It brings out the ugly in me. It makes me fight to be right, to elevate myself, and seek temporary fillers like accolades and admiration that feed my pride but fail to feed my soul. This thing lurking within my heart causes me to avoid difficult conversations and engage in those I shouldn’t.

But worst of all, it distorts Christ in me.

Love is the root of this nasty, unity-destroying behavior. Self-love.

I’ve lived the truth of 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (NIV).

Puffs up, like an inflated balloon or a puffer fish with its cheeks swelled and spikes protruding—seeking to elevate myself at the expense of others. But love, pure love, agape love, the kind that flows from God, doesn’t focus on self at all.

About ten years ago, I began to ask some hard questions regarding my faith and the credibility of the Bible. I wanted to know—was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish? Was there really a worldwide flood? Did Lot’s wife really turn into a pillar of salt?

Those questions led to an in-depth study I soon wanted to share with others. My motives were pure and stemmed from my love for God and His Word. The results were beautiful. Each week, I’d meet with a group of women while volunteers taught our little ones arts and crafts.

Until Sue* arrived and quickly turned argumentative. I took her challenge as an invitation and, puffed up with “knowledge”, accepted. Like the elders who were creating such division in Ephesus, I stopped focusing on making God known and instead focused on making myself look good and smart. Before long, the pleasant, Christ-centered discussion among a handful of moms turned into a tense battle over words.

No longer was I focused on God, others, and the truth. Instead, I wanted to win the argument. My self-love, my pride, pulled me in when I should’ve walked away, and I allowed the woman to dominate and divert the focus of the conversation.

Though I wasn’t blasphemous like the elders Paul spoke about in 1 Timothy 1:3-6, I became like them when I veered from the love that comes from Christ.

I’ve erred in the other direction also, when, remaining silent, I watched a young lady become enslaved in legalism and drift further and further from Christ.

She’s since abandoned the faith entirely.

I had numerous opportunities to speak, as Paul urged Timothy to do, but I chose to walk away. Out of fear that the woman would become angry and our relationship would crumble. In other words, out of self-protection. Self-love.

Truth and love, real love, are intertwined. Scripture tells us God has entrusted us with the gospel. This saving truth has the power to set man free—from sin, self-destruction, emptiness, death. With each word, we’re either pointing others to our Savior and an eternity with Him, or we’re getting in the way.

And how do we know which is which? We do a heart check and ask God to cleanse us from everything within not motivated by the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith (1 Tim. 1:5 NLT).

May we, regularly, pray David’s words in Psalm 19:12-14:

“How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. Keep your servant from deliberate sins! Don’t let them control me. Then I will be free of guilt and innocent of great sin. May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be pleasing to You, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer” (NLT).

Let’s talk about this! Can you relate to either of my stories? When has fear (self-love) caused you to walk away from a conversation you knew God was calling you to engage in? Can you relate to the converse? When has your pride motivated you to elevate yourself and fight to be right? What are some ways we can guard against this?

Share your thoughts here in the comments below then visit our Facebook discussion page for suggested reading, further discussion, and daily devotional questions.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

(Please note: Reach Out and book give-away winners listed below.)

Each day, we are engaged in a cosmic battle, a battle over self. It is a war between entitlement and sacrifice, between self-love and sacrificial love. And each day, God gives us a choice–to squelch His Spirit, His love, His still small voice as we fight for our rights, or to lay it down, allowing Him to reign and love others through us.

Are we aware of the consequences–of what’s at stake? When we’re consumed with self, we don’t even notice the woman in the grocery aisle, the man at the gas station, or perhaps our spouse coming home from work discouraged and exhausted.

In each encounter, God is whispering, tugging, urging us on as His embassadors. If we’re not careful, if we’re not continually focused on our Savior, our inner voice of self-love may scream louder.

Two weeks ago, our family took a trip to Odenton, Maryland to visit family. It was a wonderful time of fun and exploration–a time for me to see my brother, whom I hadn’t in over five years. But amidst our fun, I soon found myself on a cosmic battleground.

All week, God had impressed on my heart the need to lay myself down, to seek not my own glory, not my will, but His. To be like a wildflower tucked in a nook in the valley, ever-growing, reaching for the sun, even if no one notices.

And then Friday came–our last day in Maryland. I started the day at a surrender zenith, ready to die to myself and be an active instrument of God’s mercy and grace. I was determined to live out the truth God had showed me one morning in 1 Peter chapter four.

“So then, since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too. For if you have suffered physically for Christ, you have finished with sin. You won’t spend the rest of your lives chasing your own desires, but you will be anxious to do the will of God”  (1 Peter 4:1-2, NLT). (Emphasis mine.)

As I read the passage, I thought of a dear sister in Christ dying of brain cancer. She’s going through a rough time. She’s lost her sight, and her speech has become difficult. But through it all, her heart remains centered in Christ. Each day, her life shouts out His praises and points everyone around her to the cross.

I wanted to be like her! To praise God regardless of what I faced, to be so surrendered to Him, so focused on His love and purposes, that my life radiates His love and glory.

My determination was quickly undone, not by a fight against cancer but instead, something as trivial as crab cakes. And because of my quickly rising self-love, I tainted Christ’s name.

That afternoon, we decided to begin a search for crab-cakes. My husband had heard Baltimore was famous for them. This was the one thing he’d been looking forward to, the one thing he longed to do before we headed home. Being the loving, supportive, self-sacrificing … (uh-hem. I shift uncomfortably and avoid your gaze) wife I … long to be, I wholeheartedly agreed, and we all climbed into vehicles and headed downtown.

Stepping out of the van and into a dingy and smelly parking garage, my grumble meter sky-rocketed. When we reached street level, things–and the smell–got worse. A quick glance told me we weren’t in the best part of town. I clutched my purse to my chest, and my sister and I exchanged glances.

“Can we go somewhere else?” I’m sure my voice held a pleading tone.

All the women agreed. So, we clamored back into our vehicles and drove to the harbor, filled with numerous clean restaurants–any one of which would mesh well with my germo-phobe preferences. Yes, I was pleased. This would do quite nicely.

But unfortunately, we kept walking, leaving the  trendy harbor area with its cute shops and alluring smells far behind. Memories of the area we’d just left still fresh in my mind, I watched the clean–did I mention clean?–restaurants fade behind us, my agitation growing. Snippets of my morning devotion came to mind, calling me to die to myself, embracing each moment (bacteria and all) in full surrender. Relinquishing all rights and expectations.

But I wasn’t listening. I was too focused on me.

The restaurant we ended up at was anything but five-star. The bathroom smelled as if it had been doused in urine. The carpet looked as if it’d been splotched with car grease, and the menus needed to be soaked in sanitizer. It was three o’clock, well past lunchtime, and I was starved, irritated … and a bit queasy, as my germo-phobiness waged war with my hunger.

Sitting with a firm scowl, arms crossed, nose wrinkled … Okay, so maybe I didn’t behave that badly–on the outside, but my heart was pretty grungy. Grungier than the floor, and needless to say, I didn’t hide my disgust well. Oh, what a role model I was for my daughter!

Then it came time to pray.

The reality of my witness–or lack there of–hit me in the gut. I thought of the waitress who watched me, frumping, longing to be anywhere else but there. Did I want her to know I was a Christian? Or would it be better, for Christ’s sake, if she didn’t?

Last Thursday, Nikki Arana asked a powerful question: Would you share your faith if it cost you your life. (You can read her post here.)

I’ve often wondered about that–how I would respond if I lived in a country filled with persecution. If, because of my faith, I faced unemployment, physical pain, or even death. I don’t have an answer, but I do know, in the day-to-day when I am called to *live out* my faith as Christ’s ambassador, I often fall short. Not in the face of extreme danger, but instead, in the face of self, over something as trivial as crab cakes.

Lord Jesus, help me to die to myself, not just in the big, courageous moments, but in those day-to-day encounters–standing in line at a grocery store or eating at a dirty restaurant. Help me, in all things, to be alert to my witness. Help me to radiate your sacrificial love–the love that drove you to a cross, for me.

Let’s talk about this! Join us at Living by Grace as we talk about offering our whole selves to God as a living sacrifice, seeking to know God and make Him known.

The Bible tells us we are Christ’s ambassadors–His representatives. Are we representing Him well, or has our self-love tainted His image? What can we do today to radiate His sacrificial love and glory?

I also want to congratulate our two winners this month.

Tanya Eavenson, when you retweeted Nikki Arana’ s post, Consider it All Joy, you were entered in her book give-away drawing. Congratulations! You won a copy of her fabulous novel, the Next Target! I’ll be contacting you shortly to get that book to you.

And this month’s Reach Out winner is Vona Elkins with her touching story, When Lives Intertwine. Thanks, Vona, for sharing your story with us! I’ll be contacting you soon to get your gift basket to you. (click here to see what you won.)

I’ve heard it said there are two types of people in this world–givers and takers. If you’ve read many of my posts, you probably know my husband is a giver. He’ll give and give and give, without complaining, expecting nothing in return. If I’m not careful, it can be easy to take advantage of this situation. Combine his sacrificial nature with my self-absorbed, goal-oriented side and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Which is why I keep post-it notes sprinkled around the house, on mirrors, taped to the coffee pot, or any other surface my eyes might scan in a given day. These constant love-reminders help balance out my perpetual self-love.

If you’ve got a giving friend, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We all love it when others are focused on us, right? Because that’s what we’re focused on, too. It’s natural. And it’s easy to get swept away in the its-all-about-me-tide. Unless you determine to do otherwise. Because chances are the friend who keeps on giving has a reciprocal need in there somewhere. And as his/her friend, its your job to find it. But that’s going to take work. You’re gonna have to u-turn once in awhile, learn to listen, ask open-ended questions. Whatever. Just take your eyes off yourself. (Yes, I’m talking to me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me. There, I think I got it.)

I’ve also had enough takers in my life to know the feeling of being a well-trodden doormat. It hurts, especially when the relationship is one-sided. Authentic friendships are mutual. Reciprocal. Built on give-and-take.

Which means those lone rangers out saving the world need to learn to take a little, too. One night (a few years back) I was sitting in the office watching our neighbor mow her lawn while her two young kids cried for her attention. My husband was watching a ball game. My parentally-allergic daughter was playing with friends. I had two hours, maybe more, to myself. And yet, I remembered those times of crying children, when taking a shower felt like a luxury.  So what’d I do? Offer a quick prayer on my neighbor’s behalf then go my merry way? No, I jumped up, ran out the door, and offered to help.

And she politely declined, of course.

So I offered again. To be honest, I felt a bit pushy. Even kind of embarrassed, but I believed God wanted to love this woman through me so I determined to be obedient to God, regardless of the results.

She declined again.

It was hot. Like skin-blistering, lung-stifling hot. Her kids were crying. Exhaustion was etched across her sweaty, blotchy face. Her yard was huge and mowing it would take at least an hour, probably two. Two precious Mommy-Kiddo-hours she’d never get back. (Both her and her husband worked long hours as they struggled to make ends meet and juggle all the demands that came with raising a family in today’s dual-income world.)

So what’d I do? Walk away with a “Well, I tried”, self-righteous pat on the back? Oh, how we love those moments—when God calls us to do something but we find the convenient loop-hole.

No. I lovingly, but firmly, maneuvered my way between her and the lawn mower and began to mow. At first she just kind of stood there, eyes wide, face flashing between gratitude and mortification so fast it looked like a silent film on fast forward. But within ten minutes she was playing with her kids, smiles on all their faces. And I was beaming. By allowing me to be obedient to God, she also allowed me to experience God’s love as it poured through me to her. It feels great when God loves on us, but that’s nothing compared to the heart-bulging, giggle-producing pleasure of experiencing God’s love for someone else first-hand.

So again I ask, are you a giver or a taker? And how might you go about striking a God-intended balance?

Romans 12:9-13 “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are needy, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” (NLT)