Rob Buckingham's Blog

Selfless or Selfish?

I’ve heard many Christian people over the years – including preachers – talk about how God calls us to live a “selfless” life. But is that true? Is that what the Bible demands? I would like to suggest not.

It’s true that Jesus taught self-denial: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The Bible also teaches self-control as one of the products of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (see Galatians 5:23).

Neither of these things means that we are to be selfless though. In fact the Bible also teaches us to look after our own needs as well as the needs of our family. The apostle Paul was very blunt when he wrote, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
Paul hit the nail on the head when he was writing to the Macedonian Christians from prison: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

There it is – look after your own interests, just don’t stop there! And that’s the problem. Most people just look after their own interests. The Bible doesn’t teach against leading a selfless life, it teaches against living a selfish one. The Bible has much to say about having a good work ethic, being a good employer / employee, providing for your own needs. There’s nothing selfless about that. But we’re instructed to want more than enough. One of the most selfish statements I hear is, “I just want enough to get by.” Sometimes it’s said by people with a sense of pride like, “See how little I need. See how holy I am.” But God wants us to have more than enough to get by so that not only will our needs be met but we have some left over so that we can meet the needs of others. Consider this verse in 2 Corinthians 9 where the whole chapter (and the next one) deal exclusively with money: “Moreover, God has the power to provide you with every gracious gift in abundance, so that always in every way you will have all you need yourselves and be able to provide abundantly for every good cause …”

All you need yourselves AND be able to provide abundantly for every good cause. That’s not selfless and it’s not selfish either. Daniel Goleman put it this way in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Much of the First World is embroiled in selfishness. Like Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” We may be shocked by such honesty but do our lives reflect anything different? In 1998 the United Nations put out a statement that if everyone in the developed world gave the cost of a cappuccino each week to combat world poverty we would be able to eradicate poverty completely. The fact that 14 years later poverty is still rife is testament to the fact that most people live selfishly. For just $4 per week poverty could be banished. It starts with you and me. Will you take the challenge? Don’t be selfless – but don’t be selfish either!

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