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John Calvin puts forward a very simple reason why love is the greatest gift: “Because faith and hope are our own: love is diffused among others.” In other words, faith and hope benefit the possessor, but love always benefits another. In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love always requires an “other” as an object; love cannot remain within itself, and that is part of what makes love the greatest gift.
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Want to Flourish? Stop Focusing on Yourself

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Church signs are famously funny. While the sign outside our church building doesn’t offer pithy sayings, it has been known to elicit a laugh from those who appreciate its irony. Above our church’s name, the sign reads, “Self Help.” It refers to the organization that owns the building where we meet, but many have chuckled at the contrast between those words and the teaching found inside.

Unfortunately, though, our culture’s obsession with self shows up in Christian books, blogs, and sermons more often than we might realize. In her new book, Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus, author and speaker Lydia Brownback sheds light on the many ways self-focus has crept into Christian thinking and teaching.

She challenges us to fix our eyes on the Lord Jesus rather than ourselves.

We Need Truth to Flourish

Brownback begins by reminding us of the importance of truth. She wants us to see “how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing” (12). She acknowledges that discerning truth from false doctrine is a challenge, especially when the topic is the self. We are predisposed to accept false teaching about self-love “because it appeals to that deep yearning for affirmation we feel at our very core” (13).

We need help to see around the blind spots of self-love and self-focus, so Brownback offers clear and pointed biblical truth as she unpacks six facets of self-focus and helps us understand how the gospel frees us from each one.

One particularly helpful insight Brownback offers is that our focus on self often comes from asking the wrong questions. For example, our self-consciousness is usually driven by the question: “What do people think of me?” A better question to ask is: “What do people think of Christ?” Brownback says, “When we are driven by a concern for how people perceive him, we can live free from the bondage of what people think of us” (16).

Or consider the frustration we feel when our efforts toward self-improvement fail. We are tempted to ask: “Why won’t God help me?” But Brownback points us to Paul’s example in Romans 7 when he asks: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” She observes that “we ask why, whereas Paul asks who” (37). Our question looks inward, but Paul’s looks upward. Her encouragement to ask the right questions gives us a practical way to shift our focus from ourselves to the Lord.

Brownback is also admirably bold in her commentary on cultural trends that can tempt us to focus on ourselves. She is willing to say things that many of us need to hear, but few are willing to say. And in doing so, she models the lack of self-consciousness that she exhorts us to.

For example, in the chapter on self-indulgence she writes: “Jesus is not a life coach. He is Savior and Lord. And it is not up to us to decide who we want to be in this world. We’ve been called as disciples and servants” (62). She also reminds us that “no one actually needs a spa day or wine or chocolate or even a vacation” (64). However, she rightly acknowledges that many of the things she calls into question aren’t inherently wrong and can be beneficial in the right context. But we must always consider whether they “drive us out of ourselves or farther inward” (62).

More Delicate Approach

While Brownback’s boldness in sharing truth is on the whole refreshing and needed, there are times when I’d welcome a more delicate approach. Brownback uses stories of women she knows to illustrate some of the sin struggles associated with self-focus. Though it’s not stated, I assume she has changed their names and used their stories with permission.

However, she critiques the heart-level sins of a couple of women with such detail and such certainty that I’m concerned about the example she sets. Only the Lord truly knows the motives of our hearts, and it’s he who will expose them one day (1 Cor. 4:4–5).

In the age of social media, when online gossip and bullying abound, we as Christian writers would be wise to take extra care in the example we set by how we write about others. When we seek to illustrate sin, examples from literature, Scripture, and our own lives can be just as compelling and remove the possibility of dishonoring someone else.

Still, through these examples and others, Brownback helps us understand the practical outworking of self-focus and reflect on ways it may have taken root in our lives. She helps us identify thought patterns that may have become normal but are not fruitful. She exposes the subtle lies we may not have detected.

Moving Away from Self to Christ

Though the “Self Help” sign outside our church is funny, living with focus on ourselves is not. As Brownback notes, “There’s simply no escaping the fact that we’re always conformed to what we focus on” (13). Living with a focus on ourselves keeps us from being conformed more and more to the image of Jesus Christ and experiencing the full life he offers us.

But moving away from self-focus isn’t the end in itself. Brownback calls us to move away from ourselves so we can move toward Someone else. She shows us that we truly flourish not by seeking to delight ourselves, but by “knowing Christ as our greatest delight” (11).

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