How Selfishness Is A Good Thing (And Biblical)
The church has a disease.
That disease is selflessness. We value sacrifice as an end in and of itself.
From coast to coast pastors teach on the ultimate ideal of self-denial and sacrifice. They tell us that that if we abandon our selfish desires we will gain a superior joy from helping others. But that joy can only be achieved through complete selflessness.
Well, I have some shocking news for you, this is a lie. And it is destroying your life.
Jesus had a lot to say about self-denial, but not as an end in itself. He lifted up life, peace, and joy as the ultimate aim of life.
The sacrifice Jesus asked of us isn’t even really sacrifice. It is more like training. Achieving top physical health requires a lot of work and a significant amount of self-denial.
But we shouldn’t call it self-denial because the whole reason you exercise and diet is so that you gain something in the end.
Your reason for action is self-motivated. Instead of sacrifice or self-denial, we should call it discipline.
Jesus always motivated us with self-interest. It is how we are wired. “I have come to give you life and life abundantly” (John 10:10); “Whoever has given up house and home will receive one hundred fold in this life, and the life to come” (paraphrased, Mark 10:28-31); “Whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24); “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). Never once do we see Jesus exalting sacrifice (or discipline) as the ultimate ideal, but rather as the path to something joy. Like exercising.
This should not surprise us. Jesus Himself was self-motivated.
Many churches love to lift Jesus’ sacrifice up as the ultimate selfless act. The epitome of self-denial.
But this implies that He didn’t get anything out of it. That he went through all that suffering for no other reason than “it was the right the thing to do.” Yet, we know this is not true. Hebrews says that He endured the cross for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2).
He endured the pain and agony of the cross because He saw the reward on the other side. The joy of redeeming mankind was so great that He endured bearing the weight of every sin to achieve it. He went through the darkest moment in human history because He got something out of it – us.
In a very real way, Jesus is selfish. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is what gives His love – or any love for that matter – power. What speaks more to someone: “I did this out of some sense of duty and obligation because self-denial and sacrifice are the ideals for which I am aspiring.” Or: “You bring me so much joy that I wanted to do this for you”?
When a son asks his father for a toy, what communicates more love, “I am giving this to you void of any self-motivation. I get no joy from giving you a toy because my ultimate ideal is self-sacrifice. Therefore I cannot get anything out of this transaction in order for it be truly virtuous.” Or: “Your happiness brings me so much joy that I want you to be happy”.
Do you see how sacrifice and self-denial actually destroy love? If we truly want to attain this “virtue” of selflessness, then we must never get anything out of what we do. We can experience no joy, no happiness, no peace – nothing. Otherwise it isn’t selfless.
The power of love isn’t in it’s selflessness, but in it’s self-interest. It is the fact that I want to do something for you that make my actions worth anything. Its my desire, my joy, my happiness that I get from doing whatever it is I am doing that makes my actions valuable. Anything less is cold and uncaring. It is duty and nothing more.
When I say “selfish” many will recoil is disgust. They picture a brute who steps on peopleto fulfill his momentary lusts. This is not selfishness, it is evil.
When I say selfish, I mean it in it’s literal form: motivated by self-interest. You can be motivated by self-interest without violating the lives of those around you. In fact, it’s the most natural thing to do.
This is so basic that every child knows it, but we must have it beaten out of us by the time we are adults. Deep down everyone knows that the message of selflessness is impossible and outside our ability to achieve. We attempt to silence this knowledge by saying that our desires are evil. We believe that new hearts will give us a desire to be selfless. But even that statement doesn’t make any sense – a desire to be selfless.
Someone has convinced us to believe a contradiction as our highest ideal. In doing so, he has put us all in chains. Jesus did not live by this credo. He was selfish and so are we. It is self-interest that makes His actions – and ours – valuable.
About Sean Edwards
Sean Edwards is an author and a communication strategist. He graduated from the Western Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Sean has a passion for discussing philosophy and American politics.