I’ll never forget the frustration of dealing with a two-year-old child who was stubbornly saying, “I want to do it myself!” Determination is a fine quality—but not when you are determined to accomplish a task clearly impossible for your age and stage of development. I remember thinking, “Why won’t he let me help him?” Yet I have occasionally found myself in the same intractable position, determined to white knuckle it, certain I should be strong enough and smart enough to make a hard change or accomplish an important goal by myself. In fact, the main problem might be focus on self.
In the September 1999 Ensign in the “I Have a Question” section, Timothy B. Smith—an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University—responded to the following: “The world seems to teach that self-fulfillment can only be achieved by focusing on one’s self. What does the gospel of Jesus Christ teach about self?” He said,
“The world, with its emphasis on self-gratification and self-fulfillment, frequently teaches that happiness is found through a focus on self: getting in touch with ourselves, satisfying our needs, boosting our self-esteem. Books and organizations that teach about self-esteem, self-appreciation, self-respect, self-acceptance, and a host of related “self” concepts enjoy great popularity. Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a fuller understanding of how to build a happy and complete life for one’s self. The Savior, who spent His days lifting others and giving of Himself, taught this heavenly paradox: “He who seeketh to save his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (see JST footnote for Matt. 10:39) . . . It is part of the paradox of finding our lives through losing them for the Savior’s sake that in so doing we gain great, even eternal blessings and rewards for ourselves.”
What the Prophets Have Said
We can always receive enlightenment from the words of our inspired leaders. President McKay said, “Whenever you forget self and strive for the betterment of others, and for something higher and better, you rise to the spiritual plane,” said President David O. McKay. “If … we will lose our self-centered self for the good of the Church of which we are members, for the good of the community, and especially for the progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will be blessed spiritually, and happiness will be our reward.” (“Making God the Center of Our Lives,” Improvement Era, June 1967, 109.)
One of my favorite quotes is: “the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls,” President Spencer W. Kimball taught. “We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find.” (“The Abundant Life,” Ensign, July 1978, 3.)
The biggest danger of focus on self rather than service is falling into selfishness. Neal Maxwell said, “Selfishness is much more than an ordinary problem because it activates all the cardinal sins!” (“Put Off the Natural Man, and Come Off Conqueror,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 14). President Ezra Taft Benson called selfishness one of the common faces of pride that leads to “self-conceit, self-pity, worldly self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and self-seeking.” (“Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 6.)-
It is true that all progression begins with the individual, with the “one.” However, any over-emphasis on “self” distorts our purpose for being on this earth. “No man is an island.” Any person who lives detached from others is missing the boat! The spiritual connection we share with all our brothers and sisters on the earth is vital to our happiness, and often the missing ingredient in worldly recipes for success and happiness. The gospel is a gospel of loving our neighbors and constantly teaches us to live in a mutual support and service to each other. Whenever “I” becomes more important than “we” or “thine,” the counsel of scriptures and prophets is being disregarded. And what is the result? Separateness, loneliness, and misery.
Since the dangers seem so clear, why it is so easy to fall into the “focus on self” pattern?
New Wine, New Bottles
We live in a culture of self-help books and seminars, and while some may be based on true principles and offer solid help, many are not. We must be selective. Too often the “self” our society is so determined to help us improve is the natural man self, and any focus on the natural man is doomed to failure in a spiritual sense. While the books and magazines tell us to spend our time dissecting and analyzing and improving the SELF, the Savior says, “whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world . . .” (Luke 9:24-25). And that is the most important question. While society tells us the answer to our problems is more leisure time and more money to spend on making our old natural man selves MORE, the Savior invites us to let Him give us a whole new spirit, a completely new heart—one like His. He is not going to put new wine into old bottles. (See Luke 5:37.)
Too many times when I am thinking of “self”–even “self-improvement”–I am in the natural man/ego mode. The self I’m thinking about improving is not my spirit, or the part of myself that is connected with God. I only “lose myself” when I’m keeping my sacramental covenant to remember Jesus always. That “Always” part sounds impossible, given my inconsistency and imperfections, but working toward that goal of keeping the Lord in my thoughts is not. It is the Lord I should focus on, not myself and how I can “do better.” Much of the “do better” mode is pride-based and also based on discontent and not accepting what is. (Stan Winchester reviewed this article for me and inserted a note here. He said, “This reminds me that Jesus taught the be-atitudes and not the do-attitudes.”)
I can see that whenever I’m thinking about myself I am not truly happy. But when I’m pondering on the awesome nature of the Atonement, on the gift of the glorious resurrection, on the love of Christ, or when I’m praying with all the energy of my heart to feel that love and spread it around, then I feel joy! (because I am doing as taught in Mosiah 2:17 and Matthew 25:35-40). What else matters, when all is said and done?
The only course that makes sense is to pray constantly for the Spirit to guide our thoughts and feelings. The natural man is always with us, and the adversary is ever willing to taunt us and magnify the negative tendencies we inherited through the fall.
Here’s what I’m coming to understand: the primary purpose of life is to overcome the natural man/ego and live more and more of the time under the guidance and direction of the Spirit. But how can we do that? So many walls of natural-man thinking habits need to broken down: a daunting task, to be sure! Only the Lord’s battering ram of revelation and protection can break down the hardness of my heart and break down those walls.
Remember the story of Joshua and the Lord’s command to march around the city of Jericho for seven days? Only after they obeyed that command and fulfilled that daily repetition did the Lord give them the victory. Here are some of the ways I walk around my Jericho cities, all the while praying for God’s victory—that He will break down the dark walls of negative thoughts and obstacles to spiritual progress and help me overcome the natural man:
- First, I acknowledge and express whatever I’m thinking that might be holding me back: I cry out to the Lord, holding nothing back. Sometimes I spill my negative thoughts out on paper . . . maybe scribbling over the words, crunching the paper or burning it.
- Next, I review in my mind what I have to be grateful for—what I still have and can still do. I list positives to remind me of good times and faith-affirming events.
- I say to myself, “I choose the light. I choose the light. I choose the light.”
- I remind myself of God’s love by saying out loud, “I know the Lord loves me.”
- Sometimes I play and/or sing gospel hymns. (I can “sing” hymns in my mind no matter where I am. The hymns have a tangible power to bring back the sweetness of the Holy Spirit.)
- When I sense darkness encroaching, I say in my mind or out loud when I’m alone, “STOP! Satan, you are a liar and I won’t believe your lies.”
- I put favorite scriptures and thoughts in page protectors to read when I’m in the tub, when I’m resting, anytime. I memorize my favorites so I can repeat them in my mind to displace negative thoughts.
- At times I visualize Jesus putting a shield of light all around me, protecting me from Satan’s fiery darts and lies.
- I also like to visualize the Savior assuring me that He is aware of my sorrows, good desires, of every thought of my heart. I see the darts (lies, and anything else I need to be protected from) hitting the shield and sliding down and being absorbed by Mother Earth, thus weakening Satan’s power. (I know that if I let the darts and lies in, they can steal my energy and carry it back to Satan to increase his power over me.)
- Finally, I visualize Jesus holding out His arms, offering a welcoming embrace.
Stan Winchester said, “When I feel opposition I realize it may because I might be doing something right by attracting opposition in the first place; sometimes, this provides me courage. I also try to determine the source of the opposition. If God is trying to get my attention, then I do my best to understand what He wants, and change course. I wish I could say I have perfected this, but I would be lying if I did. If I know the opposition is from Satan, then I dig in while calling on the Lord to help me endure and succeed. In the past when I have turned from Satan’s opposition and went with the flow it never brought about the desired results, it always brought more long-term suffering and pain. I have learned it is important to not give up when opposition seems to block my way, but to trust in the Lord, and press forward. By keeping my eyes on the goal, then obstacles can be overcome.”
Help! I Need More Time!
Here’s one of the scriptures that always convinces me I need more time to work on all this: “Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins? Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God . . . Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly” (Alma 5:27-29).
Any time I find myself judging, thinking I am better than, less than, not as good as, or needing to do well at something so I can be seen in a favorable light, I realize I am not stripped of pride. Any time I find myself jealous of the perfect intact family down the street whose parents have never faltered and whose kids all served missions, married in the temple and stayed active, I recognize I am not stripped of envy.
I simply cannot do it by myself. I can’t strip myself of pride and envy and fill my own heart with charity. I don’t have what it takes; that is why we are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost and provided with a Savior. That is why He says, “Come unto me.” If I don’t come unto Him, I’ll never make it.
I can’t turn my selfishness, impatience, and irritability into kindness, long-suffering, and the willingness to bear all things. But He can. I can’t take my old emotional habits, automatic reactions, judgmental nature and self-protective stance and turn them into patience, faithfulness and self-control. But He can.
Only the Lord can give me a new heart and work in me His love, peace and joy. Those things are fruits of the Spirit—fruits of inviting the Spirit to cleanse my heart. They are not the fruits of my white-knuckled efforts at improving myself. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance . . . “ (Galatians 5:22-23). I am not able to rise above my natural man SELF without the Sprit. Only the influence of the Lord through the Spirit can transform me.
New Christ-based Affirmations
In years past I used to repeat “positive affirmations” about myself in an effort to feel better. You know the kind; things such as, “I am healthy and happy. I am progressing toward my goals. I am capable and full of enthusiasm.” Now I know that it isn’t about me at all—it’s about Him. God is who He says He is: He has all power to do what He says He can do. I affirm my dependence on the Lord and His love and mercy. Here’s an example of how I affirm my need for Him:
The Lord is my light, my source of strength. He is the Way, the Bread of Life, my Counselor, Exemplar, Shepherd. He is guiding my thoughts and shielding them from anxiety, negativity, and all the temptations of the devil. I seek His presence and guidance in all I say, feel, and do. His light shines on my life and chases away all dark thoughts of fear, doubt, uncertainty, and self-denigration. I choose the light. I love everything to do with light. I love the Lord and desire only to serve Him.
I relinquish my grief and pain to Him. I know His Atonement will heal it all. Faith in the Savior’s plan fills me with hope. I’m so grateful to know that if there had been a less painful way to accomplish all the purposes of mortality, God would have known and would have implemented it.
All our tears will be dried, all our sorrows swallowed up in the joy of the redemption. I relinquish all false ideas I may have inherited to the contrary, all doubts concerning the Lord’s goodness, all fears for the future. God rules, His purposes are sure and He will prevail! How grateful I am for this knowledge.
I let go of all bitterness over the realities of life and death. No matter how painful, I accept what IS, because it is God’s will that all men have agency–the right to choose how to respond and what to make of their lives. I express thanks for the Savior and His love and redeeming power and caring for each of His children—even me. He will cleanse and purify my heart and help me be His disciple indeed by filling my heart with charity—the pure love of Christ. I’m thankful for life itself and for this day and the choices it offers.
After all we can do . . .
I have become increasingly aware of my need for the grace of Christ. The Bible Dictionary tells us that the main idea of the word “grace” is a divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. In 2 Nephi 25:23 we read, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
Some may take this scripture to mean that we have to do a certain number of good works and reach a certain degree of perfection before we are justified in even asking for the grace of Christ. But the truth is, no truly good work is even possible without the grace of Christ. And He wants to walk with us every step of the way, not just meet us at the end of the path.
The Bible Dictionary states that, “It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.”
All I can do is be willing to have Him change my heart and work through me.
All I can do is repent and be willing to have Him make me clean.
All I can do is praise His name and show gratitude that He is willing to do the rest.
All I can do is memorize and take to heart scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 12:9, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Our constant connection with the Lord is vital: Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). I know what it is like to feel like a dry brittle twig disconnected from the True Vine. And I know what it is like to feel the amazing power and strength of the Lord to raise me far above my own puny strength when my focus is on Him and not myself, and my desire is to truly serve Him and others.
In Philippians 4:13 we find the affirmation, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Only with His help can we make the spiritual progress we were sent here to make. Only with His help can we learn what we’ve been sent here to learn from this mortal experience with all its trials. Only with His help can we overcome the natural man and fill the missions we were sent to fill. With His help we will make it.
Note: Darla Isackson has been a professional writer for more than three decades and had been a regular columnist for Meridian Magazine since January of 2002. To learn more about Darla and her books, Trust God No Matter What! and After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, visit her website: darlaisackson.com