Have you ever noticed that “Mine” is often one of the first words a child learns to say? It does not take much coaxing for a kid to gain a sense of ownership over anything their eyes see or hands touch. With grunts, screams, and tears they try and conquer claims to anything around them – from sippy cups to teddy bears to Cheerios to mommies and grandads. Such behavior may seem “cute” but often it follows us into adulthood. The same inherent toddleresch attitude of self-centeredness tends to tint our view of the world. We inherently and subconsciously tend to see ourselves as masters of the universe, the arbiters of our own choices, and the proprietors of our fate. But the fact is we are not any of these and the sad thing is we do not get that truth very often.
But one must ask if such a way of seeing the world is all that surprising. Consider but for a moment our culture which is obsessed with self-help hyper-individualism and relativistic moral autonomy. From cradle to grave we postmodern Americans are inundated with waves of commercials, slogans, movies, music, and technologies that melt our minds and hearts into seeing the Cosmos as our personal sandbox. We have an embarrassment of food, clothing, and home goods chains that allow us to personalize everything from calories to underwear to coffee tables. We are told via boob tubes and billboards that we can “Have it your way,” and to “Just Do It,” and to do it “Because You’re Worth It.” We tend to grow up coddled with endearments such as “princess” and “little CEO” while being told we need to “do what makes us happy.” We go to schools that teach us to “take hold of our destinies” and “be what we want to be.” We even go to churches where most often the focus of the sermons and songs are upon what God is going to do for us and how we are going to overcome this or that personal problem with self-help tips from Jesus. Atop of all this lies countless trinkets and technologies that titillate our vanity, from iPhones to iPads to iPods to iTunes to iClouds, upon which we can customize avatars, wallpapers, and ring tones and ingest avalanches of personalized entertaining videos and games.
If you do not see a trend let me point it out to you: Our whole westernized life is deluged with the omnipotence and omnipresence of “self.” Everything in our existence, from career to family to church, is constantly instilling in us a view of life with “I” at the center.
Now, let me pause lest I be misunderstood. I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with calling your child “princess” any more than it's wrong to have an iPhone or prefer the veggie option. I’m also not saying there isn’t something deeper working its magic through these things. That said, I think it can be said clearly that we as a species are not very vigilant to reflect upon the sea in which we swim. It is amidst tsunamis of self-focused nicknames, gadgets, food, and entertainment that our soul’s habitation is formed.
This may sound ridiculous, but the fact is there is but a hop, skip, and jump to go from “My Cheerios” and “My MiMi” to “My Body” and “My Sex Life.” We need to realize this.
We need to look around our world and ask hard questions. Why am I not where I should be spiritually? Why is my faith life – the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, meditation, worship, silence, and charity – so difficult to live? Behind these questions lie deeper questions still. Hard questions. Could it be I am not growing spiritually because there is too much “I” in the process of growing? Could it be I am not as spiritually mature because I am set up for spiritual failure by a culture that is inherently antithetical to spiritual discipline? Could it be I have been swaddled by my schools and churches and families into a state of cosmic egotism by which I inherently find it even more difficult to crucify myself for Christ?
If we ever hope to break through the veil that fogs our minds from deeper intimacy with God, if we ever hope to mature spiritually in any meaningful way, then we need to consider our own chains. We need to take seriously the shrewd methods by which the Adversary of our soul crafts the elements of life to destroy our love and worship for God and Christs' community.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) once again brings forth poignantly such truth through the mouth of the senior devil Screwtape when he writes to Wormwood about inculcating in his patient a sense of self-possession about life. This is how the devil writes,
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered…. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own". Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours….
You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense. The [fact is the] man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels….
The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men's belief that they "own" their bodies - those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love's sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God". They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of "my boots", the "my" of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by "my Teddy-bear" not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but "the bear I can pull to pieces if I like". And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say "My God" in a sense not really very different from "My boots", meaning "The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit - the God I have done a corner in".
And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say "Mine" of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong - certainly not to them, whatever happens….
Lewis penetratingly reveals to us the fiendish ways of how possessiveness can begin to take hold in our lives. It drives us down a path to seeing everything in life within the vacuum of self. We become like the Greek mythical character Narcissus who became obsessed with looking upon his own beauty in the reflective waters to the point of death. For us, life becomes the reflecting pool and everything we see in it centers upon our reflection. As Lewis points out this is subtle. We can go from “my teddy bear” to “my time” to “my money” to “my property” to “my body” to “my talents” to “my church” to “my God” in the same vein. Lewis is not talking about mere possessive pronouns here; he is talking about the intentions and habits of our souls to inherently see life as owed to us and as our personal property. He is showing us that we love to be cosmic conquistadors who stake claims to every realm of existence without any regard of fealty to the Cosmic Liege, God Himself.
When we act this way, we are failing to recognize this deflating truth: we don’t own anything. Full stop. Let that deflate your post-modern senses. We don’t own our talents, time, or even our own lives for that matter. Everything is under the auspices of the Creator God. But we hate this idea, and our culture helps inculcate within us a seeping revulsion towards it. Peter Kreeft (1937-present) has said it like this,
“We carry around with us our own false perspective, our own human ego as the center, the absolute so that everything else, even God, must become ‘mine’…. Reality is theocentric, not anthropocentric. God announces [this] truth when he announces his own name to Moses: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Ex 3:14). The fact that we naturally begin our sentences with the word ‘I’ shows whose place we instinctively usurp.”
Consider once again: reality is theocentric, not anthropocentric. Do you get this? Chew on it. This is a life modifying sentence. God has exclusionary rights to everything in existence. He is the only “I AM” and we are His “you.” All of Creation is a donation. As David declared,
The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord
God Himself declared to Ezekiel that,
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine
And the Apostle Paul went on the say,
For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him.
Because of this truism, we must come to terms that we are not owners but stewards of life. We are stewards of time, money, property, talents, possessions, and even children. As stewards, this means we are to cultivate what we possess with wisdom and diligence for the central goal of offering back in worship to Him who gave these things in the first place. As the Word says,
You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
And the Apostle Peter went on to say,
Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God.
1 Peter 4:10
Notice that in these passages the prerequisite to right service and worship towards God and others is a right understanding that all is a gift received. When we begin to see life through the reflection of self-giving stewardship instead of egocentric possessiveness those enslaving powers of possession are broken off us. In short, in a strange set of affairs, we become freer as we become more aware of how little we control. Consider some practical examples of this:
When you see talents as your personal possession, they tend to either overwhelm you or stagnate into ill-use. They can overcome you by demanding you drive harder and harder to succeed in them, only to be left with squelched passion and crushing insecurity or inadequacy. They can stagnate by seeing no need to work hard to enrich themselves for service towards God and others.
But when you see your talents as a gift from God, they become a beauty and joy to hone and craft and offer back to Him upon the altars of sacrifice. The demands of them are lightened while the cultivation of them is honed, both because of a focus upon worship towards the One Who gave them.
When you see children as your personal possession, they will crush you with their life choices or you will crush them with your demands. You will be torn asunder when they fail to be what you wanted them to be because in some way you laid claim to their lives. On the other end, they will run roughshod over you as you sacrifice every element of time, energy, and opinion to their personal happiness and security.
But when you see children as gifts from God, you come to hand them over to His service and not your own purposes. Your goal for their life becomes not one of perpetual happiness or good opinion of you but Truth and Love found in the lover of their souls. You begin to focus less upon you living your desires through them and allow God to cultivate in their souls the dispositions necessary for His purposes in the Kingdom.
When you see the church as your personal possession, you will become bitter and burned out while serving within it or be indifferent towards supplying it with anything but mere opinions. You will expunge your time, energy, and money to make the church your second home, only to become overwhelmed and underappreciated by those who benefit. Turned the other way you will demand the church be a vending machine of preferences which will offer you certain types of worship (contemporary vs hymns) with certain types of sermons (self-help vs. hellfire) amid certain types of people (black vs. white, young vs. old) all before you will consider giving your money or time or talents.
But when you see the church as a gift from God, you will joyfully serve with others for the purpose of loving God. The church house becomes a place not defined by personalities or preferences but by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Who is refashioning a diverse body of believers into the likeness of Christ for the work of the Gospel. As a result the focus isn’t upon style but substance and truth over preference.
When you see money as your personal possession, there will never be enough saved up nor enough to indulge in. You will weaponize money through tithes or inheritance or bills to control others or the future, only to realize when you die nothing goes with you. Or, on the other extreme, you will unthoughtfully expunge your wealth on self-focused frivolities, only to have growing stacks of unpaid expenses.
But when you see money as a gift from God, it transforms your view and usage of it. You give with unabandoned cheerfulness and sincerity of heart with no strings attached while at the same time yearning to preserve and expand your wealth for the benefits of the present and future.
When you see time as your personal possession, you will selfishly guard it against any inconvenience or recklessly waste it on various trivialities. You will snarl over any possibility of sacrificing your time to charity, the church, service, or spiritual disciplines for fear there won't be enough left over to do what you want to do. Or, on the flip side, you will thoughtlessly expunge your time with endless hours of games, movies, Tiktoks, Youtube vids, and Instagram posts without any regard to using it towards more productive ventures.
But when you see time as a gift from God, you begin to focus upon managing it with greater intentionality. Time begins to be seen through the lens of eternity; it is a precious commodity you will sacrifice for God as a reasonable act of worship. You will purposefully decide to spend time and serve with those people and in those moments that matter the most in the eternal scheme of your life and theirs.
In all of these examples, the life-altering principle at work is understanding that we don’t own anything. God is the owner of all. When we get this, when we truly understand this, we are on our way to breaking the shackles of possessive proclaiming that so easily finds its nest in our hearts and minds.
For everything was created by Him, in heaven, and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 245-247
 Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascals Pensées (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1993), pg. 163
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.