How Selfish Is Your Religion?

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.

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7 Comments

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  1. Self-interest…Selfishness. Often confused. What would you classify our desire to get to heaven as. If you are desiring to get to heaven to avoid going to hell or to get that “Mansion, robe, and crown” you may be missing the point. Our desire for eternal life should be focused on reuniting the relationship we had with God before sin.
    I do like your focus that a christian should want to bring others to salvation more than themselves. Saying that, Jesus makes sure to stress the need to make yourself right before you can worry about others.

    I was typing this as I read through the blog and your last sentence pretty much sums up my points. Please ignore my comment. GREAT BLOG!

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  2. Wow, you bring up very good points about selfishness/selflessness. I had never thought of that before!

    Perhaps the selflessness we should have is not the absence of self but that our allegiance should be to God more than self. Then at those times when our desires match God’s desires, it’s not a question of selfish or selfless, it is a partnership with God without any temptations.

    Perhaps the best way to define selfish is those times when our desires are different from God’s and we place our desires as more important than God’s. And the best way to define selfless is when our desires are different than God’s and we change our desires to match God’s.

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    • That’s strangely relevant

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    • You may realize, reading this post, that I had only halfway thought this out–it’s a little unclear. In short, the thought I had that I was attempting to write down was that the “selfishness” the Bible condemns is hard to separate from the inescapable “selfishness” of wanting good in our lives.
      I liked the article you posted because it articulated what Andrew was hinting at and Stephen said, that this issue is solved through introducing a new category of “self-interest.”
      I was just thinking this evening and wanted to add that I don’t think it is two separate categories. Rather, what we’re calling “self-interest” is selfishness with greater foresight. Conversely, selfishness is self-interest that thinks of itself more highly than it ought and thinks of the here-and-now more often than it should. I think there are hints of this in what Lewis was saying.
      Again, Michael, thanks for the link. 

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  3. Thank you for your wise insights!

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