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The Empty Self Print E-mail

Written by Don Closson

This article is also available in Spanish.

Introduction

Christian philosopher Dr. J. P. Moreland is a man with a mission. He claims that Christians are not experiencing spiritual maturity because they are victims of something he calls the "Empty-Self Syndrome."{1} This lack of maturity leaves believers without the necessary tools to impact their culture for God's kingdom or to experience what the Bible calls the "mind of Christ." According to Moreland, the purpose of life for believers is to bring honor to God. This involves finding one's vocation and pursuing it for the good of both believers and non-believers, while in the process, being changed into a more Christ-like person. Doing this well involves developing intellectual and moral virtues over long periods of time and delaying the constant desire for immediate gratification.

Unfortunately, our culture teaches an entirely different set of virtues. It emphasizes a self-centered, consumption-oriented lifestyle, which works directly against possessing a mature Christian mind. It also places an unhealthy emphasis on living within the moment, rather than committing to long-term projects of personal discipline and learning.

To better understand his argument it helps to explain the concept of necessary and sufficient causes. A necessary cause for Christian maturity is salvation. For without the new birth, a person is still spiritually dead and devoid of the benefits of the indwelling Holy Spirit. However, although forgiveness of sin is necessary for Christian maturity, it is not sufficient. We cooperate with the Spirit to reach maturity by disciplining our will and intellect in the virtues outlined in the New Testament.

Writing to Titus, the apostle Paul said that a leader in the church should be "self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it."{2} This admonition assumes a number of complex skills and a life of dedication to learning and teaching. Our leaders must be knowledgeable of the Scriptures, but they must also be able to defend the Christian worldview in the marketplace of ideas common to our culture. The ability to give a response to those opposed to Christianity, and to do so with gentleness and respect, as Peter teaches (1 Peter 3:15), requires a confidence that comes with a life of devotion and study. Herbert Schlossberg writes:

In their uncompromising determination to proclaim truth, Christians must avoid the intellectual flabbiness of the larger society. They must rally against the prevailing distrust of reason and the exaltation of the irrational. Emotional self-indulgence and irrationalities have always been the enemies of the gospel, and the apostles warned their followers against them.{3}

In this article we will consider Moreland's description of the empty-self syndrome and offer ways for Christians to avoid its influence.

Seven Traits of the Empty-Self

We are discussing a set of hindrances to Christian maturity called the "Empty-Self Syndrome." J.P Moreland, in his book Love Your God With All Your Mind, lists seven traits common to people who suffer from this self-inflicted malady. To some, it might appear that Moreland is describing a typical teenager and, in a sense, the analogy fits. The empty-self is best summarized by a lack of growth, both intellectually and spiritually, resulting in perpetual Christian adolescence.

Inordinate Individualism

The first trait of the empty-self is inordinate individualism. Those afflicted rarely define themselves as part of a community, or see their lives in the context of a larger group. This sense of rugged individualism is part of the American tradition and has been magnified with the increased mobility of the last century. People rarely feel a strong attachment or commitment even to family members. The empty-self derives life goals and values from within their own set of personal needs and perceptions, allowing self-centeredness to reign supreme. Rarely does the empty-self seek the good of a broader community, such as the church, when deciding on a course of action.

Infantilism

Many observers of American culture note that adolescent personality traits are staying with young people well into what used to be considered adulthood. Stretching out a four-year college degree to five or six years and delaying marriage into the thirties are signs that commitment and hard work are not highly valued. Some go even further, seeing an infantile demand for pleasure pervading all of our culture. The result is that boredom becomes the greatest evil. We are literally entertaining ourselves to death with too much food, too little exercise, and little to live for beyond personal pleasure.

Narcissism

The empty-self is also highly narcissistic. Narcissism is a keenly developed sense of self-infatuation; as a result, personal fulfillment becomes the ultimate goal of life. It also can result in the manipulation of relationships in order to feed this sense. In its most dangerous form, one's relationship with God can be shaped by this need. God is dethroned in order to fit the individual's quest for self-actualization. This condition leaves people with the inability to make long-standing commitments and leads to superficiality and aloofness. Education and church participation are evaluated on the basis of personal fulfillment. They are not viewed as opportunities to use one's gifts for the good of others.

All of us are guilty of these attitudes occasionally. Christian growth is the process of peeling away layers of self-centered desires. The situation becomes serious when both the culture and the church affirm a self-centered orientation, rather than a God-centered one.

According to Moreland, the couch potato is the poster child for the empty-self. Rather than equipping oneself with the tools necessary to impact the culture for Christ and His kingdom, many people choose to live vicariously through the lives and actions of others. Moreland writes, " . . . the pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team exercise, struggle, and win for us."{4}

Passivity

The words we use to describe our free time support this notion of passivity. What was once referred to as a holiday or originally a holy day has become a vacation; what used to be a special time of proactive celebration has become a time for vacating. The goal seems to remain in a passive state while someone else is paid to amuse you.

One of the most powerful factors contributing to this passivity is the television. Watching TV encourages a passive stance towards life. Its very popularity is built upon the vicarious experiences it offers, from sports teams to soap operas. It is hard to imagine how a person who watches an average amount of TV, which is twenty five hours a week for elementary students, could have enough time left over to invest in the reading and study required to become a mature believer and defender of the faith. Our celebrity-centered culture encourages us to focus on the lives of a popular few rather than live our own lives to the fullest for God.

Sensate Culture

It follows naturally that the empty-self syndrome encourages the belief that the physical, sense-perceptible world is all that there is. Although Christians, by definition, should be immune from this attitude, they often act as if it were true. The resulting sensate culture loses interest in arguments for transcendent truth or in ideas like the soul, and the consequence is a closing of the mind, as described by Allen Bloom in his best-selling book on university life in the late 1980s.{5} Students and the general public lose hope in the possibility that truth can be found in books, so they stop reading; or at least stop reading serious books about worldview issues. Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sarokin wrote that once a sensate culture takes over, a society has already begun to disintegrate due to the lack of intellectual resources necessary to maintain a viable community.{6}

Paul reminds us of the danger of the empty-self state of mind when he writes, "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. . . ."{7}

No Interior Life

Moreland claims that in the last few decades people have become far more concerned about external factors such as the possession of consumer goods, celebrity status, image, and power rather than the development of what he calls an interior life. It wasn't long ago that people were measured by the internal traits of virtue and morality, and it was the person who exhibited character and acted honorably who was held in high esteem. This kind of life was built upon contemplation of what might be called the "good life." After long deliberation, an individual then disciplined himself in those virtues most valued. Peter describes such a process for believers when he tells us to "add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love."{8} He adds that "if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."{9} The Christian life begins with faith, but grows by feeding the interior life in a disciplined manner.

Busy-ness

Almost everyone experiences the last trait of the empty-self to some degree: the hurried, overly busy life. Although most of us wouldn't think of it this way, busy-ness can actually be a form of idolatry. Anything that stands between a person and their relationship with God becomes an idol. As Richard Keyes puts it:

Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God's existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good. The crucial warning is this: As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol.{10}

Many pack their lives with endless activities in order to block out the emotional emptiness and spiritual hunger that fills their souls. Nothing but God Himself can meet that need. David cried out to God saying, "Do not cast me from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."{11} The empty-self attempts to replace God with things God has created, a life that's too busy for God is missing out on life itself.

The empty-self is highly individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, passive, sensate, without an interior life, and too busy.

Curing the Empty-Self Syndrome

Is there a vaccine for the Empty-Self Syndrome? In his book Love Your God With All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland lists six steps for avoiding the empty-self. Like all maladies, we must first admit that there is a problem. Christians need to realize that faith and reason are not diametrically opposed to one another and that intellectual cultivation honors God. We need to begin talking about the role of the intellect and the value of a disciplined Christian mind. The results of not doing this will be a church with shallow theological understanding, little evangelistic confidence, and the inability to challenge the ideas that are dominant in the culture at-large. Christians will continue to be obsessed with self-help books that merely soothe, comfort, and entertain the reader.

Second, we need to choose to be different. We must be different from the typical church attendee who rarely reads or considers the questions and challenges of unbelievers, and different from the self-centered general culture that seeks knowledge only for power or financial gain.

Third, we might also need to change our routines. Believers would benefit by turning off the TV and instead participating in both physical exercise and quiet reflection. We need to get out of our passive ruts and be more proactive about growing spiritually and intellectually.

Fourth, we need to develop patience and endurance. The intellectual life takes time and diligence. It is a long-term, actually life-long, project and for some of us just sitting down for fifteen minutes might be difficult at first. Our newly developed patience is also needed for the fifth goal, that of developing a good vocabulary. As is true of any area of study, both theology and philosophy have their own languages and it takes time and effort to become conversant in them.

Finally, the last step is to establish intellectual goals. This is often best accomplished with the aid of a study partner or group. Setting out on a course of study and sharing what you find with someone else can be exhilarating. Although your study might begin in theology, it should eventually touch on a broad spectrum of ideas. Even reading recognized critics of Christianity is of value if you take the time to develop a response to their criticisms.

We should also teach our children that their studies are an important way to honor God. We are not advocating the development of the mind merely to collect information or to advance one's career. Our goal is to accomplish what Paul demands in 2 Corinthians 10:5. It is to be able to demolish any obstacle, or any pretension to the emancipating knowledge of God. The picture Paul is painting is that of a military operation in enemy territory.{12} It's time to start training!

Notes

1. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), see chapter four for this discussion.

2. Titus 1:8-9

3. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols For Destruction (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 322.

4. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 90.

5. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), see part one on the student.

6. Ibid., 91.

7. Philippians 3:19-20

8. 2 Peter 1:3-7

9. 2 Peter 1:8

10. Os Guinness & John Seel, No God But God (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 33.

11. Psalm 51:11-12

12. Murry J. Harris, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 380.

©2001 Probe Ministries.


About the Author

Don ClossonDon Closson served as Director of Administration and a research associate with Probe for 26 years, until taking a position with the same title at the Centers of Church Based Training (ccbt.org) in 2013. He received the B.S. in education from Southern Illinois University, the M.S. in educational administration from Illinois State University, and the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He has served as a public school teacher and administrator before joining Probe and then the CCBT. He is the general editor of Kids, Classrooms, and Contemporary Education.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565

info@probe.org
www.probe.org
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