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God and the Ego

God and the Ego

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

The ego is our sense of self. It is the sum of all things that define who we are. The ego has perceptions, and it has desires. If I wanted to know the essence of my ego, I could ask two questions: “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” In our journey with the Lord our answers to these questions will change. They will become less about us and more about Christ. 

If we read John the Baptist’s statement and other passages in the Bible, we might conclude that God has problems with the human ego. Jesus said we should deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and Paul talked about being crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20). It seems that self is what stands in the way of God’s glory. We have all prayed at times, “Lord, get me out of the way, so You can be seen!” We instinctively know if our eyes are on self, we can’t see God. If ego consumes our lives, we cannot reflect the glory of our Creator.

What is God’s problem with the self? Could it be that the human ego is nothing but evil? If we take Romans 3 out of context, it seems to say just that. Here Paul uses a series of Old Testament quotations to describe the human condition.

As it is written:

“There is none righteous, no, not one;

There is none who understands;

There is none who seeks after God.

They have all turned aside;

They have together become unprofitable;

There is none who does good, no, not one.”

“Their throat is an open tomb;

With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;

“The poison of asps is under their lips”;

“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

Destruction and misery are in their ways;

And the way of peace they have not known.”

There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

(Romans 3:10–18)

If this description of the self is true, we could conclude that God hates the human ego. There is no good in us. The scriptures say even our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Yet, we know God loves us. There are many passages that proclaim God’s infinite love for humanity. It is so great, He sent His Son to die for us. Some would say humanity is totally depraved, yet totally loved. How do we reconcile such a contradiction?  

One solution to this paradox is to say God loves me, but He hates my evil. If we go this route, we end up with a Holy God who is angry at the sins of the world. If we walk the way of evil, we will come face to face with His wrath, and if we go the way of good, we will encounter His blessings. Those who subscribe to this view of God are often zealous to point out other people’s sins and warn them of approaching judgement. To these, one of the most important questions is “Is God for it or against it?” Reward and punishment are the greatest motivators to those who see a God at war with evil. If the ego could become good and behave more like God, God could accept and bless the self.

Yet, if this is our perspective, we run into immediate contradictions in the New Testament. If God’s great desire for us is a well-behaved ego, Jesus would have loved the Pharisees. The average Pharisee spent two days a week fasting and paid his tithes to the penny. They were the Torah police, always pointing out other people’s shortcomings. If God was all about good and evil, Jesus should have been the Pharisees’ best friend. He would have given them a gold star for their behavior and made them shining examples.

The tax collectors, on the other hand, were the epitome of evil. If you asked anybody who was the worst sinner in town, it would have been unanimous. Everyone agreed the tax collectors were the people God hated most. They were in league with the pagans, and they were growing rich off other people’s misery.

People thought when the Messiah came, He would destroy the tax collectors and other notorious sinners, and He would put men like the Pharisees in charge. Yet, if you went looking for Jesus in that day, you would not find him singing the Pharisee’s praises. You could find him, however, dining with the tax collectors and the worst sinners. Certainly, this was an outrage to the God who loves good and hates evil!

After Christ’s resurrection, we come to the story of Paul. If we believe God’s root conflict with humanity is over our bad behavior, Paul becomes an enormous monkey wrench in our thinking. We read a little of his story in Philippians 3:

For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:3–11)

According to the Law, Paul was blameless. He was a Pharisee who fasted twice a week and paid his tithes to the penny. He kept all the demands of the Torah, including Sabbath keeping, circumcision, and all the Jewish purity standards. Not only that, He was of the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin and Judah did things better than the other ten tribes of Israel. They were God’s favorites, or so they thought. Two things made Paul good under the Law, who he was and what he did. Philippians reveals Paul’s journey was not from evil to good. It was from self to Christ. He forsook self as his measure that Christ might be the measure of who he was and all he had with God.

If we read the scriptures, we must conclude God is displeased about something. However, if we think God’s great concern is our bad behavior, we will have to cut out large swaths of the Bible that don’t fit that paradigm. Obviously, the ego is both good and evil, but God wanted more than a well-behaved ego. This is why forgiveness is insufficient to define redemption, and the journey from evil to good is insufficient to describe the Christian journey.

To understand God’s heart, we turn to Paul once again. He would likely use the terms “flesh and Spirit” to describe the struggle of the day. The flesh certainly has its bad deeds (Galatians 5:19-21). Yet, if we look to the Pharisees and even Paul, himself, we see that the flesh has good deeds as well. Paul spoke of his good works as “confidence in the flesh,” and that which is of the flesh is not pleasing to God (Romans 8:8), even though it is good in the world’s eyes. (If the flesh is not the ego, itself, it has very close ties. For the rest of this article, we will use the terms flesh, ego, and the self synonymously.)

It is easy to understand why God is displeased with the bad part of the human ego, but why is He also displeased with the good? Doesn’t God want us to be like Him? Shouldn’t He be happy with our efforts to do things the way He would? After all, isn’t that what the Law says? Act like God would if He was one of us! Sounds like a noble goal. Yet, recall in the beginning the serpent tempted Eve with the prospect of being like God. Pursuing her goal lead to wrath not blessing.      

To understand God’s purpose, we must go beyond the commandments to relationship. Togetherness and separateness define the Spirit and the flesh far better than good and evil. In Galatians five Paul uses the word “deeds” to describe the evil of the flesh, but He uses the world “fruit” to describe the Spirit. He chose these words carefully. Fruit implies a togetherness with God. Being in the Spirit is living in togetherness with God.

The Spirit is love fulfilled. God’s great passion is to give Himself to us, and His gift defines who we are, what we do, and what we have. The flesh resists God’s gift, and it can do it through evil or good (self-righteousness).

Consequently, what God despises is separateness. I once believed obedience was about commandments written on stone or in the pages of the Bible. To obey was to go from wrong to right. My ego told me to behave, but God was saying, “Come to Me!” It took me years to realize what was dying along the way was not just my evil, but the self.  

From this perspective, we can see what stands between us and God is not only our evil, but the independent ego. God does not want us to decrease because He hates us. Rather, the demise of self is the path to union with Him.

So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:8)

The ego doesn’t want to decrease. It wants to increase. It might be willing to go from evil to good, but that journey doesn’t necessarily require that the ego become less. We are often quite willing to increase our righteousness. We will pray more, go to church more, study our Bible more, and do more good deeds if it helps us define ourselves as good. The flesh is even willing to punish itself for its evil. It is the master of getting what it deserves.

The ego is the defender of right and wrong and “the truth.” The Pharisees, who were the Torah police, were such champions. They assumed they were fighting for God, but they were actually fighting for self, inflating their own egos. Jesus told a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee who went to the temple to pray.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” (Luke 18:10–12)

Such is the ego apart from God. Notice how many times we see the pronoun “I” in this passage. The Pharisee raised up himself by lowering others.

And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:13–14)  

The ego is also capable of self-loathing. This may appear to be humility, but it is still egocentric. The tax collector came to the temple with his eyes on himself, trapped in self-righteousness or the lack of it. If he represents the dark side of the ego, what was his redemption?

His appeal to mercy led to his justification. Mercy has nothing to do with deserving. Itis a gift, and God gave it abundantly that day. In this we see God’s heart. He is not satisfied with good behavior, especially if its source is the ego. His passion is to give Himself to us, and His gift defines us. True humility is not self-depreciation but receiving God’s gift.  

Under the Law, the ego lives. The commandment gives the ego life. It allows it to be self-defined. Under the Law what I do defines not only who I am but Who God is in my life. The flesh uses the Law to define who is in with God and who is out. Of course, the self chooses the commandments that portray itself in a favorable light and other rules to lower its neighbor. Therefore, for the ego, self is really the standard, even if it seeks to clothe itself in God’s commands. To the ego, the Law gives permission to look down on others and raise self.

In Romans chapter seven Paul said the Law arouses sin (Romans 7:5). Perhaps this is because the Law arouses the ego. The Law is good, a reflection of God’s own character, but because of the ego’s separateness it will either cause self-righteousness to increase or it will inflame evil. A commandment cannot give life. It can only increase death’s hold on humanity.  

The ego will stand up for the commandment, but it will find Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount offensive.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:38–48)

The ego wants to be above or at least equal to others. When someone devalues us, we need to devalue in return to gain back our worth. In Jesus’s day, when you crossed a Roman soldier, you could get a backhand across the face. He stuck you not just to hurt you, but to demean you. It was meant to inflict shame as much as pain. If someone degrades us, the flesh needs to devalue in kind to preserve itself.

Those in the Spirit have no such need. The Spirit’s measure is Christ not the self, so insults against self are irrelevant. The Spirit does not need to defend that which is no longer its measure of worth. There is no need to hit back. Our ego is not at stake. You can insult self all you want, but for those in the Spirit it is like insulting a dead man. In the Spirit, we live above the finite in the realm of the infinite. Our home is untouchable. To hit back is to give life to the ego and to return to the home below.

The other commands Jesus gives in the passage can only be carried out in the realm of grace where human importance has no measure but Christ. Here, if you count yourself more important than me, it does not diminish me, only you. Under grace I count you more important than myself, even if you are my enemy. This only helps establish my home in God’s lovingkindness. For when I give you the measure of Christ, that measure only increases in my life. In other words, even if you treat me like I am the Devil, I will treat you as if you were Christ.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Matthew 7:1–2)

The ego cannot stand grace. It appears as injustice, especially if the ego is good. How dare you raise the tax collector’s worth to the level of a Pharisee! The ego wants to get what it deserves and give others the same, but grace won’t allow it. The ego cannot live in grace, at least as it was before. It must become something new, with an infinite measure of who it is and who our neighbor is, too.

The ego takes pleasure in “us and them” thinking. It revels in separateness not only from God but from its neighbor. It must remain separate to live. Union is the death of the ego. To say, “No longer I but Christ” is to die.

The ego loves distinctions! If not behavior, it sets itself above through possessions or achievement. If not that, its beliefs set it apart. “I am right and you are wrong.” My rightness sets me above you, and your wrong beliefs are an offence to my ego. If you attack my beliefs, I must slap you back with words. The Pharisees were Torah police, but doctrine police are of the same spirit. The ego seeks to destroy anything not like the self.

Egos of a feather flock together. If we are ego-centric, we will seek people who are like us. This not only goes for behavior, but also for beliefs. Some call it tribalism. We defend our tribe as we defend ourselves. We refuse to see anything but good in our group, and we only see evil in groups that are different. Politics are especially tribal in nature. In other words, our tribes are homes where our egos can gain strength.

The ego can look good. It can be the angel of light which appears to be on God’s side but really is at war with Him.

I still remember the day my church ordained me for ministry. People from the congregation gathered around me, laid their hands on me, and prayed. Many of them spoke dramatic words about all the wonderful things God would do in my life. They had high expectations, and so did I.

 I was off to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to be the pastor of Thorncrown Chapel, and I held in my heart the stories of people who had great faith and saw God move in extraordinary ways. I hoped I would be one of the rare individuals who prayed heaven down— no one I knew prayed as diligently I did! I would often spend entire days in prayer, seeking God’s blessing, and countless hours getting my sermons just right.

 At first, everything went as planned. Eureka Springs quickly became a premier destination for churches and tour groups, and we had more people coming to the chapel than we could handle. There were times the people waiting to get into Thorncrown lined the entire trail that led from the chapel down to our parking lot, and it wasn’t uncommon to have fifty or more buses daily. We held services non-stop from the time we opened the chapel until the time we closed.

 On Sundays, our first service started at 7:30 am and was followed by two more services at 9 and 11 am. And all three were always full, even the early one. Other pastors envied what I had, and people were always telling me what a wonderful job I was doing. It seemed I was well on my way to being great in the kingdom of God.

Walking with God is often a journey that stumps the mind. Sometimes when we think we are fighting for God, we are fighting against Him. From our perspective, we seem to be walking close to Him, but in reality, we are walking away. Such was the mind of the Pharisees and such is the carnal mind. It presumes God has called it to increase, but God has called it to decrease and die.

At times, God’s presence is undeniable. One Saturday, I was at my place of prayer, feverishly asking God to bless the next day’s services, and He showed up. I could tell He did not want to talk about my sermon, and I also sensed that somehow everything was about to change. He spoke just a few words to my heart, and I did not understand them as the carnal mind cannot grasp spiritual things. “I am going to deal with your self-righteousness!”

Shortly after that, Eureka Springs’ popularity among church and tour groups began to fall, and it fell fast. The days of fifty buses a day and three full Sunday services ended. Within two years, the number of tour groups visiting Thorncrown Chapel dropped by almost 80 percent, and our Sunday services suffered likewise. We had to lay off employees as our donations dwindled, and all our plans for expansion ceased. One Sunday, I walked in the chapel, ready to preach, and my heart sank when I saw only one person had showed up for church.

People gauge a minister’s success by the size of his or her congregation. When someone learns I am a pastor, they almost always ask how big my membership is. But what they truly want to know is how important I am, and I began to loathe the question I once loved. Somehow, on the way to becoming “a somebody” in the ministry, I became “a nobody,” and I could not understand why.

If God had allowed my ego to increase, I never would have known the way home—or even what home was. Christ is my dwelling, and the freedom He gives is different than we imagine. I believed freedom was getting a large ministry, so the Lord led me to a place where I did not need a great ministry to be great. That is true freedom. Seeking our worth in anything but Christ puts us on a road that leads away from God no matter how good our intentions are. It is a road that is forever lacking.

I believed how much I prayed, how many things I did for God, or how many people came to church on Sunday were the measures of how much God was in my life, and the Lord broke my attachment to such things so I could see that His presence is a gift. He took away the adoring crowds to take away my own righteousness. Without God’s mercy, God’s presence would have always been a place I would visit when everything was perfect, but it would never be my home. I once thought a little better sermon and a little more prayer would make heaven come down; I learned through loss that heaven came down a long time ago in the Person of Jesus Christ.

“Who am I?” is a big question in life. The great paradox of life is that the ego must die to find the answer. Ego expansion, even in the name of God, is endless striving. The ego finds its home in the finite, but the Spirit in the infinite. The mind of the Spirit sees who it is only by looking at Christ for Who He is defines who we are. Through God’s dealings, the measure of self dies and the measure of Christ lives. God takes us from Law to grace, and the journey from flesh to Spirit is accomplished along the way. In defining us, the Law asks, “Who are you?” and grace asks, “Who is Christ?” Changing our minds from one mind to the other is God’s great task in our lives.  

If you have read this far, perhaps you are willing to read a little further. In part two of this series we will look at the ego’s second big question, “What do I want?” We will also look at the glory of God’s deliverance. We will see that dying to self is not something we do alone, but together with Christ.

God and the Ego (Part 2)

God and the Ego (Part 2)