And, since everything God has done, is doing, and will do is somehow connected to the increase of Christ, it certainly follows that all of it is working to decrease everything else. This is a process at work within every man, woman, boy and girl: to bring each of them to the end of themselves so they will embrace Christ and be willing to lay down the tattered, filthy garments of self-centered living in exchange for the righteous robes of the Christ-centered life. It is a process that was working in you long before you ever gave your life to the Lord. You do not have to understand the process to benefit from it, but the process will go a lot more smoothly if you do understand it so you can cooperate with it.
The best way to cooperate with God is to focus on those things that will increase Christ. Many hear the teaching of the Cross and the decrease of Self and spend a lot of time (too much time) trying very hard to decrease themselves. This usually results in a lot of endless introspection, analyzing, and eventual frustration. It seems the more we pay attention to ourselves, the larger we become, and the more things we find wrong. It is a fact of life that we usually get more of whatever we focus on. If we focus on Self, even in a valiant attempt to decrease Self, it seems Self just gets stronger.
Scripture does not teach us to decrease ourselves through asceticism, clothing ourselves in rags, or telling everyone that we are lowly worms. This accomplishes nothing, and actually has the opposite effect of drawing undue attention to ourselves. On the contrary, Scripture teaches us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to pray daily for the Will of God. This is a far more positive and productive approach. By focusing on what we want – the increase of Christ – we receive exactly what we ask for – the increase of Christ. The fringe benefit of Christ increasing is that Self automatically decreases. We do not have to directly seek to decrease ourselves. Let us instead seek the increase of Christ.
For example, if I am to truly love God with all my heart, mind, body and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself, then there is really no room for self-interest there. To give God “all” is to leave nothing leftover. When our surrender is unconditional, when our submission is complete, there is nothing leftover for the Self-life to grasp. All that I have, all that I am, has been fully and completely surrendered over to God. This is why the Lord Jesus was so successful at resisting the many temptations and tests that came His way. When a person only lives for the love of God, and only seeks to do His Will, and has no interference from self-interest or self-love, they are invulnerable to temptation. All temptation has its source in the Self-life. When Self is perfectly denied then Sin has no outlet. Temptation loses all its temptability.
The Purpose of Tests and Trials
As we spend time with God in prayer, and as we search God’s Word for truth, the Holy Spirit works to increase Christ, granting us wisdom, revelation, insight, and spiritual discernment. With each fresh revealing of Christ, Self is diminished. With much more of Him, there is much less of me.
But such a path of Christ-centered devotion is contrary to the ways of this world. So we encounter many things that seek to hinder our progress and frustrate our pursuit of Christ in this narrow way. For example, with a revelation of the love of God, we may commit ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbor. But then our neighbor offends or wounds us. Now we are confronted with a real-life situation that threatens the spiritual truth that we just recently said we were committed to. We can react like we always do and simply retreat into the familiar territory of self-preservation and justification. Or, we can trust in the life of the Lord to do something in us and through us that is beyond our natural comprehension.
These tests and trials all come to prove the worth of the spiritual truths that have been revealed to us. What does it mean to love your neighbor? Is it merely a teaching? A doctrine? Something we know we’re just supposed to believe? Or is it an experience – something we have actually walked in, something we have actually put into practice? These things cannot be learned in the pews of a church or in a Bible study. We can listen to a thousand messages on loving our neighbor and think we really get it. But when we are face-to-face with our neighbor it becomes a different story.
And so, these tests and trials are necessary to prove the validity of our faith. They help us to see just where we are in our walk with God and just how conformed we are to the image of Christ. What we find is that we are not nearly as conformed to Him as we thought. We make mistakes. We stumble and fall. We become frustrated and disappointed with ourselves. But if we confess our shortcomings, and if we continue to follow after Him in our weakness, something wonderful happens. We discover that the experience itself, as disappointing as it may have been, actually helped to decrease us in a good way. We had our eyes opened to see some things about ourselves. We experienced the weakness of our flesh, and by experiencing this weakness, we learned not to trust our flesh. This does far more to teach us than any teaching or sermon on “denying Self.” It is a hard way to learn, but it is the best way, and often, the only way.