Yesterday I conducted an experiment. I was writing in my journal, which over the past fifteen years or so has become a long-running personal letter to God. It is the nature of a journal to be largely about oneself, but if it chronicles prayer, shouldn’t it represent more of Him and the things that He cares about? Yes, He cares for me, but He wants me to care for others. If all I’m thinking about is me, there seems to be a problem. As I wrote this, I did a search of my current journal file, which starts at the beginning of 2011. I looked for “I” surrounded by spaces. In 108 pages of typewritten single-spaced text, there are 4,828 matches. That’s embarrassing!
The challenge was this: could I go for a day without making any references to myself beyond that which was required for polite conversation? In short, no, I couldn’t. Try it yourself. It’s harder than you think. Personal reference is such a part of our thought life and vocabulary that cutting it out is not only difficult, it can result in language that sounds at best evasive and at worst crazy to those around you. I didn’t go around speaking in third person. That would have been adherence to the letter but not the spirit of the exercise. By the end of the day, I all but gave up the effort.
The goal of this little experiment was to help change my focus. If I could not talk about myself would I listen to others more? Would I be more likely to consider their words, thoughts and feelings? Not in one day, but a less rigid form of the exercise might make for good practice for all of us. It was in fact a wonderful day. It seemed the Lord walked with me. As I focused on worship that glorified Him, I experienced a peace and joy that is not typical for me.
Nevertheless, but the end of the day I was just as tired, irritated, and self-focused as ever. One might say the experiment failed, but not entirely. In part all that mental energy expended in choosing my words probably had the opposite of the intended effect. It caused me to focus inward even more. It hampered easy conversation with my wife, because in the absence of things to say about myself, I had less than usual to say. With her especially, I am still learning to share myself in an unselfish way.
I say not entirely because there was joy in intentionally focusing on others. I found myself doing things I’m usually too self-conscious to do. I began to learn a new way of thinking. I learned a little more about the intentional practice of putting others first. I have a long way to go, but I know I’m not alone. It’s a struggle we all face to one degree or another. Look at what Jesus said.
… “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24-25 NASB)
Selfishness comes naturally. Following Jesus requires us to deny our selfish desires and love Him with everything we have. We do that while we are here primarily by loving others. See Matthew 25:35-40. I’ve taken one tiny step on a lifelong journey. Won’t you come with me? It’s not easy, but the reward at the end is unspeakably wonderful!