It was always one of the most dramatic moments in the well-known secret agent drama. Although viewers didn’t know it, one of the Mission Impossible agents had donned a latex mask that was meant to make him look familiar and safe to the enemy. The mask was so pliable and real looking that it took on the appearance of actual human skin. At some crucial moment, the government agent would reach up and tear the “skin” off his face and reveal his true identity to the international bad guys who were about to be taken down.
As a child, I loved watching those moments. I dreamed of growing up and being the latex mask agent. And I wanted to be the costume king.
As a sinner, I am still seeking to be the king of a costume kingdom. You see, the problem with the little kingdom (the civilization of self) is that it dresses up and puts on the mask of the big kingdom (the kingdom of God). It puts on the mask of things that are righteous and good, while it is capturing the heart for the glory of self.
The most dangerous kinds of self-focus are those that take on the form of the good things of the kingdom of God.
Indian theologian Vinoth Ramachandra describes it this way:
The Good News is packaged and marketed (using, uncritically, all techniques of modern advertising) as a religious product: offering “peace of mind,” “how to get to heaven,” “health and prosperity,” “inner healing,” “the answer to all your problems,” etc. What is promoted as “faith in God” often turns out to be a means for obtaining emotional security or material blessing in this life and an insurance policy in the next.
This kind of preaching leaves the status quo untouched. It does not raise fundamental and disturbing questions about the assumptions upon which people build their lives. It does not threaten the false gods in whose name the creation of God has been taken over; indeed, it actually reinforces their hold on their worshippers. This kind of “gospel” is essentially escapist, the direct descendent of the pseudo-gospels of the false prophets of the Old Testament. It is simply a religious image of the secular consumerist culture in which modern men and women live! (From God’s That Fail: Modern Idolatry & Christian Mission)
There are many warnings in the Bible about the costuming of the kingdom of self.
Christ makes this warning in the Sermon on the Mount: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
Paul writes to Christians in Corinth, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
In Philippians 1:15-16, Paul talks about people who even preach the gospel for their own selfish ends!
In Galatians, Paul warns against a false gospel that wears the costume of the true gospel. Notice the strong language: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
And then, just in case his warning wasn’t strong enough he says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:6-8) Why is Paul so agitated? Because the kingdom of self is its most dangerous when it takes on the clothing of the kingdom of God.
It is quite possible for you to be convinced that you are living for the transcendent glories of the kingdom of God when you are in fact living for yourself.
Be warned! Be scared! The little kingdom is a costume kingdom, and it is deviously promoted by a costume king—Satan himself. The little kingdom will quite regularly don the latex masks of outward participation in worship, obedience, and ministry. It will appear as though it is serving the King of Kings and Lords of Lords, when daily it is bowing before the throne of self, driven by earth-bound treasures and anxiety-bound needs. Its worship can only be the worship of self.
So that pastor tells himself that he is working to build Christ’s kingdom when what really drives him is power, control, and human acclaim. And when he doesn’t get them, he is discouraged and angry.
The mother tells herself that she is representing God in the lives of her children, but her frequent irritation and impatience reveal that the kingdom she is serving is her own and that she is most angry when her children break the laws of her kingdom, not the laws of God’s.
The university student will be convinced that he is committed to evangelism, when what he is really committed to is the self-glory of theological always-rightism.
The child will think that he has gained a more obedient heart, when really he has just become a smarter and more secretive sinner.
Selfishness is its most dangerous when it masquerades as service. Self-focus is most powerful when it dons the costume of love. Earthly treasures are most seductive when they take on the appearance of spiritual need. Idols do their nastiest work when they wear the latex of God.
Because the little kingdom is a costume kingdom, it presents a near and present danger to everyone who has committed himself to the kingdom of God. If you examine the church of Jesus Christ in our day, the visible location of the big kingdom, it won’t be long before you see the fruit of the little kingdom. Permit me to give you a mundane example.
Suppose I have committed myself to a healthy diet; I am at least externally keeping its rules. At the same time, however, I am snacking on copious amounts of mini chocolate chip cookies. Two things will surely result from this pattern. First, the mini cookies in the box in the cupboard will begin to disappear mysteriously. Second, I will gain weight rather than lose it. Now, it is quite obvious that neither result is the fruit of a healthy diet, which points to the fact that what has masqueraded as a diet is not a diet at all, but an even more deceptive form of overeating.
The masquerading skill of the kingdom of self is yet one more reason why each of us needs more than the restraint of the law. No, we need the daily rescue of the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.
You see, our problem is deeper than our behavior. The reason the costume kingdom so easily deceives us is because the idolatry of self still lives within each of our hearts. So we need daily grace so that our eyes will be open to the deception of the little kingdom, and we need daily grace so that our hearts would grow to love the big kingdom. And, thankfully, this grace is ours because of the cross of Jesus Christ.