The world says that self awareness is good. The Bible says self awareness is the fruit of original sin, a curse that only God can cure. The world says look out for Number One, take the best parking space and jump to the front of the line. The Bible says make God Number One, take the far-away parking space and let someone else have the good one. The world says that self-love is the greatest love of all. The Bible says that self-denial is the greatest love of all. Let us hear the word of the LORD:
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. "If anyone wants to come with me," he told them, "he must forget himself, carry his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. Does a person gain anything if he wins the whole world but loses his life? Of course not! There is nothing he can give to regain his life. If a person is ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
I think it is fair to say that we spend entirely too much time thinking about ourselves. In the sermon on the Mount of Olives, Jesus warned that we should not worry about what shall we wear, or even what shall we eat, because our Father in Heaven knows we need these things. But even if we could get past these things, many of us would still be too hung up on ourselves.
The Bible has a lot to say about self-awareness, and most of it isn't good. In the creation story, God places the first man and woman in a garden and tells them they can eat of any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they eat of it, what's the first thing that happens? The Bible says their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. For the first time ever, they became self-aware and noticed their own weaknesses. So they sewed together fig leaves as clothing and hid from God when He passed through the garden. Before God even said a word, Adam and Eve were judging themselves unworthy of God's attention. Their new sense of self-awareness did them no good whatsoever. They were so full of themselves, they no longer had room for God.
We are taught that being self-aware and self-sufficient are good things. But what good is self-awareness? If we like what we see, we become prideful, even though every good thing comes from God, and not from ourselves. There are no self-made people. And if we don't like what we see in ourselves, we become self-critical, and afraid to do the jobs God gives us to do. Either way, we are forming an opinion about ourselves and getting in the way of the plans God has for us.
Do you know what Moses said to God when God told him to tell Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go out of Egypt? "Why would Pharaoh listen to me," Moses said. "I am a poor speaker." What do you suppose would happen if I or any other preacher suddenly saw ourselves as poor speakers? We'd probably freeze up and stammer, just like Moses. And you know what? I just might be a poor speaker! But it is not my place to think about that; I'm here to preach the word of God, and He just might need a poor speaker to get His message through. We have to forget ourselves and make room for God to do His work.
Self-awareness and self-consciousness are the same thing. If God gives you a job to do, there is nothing to be gained by focusing on all the problems that keep you from doing it. An engineer might say that a bumble bee cannot possibly fly, but don't tell the bumble bee.
Isaiah is a huge book in the Old Testament. It predicts the coming of Jesus, and it has guided Israel and the Church for centuries. Do you know what Isaiah said to God when he received that great prophecy? "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips." Some people think that meant that Isaiah had a problem with cussing. But God didn't let Isaiah's poor self-image stop him from delivering God's message. An angel touched a coal to his lips, and said now your lips are clean and your sin is washed away. Isaiah had to forget himself and make room for God to work.
It reminds me of what Peter said when Jesus called him to be a disciple. Jesus brought about a miraculous catch of fish. Peter fell at his feet and said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Christ didn't care one whit about Peter's low self-image. "Don't be afraid," Jesus said. "From now on you will be fishing for people." And Peter became a great leader in the early church.
Jeremiah is another major prophet in the Old Testament. Do you know what Jeremiah said when God told him to deliver a message to the house of Israel? "Ah, LORD GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But God said, "Don't say that. You go where I send you and say what I tell you, and don't be afraid."
Now it was true that Moses really did stutter; Isaiah really did cuss; Jeremiah was just a boy; and Peter really was a sinful man. It's also true that Adam and Eve were naked. In every case, self-awareness got in the way of God and people; it stopped people from doing the job God had for them to do.
I met a man who stammers; it is an organic condition, and there is nothing he can do about it. He was just born that way. But the more he thinks about it, the worse it gets. He would be better off to pay himself no attention whatsoever, and he certainly can't help the stammer by thinking about it. This man really knows his Bible, and I'm not going to pay his stammer any attention, either, because I would rather hear what he has to say than worry about how well he says it.
What about you? Is there something that God has put on your heart to do? Maybe it is one of the overall commands, something we are all commanded to do, like meeting in fellowship with other Christians, loving our neighbor, welcoming children or forgiving others of their sins. Are you not forgiving someone and excusing it by saying that you just can't do it? That you aren't good enough at forgiving? Let me warn you, that is beside the point, and it is no excuse. It isn't about what we can do, but what God can do in us. So let's forget about what we think we can or cannot do and boldly do what God has commanded us to do.
Or maybe it is something more specific. Maybe you think you should witness, but you're not a good speaker, or too young, or too old, or too sinful. God won't let us off the hook just because we put ourselves down. If God puts it on our hearts to do something for Jesus or for the Gospel, then God will make a way for us to do it, and it doesn't matter what we think we can or cannot do. Take it for granted, you cannot do it, but God can do it working through you.
What does this have to do with today's scripture? If anyone wants to follow Christ, he must forget himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. If we stay focused on ourselves, on what we want or don't want, on what we can or cannot do, on our own strengths and weaknesses, then we are clinging to our own lives, looking at ourselves instead of following Christ. When Jesus said many who are first shall be last and many who are last shall be first, he meant stop putting your own interests first and make yourself a servant, just like Jesus himself did.
If you are too proud to let other people hear you stutter, if you are embarrassed by how you sound when you talk, then you are probably not going to say what God wants you to say. Forget yourself. Say what God wants you to say. Don't save your own life by sticking to your safety zone, by only doing the things that make you look good and never risking something that might make you look foolish. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul, the great evangelist, said he did not care how any human might judge him, and he didn't even bother to pass judgment on himself. God passes judgment, he said, and God will make all things clear.
There is nothing wrong with doing your best and trying to improve yourself. But there comes a time when we have to forget ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. There comes a time when we have to get out of the way and make room for God to work in our lives.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.