At one level we might speak of many sins as selfishness. Certainly anger and envy fall under that heading. Yet, there is something about selfishness that warrants examining this theme in its purest form. For, selfishness is the cause of many wicked practices.
James tells us pretty plainly that where there is “selfish ambition” there will be “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16-18). All kinds of wicked practices stem from this root in the heart. So, lust, for example, has been called “selfish sex,” or “normal sexual desire plus selfishness” (see Mark Lasser, Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, 124). And angry outbursts often have to do with not getting our way, with being “robbed” of our selfish agenda. This means that things like viewing pornography, adultery, rape, domestic violence, and road rage start at the root level as selfishness. From this place come disorder and every vile practice. It is worth our time, then, to consider just how disastrous selfishness is.
Selfishness is obviously a self-centered focus that makes our agenda, our rights, our needs more important than those of another. Leslie Vernick notes:
A person with a selfish heart is completely captivated by the triune gods of me, mine, and more. His lusts, desires, and cravings rule him. Her needs, her wants, and her rights take priority over anyone else’s. A selfish person thinks I deserve it and believes the lie It’s all about me. (The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, 101-2).
As a result of this self-focus and self-obsession a selfish person cannot love others well. The selfish heart will always prioritize its needs and wants. It will always take and rarely give, and even when it does give it does so with an agenda. It gives in order to receive. It gives in order to manipulate and maneuver for their own benefit. They give when it is advantageous, but not otherwise. “Other people function as useable objects to meet the desires of the selfish heart” (102).
Deception is a regular pattern for the selfish heart. Because the selfish person fears to be exposed, and seeks to avoid consequences, he will often cover-up any manifestations of this theme. He will be quick to blame shift, to point the finger at others, to insist on innocence. He lies, manipulates, and even makes others believe they are crazy. All this is done in an effort to justify their own self-indulgence. And our culture does much to aid him in this pursuit.
The modern world applauds self-love at every turn, and, in fact, lays a lack of self-love at the root of many problems. Tim Keller notes:
The basis of contemporary education, the way we treat incarcerated prisoners, the foundation of most modern legislation and the starting point for modern counseling is exactly the opposite of the traditional consensus. Our belief today – and it is deeply rooted in everything – is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves. For example, the reason husbands beat their wives and the reason people are criminals is because they have too low a view of themselves. People used to think it was because they had too high a view of themselves and had too much self-esteem. Now we say it is because we have too little self-esteem. (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, 10)
Not only do the destructive habits abound because of our selfishness, but our culture excuses our habits by saying we actually don’t love ourselves enough. Selfishness has been morphed into a virtue and thus the selfish person has little incentive to change. Their relationships will always suffer and those they hurt will have little help.
Ultimately selfishness is an attempt to make ourselves the center of our universe. The human ego becomes the foundation upon which we build our world and our identity. Soren Kierkegaard warned us of this temptation in his beautiful book Sickness Unto Death. The Danish philosopher said that the human heart always seeks to center itself on anything but God. Because the human ego cannot, however, bear that weight it winds up empty. Like an inflated ball of hot air, it has nothing solid inside to withstand the pressure and it will eventually pop. A world build on anything but God is empty and results in harm to ourselves (i.e. the kind of despair Kierkegaard wrote about), and harm to those we attempt to love.
The solution to the selfish heart is a transformed identity. Paul writes about all of this when he speaks to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 the apostle corrects the Corinthians for “boasting in men.” They had sought to pit Paul, Apollos, and Peter against one another, each person saying whom they followed and why they were better. Paul rebukes them and warns them that they should put no confidence in men, nor ground themselves in these men. He goes on to speak for himself personally, giving them an example, saying that his identity is ultimately grounded in God. At one point he makes a very interesting statement. He says:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (4:1-5)
Paul says he doesn’t care what others think about him, but he also doesn’t care what he thinks about himself. He cares only what God thinks of him. God will expose the motives of the heart, and God will reward those who are servants of Christ. This is his standard and it ought to be our standard too. We need a transformed view of ourselves.
The selfish person thinks highly of themselves but not realistically of themselves. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians to ask the rhetorical question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (v. 7). The answer is “nothing,” because he goes on to ask: If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (v. 7) The person being honest with themselves knows that they are a sinner condemned before God, who has been offered grace, rescue, redemption, and transformation in Christ. They have nothing to boast in, only much for which to be thankful. The selfish person needs to be reminded of reality, humbled before God and man, and exposed to the ugly truth of their lowly estate.
Following this realization they need to be challenged to put into practice new habits. Paul, when he speaks of the thief, does not simply say to him, “stop stealing.” He actually instructs him to give generously. He is to start working in order that he will have something to share (Eph. 4:28). The point is that his selfishness must be corrected by acts of humility and service.
The heart theme of selfishness is serious. It will, over the long-term, produce all kinds of evil and harm within a relationship and within a person. Thank God that our transformed identity is rooted in Christ and by reframing our view of ourselves we can change.