It seems logical to care for ourselves, doesn’t it? We have an incredibly strong, natural inclination to survive, to care for ourselves, and to preserve our well-being. In fact, the Bible commands that we do so. Self-care is not wrong. That’s what makes the sin of self-preservation so hard to recognize, so subtle, and so deadly.
As Christians, we’re called to lay down our lives. We’re called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, who took on suffering—even death—for the well-being of others. The one person who had the right to put his needs, his wants, and his well-being in front of others laid down that right (Philippians 2:3-8).
As we tether ourselves to Christ in the sweet surrender of salvation, we are committing to following him wherever he leads. We have laid down the claim we have on our lives and have entrusted it into the hands of our precious savior. He leads…we follow.
As we set off on this journey with the Lord, there is often no conflict between the command to care for oneself (and family) and the command to follow Jesus wherever he leads. The signs guiding and directing us on the path of life are often pointing in the same direction. Jesus: This way > Self-Care: This way >. But what about when we come to a fork in the trail? What happens when the sign reads Jesus: This way < Self-Care: That way > When this is the case, what do we do?
The sin of self-preservation is when we choose to prioritize our own well-being—our safety, our comfort, our provision, our plans, and even our very lives—over the leading of the Spirit and the commands of Jesus in Scripture. It seeks to predict the most favorable outcome—the one that keeps us the safest and most comfortable. And it seeks to put an asterisk by “doing right” if doing right will bring us hardship or pain. It justifies that Jesus would never ask us to lose our job, miss a meal, or risk our lives. It is perhaps the most basic instinct of our flesh, and I believe the most deadly to our faith—and our witness to the rest of the world.
The Lord bids us come and die—not just once—but daily in a series of small deaths over and over again. We no longer live for ourselves. We live for Christ. We no longer live for the kingdom of this world. We live for eternity. The Gospel flips the basic tenets of the world on their head. In God’s economy down is up, last is first, suffering brings glory, and death is life.
In order for faith to be necessary, we must come to the proverbial fork in the road. It requires none of it (faith that is) to continue in the direction of what we evaluate to be in our own best interest. I don’t have to have faith to follow God when it benefits me in an overt way. What requires faith is when following Jesus asks me to forego safety, security, comfort, and even my life…this is when I need faith.
In the Bible, Esther comes to this fork in the road. A decree has been made to rid the land of Persia of all the Jews. Esther finds herself in a position where she could potentially influence the king and save the people. She has found favor in the eyes of King Xerxes and now resides inside the palace walls. However, the king is never to be disturbed. One can only enter his presence if summoned. To approach him otherwise is punishable by death—unless he extends his scepter, pardoning the offender. So Esther has a decision to make. She can do what is right by the Lord and approach the king, risking her own life in an attempt to save her people. Or, she can choose the route of self-preservation.
In one of the finest examples of faith in all of Scripture, Esther responds, “If I perish, I perish,” and steps into the king’s quarters. As many of us know, God uses Esther’s act of faith to save the Israelite people. The king extends the scepter and grants her request that protection is decreed for her people.
I don’t share this example to demonstrate that God will always come through and protect us from harm when we step out in faith. This isn’t the case. What is best for us and the kingdom might be something very painful for us—even deadly (But because of Christ, death has taken on new meaning). No, I share this example because of Esther’s heart posture: “If I perish, I perish.” She was ready to die to do what was right. She stepped out in faith and left the consequences up to God. Do we possess the same heart posture?
Faith is like a muscle, it must be worked. If we want our faith to grow we have to exercise it. We have to step out in faith. There is nothing scarier, and yet nothing will awaken a dormant or lukewarm faith more. As we step out in faith, the Spirit inside of us is fanned into flame, and with it, the cobwebs of complacency and apathy are shaken from our soul.
But what happens when we choose self-preservation instead of faith? The Israelites were faced with this question after being delivered out of slavery in Egypt. God leads them to the Promised Land—a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey. But as they approach, they send spies to scout out the land to see if it is really as God said. They determine that while the land is extraordinary, the inhabitants of the land are too big and too powerful for them to take hold of it. Despite God promising the land to them and calling them to enter into it, they refuse. It is too dangerous. The risk is too high. They choose self-preservation instead. The result is the rest of their lives are spent wandering in the desert, never taking hold of what God had planned for them. What could have been an incredible opportunity to grow their faith as they tasted the goodness of the Lord ends up wasted.
The same is true of us. Not only does faith fail to grow when we choose self-preservation, but it is actually smothered out. The same Spirit that dwells inside of us that can be fanned into flame through faithful obedience is also capable of being quenched. With every decision to act apart from the Spirit’s leading—with every decision towards self-preservation—the Spirit inside us dims. Where passion and zeal once lived, complacency and apathy start to settle in. We get stuck wandering in a spiritual desert—wondering what happened to the passion and zeal we once possessed. We wonder why God seems distant. Has he abandoned us?
No, dear Christian, God will never abandon you. But your faith will flutter and flounder and the spirit of doubt will continue to grow as long as self-preservation is what governs your actions. Like the Israelites, you will find yourself stuck in a spiritual desert. And like the Israelites, you too will miss out on what God has planned for you—namely knowing him with an intimacy foreign to most because you trusted him even in the face of certain hardship.
Unfortunately, self-preservation has other negative effects as well. I was a lifeguard for several summers while I was in college. During training, they teach you that a drowning person, in an effort to save himself, will push anyone in his vicinity under the water in order to stay afloat. In order to save his own life, he will drown whoever is closest by. Self-preservation is like that. If we treat it as our highest end, we will undoubtedly wound others in the process.
Recently, I witnessed a heartbreaking situation where self-preservation was the priority. False accusations were brought against a dear friend of mine. As the church leadership got involved, they chose to protect themselves above all else. To “rock the boat” would have put their jobs in jeopardy. It would have threatened their well-being. Not wanting to drown themselves, they drowned a good man. As these Christian men—pastors and elders—chose self-preservation, my friend became the necessary sacrifice.
Self-preservation kills faith and often inflicts immeasurable wounds on the people God has called us to die for. But it’s when we lay down this tendency to self-preserve and step out in faith that we find spiritual renewal and show the world the light and love of Jesus Christ.
I came to this understanding the hard way. I allowed my Christianity to become inwardly focused—undoubtedly quenching my faith and wounding others in the process. I got good at following the rules, acing the checklist (you know: reading my Bible, going to church, saying my prayers), and immersing myself in the Christian sub-culture. But something was missing. The flame that I had when I first believed was gone. Five years after becoming a Christian, I was spiritually dry—apathetic, complacent… empty.
It wasn’t until the Lord convicted me of my self-prioritizing nature that things began to change. He showed me that I couldn’t follow after Jesus, and I certainly couldn’t reflect the type of radical, sacrificial love He demonstrated on the cross if I continued to place my own well-being above my commitment to Jesus. Nothing shows this world who Jesus is more than when Christians are willing to absorb pain so that those in their lives don’t have to. And Nothing will grow your faith more than throwing off the sin of self-preservation and chasing after Jesus with reckless abandon.
This is faith: that in every decision we make—big or small—we hold tightly to nothing but Jesus, do right by him, and trust God with the consequences. Our behavior—faithfully following after Jesus—is our responsibility. The consequences belong to God. We can’t anticipate the consequences and adjust our behavior based on what is most beneficial for us. Instead, we simply do what’s right and trust God with the rest: “If I perish, I perish.”
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” –Matthew 16:25