Why Selfishness Doesn’t Work, and What to Do Instead

Being unselfish is in many ways quite “selfish”. That is, unless your goal is to live isolated and miserable for the rest of your life, not to mention missing out on anything that’s truly good both now and forever. The way God created the cosmos, selfishness really doesn’t work, at least for very long.

That hasn’t stopped created beings from trying selfishness out. Lucifer wanted glory for himself; how did that work out for him? Adam and Eve imagined “knowledge of good and evil” would provide something better than the life they had, and we’ve all been suffering horribly ever since.

This works itself out at both the macro and the micro level. A body of water, for example, that only takes but never gives becomes stinky, algae-filled, and not good for anything. A church or a marriage focused exclusively on itself will eventually implode. And so will a person.

And yet every human being needs nourishment – physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Do you sit back and wait for God or others to “feed” you? What do you do about burnout, toxic relationships or organizations that only take, or getting honest human needs met?

If selfishness doesn’t work long term, what’s really the alternative?

Heaven or Hell?

An allegory attributed to various sources has been incorporated into many cultures’ folklore with slight variations. The story likens both heaven and hell to places where inhabitants are seated at tables overflowing with the best food imaginable. But either because they cannot bend their elbows or because the only utensils are long and unwieldly, no one can feed himself or herself.

In hell no one will feed anyone else, so everyone starves.

In heaven everyone feeds his neighbor, the place is full of laughter and joy, and everyone is well nourished.

The lesson is obvious. But how does that work out in the dog-eat-dog world we live in today?

The Alternative to Selfishness

The alternative to selfishness is not niceness, passivity, or tolerating bad behavior; Jesus was none of those things. Neither is it denying desire; God created human beings as needy creatures with desires. Jesus often asked someone, “What do you want?” Squelching or ignoring needs and desires doesn’t work anyway.

Since we human beings are made in God’s image we can get the best clue by looking at God’s nature, and “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But please dispense with the sappy emotional weakness that much of contemporary culture would have us think of when we think of love. When many people say “I love you” what they really mean is, “I love the way I feel when I’m around you.” It’s not the other person you love; it’s your own emotional state. And that’s totally selfish!

Love is a big enough idea to fill whole books – or careers – addressing. But for us, the Old Testament word chesed would be a good place to start. That word is used to describe God’s posture toward us. It’s variously translated lovingkindness, steadfast love, mercy, compassion, even loyalty.

Basically, God is for you. Completely. Always. Forever.

What would it look like for you to be for someone – completely, always, and forever?

Love Hurts

Being for us cost God a lot. Throughout the Old Testament God often sounds like a rejected lover, pained to the depths of His being by His people’s rejection of Him. In the New Testament Jesus weeps over the lack of response from the Jewish people to His offer of redemption (Matthew 23:37), and then offered up His very life for us. Paul pleads, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

And love will cost you too.

It’s important to say that this does not mean being a doormat, or tolerating evil behavior out of being nice. Jesus could serve His disciples “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3). The clearer you are about your own nature of being a son or daughter of God, and about your own mission and purpose, the better you can truly love well.

Loving others well comes from a place of strength, not weakness. That’s also why paying attention to appropriate self-care is not selfish; it’s providing the strength with which you can have something to offer others.

And when you offer yourself on behalf of someone, make sure it’s God asking you to do so rather than the other person’s demands. That’s so important – in serving at church, in marriage and other close relationships, or anywhere. The job of Savior is already taken, and you’re not it!

Marriage or Singleness and Selfishness

Let’s apply this to your closest personal relationships. What does it mean to be for someone?

If you want to get married so that your needs will be met, you’re in for a very big disappointment. In the best marriages many of your human desires and needs are likely to be met – some of the time. But no human being can be your everything; that’s too heavy a weight for any one person to carry. And your emotional feelings will change over time.

If you are married, trying to get more from your spouse is a setup for disaster – more validation, more sex, more time, more affirmation. Marriage is not about being happy; it’s about learning to love well. The quicker you can learn to focus on giving more than getting, on understanding and serving your spouse, the greater chance you have of happiness. (Yes, this works in the bedroom too.)

If you’re unmarried, you also need intimacy! Like Jesus did, it’s up to you to pursue the kind of deep connections with a few others that everyone, especially unmarried people, need. Waiting for someone else to invite you in is not helpful. Offering yourself to listen, to be present, to care is the way you develop relationships with your Peter, James, and John. Even your own vulnerability is offered as a gift.

And yes, love hurts. Being unselfish doesn’t guarantee your heart will be filled up – right now. But it certainly won’t be filled if you stay selfish; the best chance you have is to give. And when you get hurt, you may need to set boundaries, like Jesus did. You may need to take a break before offering yourself again.

But you keep loving anyway. You keep pursuing intimacy anyway.

Selfishness doesn’t work in the long run. Only Love does.

Your Turn: Have you experienced how selfishness doesn’t work in the long run? How has love hurt for you? Have you learned to love anyway?  Leave a comment below.

What more? This week on the podcast I talk with Jim Ramos about why learning to love unselfishly is the only way marriage works.  Listen or watch.

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