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SORTING OUT THE ‘SELFIE’ (Views from the Abbey 14)

The online dictionary defines a ‘selfie’ as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media’. It also adds a rider stating that ‘occasional selfies are acceptable but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary’. Apparently the modern selfie has its origins in the Japanese kawaii or ‘cute’ culture, which involves an obsession with beautifying self-representation in photographic forms, which by the 1990s had developed into a major preoccupation among Japanese schoolgirls, who took photos with friends and exchanged copies that could be pasted into kawaii albums.

Today, with the rise of digital photography and smart phone cameras and ‘selfie sticks’ (a device enabling you to use your smart phone at arm’s length) ‘selfies’ have become something of an obsession not just amongst young Japanese girls but across the gender and age groups. Photography is one of my hobbies (as my many Facebook friends know) and my various albums often include the odd selfie or two of Julia and myself. Even with the aid of my selfie stick some of my photos turn out to be somewhat odd, even discomforting, to say the least. Bits of heads missed off, one or other of us looking in the wrong direction, or not smiling when we should have been, and so on. Worst of all, of course, is when the selfie actually exposes the truth – reveals the carefully concealed wrinkles, age lines, grey hair, or that (contrary to popular opinion) we are not always smiling nor at ease with life.

It is said that as human beings (not just as Christians) we have three great enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. When the Bible exhorts us ‘don’t allow the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’ (Romans 12:1,2 J B Phillips translation) the Apostle Paul is not referring to the ‘created world’ (kosmos), which according to Genesis 1,2 was a thing of beauty, but to the ‘spirit of the age’ (aeon), which invariably stands opposed to God and his ways. When the Bible encourages us to ‘submit ourselves to God and resist the devil’ (James 4:7-10), James (Jesus’ brother) is not referring to some mythological figure with horns, tail, and trident but to that malevolent evil force, who according to Isaiah 14:12-14 was once a leading archangel named Lucifer (a figure of light and joy) who sadly was not content with his place in the angelic hierarchy but sought to usurp the place of God himself. As a result he was cast out of Heaven, eventually lost all trace of personhood, and degenerated into pure evil. He became known as ‘the devil’ or ‘the satan’ – the source of all evil in our world today and the force behind those wicked ‘principalities and powers’ (Ephesians 6:12) that have seemingly taken control of so many of our institutions today.

As powerful as these two enemies are, however, they are not as dangerous as the third enemy, the flesh. When the Bible urges us to be ‘led by the [Holy] Spirit rather than gratify the desires of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:16), the Apostle Paul is encouraging us to strongly resist the pull of our old selfish adamic nature. ‘Flesh’ is a somewhat antiquated, not to say complicated’ theological term, and the best way to understand its biblical meaning is to spell it backwards and knock off the ‘h’. So FLESH become [H]SELF. Our inherent selfishness or wilfulness is our greatest enemy because (in contrast to the world and the devil) it is internal. Rather than oppose us from without it undermines us from within.

Another way of understanding our inherent selfishness – the ‘lusts of the flesh’ (1 John 2:15-17) or ‘pulling power of the self’ as the Apostle John calls them – is ‘wilfulness’. I have longed believed that our real problem lies not so much with the heart or the mind but with the human will. Let me illustrate. The famous Canadian American Bible teacher, Dr Harry Ironside (1876-1951) had a friend who was a Jewish lawyer. This lawyer was intrigued by the Christian claims about the person of Jesus Christ and told Ironside that if he could be persuaded (remember he had a legal mind) that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead he would become a Christian. The two friends spent six months studying the Scriptures and sifting the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. After six months the Jewish lawyer agreed that he was now utterly convinced that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. ‘Right’ said Ironside, ‘so now are you prepared to commit your life to Jesus Christ?’ ‘No!’ replied the lawyer. ‘Why not?’ asked Ironside. ‘Because I simply don’t want to!’ responded the lawyer. In the end, you see, it came down to a matter of human wilfulness.

The term ‘fifth columnist’ is conventionally credited to Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). As four of his army columns moved on Madrid, the general was asked which of his columns would capture the city. His answer was that his ‘fifth column’ would take the city, referring to his militant supporters already in the capital intent on undermining the loyalist government from within. The ‘flesh’, our inherent selfish nature’, is a kind of ‘fifth column’ constantly seeking to undermine us – and our usefulness to God and others – from within. Whilst our old, adamic sinful nature has potentially been dealt with on the cross – ‘we have been crucified with Christ’ (Galatians 2:20) – it has been disempowered but not entirely eradicated even for the believer. Left to its own devices it will inevitably rear its ugly head – which is why we see so much selfishness in our world today (despite the valiant efforts of some, evidence by the amazing public support for the footballer Marcus Rashford’s initiative to supply meals for deprived and needy children during the school holidays, for example) both amongst individuals and within institutions. Even in the Church today we seem to spend so much time fighting in the barracks (usually about unimportant things) rather than fighting our real enemies on the battlefield! The secret of sorting out the selfie in us is to ‘starve the old nature’ and ‘feed the new nature’ – the ‘divine nature imparted to us’ when we truly turn to Christ (2 Peter 1:4).

There is a story of a Christian from amongst the indigenous Inuit peoples of the Northern circumpolar region, which embraces parts of Alaska in the US, Siberia in Russia, Canada, and Greenland, who (referring to this constant internal battle between his old adamic nature and the new divine nature he had received in Christ) confessed that he often felt as though he had two dogs fighting within him – a good dog and a bad dog. ‘Which dog wins?’ someone asked him. ‘The dog I feed!’ he replied.

Jesus take me as I am,
I can come no other way.
Take me deeper Into You,
Make my flesh life melt away.

Make me like a precious stone,
Crystal clear and finely honed,
Life of Jesus shining through,
Giving glory back to you.

~ Dave Bryant

Jim Binney

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