Flee the Gospel of Me

On Tuesday, February 7, Lebron Raymone James, Sr. broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career points record — 38,387 points — and became the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

Perhaps the defining image of the night was captured by Andrew D. Bernstein. Look closely, and you’ll notice the photo has something in common with so many iconic images of the last decade: behind the indelible moment in focus, there’s a towering wall of raised arms holding small, metallic rectangles. Nearly everyone in the frame is reaching, straining to grab their own picture. Why would that be?

Surely all 18,997 in attendance that night knew that this moment would be thoroughly captured from every conceivable angle, by a small army of professional photographers, wielding the best equipment available. So why would thousands of amateur photographers, with less sophisticated cameras, at far worse angles, risk missing the moment for an inferior photo?

Because, deep down, this historic moment was not first and foremost about Lebron James, or the Los Angeles Lakers, or professional basketball, or even history — it was really about me. It was about the Instagram post and a couple dozen likes. Many are not even watching the play they paid hundreds to witness; they’re looking at their phones.

“Sin has always taught us to put ourselves at the center of everything — even the gospel.”

The smartphone, of course, did not invent this pervasiveness of self-centeredness. It’s only given our personal Babel-building newer tools (and fed it plenty of apps). Sin has always taught us to put ourselves at the center of everything — even the gospel.

Unless We Start with God

We can trace this innate self-centeredness back to the first sin. When Satan surveyed Adam and Eve’s vulnerabilities in the garden, notice what hedges he attacks: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Why are you content to live in his world? Reject him, and all this could be yours. It could all be about you. Satan tries the same play against Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:5–7).

Even after Jesus comes and dies for self-exalting, God-belittling sins like ours, we’re still tempted to listen to his gospel and hear a story centered on us. But the gospel from beginning to end — from the garden, through the fall, beneath the cross, outside the tomb, and into glory — is meant to lift our eyes away from self to God. As John Piper warns,

Unless we begin with God in this way, when the gospel comes to us, we will inevitably put ourselves at the center of it. We will feel that our value rather than God’s value is the driving force in the gospel. We will trace the gospel back to God’s need for us instead of tracing it back to the sovereign grace that rescues sinners who need God. (The Pleasures of God, 8)

I remember when this dichotomy first leveled me — and then lifted, thrilled, and strengthened me. Of course I could love a God who bent the universe because he loved me. But could I love a God who loved me because he loved his own glory? Could I love a God who chose to love me, not because I could ever deserve such love, but to display his perfect patience and unrivaled mercy?

Slowly, I came to see that God’s love for me — and he really does love me — was even bigger, stronger, and sweeter than I realized precisely because it wasn’t all about me. I learned to put the phone back in my pocket and focus instead on enjoying him — and nowhere more than in each chapter of his glorious, grace-filled gospel.

Creation: For God

When you were woven together in your mother’s womb — arms, legs, intellect, personality — you were made by God, in the image of God, so that others would see you and worship God. Listen to how God himself describes what he has made:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)

In one sense, he made everything else — fish and birds and livestock and lady bugs — as one wild, enormous frame for the crown of creation, the ones that would be like him and make him visible, hearable, knowable in his world. That means we are not even the center of our own lives, much less the universe. We were made for God.

Fall: Against God

But we all rejected that God-centered purpose for our lives. We weren’t the images of his glory that we were meant to be. We sinned. As Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Before sin says something about us and our guilt, it says something slanderous about God. It throws shade over his value.

Almost everyone alive can acknowledge that they have done, said, or thought things they shouldn’t have. Almost everyone has experienced guilt, shame, and regret. That’s often why the gospel gets the hearing it does. Far fewer, however, know that all of that guilt, shame, and regret is rooted in how they’ve treated God. After committing adultery and conspiring to kill the woman’s husband, King David says to God, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). In one sense, all of our sin (and any given sin) is first and foremost against God.

This is the only reasonable explanation for hell. Eternal conscious punishment wouldn’t be just for anything less than sin against the infinitely valuable, the infinitely merciful, the infinitely good God.

Redemption: To God

We were made for God, and each rebelled against God, deserving the wrath of God — but God.

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. . . . But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1–5)

Notice how little we contributed to our own resurrection. Yes, we were physically moving, breathing, talking, living before we found Christ, and yet we couldn’t offer God more than a dead man could. Spiritually, we were colorless, unmoving. But God — he stepped between the fallen image of God and the burning wrath of God and did what only God himself could do. He sent his Son to bleed and die in our place so that we might sit with him in his — “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

And nothing makes this grace sweeter and more glorious than that we get God. Jesus “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Forgiveness isn’t the final prize of this good news; neither is escape from hell. No, forgiveness means that souls made by God to know and enjoy God, who then rejected and insulted that God, still get to have God.

Commission: From God

When grace invades and brings life, one of the clearest evidences is that God has replaced self as the sun in the galaxy of our soul. Notice how we used to live before Christ: “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). This verse describes who we were by default — and by recreation. We’re born living for me, making all our decisions, big or small, based ultimately on what will serve, satisfy, and advance self. But then we’re raised to live for him. We spend our time and money differently. Our neighbors and coworkers watch and wonder why we live like we do.

This is true no matter how and where God has gifted us. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10–11). Gifts (and lives) stewarded well, whatever they are, inspire others to give greater attention and devotion to God. If you dig deep enough into the happiest, most fruitful, most fulfilling lives, the driving engine and center of gravity will be the grace and glory of God.

Consummation: With God

The God-centeredness of heaven was my first discovery on the way to seeing the God-centeredness of everything else. The life-shattering quote came from (God is the Gospel)[https://www.amazon.com/God-Gospel-Meditations-Gods-Himself/dp/1433520494/]:

Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. (47)

“The only heaven to come, the one Jesus bought with his blood, is one orbiting around God.”

It would be hard to overstate how much these lines shook my still young faith — in the very best ways. I imagine it was like Jesus upending the tables in the temple. It was forceful and merciful. You will not make this house of worship about you. And to me, two thousand years later, you won’t turn heaven into a flea market for your hobbies and cravings. The only heaven to come, the one Jesus bought with his blood, is one orbiting around God.

This is the paradise God has prepared for those who love him: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). If you can imagine a world better than that one, if you think you would prefer an eternity built around you, you haven’t yet grasped what it would mean to live with this God.