When I was a baby, I reportedly had a visit from my great aunt Effie Thompson. According to family legend, this wise, venerable lady leaned into my bassinet and declared “his ears are close to his head; he is going to be selfish.”
When I was told this story later in life and I understood it, I was a bit uncomfortable. I did not really want that “selfish” label attached to me.
But there it was.
One of the most common expressions that you will ever hear a Christian say is “I am putting God first.” We are prone to counsel other Christians to “make sure God has first place in your life.”
But today, are we really successful in doing this?
Where does this idea come from? Most point to Matthew 22: 37 when Jesus boils down all the commandments to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind.” He said this is the great and first commandment and the second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
So there we have an order. God first. Neighbor second. Self third.
These words do not bode well for all the selfish people of this world.
In our world today it seems to me that selfishness is the norm; caring for God and others is the exception.
John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity, writes that selfishness is very related to consequence number three of sinning because selfishness is the root cause of consequence three. The consequence I refer to is “conflict with others”.
When we put self first, neighbors second and God last, we find ourselves always trying to manipulate others to get what we want. We never do anything that needs to be done because someone else needs help; we are always looking for credit for good deeds and some angle where we can profit from our “generosity.” We don’t really care about others; if they have a problem, that is too bad. This shows a lack of empathy. We are conceited; our opinion is the only one that counts and it should be valued above all others. We are not willing to share. We cannot accept criticism. Lastly, we believe our needs are the most important and they have to be met before others.*
One can look at this laundry list of selfish characteristics and see that selfishness can cause conflict. Stott says that selfish people do not find it easy to adjust to others. They either despise them or envy them; they have feelings of superiority or inferiority.
This makes life so hard because relationships with others are complex. It takes constant work to have good communication between parent and child, husband and wife, family member to family. In order to have a livelihood, good relations between employer and employee must be maintained. Stott goes on to state that juvenile delinquency is caused by selfish children who put their needs above society’s. Divorce is common because marriage partners are not humble enough to admit fault in the relationship. “Whenever couples have been to see me because their marriage was threatened, I have noticed that each tells a different story—a story sometimes so different that one would not guess they described the same situation unless one knew” [Stott, 78-79].
As I consider Jesus’s “greatest commandment,” I am reminded of some key communication concepts that aid in being less selfish.** One is other-centeredness. This is the opposite of self-centeredness and is based on the idea that to be an effective communicator we need to be aware of the needs of others. The more we can anticipate those needs and meet them, the more we will be liked, we will achieve success in our relationships and have others around us who are happy and therefore we are happy. Another key idea is self- awareness. If a person is self-aware, they are prone to “take stock” of their behavior and can adapt to various communication contexts. Selfish behavior is not appropriate for most settings. People do not like it. No one likes to be manipulated or overlooked; no one likes to spend time with a conceited person. Yet people who lack self-awareness cannot monitor their selfish behavior. It emerges from them naturally and it can easily spoil communication with others.
Stott says the “human sin of self-centeredness is the cause of many of our problems. It brings us into conflict with each other. If only the spirit of self-assertion could be replaced by the spirit of self-sacrifice, our conflicts would diminish. Self-sacrifice is what the Bible means by ‘love’. While sin is possessive, love is expansive. Sin’s characteristic is the desire to get; love’s characteristic is the desire to give.
Let’s go back to Matthew 22: 37 and consider the Scripture more. If we put God first in our lives as Christians, everything else will fall in place. There was a time in my life when I knew I had to make a financial commitment to my church, but I did not have a habit of doing that. In fact, I did not tithe at all. I felt like my family needed every penny just to pay the bills; we did not have any extra money for God. It was not long after I made a commitment to follow God that I encountered the idea that Christians are expected to give one tenth of their income to the church. One can research this topic and find all kinds of opinions on tithing, but instead of doing that, let’s just say that the church encourages Christians to share what they have with those less fortunate. In tithing, we support the church and its programs that are in place to help the world.
It is an unselfish act.
I remember when my wife and I decided to tithe. I don’t want to sound too “supernatural” but we soon found that we could tithe and still do well. Did lack of selfishness pay off? Let’s not say that because it would send the wrong message about tithing. What did happen is that we supported the church and did not lack for anything. I am reminded of the Old Testament story of the Prophet Elijah who visited the home of a poor widow who was down to her last meal which she was preparing for herself and her son. Elijah sensed her concern that there was not enough food for her visitor. After this meal, there was no more food and she faced the possibility of starvation. Elijah told her to feed him with a loaf of bread and there would be more for herself and her son. Indeed there was, for the woman and child never lacked food from that point on: “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry.”***
Stott says that humans need a lot of help with selfishness. It is our nature to be selfish, to put ourselves above others and above God. “What man needs is a radical change of nature” .
Most of us do not live the “ideal” Christian life. We fall far short of selfless service to God that flows from our love for Him and all His people.
To live that kind of life we need to pay attention to the needs of others, we need to take stock of our behavior. If alienation and enslavement are consequences of our sinning, conflict with others is a dire consequence also.
What does Stott say is the root of most conflict?
“Man cannot work it within himself [to go from self to unself]. He cannot operate on himself…he needs a Savior” [Stott, 79].
*From The Learning Mind Website “Selfish Behavior: 6 Examples of Good and Toxic Selfishness” accessed on March 3, 2022.
**I hold a Ph.D. in interpersonal communications from the University of Kentucky, 1993.
***from 1 Kings 17