A god is what we run to when we need validation, help, or encouragement because we believe it has the power to give us what we need. Self is a compelling god because it arises from our deepest desires and impulses. The god of self is manifest in willfulness, pride, disobedience, ostentation, defiance, intemperance, and generally wanting one’s own way.
When the serpent tempted Eve to disobey God’s direct command about eating the forbidden fruit, he appealed to the god of self. He used feigned incredulity to tempt her to consider God’s command unfair: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). The god of self began to awaken as it questioned God’s motives. Eve’s response: “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’” (Genesis 3:2) She added the words you must not touch it, which God had never said. A competing god was asserting itself by suggesting that the Lord’s instruction was too restrictive and therefore should be challenged.
The god of self arises in us when we think we know better than God. We disagree with His Word and elevate our own opinion above His. Paul challenged the god of self in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” Speculations and lofty things are footprints left by the god of self as it tramples down absolutes to erect its own throne in our hearts. We think or say things like, “If I were God, I certainly wouldn’t act that way” or “I don’t see why God would do this or that.” Wrestling with difficult truths about God is healthy as we learn more about Him, but exalting ourselves and our human opinions over God’s infinite wisdom is giving place to the god of self.
The god of self is very much active within the church today. Self-help, self-esteem, self-love, and self-fulfillment are topics once left to secular psychologists. Now they are regular themes in mainline Christianity. The awesome, holy God described in Scripture as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29) and who will “smite the nations with the sword of His mouth” (Revelation 19:15) is considered important only inasmuch as He validates our worth or makes us feel good about ourselves. The god of self will gladly worship a God of love but resists learning about His other qualities because those will dethrone self.
The god of self is a hero in cultural Christianity. Self is the major theme of the prosperity gospel. Wrapping the god of self in Bible verses does nothing to dilute its deceptive power. Satan himself knows Scripture better than we do and even tried using it to tempt the Lord (Luke 4:1–13). Worshipers of the god of self want just enough Jesus to feel better about themselves but not enough to pick up a cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
We know we are worshiping the god of self when we approach God’s Word reservedly. The Bible may say one thing, but the self will want something else, and we must make the choice: self or Jesus (see John 6:66; Matthew 6:24). We all struggle with the flesh at times. Romans 7 was written to help us know we are not alone in that struggle. But when following self is a lifestyle, we have a false god (1 John 3:3–9), even if we verbally profess to love Jesus (see Matthew 15:8).
It is wise to check our hearts for this intruder so that we are not deceived (2 Corinthians 13:5). The god of self can slip in unnoticed and erect a competing throne that is so like the one where God belongs that we are unaware of the switch. Because this god of self can cloak itself in Christian-looking activities, it lives undetected in the hearts of many who profess to follow Christ. It is to such unsuspecting people that Jesus spoke these chilling words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23)
We can examine the thrones of our own hearts by considering some questions:
1. Do I love God’s Word and welcome His instruction? (Psalm 119:165)
2. When I read a convicting passage in Scripture, do I eagerly put it into practice or resist it? (James 1:22)
3. Who has the final authority over my life decisions? (Luke 6:46)
4. Which topic do I enjoy reading about more: being a better me or knowing God better?
5. Can I only “get into” worship if the music is my style and the band is top-notch?
6. What delights me most?
7. Are my closest friends those who love the Lord?
8. Do I consider “worship” as a weekly, hour-long service, or is it part of my daily life?
9. Does my Sunday-morning self change on Monday morning?
10. Do I make excuses for sin in my life rather than resisting sin and repenting of it?
The god of self does not need a physical temple or an altar. It is content to dwell in our hearts and get its own way. Paul described the cure for ridding ourselves of this imposter: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Self will not cooperate with truth that requires its submission, so self must die (Romans 6:6–7). God will not share His throne, and we are fooling ourselves if we think He does not notice our service to the god of self. We may shun the external vices and never bend the knee to a graven image, but if Jesus is not Lord over every part of our lives, we are most likely worshipers of the god of self.