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Christian Counseling - Self-Attention verses Self-Centeredness

As the world turns, it seems Americans are increasingly becoming more focused on themselves and their horizontal relationships than on God. Such is the belief of Mark Galli (Senior Managing Editor of Christianity Today) as presented in the October 2009 article, "In The Beginning, Grace." He solution is for people to refocus on God first, then "do the horizontal thing we are called and gifted to do" (pg.29). While I believe God is to be first in almost everything (presenting God is second to food for starving people, etc.), Galli's presentation misses the mark of understanding and/or showing his readers the critical role self-understanding, need-meeting and human relating play in our mental, physical and spiritual health, and some of the credible, but sometimes unfortunate, reasons for people's growing self-focus.

It is true that self-attention can become a self-centered obsession with the result of losing interest in or focus on God. But, self-attention should be the baby we keep and nurture, while the dirty bath water of exclusive self-focus is thrown out. Self-attention is required for understanding whether or not we have a log in our eye, sin in our life, a saving faith, are becoming like Christ, etc. The self that is to die is not the personality or the "I" or "me," but the separate sin nature (Romans 7:14-21). Thus, the core of individuality is rightfully and necessarily maintained, so that we can pray like Moses, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Jesus and others who wrestled with God concerning His will. Yet, individuality has its limits. For example, it isn't a replacement for needed community.

Today there are many reasons for the increase in self-focus, not all of which are inappropriate or wrong. The attention given to oneself will likely increase in America as a result of the continued breakdown of family life, increasing socialized government, and the church's misunderstanding regarding the great necessity for open, horizontal relationships.

The traumatizing effect of divorce on children, even adults, often leaves its victims in survival mode, where the exaggerated self-focus is on how to keep safe and remain alive. Their needs, wants and avoidance of further pain and deprivation become their overarching concern influencing decisions and other behaviors. We are seeing, and will likely continue to see, an effect of trauma in the increase in personality disorders, such as: borderline (rage, impulsivity, unstable relationships), narcissism (admiration seeking, grandiosity, lack of empathy), and histrionic (attention seeking, over emotional).

We will also probably observe an increase in anxiety, depression, fear of commitment, loneliness, isolation and self-protective behavior, the latter of which can include the growing use of the Internet and cell phones that replace face-to-face contact). Childhood learned survival mode persists into adulthood where home life, work and even holding onto one's salvation are managed by a self-focused survivor mentality.

As a government takes more control over the lives of its citizens, they inevitably suffer the loss of freedoms and rights. Many purists, like Texas Congressman Ron Paul, believe our American liberties are seriously threatened by our Congress and Supreme Court who frequently pass bills or make laws in discord to Constitutional guidelines, partially because some of them view it as outdated. Most American's don't want to be told how to raise their children or they cannot home school their children or be forced to redistribute their wealth through increased taxes and government-run health care insurance. These issues rightly cause people to self-focus on their fear, grief, anger and insecurity, perhaps similar in sentiment to those in Jesus' time over the controlling government and burdening Pharisaical law.

On the other hand, there are those who find security and comfort in the caretaking role of big government. They will not likely lament much about the loss of freedoms or rights because, to some of them, they are an acceptable price to pay for receiving help. These people may find they are less self-focused, having met some financial need, for example. It is possible, however, if they have a sense of entitlement, they could become more self-focused by looking for more of the same.

The church speaks about our need for human relationships and fellowship and makes some attempts to connect people through activities and programs. But it falls short and often teaches incomplete truths. Though the focus on one's individual relationship with God is necessary and healthy, it has often been presented from a separatist viewpoint, accompanied by the false belief, "God is all I need."

Encouraging an individual relationship with God without simultaneously encouraging relationships with others is incomplete and can lead to disappointment and an inflated dependence on God to the near exclusion of others. This has contributed to the neglect, impoverishment and decline of fellowship that is now often shallow. Instead of communicating openly, revealing imperfections, and confessing sins to one another, many Christians put on their spiritual cloaks and hide the truth about how life is really going for them. The result is a focus on meeting one's own needs and wants because the depth of human relationships is restricted. Further, without vital, honest, horizontal relationships, people will not only miss out on God's involvement in changing lives, but God Himself.

God is not all we need, we need people. Adam, who walked and talked with God, was lonely (Genesis 2:18). God recognized Adam's powerful need for other human beings. Further, we discover and better understand God as a result of our relationships with other believers. People can be saved in hearing the gospel through others. And Jesus said, '"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst"' (Matthew 18:20). If we have a correct focus on our need for God and others, we will likely have healthier, need-meeting relationships that lessen self-centered thinking and behavior.

To further the point on our need for horizontal, human relationships that can diminish self-focus, and increase our God-focus, consider the following question. Where is God? The answer is He lives in His people. Primarily, God works and intervenes in the world through people. It is there in the lives of others we can also find Him, truths about ourselves and challenges and support in developing our character, far more so than in the solitary relationship with God alone.

The church would do well to learn about and teach how to develop and maintain deep and meaningful relationships and present a cohesive emphasis on a believer's almost inseparable relationships with both God and others. Church leadership needs the courage to model openness about the realities of who they are; that is, their sin nature, which will free others to open up about their troubles. The effect being people who become appropriately and moderately self-attending, less self-centered and more centered in others and God.

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