I have a question about selfishness. Is it useful or destructive?
Let’s set aside any in-between options as unhelpful. The question isn’t about gray uncertainties but about trajectory. What’s the basic direction of our ongoing choices?
So, once again, is it ever okay to follow the selfish path, or does that path always lead to destruction?
For some perspective let’s consider how children may operate when they’re misbehaving. The rule seems to be, “My selfishness is fine, and you need to accept it. But your selfishness is wrong!” And then we can ask, doesn’t this still apply among most adults?
Augustine of Hippo referred to this pattern as “original sin”—the product of Adam’s fall in Eden. Without the Spirit’s love in our hearts, connecting us to others with selfless love—the human soul curves in on itself. And the resulting self-concern feels natural and necessary.
We will speak of this as “my point of view.” Which is only to say what’s obvious: that I see things from where I’m standing. And within the background and values I’ve grown up with. The logic, then, is inescapable. No one knows how to watch over my concerns like I do. So that’s my main job in life: watching out for my own welfare.
My spouse, on the other hand, can be a real pain—and deeply selfish. I had my eyes on that last piece of coffee cake for my breakfast but by the time I got to the kitchen it was gone! And it seems like every time I’m ready for a dinner out, my spouse wants to watch a useless Netflix show. Life is never easy.
So here’s an obvious secret about a point of view: no one, including family and friends, is very successful in guessing how each of us sees things. And all too often that blindness doesn’t seem to bother them!
Now to the question of how selfishness impacts relationships. Is it always destructive?
One answer is that it’s useful about half the time! Namely whenever my point of view is being satisfied and my needs are being met. So the burden of calling my point of view constructive or negative falls on the person I’m dealing with. And if they want me to be with them they just need to adapt and start to accept me for who I am.
And here’s where we ask what the terms “destructive and constructive” mean. What’s our measure?
Our proper measure is trust. Or faith. We were made by God to live by faith. He created us in his own relational image—the “us” of “Let us make man in our image.”
So with the Father-Son-and-Spirit God as our Lord we learn about ourselves. God is mutually engaged and wholly devoted in love. We were made as one-in-Christ and with-each-other. And trust-based-love is the bond of that union. Call it a vertical and horizontal communion based on mutual faith. Another way to say it is that God is love and we are made as lovers.
What Augustine understood about Original Sin is that God has will always honor Adam’s declaration of independence in Eden. It broke our bond with the faithful and loving God. And, with that, all of us have turned from faith in God to faith in self. From trusting the Triune God as our lord and lover to seeking to be “like god” after the monadic model of “god” Satan offers.
So we have a practical question. Can we ever trust someone who is freely and boldly selfish? The answer is no. At least not with the sort of trust God offers us.
We might be able to adapt, as illustrated by a wife who decides to enable her alcoholic husband. She may be able to live with him—and even to start to “trust” what he’s likely to do next—but she will never enjoy what a healthy marriage should offer.
As Adam’s selfish children we may also learn how to coordinate our selfishness. If, for instance, a business thrives by offering usurious loans to desperate people, the ungodly operation may thrive so that the exploiters “trust” each other in the process and grow wealthy together. Yet they’re being faithless to God and to their victims.
The loss or destruction of trust crushes what God meant for us to experience as bonded people. And that was what Jesus meant to solve by defeating Satan’s realm of spiritual death and faithlessness.
Listen, again, to Paul in Philippians 2:3-8 (ESV)—“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Let’s conclude by saying that evangelism will have unique power as much as we Christians show ourselves to be trustworthy in a world shattered by mistrust.
So, dear believers, go and spread His faithful and constructive love!