The Telegraph Newspaper has wondered is this generation is the most narcissistic ever. We are the Selfie-Generation. The phone has changed the way that we take photos. We used to put our eye behind a lens and look out on others. Now we turn the lens around and make ourselves the centre of the photo.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not really worried about you taking the odd selfie. Selfies can be a fun way to celebrate time with friends and travel. However, our selfies, our Facebook profile, our pride in our children’s achievements, our attendance at church, our clothes, the education we pursue, our manners and our possessions can all be things that we use to create the carefully created image of ourselves that we desire others to admire.
We need to be reminded that, while people look at the outward appearance [literally ‘the face’] the Lord looks at the heart. Let me paraphrase. ‘You may be obsessed with your selfie, but God cares more for your character.’ Jesus can rescue you from your from being overly worried about your selfie-smile!
Saul—a king who was obsessed with appearance
The people of Israel had become image-conscious. They wanted a king so that they could be like other nations. The Philistines, the Moabites and the Jebusites all had kings, ‘so why can’t we?’ God gave them the sort of king they were looking for. His name was Saul. He was superficially impressive. He was as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else (9:2). They believed that a man like Saul could make Israel great again! He was the sort of king who reflected their aspirations.
While Saul began humbly, he soon turned out to have a real character deficit. He was selfish, angry, hateful, jealous and mean-spirited. When he was caught red-handed in disobedience he said to the prophet Samuel, ‘I have sinned. But please honour me before the elders of my people and before Israel, come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God’ (15:30). He had displayed wicked rebellion against God, but he was more concerned about saving face than allowing God change him from within. ‘My life may be a mess,’ we think, ‘but could you take a selfie with me to show people that I’ve got things together?’
A few years ago a major sports-star was caught in a very embarrassing situation. It seemed obvious that he was cheating on his wife. What would the public think? What would his sponsors do? So who is the first person he rings? He rings his lawyer. You see his lawyer could help him come up with a good story that would enable him to save face. That’s a Saul-like response.
Before we look down on such people, ask yourself this, when was the last time you opened up to a fellow-Christian about a besetting sin that you struggle with? When did you last tell them about specific temptations you battle? When did you last follow the Biblical injunction to confess your sins to one another? Over the last year I have been meeting with a person once a week for the sake of accountability and prayer. I initiated this relationship because I could see that this person was not-judgemental, willing to be vulnerable and was full of grace. Meeting with him has been life-transforming. But I can’t be smug with you about this, for when I was applying to theological college I failed a physiological test that revealed that I was I was unwilling to be open with my interviewers about who I really was. It doesn’t come naturally for us to let our guard down.
King David—a king after God’s own heart
God could have let the people suffer under the awful rule of the kind of king they deserved. However, our God delights to come to the rescue of the underserving. So he sends the prophet Samuel to the village of Bethlehem, to a man called Jesse. One of Jesse’s sons will be the next king!
Even Samuel fell into the trap of judging by superficial appearances—when he saw Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, he thought that this must be God’s choice, but the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (9).
Not even David’s father was paying attention to David’s heart. Having being introduced to all David’s brothers, Samuel has to ask Jesse, ‘are these all your sons?’ While David may have been glowing in health, with a fine appearance and handsome features’ (12b), he was only a teenage lad tending the flock. The Lord says to Samuel, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one’ (12c). From that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David (13).
Earlier in this book Samuel tells Saul, the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart … because you have not kept the Lord’s command (13:14). Saul’s disobedience demonstrated that he was not a person after God’s own heart. Many centuries later the apostle Paul explained that David’s obedience was related to the fact that he was a person after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Good and evil flow from the heart. What do our actions, loves and passions say about the state of ours?
Over the summer I read a book by Paul Tripp, in which one of the chapters is entitled, ‘Transgression.’ He writes, ‘Obedience is deeply more than begrudging duty. It is a response of joyful willingness ignited by, and continued by a heart that has been captured by God’s glory, goodness, and grace. Thus, you cannot threaten, manipulate, or guilt a person into obedience. Only grace can produce this joyful submission in me. Only grace can open my eyes to the awesome glory of God … Only grace can free me from being a worshipper of self to a worshipper of God. Only grace can motivate me to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord until I have exited my little government of one and given myself to the work of something vastly bigger than me.’ Only grace can change my heart from one that is self-absorbed and disobedience, to one that is God-intoxicated and delights in doing his will.
King Jesus—the heart-changing king
I think there is a mistake that we can make at this point. We can forget the order of things! Yes, it is true that God was looking for a man with a good heart. But it was God who had made David’s heart good in the first place. Many years later, after a hideous series of sins, David would pray, surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51:5). All of us are born with a heart problem, but Jesus is the heart changing king!
Like David, King Jesus, did not satisfy the aspirations of those who wanted to live under a superficial leader. Isaiah tells us that Jesus had no beauty or majesty that would attract people to him (Isaiah 53:2). His face in your selfie wouldn’t have enhanced your image. Indeed, it may cause us to lose face to become one of his subjects. But to paraphrase Jesus, ‘I pity you, if you manage to keep your image and yet lose your soul.’
Like David, Jesus was a shepherd-king. He alone is the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. So when I read this book of the Bible and see a lot of Saul-like vanity in me I thank God that Jesus took the punishment for my sin. In Jesus I am forgiven for my people-pleasing tendencies and my self-absorption. The good news doesn’t stop there. The shepherd king leads me by changing my heart. He is the one who can free us from our preoccupation with ourselves.
People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. Where do you look?
If you are a parent, do you shepherd you child’s heart, or do you simply push them to improve manners and grades? Are you keeping up appearances or are you willing to be vulnerable? Do you define yourself by your achievements and possessions or is your delight in your relationship with God?
One of the worst things we teach our children in school is the art of writing a resume (C. V.). It teaches us to boast about our achievements and hide our failings. The Bible tells us to boast about our weaknesses. That is one way to put our image-consciousness to death. I would also suggest that you learn to be transparent about your failings, and so bring glory to the God of grace who loves and goes on forgiving his sinful people. Find someone you can learn to be vulnerable with, and let them pray about specific areas where your heart needs to change. Be transparent, so that your church becomes a safe place that is soaked in grace. Pray to the God who desires truth in the inner parts that he would cleanse you, wash you and create a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within you (Psalm 51:6-10).
To a narcissistic generation God speaks the good news that while you may be obsessed with your image, God cares more for your character, and Jesus can free you from your slavery to self-obsession.