Acceptable Sins Not Excepted: Selfishness

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For a group of fallen sinners, this is not an easy commandment to keep.

Selfishness is in our nature—our fallen nature, anyway. It was, after all, one of the primary sins at the root of that first sin in Genesis 3.

[I]t was by placing their own wills above God’s that Adam and Eve first brought sin into the world. Self-will has been at the heart of every subsequent sin.[1]

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to be selfish is to be “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”

Sounds rather unpleasant, doesn’t it?

Yes, but even if being selfish is not desirable, it is not a sin that harms others. Shouldn’t I focus more on the “big” sins, like lust and hatred, and worry about my selfishness later?

Think about it. Is not selfishness at the root of those “unacceptable” sins like lust and hatred (which, as Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:21–30], are equivalent to and lead to adultery and murder)? If one selfishly desires someone outside the boundaries of marriage, does it not lead to lust?

Selfishness is not innocuous. If it were, Scripture would not have so much to say about it.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8) 

Says John MacArthur of these verses,

It is not surprising that rejecting selfishness is listed first, since it is the root of every other sin…There is no verb in the Greek text, but the grammatical form (mēden kat eritheia, lit. “nothing by way of selfishness”) expresses a negative command. That prohibition goes far beyond mere action; selfishness is also to be totally excluded from the innermost thoughts of the heart.[…] Selfishness is a consuming and destructive sin.[2] 

As a positive command, the Apostle exhorts his readers to look out for the interests of others. When we are seeking to serve ourselves, further ourselves, and satisfy our own desires, we naturally disrupt the spiritual unity that we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we put others before ourselves, though, we preserve that spiritual unity and honor Christ by serving as He served. When we live in such a gospel-worthy manner, we will find contentment and joy beyond the temporal and worldly gratifications that our fallen self thinks it requires.

Writing at the Grace to You blog, Cameron Buettel notes,

Paul’s life is a testimony to the fact that lasting contentedness is a product of cultivating a selfless concern for others.[…] For the sake of our own contentedness, as well as the benefit of the church and its testimony in the world, we need to cultivate that same kind of selfless concern for others.[3]

Indeed. And as we, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, cultivate such a marvelous, Christ-honoring character, we will find ourselves growing in spiritual maturity. Selfishness, by contrast, is a sign of spiritual immaturity, so while its manifestations harm the broader body of Christ, the continued nurturing of a selfish spirit will lead to a stunting of one’s own personal spiritual growth.

[T]he spiritual state of multitudes in the church today [is that] they are utterly preoccupied with self. They want their own problems solved and their own comfort elevated. Their spiritual development is arrested, and they remain in a perpetual state of selfish helplessness. It is evidence of a tragic abnormality. 

Arrested infancy means people do not discern. Just as a baby crawls along the floor, putting anything it finds in its mouth, spiritual babies don’t know what is good for them and what isnt’. Immaturity and lack of discernment go together; they are virtually the same thing.[4]

Is this not most certainly part of Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:15 to “grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ”? Believers who are not growing are a danger to themselves and to the church, and the food of selfishness can only serve to stunt our growth in Christ.

This all seems like a bit of bad news though, doesn’t it? We may not want to be selfish, but, like Paul in Romans 7, we often do things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we want to do! So, what are we to do?

If we consider the ultimate example of selflessness, we quickly find the answer. The Lord Jesus Christ lived a life of serving others. He was not bothered when the children desired His time (Mark 10:14; cf. Luke 18:16). He ministered to an immoral Samaritan woman so that she might find salvation in Him (John 4). He called His disciples to lay down their arms and healed a man sent to arrest Him in the hour of His arrest (Luke 22:51). He submitted to the Father’s will and gave His life that men might live (Luke 22:42).

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

This is the God we served, and this is the God who saves. The gospel tells us that Christ died for sinners. Those who repent of their sin and trust in Him and His work alone for salvation, are not only forgiven of their sin (yes, even the “silent” sin of selfishness), they are granted the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. By His power, our desires are conformed to His, and we can strive for holiness confident that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

1. John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), 109.
2. John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), 109–110.
3. Cameron Buettel, Be Focused on Others, accessed 01 September 2017.
4. John MacArthur, Reckless Faith (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 63.

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