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Selfishness is Confusing

We are told to be selfish. Take care of ourselves. Don't let other people walk all over us. Make room for Me-Time. Do what's best for ourselves and our lives, not what's best for everybody else.

But in the same breath, we are told to stay away from selfish people, because they will destroy us.

Be selfish, but avoid selfish people. Awesome.

No wonder our culture's got this epidemic of loneliness. No wonder we've got covered-up racism bubbling up to the surface all over the place. And a skyrocketing suicide rate and school shootings and hidden abuse stories.

Which is probably why we're all so confused on the topic of selfishness. Because, sure, it's easy to tell the abusers and the racists to stop being so selfish, but what about the wounded wife or the family of the murdered teenager?

What got me thinking about this is our theme verse at HOPAC this year--Philippians 2:3-4. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourself, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.  

I stood in front of all my precious students, squirming in their green plastic assembly chairs while the morning sun streamed onto the covered court. I know their stories, some of them intimately, from many eye-to-eye solemn talks. I know which ones are the bullies and which ones are bullied. I know the ones who have (or are) experiencing trauma. I know the peace-loving ones who always follow the rules and will always concede in a conflict.

Does Philippians 2:3-4 speak to all of them?

We want to divide everyone into one of two categories: Abuser or Victim. One is Bad and one is Good. One receives our scorn and one our sympathy. But is human nature that simple? Didn't most abusers start out as victims?

We must cling to Twin Truths: I am made in the image of God, therefore I am infinitely valuable. Yet I am selfish to the core.

Imago Dei. I am made in the image of God. Christ loved me enough to die for me, which is an extraordinary love and has proven my extraordinary value.


I am selfish to the core. I am consumed with myself--defending myself, feeling good about myself, justifying myself. Being understood, being successful, being fulfilled. Being pain-free, being comfortable, being independent. I am self-seeking, self-pleasing, self-boasting, self-excusing, self-conscious, self-indulgent. Most of the time, life is pretty much about me; I've just gotten good at hiding it. I can't speak for everyone, but especially when I'm particularly depressed or anxious, I'm also particularly self-centered.

Twin Truths: I am valuable, and I am selfish. Lean too heavily on one truth over the other, and my life is out of balance.

Imago Dei means I needn't cower under abuse or injustice. I can have courage in the face of oppression; I don't need to allow people to manipulate me; I don't need the good opinion of others to give me confidence.

But recognizing my innate selfishness is equally important. Without daily, conscious recognition of the grace of God, I will choose myself every time.

I've never liked the term self-care because it gives me too much room for selfishness. I prefer stewardship. My body, my time, my health--all are God's, because God has given me value. If I am going to live to glorify him, then I must take care of what he has given me. So that will often mean trusting God by saying yes to rest or health and saying no to duty-driven perfectionism. For some who find themselves in unjust situations, it may mean fighting or running, and that's not necessarily selfish.

But we must always keep in mind those two Twin Truths. Jesus appeared on the Jewish scene during a time of intense governmental oppression. But what did he teach? Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Deny yourself. Sometimes Jesus was so tired he fell asleep on a capsizing boat. Other times he deliberately went away by himself. But we know with certainty that he was never selfish.

This is tricky, because sometimes we can look like we are wearing ourselves out for the kingdom of God, but all that effort is really about us or about what others think about us. On the other hand, it's also really, really easy to ignore or justify our laziness or self-centeredness in the name of self-care or self-pity. The balance is somehow found in our pursuit of knowing God and knowing our own hearts.

Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel good--above all, better than someone else--I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether. --C.S. Lewis

When you put it that way, it's not confusing at all.

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