The Kingdom of Self

In a person’s twenties, the Kingdom of Self is, in most cases, fully erected and flourishing. Parents are no longer around to menace us. Our freedom to do as we please, however, is by no means unrestricted. If we work at a job, we have to be there at a certain time, work certain hours, and produce. If we are attending college or undertaking a graduate program, we are restricted by the demands of rigorous academic disciplines and tough-minded professors. As we leave school, we enter competitive business or the professional world. Everybody has either a boss or a fickle public or both—whom we must in some way satisfy. Add to all this a new spouse who, as nothing more than a partner in marriage, limits our freedom to go and come as we please. In spite of it all, a person in his twenties has considerable freedom from the restrictions of external authority. There are plenty of opportunities to test the power and authority of King Self.

As the self comes into the fullness of his physical maturity, his goddish style of life is more openly disclosed. He becomes increasingly godlike, even though he vigorously denies any ambition to be a god. His “divine” characteristics are stolen and hidden. God has been stripped of His attributes. Man, as soon as he is born, declares war on God. The war is on this issue: Who is Number One? Is it I or is it Thou? I think it is I.

Out of that kind of thinking, a number of unstated and usually unrecognized convictions take deep root in our lives. Let us reflect on the following convictions of an adult King Self:

I am power
I am truth
I am right
I am above time
I am a messiah
I am the law
I am perfect

1. I am power.
After twenty years of cigarette smoking, I wanted to quit. Two simple reasons motivated me. It humiliated me to be pushed around by some dried-out leaves. In addition, if I contracted lung cancer, I would not be able to bear the thought that I had a hand in my own suicide by something as stupid as tobacco.

Wanting to quit, however, I could not. Thinking I had the willpower to stop, I kept drifting back to my addiction. I tried cigars, pipes, candy, resolutions, withering self-castigation—and even prayers, which always began, “Lord, help me.” They slowed but did not stop my return to cigarettes.

1Slowly it began to dawn on me that I could not help myself. Worse, the more I used my willpower, the more helpless I became. I was like a fish which has hit the bait of a trolling fisherman. The more the fish struggles, the deeper the hook is embedded. The only hope for a hooked fish is that the fisherman will remove the hook and return the fish to the water.

Some God-fearing friends who are wise in the ways of fish and people advised me to abandon my willpower approach. So I gave up. Surrendered. Waited. I waited for a power other than myself. I could never save myself from addiction. Salvation would mean being saved by Another.

In my acknowledgment of my powerlessness, Divine Power reached out to save me. I was strangely pulled to shore where One, a Fisher of Men, gently took the hook out of my mouth and then—unbelievably—made me free. And wiser. I know now I am not my own power.

My problem, I had always thought, was my weakness. It was a delusion. The problem was that I had assumed that I was vastly stronger than I was. The assumption of my own omnipotence had seldom been questioned.

The belief that I possess the strength to conquer the problems I create coincides with almost everything we read today—except the Bible. A colleague, a psychotherapist, said to me, “You are a theologian. It would help me if you would define virtue. Once it was defined, I would try to motivate my patients to it.” The assumption of this plan is that the motivated patient, once understanding what is right, has the power to do the right. But people do not possess this kind of power. Long ago Saint Paul discovered this fact and reported: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” This painful realization caused Paul to cry out, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:19, 24-25).

Our power-mindedness plays great havoc in our lives. Sometimes we almost kill ourselves trying to demonstrate our great power.

A certain woman wanted to rule her husband. This is something only God should attempt with husbands, but I suppose this wife felt she could do a better job than God. Anyway, when the husband would rebel, the wife would race into the kitchen, place a sharp knife on her wrist and scream, “I’ll kill myself if you don’t do it my way!”

This sick game had always succeeded until one day the husband failed to respond within the allotted time. The wife proceeded with this demonstration of her power and still bears the scars on her wrists as a silent testimony to the fact that those who play god must ever after look at the sad results of their work.

Egoists need to continually test their strength because they realize that they are not so godlike as they would like to believe. An acquaintance of mine told me how he had tested his power. He decided to lock himself in the trunk of his car. If he could somehow break out, this would prove that he had the strength to solve any of life’s problems. Should he not be able to open the trunk, well, he was not so keen about living anyway.

Six hours after the trunk was locked, my friend crawled out by clawing his way through the back seat of the car. Emerging, he said, “Now I can handle anything!” And so we hear it again: “I am power.”

2. I am truth.
2Ever notice the tendency in our thinking to regard our present understandings as the truth? We regard the knowledge we have right now as a considerable improvement over what people had in the past. As for the knowledge of contemporaries, the fury of our arguments testifies to our conviction of our own infallibility. We need only listen to the conversations in the faculty room of any college or at the bar of the local tavern to establish both statements. Somehow, above the noise and din of the conversations, we hear each authority shouting, “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong.”

Look for a moment at the political world. When a corrupt politician is caught red-handed breaking the law, we seldom read in the newspapers that the politician realized his error and confessed his sin. Heavens! If he did that, the citizenry would probably forgive him and place him back in office! What usually happens is that the politician, even on his way to jail, protests his complete innocence and vows to appeal his case to a higher court. As the key locks our politician in his prison cell, he mutters, “The whole world is wrong. I alone have spoken the truth.”

I once overheard the following conversation of two salesmen: “You’ve got to understand your territory: what’s true in New York City, for example, is not true for Grand Rapids.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, when you’re in New York, you use New York truth. That is, be cutthroat, aggressive, merciless. But Grand Rapids is a nice town, and you have to be like them. There, you use Grand Rapids truth. You act decently, watch your language, and look like a Republican.”

“I see what you mean.”

And suddenly this eavesdropper understood how deep is the human tendency for each person to manufacture his own brand of truth.

There are other examples of our insistent claim of speaking ultimate truth.

There is, for instance, a certain kind of person who has the golden mean as his goal in life. This individual, who is usually quite sophisticated, avoids the extremes on any issue. He is neither conservative nor liberal, but, he claims, the best of both. He is neither demanding nor overly permissive, but always fair. Some people are over-dependent, some independent, but our friend is inter-dependent. He is a man who does not see something as all evil, or all good, but as a combination of both. Behold, a man of truth has finally arrived to enlighten the minds of the pitiable extremists.

A clearer example of “the happy moderate” can be seen in the case of the eclectic. An eclectic is a person who claims adherence to no position, choosing rather to take and use the best from all schools of thought. The eclectic feels this is a viewpoint superior to the distortion of narrow-minded people who unashamedly claim a biased position. The eclectic is above all that. He borrows from one school (they should feel honored!) for this kind of problem and from another school for that kind of problem.

This is the way in which the eclectic never needs to defend anything, because he has no position. With justification, others inform him that what he really lacks is the courage to take a stand, the humility to identify with others, and the honesty to work through to his own conclusions. In this way, he would avoid being a parasite, as well as pretending to be the source of ultimate truth.

3. I am right.
A few years ago, two men were eating dinner together in a restaurant in Newark, New Jersey. In the course of their conversation, one of them happened to use the word “perogative.”

“You didn’t pronounce that correctly,” said his friend. “The word is ‘prerogative’—not ‘perogative.”’

This little lesson in pronunciation was not at all appreciated by the man who had used the word. He was obviously irritated by his friend’s correction. “Look—I’m positive the word is ‘perogative,’ and stop trying to act like my English teacher.”

“But you were wrong,” continued the self-appointed English teacher.

What had been a pleasant conversation now turned into a vicious argument as to who knew the most about the English language. This verbal battle grew so hot and loud that the contestants attracted the attention of a waitress. The issue was heatedly presented to the waitress and to her we must credit a brilliant suggestion:

“Why don’t you go next-door to the drugstore and buy a fifty-cent dictionary? That ought to settle the argument.”

The wisdom of this suggestion had instant appeal to both men. Mr. Prerogative volunteered to go. He quickly returned with a victorious smile written all over his face. “See? Just what I said. ‘Prerogative!’”

“Here let me see that dictionary!” commanded Mr. Perogative. “Just as I thought. This is one of those cheap little pulp editions. You can’t trust them! I only go by Webster’s unabridged edition. I’m sure it would support me!”

I have no word about this man’s reaction after he consulted the Webster’s unabridged edition. I suspect he rejected that edition also, because the desire to find the truth was entirely lacking in him. This man was fighting to preserve one of the deepest convictions a person can have about himself—I am right!

It is this kind of conviction that can keep a mental patient locked up for years in a hospital. This happened in the case of Tom, a splendid young man in his early twenties. Tom had tried for days to argue with me on the hate-filled issues of neo-Nazism, antiSemitism, and white racism. Finally I turned to Tom and asked, “Which do you want—to be right on these issues or to get well so as to leave this hospital?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “Be right! I don’t care if I never get out of this hospital!”

So Tom stayed on with us. Eventually, he was transferred to another hospital, but to my knowledge, Tom is still standing for what he thinks is right on the back ward of a mental hospital.

The stubbornness and rigidity that goes with this conviction of infallibility often takes a more subtle expression in the form of indecision. Many of us know the agony of being unable sometimes to make even simple decisions, such as what to order on a menu or which route to take on a trip. Major decisions, of course, may so completely frighten us that we become paralyzed. When this happens, we either get other people to make our decisions or allow the flow of events and circumstances to determine the course of our lives.

What causes this paralysis of the will? Why can’t we, under God, make these decisions?

If my understanding is correct, the problem lies in our unconscious insistence that I must never be wrong. When a person makes a choice, he must run the danger of making the wrong choice and, therefore, of being in error. This is a completely unacceptable prospect to anyone committed to the glorification of his ego. Consequently, no decision is made, and the delusion of rightness is preserved.

Sometimes a helpful friend may try to point out to the egoist that by not choosing, he has already made a choice in favor of his status quo. This seldom dents the thinking of the infallible egoist, because he defends all past decisions as being the right ones anyway.

4. I am above time.
There are many illustrations in our lives which show us how our egoism seeks to raise us above time. Characteristically, an egoist lives mainly in the past and the future, which, when you come to think of it, is the habitation of the eternal God. The egoist evades an authentic entrance into the present moment, because that almost invariably results in a confrontation with reality. If there is one thing an egoist cannot bear, it’s being forced to have a look at who he really is. The past he can review selectively, avoiding any unpleasant or unflattering recollections. The future is one beautiful fantasy in which, even if he does not always have the starring role, he always gets the best lines because he (not God) is writing the script. But the present time is what the egoist avoids like the plague, because in the present moment, he is inescapably disclosed as an impersonator of God.

But we egoists, nonetheless, learn to do certain self-serving things with time particularly by our efforts to live above time.

Take a look at the habit of tardiness. I am not talking about occasional tardiness. I have in mind a person who is habitually late. What is he saying by such action?

One of the things such a person is saying is that his time is more important than the time of others. The tardy person has his own personal time schedule. Let no one interfere with his plans! Obviously, he is above the need to conform to the time by which others order their lives.

Our impatience also reveals our desire to live above time. A patient whom I was trying to hastily send on his way after a worship service rebuked my egoism when he said, “If the good Lord took so much time to make the world, why don’t you have a few minutes to keep me going on it?” Impatience means: You must get on my time schedule.

On another occasion, I had listened for an hour to a person I had been regularly counseling. Upon leaving, she said, “You were very kind to listen, but you ought to know that each time we meet, you turn me off ten minutes before I leave. I sense that you are not really listening and that you are trying to get me out of your study to make room for the next person.”

I was totally unaware that my egoism was showing. It seems to show so quickly in what we do with time. There is a strong tendency in us to use time, which we all hold in common, for ourselves. We keep on trying to be the master of it.

5. I am a messiah.
Few of us would have the courage to flatly say that we are messiahs, but we live it with shocking boldness. There is something about being a savior of others which deeply appeals to us. Messianic thinking was surely the basic fault of such world-conquerors as Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler. Indeed, many politicians and heads of states are constantly working on this egoistic impulse. Some preachers who have grown tired of Christ as their Messiah make an effort to establish little messianic kingdoms of their own. Social crusaders also get into the act. The world runs some risk of running out of the poor souls upon whose presence the very existence of all these messianic projects depends.

Some of the clearest examples of messianic thinking can be seen among scientists. Some of them were saying just a few short years ago that God was indeed dead. “Come to us with your problems. Give us enough time, money, and goodwill, and there is nothing in the world we can’t solve.”

And the world believed them and came with their problems, only somehow there was never enough time or money or goodwill. For every problem they solved, they seemed to create ten more that no one had quite foreseen. When a disillusioned world finally called them to an accounting, they bitterly replied, “Well we’re not God, are we?”

No, they are not God.

6. I am the law.
It is common today to hear people say, “As long as I feel something is right for me, then it is all right to do it.” Such a person has unknowingly traded his human status for a delusion of divinity. It is every bit as serious to originate new, self-benefiting laws as to break old laws which happen not to suit us. The latter is obviously a slap in the face of the Deity who stands behind authorized legal authority, but when one originates his own legal code, tailor-made to fit his egoistic strivings, the results are just as disastrous.

Indisputable proof of our taking things into our own hands is seen in the homicidal-suicidal tendencies in each of us. I’m thinking of a woman whose death-wish for her husband is immediately stirred up the moment her husband steps on an airplane. She keeps fantasizing that the plane will crash, thereby fulfilling her homicidal wishes toward her husband. I think of a man, a solid citizen and pillar in his church, who, when he is frustrated, runs into his cellar, picks up a knife, and tries to decide which is the best way to slash his wrists. He has been trying for years to decide how to most efficiently carry out his violent intentions. There is something of both these people in all of us who try to be a law unto ourselves.

7. I am perfect.
I am perfect. Don’t laugh. People—particularly we perfectionists—feel this way. There are certain times when the perfectionist does succeed with limited goals. The kitchen sink is perfectly clean; the typed letter has no mistakes; the books on the table are stacked neatly. In these small ways, we can claim a perfection which confirms the conviction of our divine status. And if this were the end of the matter, we might still be tolerated by our fellows; but what we do next makes us obnoxious to others. We take our perfectionistic standards and apply them to others. We expect others to come up to our level of performance. Failure to meet these standards incurs the judgment of the perfectionist. Talk about goddishness!

Now look again at this list of godlike assertions we have discussed:

I am power
I am truth
I am right
I am above time
I am a messiah
I am the law
I am perfect

These declarations from the egoist are almost always unspoken and usually below his level of awareness. Many of their sources are in the pre-verbal years where so much of the unfinished business of infantile selfcenteredness is locked up. Others stem from idolatrous parents who not only refused to challenge young King Self, but encouraged him. What we see and hear in the adult egoist are the expressions, not the sources, of the problems.

One of the saddest and most painful expressions of adult egoism is loneliness. The egoist often tends to isolate himself from his fellows. The reason for this is simple. He can’t stand people and they can’t stand him.

The egoist may, eventually, therefore, recede from people. People cause him pain. They do not understand or help the egoist. The baffled king begins to suspect that people are against him. The weary warrior often chooses to leave the battlefield to live by and unto himself.

He calls that self-reliance. He also calls it independence.

Life in the center of one’s world is the loneliest spot in the universe. It is a place which God alone should occupy, though God is never lonely. The persons of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—live in the deepest and most perfect communion with each other.

The egoist, however, displacing God and taking His place, thereby withdraws from people increasingly. He asks no favors of anyone, because he might be refused. He asks no questions because: (1) what he does not know is not worth knowing; and (2) someone might laugh at his question. He seldom expresses his opinion, because someone might criticize it, and that kind of pain is just too much to bear. Which is why, as Stanley Harris points out, some people like dogs far more than they like people. Dogs never criticize us. And it is a fact that egoists often care more about animals than they care about people.

All this hell—and that is the only word to describe it—because of this list of godlike assertions.

The problem with being god is that we have to be so busy. It is a staggering task to run the universe. We who have tried it have all but ruined ourselves in the attempt. We have finally come to an admission of failure. We could not do it.

Painful as it is to give up the delusion of divinity, we experience joy as we come to accept our humanness and are then able to say:

I am human—which means I end; I am limited.
I am human—which means I am able to accomplish certain tasks within the limitations of my humanity but anything beyond that is by the power of God.
I am human—sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
I am human—a friend and subject of time, not the lord of it, not the slave of it.
I am human—sometimes helping others, but just as often in need of others’ help.
I am human—I live under law, for all authority is from God.
I am human—sometimes succeeding in my tasks and sometimes failing, but most importantly, accepting and using whatever God brings into my life.

If you have seen yourself on any page of this book so far, praise God, because you are then beginning to see yourself as He sees you. This is good, even sometimes exciting, but also painful because “before him [God] no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13).

I want to suggest a prayer of confession to God, therefore, and invite you to join me:

Lord God, our Father, this picture of ourselves which You have given us deeply disturbs us. Our situation is worse than we had imagined. It goes far beyond breaking a few laws and making a few mistakes. We have sinned against You. We have attempted to rob You of Your glorious attributes and establish our false kingdoms.

We repent of our sins.
Have mercy upon us, 0 God.
Cast me not off, forsake me not, 0 God of my salvation!
Our faith and our hope is in You alone. You are all we have left!
Hear us, for we pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Read Chapter 4
1 This is a pivotal issue that needs to be addressed. Many people, both in and out of the body of Christ, exercise their willpower to quit smoking, drinking, taking drugs, et cetera. The reason Rev. Jabay ís willpower was not able to secure victory over cigarettes is because his flesh was the controlling force in that area. Rev. Jabay had allowed his flesh to gain greater strength than his will. The same is true of anyone with any physical addiction. I will go into greater detail on this issue later in the book.

2 This is more than a mere tendency, it is a foundation stone of human existence. Our present understanding of today ís truth. We cannot embrace as being “truth” that which is not known to us. I believe the point Rev. Jabay is striving for here is that we should remain open for greater truths to present themselves.

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