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THEOLOGY > Sin > The Character of Sin > Elevation of Self  


The problem of man is man—man is preoccupied with self, the fulfillment and satisfaction of the ego. Man himself is at the center of his world, and in his sinful and convoluted thinking he concludes that the world revolves around him and for him. From the world man covets and seeks to obtain that which gratifies the self, evaluating the people of the world as insignificant when compared to him, for only his personal passions and pressing needs are worthy of consideration. The individual, at least in his mind, is superior to all things and all other individuals.

The self is not external to man. It is not outside of man but is inside man; it is what man is by virtue of the Fall—the self is man, sinful man, depraved man (see: Depravity), the soul that is set on evil (see: Nature of the Soul). Man and self are one and the same; therefore, man’s greatest enemy is himself, and yet man has no perception of this fact, or perhaps suppresses this fact (Rom. 1:18), as well as all other aspects of the Truth that he likewise suppresses.

Luther asserted that man is curved or bent in on himself: curvatus in se, that is, man is habitually seeking that which gratifies self. And this orientation toward self is an orientation away from God.

The Orientation Toward Self

The orientation toward self means that man is in love with himself, idolizes himself, and adores the image in the mirror. The adoration is not superficial but is a profound worship at the deepest level that controls every aspect of living. It is self-love; it is the desire to satisfy self, the desire to use things and people for self, the willingness to put down others, even God, in order to build up self and justify personal passions and actions. Self-love is self-lust, the sinful elevation of self at all costs and without regard to other considerations. Paul speaks of those who will be “lovers of self” (II Tim. 3:2). According to the prophet “we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa. 53:6), and the way to which man has turned is the way of self.

Man had rather be told something good rather than something bad—a positive word is always preferred to a negative word; in fact, many feel that one should surround oneself with only that which is positive in order that aspirations and goals will be more readily realized. But positive reinforcement really is nothing but justification of self and the selfish desire to enhance self; Calvin commented: “Nothing pleases man more than the sort of alluring talk that tickles the pride that itches in his very marrow” (Institutes, II, Ch. 1, 2).

It is not generally accepted that a correct understanding of self begins with the negative. The cry of man is for a good self-image, but no concept of self is proper that does not see self in terms of God and His Word. Looking into that mirror reveals a depraved and damned sinner,  so nothing positive can be affirmed about man in his natural state (see: The Natural Man). The Christian indictment of man stands over against the majority view that considers man either inherently good or at least neutral in the worst possible scenario.

“Know thyself” is the inscription at Delphi and also the words used by Socrates, but apart from God’s Revelation the self cannot be known. Only in Scripture can man find a true description of himself, true because it is of God and not of man. And from the revealed Word man is informed that he is not good but dead and depraved, and has a darkened image (see: Darkened Image). Man is informed that the self is sinful in its selfish seeking and in its egotistical desire for personal elevation, that is, man’s image is not good but is set on the evil of self-assertion.

In this predicament there is no hope for man apart from supernatural intervention, for man cannot extricate himself from the downward spiral. Man cannot master himself, for self is an unwieldy monster, craving pleasures and things which can never satisfy. Man does not have the desire nor the ability to crucify the self; it is impossible for man to put self to death. It must be crucified in and with Another (see: The Principle of Identification), for within man is not the capacity to control nor to terminate his sinful proclivities.

In seeking the satisfaction of self, there is manifest the inability to love the family and the neighbor; nothing is of value except the satisfaction of self. Thus there is nothing to give to others, for it is all selfishly kept for self; there is the inability to wash the feet of others because there is the belief that someone else should be washing my feet—lost is the Christian concept of servant-hood. Self-assertion of the natural man and the servant-hood of Christ that is required in the life of the believer cannot be reconciled; they are essential enemies without any common ground. The self must be crucified.

In the sinful elevation of self the larger number suffer; others are sacrificed for personal interests (II Sam. 24:1-10, 15; also see the story of Achan). Adam affected the race—he chose the forbidden fruit and the race suffers the consequences of the action of the one individual. Self-elevation not only brings ruin to the person but its manifestation negatively affects everyone who is touched by its contagion.

The Orientation Away from God

The orientation inward toward self is coupled with an outward orientation away from God, an orientation in which man crowns himself as Lord. It is man against God, as man establishes and purses his own agenda. It is the individual self who is set over against the Sovereign (see: God is Sovereign). It is man against God.

To prefer oneself to God is the essence of sin: it is self-will verses submissive will; it is seeking one’s own satisfaction rather than the glory of God; it is replacing God’s Truth with man’s thoughts; it is the enthronement of self—it is the sinful self-assertion of the creature who has no regard for the Creator. It is man becoming his own god and ascending to the throne of his life.

To elevate self to the position that only God rightly occupies is to be guilty of idolatry; it is for the self to become God in the eyes of the prideful ego. Man rejects subjection and becomes his own Sovereign; it is the ultimate elevation of self. “For Master-Ego and sin are exactly the same—the sinful man is the man who recognizes no Lord but himself” (Brunner, Our Faith, Ch. 24).

Sin is primarily against God (II Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51:4); “we have sinned against You” (Jer. 14:7, 20).  But the irony in the fact is this: in being against God the person is against the self. “He who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36; words spoken by Wisdom). To reject God and His Word (Logos/Wisdom) is to wrong one’s own soul; it is to love death. To elevate self is to embrace death rather than life, and in the choosing of self is the choosing of that which will damn the self. How revealing: while seeking fulfillment and gratification, emptiness and frustration dominate; that which should fill the plate leaves it empty. Through elevating himself man is anticipating life, and never expects to find the death that slowly but surely envelops him.

The focus of the self is to be God not the self; man is not to seek selfish satisfaction but is to pursue the glory of God, because the source of life is the life of God, not the life of man:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Eccles. 12:13);

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37);

I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me (Jo. 5:30);

He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again (II Cor. 5:15).

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