In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Polonius famously declares: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The phrase has its appeals, and at first glance seems like wise counsel. In fact, it appeals to something we are all naturally drawn to: a devotion to self, to our own sense of honor, to our own interests, often at the expense of genuine wisdom and careful consideration. We live in a “believe in yourself” world that tells us everything of value—everything worth doing—begins and ends with self.
As Paul reminds Timothy, however, though the idolatry of ego comes naturally to us, it is antithetical to the honor of God. Indeed, he says, one who is self-indulgent is dead, even while he lives. And, contrary to popular belief, the philosophy of self-focus and self-fulfillment is no barrier against abuse, favoritism, partiality, and all other societal ills. Fulfilling Paul’s injunction to show no favoritism can only be done when we honor God as God, and see ourselves not as victims who need to stand up for our own needs and wants, but as servants to one another, and to His kingdom.
At the center of this passage is an outward-looking vision: a concern for the kingdom, for the purity of the Church and the honor of God’s name. It is full of warnings against being caught up in worldly concerns that might overshadow and compromise the witness of the faith: maintain pure relationships in the household of God; support of those in need, but do not support idleness; honor those who have undertaken the care of the flock; do so without prejudice; and even, servants honor your masters, so that God’s name may not be blasphemed. Servants, honor your masters? How contrary this runs to all the wise counsel of our day!
We like to think that if we muster enough self-will and self-confidence, and if we all try really hard together, we can fix the ills of our world. As it turns out, however, the gospel is the only practical means by which hearts, lives, communities, and the world can be changed. No matter how many plans for social change man may offer, none can effectively change the world, because none can effectively change the human heart.
The life of the Church, therefore, must be among our chief concerns. There, in worship, we meet Christ. In the life of the body, we grow in Christ through the fellowship of the saints. Both judgment and blessing begin at the household of God. He enacts the extension of His kingdom through the Church, which is His body here on earth. Therefore, we must not be self-indulgent, or we are dead even while we live. Rather, we are to rest wholly upon Christ as we walk. He must be our chief desire, the fulfillment of our hearts, and the shaper of our lives.
Written by Caleb Faires