ones that will enable us to fulfill our God-given destiny, I first want to address a word that keeps us from accomplishing our objective. What prevents us from living a holy lifestyle? It is sin, which is the ultimate four-letter word (but not of the sacred variety). And how do you spell it? Not S-I-N-N, but S-E-L-F.

All sin is rooted in human selfishness, especially in relation to God and others. So you and I cannot fulfill the Great Commandment to love God and love others because we love ourselves too much.

The greatest obstacle we face on the path to living as God intends is sin. And all sin can rightly be described as what one person has called: “the disease of me.”

Here’s what author Gordon Smith says on the subject: “In the end there is only one threat to holiness: pride – specifically the pride of self-autonomy and self-dependence.”

Pride and selfishness, or the disease of me, is a sickness that is as old as creation. It’s what got the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in trouble.

Originally, the created world was all about God (“In the beginning God…”). But that didn’t last long did it? The first human beings, Adam and Eve made it about themselves – their pleasure, their wants, their wishes, their opinions.

From the Garden of Eden onward, human beings have made it about self. When self is in control, it’s all about me!

Early in the past century, the London Times asked writers to turn in essays under the title, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Christian author, G.K. Chesterton sent in the shortest and probably most accurate:

“Dear Sirs: What’s wrong with the world? I am. Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.”

You and I live in a world dominated by prideful ambition, fits of anger and impatience, jealousy, contention and it’s all because of human self-centeredness. I think we’d all agree, it doesn’t make for a very pretty place. And it’s definitely a far cry from the paradise God intended.

Read what the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, from The Message translation:

“Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.” (Romans 8:5-8 MSG)

Doesn’t that describe the current state of affairs?

I don’t think we can overstate the destructive nature of a self-centered existence. It twists even good and holy things into evil and perverse things. Because of our selfish tendencies, we approach God with an attitude of “what can He do for me?”

We know the Lord wants us to be generous, but even when we give we do so because of “how it makes me feel” or “what I will get out of it.”

Christ calls us to serve others in His name and as we decide how and where to serve, we think, “What can I do that will bring me fulfillment?”

The cartoon character, Pogo, was right in his assessment of the human condition when he paraphrased Navy Commodore, William Perry: “We have seen the enemy and he is us!”

So if you and I are going to live a holy lives in this unholy world, we somehow have to defeat this enemy called SELF.

The formula for doing so was demonstrated by the Holy One, Jesus Christ. In His human existence, He was able to overcome sin and temptation and put aside any selfish tendencies to the degree that, even when confronted with the prospect of death, He could say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

But Jesus also suggested that He provided a way for others to get there as well.

So Christ issued this invitation to His would-be disciples: “And [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23 ESV)

Jesus suggested three actions are needed to defeat self.

1) Denial of Self

“Let him deny himself…” (or herself)

The verb translated “deny” is the same one used to describe what Peter did on the night before the Lord’s death.

Jesus: “You will deny three times that you even know me.” (Luke 22:34 NLT)

Peter: “I don’t even know him!” (Luke 22:47 NLT)

So to deny self is to behave toward self just as Peter did toward Jesus. It is to disclaim or disown all association with ourselves. In particular, it involves renouncing our right to go our own way.

Biblical scholar C.E.B Cranfield puts it this way: “To deny oneself is to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness.”

Self-denial goes against that which comes naturally and what our society teaches. Without question, we live in a “me-first,” “if it feels good do it” sort of world. The way of the world is self-desire. So being sacred or holy (set apart from the world) requires self-denial.

I am a huge fan of the sitcom Seinfeld. In one episode, lovable loser, George, determines that every choice he has ever made in life ended up being the wrong way to go. His friend Jerry suggests that, if that’s true, he should start doing the opposite.

Almost every decision you and I ever make is based on self-preservation, self-fulfillment, and self-determination … and where does that lead? To our ruin.

So to get a different result, we need to do the opposite and deny ourselves and go against our selfish tendencies. By and large, if it feels good, don’t do it. Instead, if it is God’s way, do it!

Self-denial is different from sacrificing someTHING for Christ (like we’d do in Lent). It is giving up someONE (namely, our selves) for Christ. It involves dethroning ourselves and enthroning God as the ruler of our lives. It is detachment from self-interest and attachment to God and His will.

But self-denial is not self-abasement or self-hatred. It is allowing God to be the controlling force in our lives. It’s saying as Jesus did, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

When we take that approach, we’ll have a healthy view of self and proper self-respect and self-love because we’ll realize we are God’s beloved children.

2) Death of Self

“Take up his cross daily.”

This phrase has oftentimes been trivialized. We speak of our arthritic knee or annoying mother-in-law as the cross we must bear. But the cross Jesus spoke of is not a minor irritant. It was a vivid symbol of death and suffering during His time here on earth.

In the ancient Roman world, anyone carrying a cross was on a one-way journey to death. So someone who lives by this command sees his or her life as being over. The Apostle Paul lived this way and he wrote about it many times, including in his letter to the Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)

The book, Dead Man Walking, describes the work of a Catholic nun who ministered to death row inmates in Louisiana. It was made into a movie that won actress, Susan Sarandon, an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean. The title comes from an actual announcement that is made just minutes before prison officials carry out a death sentence.

As the convict is led down the hallway to the execution chamber, a guard alerts the other parties by yelling, “Dead man walking!” It’s a chilling scene in the movie because you know the condemned man will never make the return trip and is as good as dead.

To go with Jesus, we must see ourselves as dead men (or women) walking. Being crucified with Christ means we no longer have plans for our lives – “It is no longer I who live…”

But it also means we don’t look back, only ahead to what God has in store for us.

Think of the position of being nailed to a cross, and tell yourself: “Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God…”

And notice it’s not a once and for all decision as Jesus instructed His followers to “take up your cross daily.” This truth caused Paul to say: “I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31 CEV)

So, what does cross-bearing and death to self look like? It is a daily willingness to give ourselves over to Christ, His will and His ways.

The cross is not forced on anyone. Like Jesus, we have to take it up ourselves.

We die to self when we witness to a hostile neighbor.  

We take up our cross when we take vacation to go on a mission trip or serve at a Vacation Bible School.

We are like a dead man walking when lend a listening ear when we’re in a hurry.

We are crucified with Christ when we bite our tongue when someone lashes out.

The great Christian writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated it clearly in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

I’ve told you before that I find simple one-liners helpful to give me some guidelines to live by. Here’s one to consider: instead of saying, “I’m trying to be a good disciple of Jesus,” re-frame it and say, “I’m dying every day to be a good disciple of Jesus.”

3) Devotion of Self

“Follow me.”

The Greek root word of the verb, follow, means “path.” So to follow someone means to go down the same path as them. It is used 77 times in the gospels and all but one refers to Jesus as the one being followed.

“[The disciples] left everything and followed Jesus, becoming His disciples, believing and trusting in Him and following His example.” (Luke 5:11 AMP)

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Using that reference, it involves complete obedience and total abandonment to the call of Christ on our lives. It is going where He wants us to go and doing what He want us to do.

Remember the childhood game, “Follow the Leader”? In order to play the game correctly, you must pay close attention to the leader. You also must mimic their behavior.

So to follow Jesus is to keep our eyes on Him and mirror His example. Devotion of self is a complete change of orientation for us. Instead of choosing our own way and doing our own thing, we focus on what Jesus would do.

As an example, consider the missionary who was sent to a new location in remote Africa and began telling the people about Jesus. As he described Christ and His earthly ministry, the people told the missionary that Jesus used to live with them. He argued that was not possible since Jesus walked the planet 2,000 years ago. But they continued to insist that they knew Him. Upon relating this strange phenomenon to his superior, the missionary learned that another missionary had been assigned to that village several years earlier. He had so modeled the attitude and behavior of Jesus that they mistook that person for Christ Himself.

To follow Jesus is to walk so closely with Him that our lives become indistinguishable from His. This requires that self gets out of the way, so Christ can shine through us.

Let me close with an illustration. There are few, if any, of us who do not have a cell phone. But, it’s really not much of a phone at all, is it? In fact, if you’re like me, I get annoyed when someone calls instead of texts. And it’s really not even a cell phone since we normally use it on Wi-Fi. So it’s really a wireless or electronic device. I think a really good name for it is “self phone.” That’s because most of what we use it for revolves around me, myself, and I.

The “self phone” is the ultimate “it’s all about me” device, isn’t it? I can get information so I can improve myself. I can go to my Facebook page or Instagram account and tell other people about myself, show them photos of myself and tag pictures of myself that others have taken.

We’ve created a whole world of “selfies” and associated equipment to facilitate the process … Why? Because the world revolves around me.

Clearly the cell phone has other purposes that enable us to connect with and help others. But our “self” orientation gets in the way.

Just about every phone has a flashlight. It’s very useful (and embarrasses my kids when I use it in a dimly lit restaurant). But did you know that as soon as you turn on the camera, the light turns off?

That’s a pretty profound illustration for those of us who want to defeat self and follow Jesus. You and I cannot shine the light of Christ as long as the attention is on us.

So as Jesus suggested, we must deny self, die to self, and devote our self to Christ.  

We all know how to mitigate the effects of the virus called COVID-19, don’t we? (social distance, wash our hands, wear a mask, get the vaccine). So what are we going to do to avert the disease of me that threatens, not just our physical lives, but our eternal spiritual well-being?

It starts by acknowledging that the real enemy is us and then asking God to remove the dreaded four-letter word, self, from our vocabulary.


What ONE THING keeps tripping you up and prevents you from reaching the goals you’ve set as a Christian? What ONE act of self-denial you can take, or ONE thing you can sacrifice to the Lord, or ONE way you can more fully devote yourself to Christ and follow Jesus?