When Self-Preservation Becomes Our God

by Benjamin Vrbicek June 5, 2019

If you watch any television at all, you’ve probably noticed that nearly every set of commercials includes one selling a vehicle. Car commercials tend to be predictable. They emphasize style (how the car makes you feel or how others feel when they see you driving it), speed (zero to sixty in something-point-something seconds), and safety (anti-lock brakes, side-impact airbags, backup cameras, and the like). And not only are they predictable in emphasis, they tend to stereotype certain life stages. For example, those with children are shown in minivans with all sorts of safety features.

We can understand this. Safety is a good thing. Antilock brakes and side-impact airbags are good things. Hand sanitizer is a good thing. Tying one’s shoelaces is a good thing. Walking, not running, with scissors and getting flu shots are good things. They all arise from our desire for safety. And behind the desire for safety lies the desire for self-preservation, which is also a good thing. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27; James 3:9). Therefore, our lives matter. In Ephesians 5, Paul assumes that “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it,” a truism Paul then uses to help build his argument about caring for one’s spouse. Self-preservation is not a bad thing. In fact, when men and women act heroically, despite a certain danger to themselves, we are not saying that they didn’t care about their own lives. Of course they care about their lives. What we celebrate is that they valued something more than self-preservation; we celebrate that they put something ahead of their own safety.

This gets to the issue. The problem is not safety or self-preservation. The problem is when self-preservation becomes an ultimate thing, when safety becomes a god. When this happens, bad things happen. They happened to Peter on Good Friday, and they can happen to us.

Peter’s Trial

We should start by giving Peter some credit. When Jesus goes to the cross, he follows further than many of the other disciples. Peter followed Jesus late into Thursday night and into Friday morning where he found himself in a courtyard just outside the very room where religious authorities handed down verdicts. It’s here, however, that Peter exchanged true discipleship for safe discipleship.

We’re told one of the servant girls of the high priest saw Peter warming himself by a fire and asked if he had been with Jesus. Peter denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean” (14:68). Then a rooster crowed, which should have been something of a wakeup call for Peter. He hit the snooze button. When asked again about his connection to Jesus, again he denies it. When the question came a third time, Peter won’t even say Jesus’ name. He only says, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (14:71). The desire for self-preservation became god-like, something that demanded absolute allegiance. Then Peter heard the rooster crow a second time. He wept.

Our Trial

Maybe you know the feeling Peter felt, the feeling of shame that comes from letting down your Lord. Maybe you’ve felt it after an outsider to Christianity asked you a difficult question. Something about the question set off an internal alarm: this isn’t safe; my reputation is on the line. So you waffled. You answered the question but only by knocking the rough edges off Christianity to make it seem more palatable. Or perhaps one day a co-worker said to you, “I saw you in the breakroom reading your Bible. What’s that about?” Then you said, “Ahhh . . . I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I do not know this book of which you speak.”

Our strong desire for self-preservation shows itself to be a problem not only when confronted by those outside of Christianity. We can be just as prone to self-preservation when we fellowship with those in the church. Perhaps there have been times where you were really struggling with something, and you knew the right thing to do was to ask others for help from, say, your small group or the pastor of your church. But you also knew to ask for help meant risking your reputation. So you buried your struggle and suffered alone. No one helped because no one knew.

Our struggle for safety and our fear of losing our reputation is one reason pastors have such a difficult time making friends inside their own churches. Many pastors would love to drop the charade that they have it all together but don’t because they worry their job might be on the line. In a similar way, sometimes older generations within a church feel threatened by younger generations—and vice versa. One generation feels their voice and influence is ignored, so they begin to think, “Well, I’ll take my voice somewhere else, somewhere it will be heard.” Or perhaps, instead, they stay at the church and just get louder.

Why do we do all these silly things? Self-preservation. Peter wept, and so should we.

Jesus Goes Looking for Peter

If the gospel story ended with Jesus on trial and Peter weeping, it wouldn’t be much of a gospel. But that’s not where the gospel ends. Jesus lost his life laying aside safety and self-preservation for something greater. He rose again on the third day, and when he did, he went looking for Peter. At the end of Mark’s gospel account, we read about a few women who went to the tomb where Jesus was buried. An angel tells the women Jesus is alive. And the angel also tells them this: “But go, tell [the] disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). The angel wanted the women to tell the disciples—all of whom fled when Jesus was arrested—but the angel explicitly mentions to the women that they must tell Peter that Jesus is coming for him.

Peter must have wrestled with whether this would be a fearful encounter or a wonderful encounter. The answer depends on what kind of a Savior we have, doesn’t it? Is Jesus coming for Peter the way a police officer might race through a city to catch a criminal, lights on and siren blaring? Or is Jesus coming in an ambulance to restore his friend? The lights might flash and the siren might blare, but Jesus rides in an ambulance to meet Peter. And if you are a Christian, no matter how bad you’ve sinned, the resurrected Lord does the same for you.