Self-preservation

By Peter Amsterdam

September 14, 2010

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I recently saw a TV show set in Great Britain during the early part of World War II. The Nazis had defeated France, and the British expected imminent invasion. For some, the uncertainty, the fear of the future, and the feeling that they needed to take care of their own led them to act in ways they wouldn’t have in their normal day-to-day lives. They showed less concern for others, many hoarded, others stole, and some even committed murder!

Other people, in contrast, reacted in a completely different manner. They weren’t heroic because they performed great deeds; they were heroic because they performed small deeds selflessly. They faced their difficulties with dignity. They helped one another. They banded together as a community, looking out for the welfare of their neighbors and sharing what they had with those in need.

Seeing the contrast between the two types of responses brought home the challenges we face when we are in uncertain times or difficult situations—as many of us are right now. In times of disorientation, when the status quo changes, when everything seems topsy-turvy, it’s natural for people to feel concerned for themselves. While everyone won’t respond in the same way, the selfish human instinct for self-preservation takes a more prominent role for some people.

When all around us is unstable, it’s natural to become destabilized ourselves. When what felt like solid ground begins to feel like shifting sand, the fear can be gripping.—Fear of the future, fear of the changes being, or about to be, thrust upon us. If we allow fear to overpower faith, our trust in God’s care tends to diminish. Once that happens, then the feeling that we must take control of events and take matters into our own hands becomes more prominent. This isn’t necessarily bad, since the “fight or flight” instinct is built into our nature, and we automatically respond to perceived danger with self-preserving moves. We will protect ourselves and our loved ones, as we should.

The challenge we face, though, is finding the right balance between our human nature and our spiritual nature. As Christians we are “new creatures” who possess more than just human nature.[1] We have God’s Spirit dwelling within us.[2] We abide in Jesus and He abides in us.[3] So, our responses to circumstances and events should be influenced by that indwelling. While we feel naturally driven toward self-preservation, the Spirit can temper that reaction, so that we can find the balanced response—one which is compatible with Christ’s nature.[4]

This isn’t easy, because our human nature is so … well, human. It’s our default setting. Being concerned for someone else or their need, situation, or struggle isn’t naturally our first priority. Because of this, there is the danger that we will minimize or even completely ignore someone else’s needs in favor of our own. When this happens, we are in danger of damaging others, and ourselves as well.

If we plow forward with our self-serving plans without consideration for those around us, chances are we’ll make decisions that will hurt others. Promises and commitments that we’ve made will take a back seat, and we’ll gravitate toward what is best for us even at the risk of hurting others. This can result in damaged friendships, disappointment, resentment, and bitterness. Those left in the wake of our selfishness will suffer, because our human nature overrode the Spirit of God within us.

When this happens, not only do others suffer, but we suffer too. Not necessarily in ways we see, at least not right away. But nevertheless, it damages us. I’ve read that in business, if someone is displeased with your product, they will generally tell 50 other people about it within their lifetime. In our lives as Christians, we are the product. If we have damaged someone’s trust in us, because our self-preserving acts have harmed them, they may never fully trust us again. And it’s possible, even likely, that they will convey that mistrust to others.

It hurts them, it hurts you.

Taking care of your needs and the needs of your loved ones isn’t wrong. But as disciples of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, we should step back from focusing only on our own needs and look also to the needs of others. We should find the balance.

Philippians 2:4–5 says: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (NIV)


[1] Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV).

[2] Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16 KJV).

[3] Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me (John 15:4 KJV).

[4] The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Galatians 5:22–23 KJV).

 

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