It’s the polar opposite of Christ. It’s the polar opposite of the holy life. Selfishness. “Selfishness,” Spurgeon once said, “is as foreign to Christianity as darkness to light.” The darkness of self-centeredness is the opposite of Christ and his gospel, and it undermines every aim in the Christian life. Self-defeating selfishness is still in us. We want to shed it. We must fight it. And that leads to today’s email. “Pastor John, I need your help in overcoming my selfishness. I’m a seventeen-year-old male. People around me, people I love and people who love me — especially my girlfriend — keep saying that I am selfish. I want to become selfless. The problem keeps coming back when I think I’m doing a good job being selfless. I’m sure I am unwilling and just don’t want to admit it. How can I learn to become a selfless young man?”
Well, not knowing you personally makes it a little bit awkward to give specific counsel. So I think the first thing I really should say is that it would probably be wise for you to seek out a mature Christian outside that circle that you’re talking about — perhaps your pastor or youth leader — and share with them some of the specifics of what people are saying that puzzle you, and get their insight into your heart as they know you personally.
Keep in mind that the apostle Paul said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). That’s what you want. You want someone who’s rich in biblical wisdom, who is full of the word of Christ, who can admonish you close at hand. That’s what I can’t do. I have to speak from a distance in generalities. You need somebody who knows you — full of biblical wisdom, full of courage to speak the truth. So, that’s my first counsel. But let me try to say some general things that I hope might help.
Selfishness is a many-headed monster. It is, in a sense, the most destructive disease of the human soul. Absolutely nobody on this planet except for Jesus escapes the disease of selfishness. The heads of this monster are infinitely diverse — and I know that the word infinitely is an overstatement. I know that. But the point is the variety of manifestations of selfishness are endless in this life. You cut off one head and another grows up.
You might be a couch potato that is always expecting others to serve you your pizza, or you might be endlessly serving couch potatoes, deeply desiring that they make much of you for your service.
“Selfishness is a many-headed monster. It is, in a sense, the most destructive disease of the human soul.”
You might be the most prayerful person in your group, and you may have never confessed personal sin in your public prayers in that group and asked for forgiveness because you don’t want to reveal that part of yourself.
You may call continual attention to the injustices of the world and how others are being mistreated, but others can tell by looking at you that there’s a good deal of virtue signaling going on there as you show how discerning you are and how morally upright you are that you can spot such injustices.
There’s just no end to the subtleties of selfishness in all of us, not just a seventeen-year-old struggling with his own heart.
Face the Monster
We must fight this monster on two fronts. Both are biblical, and the second is dominant — should be dominant, let’s say. But they’re both right, good, necessary.
The first is to face the monster. Stare it down, own it, be brokenhearted by it. Hate it. Declare war on it. Kill it. That’s what Paul meant in Colossians 3:5 when he said, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” — and one of the things he mentions is “evil desire,” like selfishness.
That would include praying against it, spotting its first signs and resisting them, claiming your new position of acceptance and justification in Christ and saying, “I am a new creation. This ugly monster is not who I am. That’s not my true identity,” and then renouncing the temptation as alien to your soul, which it is. It is alien to your soul in Christ Jesus.
Now, that’s the first front — that direct, assailing, negative, killing fight that we must take up every day because that’s what the Bible says we should do.
Be Full of Christ
The second front that we fight on is filling our minds and hearts with so much of Christ that the selfish impulses are defeated by being suffocated. They don’t have room in your heart. They can’t breathe there. There’s too much Christ. They die, not mainly because of a direct attack, but because something has taken their place — namely, humble, thankful love for Christ.
So, the analogy is a jar full of toxic fumes. Now, what would be the best way to get those fumes out of the jar? You could attack them directly by attaching a vacuum and sucking them out — or more simply, more effectively, you could pour fresh, clean water into the jar and force all the toxic fumes out by replacing them.
This is how sins are overcome most effectively. Our soul is the jar, selfishness is the toxic fumes, and Christ is the water that pushes it out — specifically, Christ experienced in our knowledge of Christ, in our love for Christ, in our trust in Christ. The experienced Christ — present, reigning, ruling, taking up residence in our lives, fully in fellowship — pushes it out. In other words, the best way to fight selfishness is not to think about selfishness, but to think about Christ, and specifically to think about what a great Savior he is, what a great counselor he is, a great friend, a great Lord, sustainer, champion.
“The best way to fight selfishness is not to think about selfishness, but to think about Christ.”
If our lives, our minds, our hearts are overflowing with wonder at the greatness and the beauty and the worth of Christ, and the immeasurable value of what he’s done for us, it is not likely that we will be perceived as selfish. Selfish people are preoccupied with themselves and not with Christ. They have a longing that they be recognized, made much of, focused on, instead of Christ being recognized, made much of, focused on.
This is a matter of authentic, heartfelt emotion. You can’t produce this like a show. The goal is to feel — truly feel — the preciousness of Christ. That’s the goal. It has to be real. This is what Paul meant when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). That’s the key. That was not a show for Paul. He wasn’t putting on airs. He was expressing the deepest affections of his heart. “I love Jesus Christ more than anything.”
So, the strategy for overcoming selfishness is Hebrews 3:1, “Consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Or Hebrews 12:3, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself.” This is the work of a lifetime, not the work of a moment — every day, focusing our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on Christ and the kind of person he is and the greatness of the work that he has done.
I think Jesus had the danger of selfishness in mind when he told his disciples, who had just experienced great victories over Satan, that they should not rejoice in this, but that their “names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). In other words, it’s more effective in overcoming sin that we’d be amazed that we’re saved than that we’re successful — even successful by God’s power. You would think ministry success is a good thing to rejoice in, but Jesus says it’s even more important to rejoice that you know Christ, rejoice that you have a relationship with Jesus — that you spend time with him now, and you will spend eternity with him later.
Happiness with Open Arms
Let me say one more thing quickly before we stop. Since Jesus said to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it’s clear that Jesus acknowledges there is a proper self-love. This is not self-esteem. This is doing what will bring infinite and eternal joy to your own soul. That’s self-love — doing what will bring infinite and eternal joy to your own soul.
And that’s what Jesus offers us. And then Jesus makes our desire for our own eternal happiness the measure of our desire for other people’s happiness, which is very radical. “Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Are you pursuing your own happiness? Yes you are. You are. Then make that the measure of your pursuit of other people’s happiness — other people’s good.
So, I would simply add this to your strategy against selfishness. Whenever you pursue something for yourself, which you will, you must — you eat, you sleep, you get exercise — ask this: “Do I have an effective desire in my heart that others would share with me in this temporal or eternal good and happiness?” It’s not selfish to seek your own happiness if part of — essential to — your own happiness is the sincere desire to include others in it.