The Enemy of Self

Dr. R.B. Ouellette

Few of us really believe the words of Jesus in John 15:5, “…without me ye can do nothing.” We know that we need God’s help for the big things—raising children, overcoming temptation, winning people to Christ. But we do not recognize that we need His help for even the most simple and seemingly mundane tasks. We cannot do everything without Christ, but surely we can do some things. Right?

Some years ago I was scheduled to sing a solo in our church. I had taken voice lessons in college, and the very first song I learned was Charles Weigle’s “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus.” I dusted off that old song I had practiced so often before and ran over it with the pianist for my solo. Of course, since I had known the song for so many years, I had no need to have the words with me. My attitude was not egotistical. I didn’t think the performance would “wow” the congregation. I just thought, “I know this song; I ran over it; I can do it.” I was not carnal in the sense of being steeped in sin. I was simply relying on my “good” flesh.

I stood in front of the pulpit and began to sing, “I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus…” and my mind went completely blank. I tried to improvise and pick it up at the chorus. I forgot the chorus too. At first it sounded like I found some new verses, but after the second stanza it became obvious I was making up the words. What was my problem? It was not wicked, overt sin. I was relying on myself.

Several years ago, the theme for our church was taken from John 8:29, “And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” The banners on the walls simply displayed the words “Please Him.” I believe we could reduce the Christian life to those two words. Our purpose, our thoughts, and our behaviors should be to please God. But Romans 8:8 tells us “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Our flesh—our old self-dependent nature—can’t do it.

We understand that unsaved people cannot please God. Proverbs 21:4 tells us that even “…the plowing of the wicked is sin.” We can understand that Christians who do not spend time with God and do not live godly cannot please Him. What is less obvious is that well-meaning, sincere, separated believers still cannot please God if they are not filled with the Holy Spirit.

I am not naturally spiritual. When my children disobeyed, I didn’t always stop and ask the Holy Spirit to guide my words. Sometimes I just wanted to give them a piece of my mind. Maybe you are not like me. Maybe, when you have a disagreement with a co-worker, your first thought is, “Lord, help me to be a testimony for You. My main responsibility is to represent You, not defend myself.” Maybe. But I suspect we both have a strong tendency towards self-reliance.

A Christian leader once said, “If the Holy Spirit were taken out of the world, ninety-five percent of all Christian work…would continue.” If he is right, only one in twenty sermons are preached in the power of the Spirit. Out of twenty Sunday school teachers, bus workers, or other Christians workers, only one does his work empowered by the Spirit of God. I don’t know about you, but the hardest thing I have to do is rely on the Holy Spirit and not on myself.

Years ago, I spoke to Dr. Monroe Parker about J. Frank Norris. To be quite honest, Dr. Norris confused me. He pastored the two largest churches in the world at the same time. He could move a great crowd with his soaring oratory. On at least one occasion, he allowed the crowd to pick his topic, preached for an hour from the book of Isaiah, and never once opened his Bible. And yet there were other stories I heard about him that didn’t add up. He could be mean. He fired a staff member on the radio one day. He once dismissed his entire choir because he was not pleased with their singing. He was harsh and demanding. He distributed letters discouraging people from using Dr. John Rice as an evangelist in which he accused Dr. Rice of being a Pentecostal. How could both of these behaviors exist in the same individual? Dr. Parker said to me, “He was two men. There was a part of him that loved God and loved the souls of men. And there was a part of him that pulled stunts nobody ever should have pulled.” When he said that, something clicked inside of me. I thought, “I am two men.”

Galatians 5:17 tells us of the struggle between our two natures. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” There are two theological views on the old and new nature. One states that believers have both a new nature and an old nature. The other states that the old nature is dead and what troubles us is our flesh, which has been imprinted by the old nature. While I tend to agree with the latter, the fact is that part of us wants to do right and part of us wants to do wrong. We must recognize that we are simultaneously indwelt by the Spirit of God and influenced by the flesh.

This is why the Lord Jesus clearly told us that without Him we could do nothing. As a young pastor, I struggled to understand the difference between abiding in Christ, being filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, and living the crucified life. My simple conclusion is that they are all the same. In every situation we are either relying on God or relying on ourselves. When we rely on, are yielded to, and are empowered by the Spirit of God, He will accomplish amazing things in our lives.

So how can we live a Spirit-filled life? There seem to be two opposing approaches. One may be characterized by the expression, “Let go, and let God.” Sometimes this is called the “deeper life” approach. The attitude of some seems to be: just yield. Don’t do anything. Since you can’t please God, all you can do is surrender. In other words, they say you must simply trust.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who urge us to act. They will say, “If you just get your lazy carcass out of bed, get out of the house, and get to work, you can do anything you want to do.” They urge us to faithful service and active involvement. In other words, they tell us to obey.

The Spirit-led, Spirit-filled life will never be accomplished by your actions, but it will never be accomplished without your actions, either. Philippians 2:12 tells us, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Is this a contradiction? Not at all.

Imagine that a person is trying to vacuum your living room, but the vacuum is not plugged in. He pushes the vacuum vigorously back and forth and works hard to get the carpet clean, but there is no power. So you speak to the person and say, “All your pushing is useless. You need to plug the vacuum in.” He plugs the vacuum in, turns the switch on, and lets it sit there. Again, you speak to him, “Hey, you’re never going to get the floor clean that way. You have to push the vacuum!”

So it is in our Christian life. We must be yielded to God, but it is an active yielding. We must be active in our service, but only “plugged in,” Spirit-empowered activity will accomplish God’s work. The answer to the argument as to whether we should trust or obey is that we must trust and obey. Or better yet, we must trust to obey.