Vacation Bible School is coming up on the last Saturday of this month. I was thinking about and recalled the theme of VBS one year when I was a child: “sharing is caring.” In our Bible classes, we are interested in telling children the stories of the Bible. We want them to learn and remember certain passages of Scripture. But we are primarily concerned with teaching them certain basic attitudes and habits of living. One of those is the practice of sharing and considering others as well as themselves. We use the material that God has given us in Scripture to instill the behavior he desires, trying to mold people into the image of Christ. And unselfishness is something that all children need to learn; they naturally are concerned only with their needs.
Unfortunately, selfishness is not exclusively the problem of children. It lives with us as long as we live. In fact, I wonder if it doesn’t become more dangerous as we grow older. As adults, we learn to cover it up. We are not so obvious about it. We do not go about pushing each other physically or ripping toys away from others. But selfishness is “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others” Is there any one of us who wouldn’t agree that we still have a long way to go in overcoming selfishness?
Perhaps we admit that this is a character defect, but dismiss it as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things. But Jesus said that if we want to be his disciples, fully and completely, we must renounce self. If any man would come after me, let him deny himself. That is extraordinarily difficult, but it must be done if we would follow Jesus. That makes selfishness one of the most serious sins we can commit! And it is so common.
Let’s consider a few practical examples. Imagine a boy and a girl over in college somewhere. They are well fed and clothed, they come from relatively affluent homes, they drive cars that were given to them by their parents. They fall in love at college, and after a little while, they get married. That’s when the problems start. It’s hard for them to earn a living comparable to what they are accustomed to. With the smaller income, they cannot enjoy the things they have learned to take for granted. Some things have to be given up. It becomes a question of whether he can go on a fishing trip or whether she can have a new outfit. It is one or the other, not both, and it may be a pretty difficult decision. Each one of them discovers that marriage involves certain sacrifices—sacrifices they are unwilling to make. As the pressures mount, the home breaks up. The boy isn’t mature enough to shoulder the responsibility of being a husband. The girl isn’t mature enough to shoulder the responsibility of being a wife. What is the problem? Immaturity. But that is really just another way of saying too much concern for one’s own self.
How about a situation from the business world. Here is the head of one department who doesn’t like the head of another department. When you trace their antagonism back a few years, their feelings were once quite different—they were friends. But at some point, one crossed the other and blocked something he wanted, and hard feelings grew out of that. It is unusual for any organization of some size to not have these cross currents of ill will. They come from selfishness.
Perhaps the most effective way to point out the depth of this problem is note that six of the ten commandments address sins of selfishness in some sense. You can find them listed in Exodus 20. Honor your father and mother, because young people are prone to think too much of themselves and their own judgments and too little of their parents. You shall not murder. Killing is disregarding the basic right of someone else to life itself because it is in the murderer’s interest to have them out of the way. You shall not commit adultery, a willingness to damage marriages and children in order to gratify one’s own physical lust. You shall not steal, a selfish disregard of the right of someone else concerning property. You shall not bear false witness, to tell a lie to suit one’s own purposes. You shall not covet, have an inordinate desire for what belongs to someone else. More than half of the decalogue are really the particulars rooted in a command against selfishness!
It’s not just the Law of Moses, though; as we indicated above, the teachings of Jesus cut to the heart of this problem. We talked about both the Rich Young Ruler (Mk 10:17-22) and the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16- 21) in our sermon last Sunday, so let’s think about a revealing, practical example from the apostles themselves. They were constantly arguing about who would be the greatest among them. On one occasion, the mother of James and John came to Jesus and asked, Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom. (Mt 20:21). Jesus told her these positions were not his to give. But the rest of the apostles heard about what happened, and they were upset about it. Their mother’s selfish desire for their exaltation stirred up selfishness among them. So Jesus had to teach them the value of humility. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mt 20:26-28)
There we see that Jesus not only taught against selfishness, he gave a solution: to esteem others above ourselves; to serve them rather than ourselves; to love them more than ourselves. The entire New Testament is so full of commands like this that there is no need to list them all. Selfishness is the way of the world, and it stands in bold contrast to the way of Christ. In fact, the root of all sin is in selfish rebellion to God, going back to the Garden. But doing what we want to do stands in direct opposition to how God has revealed himself in Christ. When Jesus came into the world to give himself for humanity, he demonstrated that God is fundamentally unselfish.
If we would be God’s people, we must be the same. In honor prefer one another. Love one another. If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it (Mt 16:24-25).