Everyone knows that selfishness is wrong; it is an obvious evil. Some might even relate it to pride and label it as the worst of all sins, as C. S. Lewis does in Mere Christianity in a chapter I often reference. That selfishness is wrong appears to be something that we can all agree on.
Nevertheless, selfishness seems to be inherent in all of our choices. Of course it is in our sinful choices—the choice to cheat, steal, lie, take revenge, have sex—we do those things because we want to. But maybe not quite so obviously, selfishness is a part of our neutral and even “good” decisions. Don’t we do good for others because we like them and we like seeing them happy? And when we perform those real “sacrificial” deeds like extending aid to our enemies, don’t we only do that because we’ve been told we have to in order to be good and to achieve salvation. Everything we do, we do because we think it ultimately serves us.
That’s not good, because as I understand things, we are suppose to be altruistic—doing disinterested or selfless good. We want to love other more than ourselves, but it seems like there’s a paradox, like we’re unable to love without it deriving from some degree of selfishness. Do Jesus’s commandments come with an understood caveat that says, “materially love other more than yourself, but emotionally/spiritually love yourself all you want.” I find no such division made in the text, and so I’m left wondering, how can I not be selfish?
I understand that this is confusing; it is impossible to escape our own individual consciousness, so it is easy to get lost in this “meta” analysis of our motivations. And while an answer isn’t necessary—I can still follow the commandments of Scripture, doing exactly what I’m told, without solving this—an answer would be nice.
In Romans 9, Paul makes a comment relating to this issue that may help us: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” In other words, he’d embrace hell if it meant the salvation of the Jews (or at least that’s how it reads most straightforwardly). If there’s any example of purely selfless love, this is it, but it still doesn’t help us. For one, his remark doesn’t count for much since it’s an impossibility. Two, his desire doesn’t line up with Christ’s desire that all be saved. We cannot achieve one piece of the gospel while abandoning another.
I’ll say it again: this is confusing. Furthermore, it’s troubling, paradoxical, and possibly unimportant. I can’t give an answer as to how we pursue the good of others while acting completely selflessly. But I think there is a compromise to be had: relationships. Relationships are always mutually beneficial (maybe the only thing that is). And so if we cannot help but do something that is good for us, we might as well be doing something that is necessarily good for someone else. This, too, is our preferred understanding of “heaven.” In Radical Evolution’s Prevail section, atypical philosopher Jaron Lanier’s conceives of human perfection as relationship. What we are aiming for as a species is not to achieve heaven but to establish relationships with each other and with our Creator.