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The Answer to Selfishness isn’t Selflessness But Love

July 1, 2019

Children don’t need to learn selfishness. Unlike swimming or tying shoes, self-centeredness comes naturally. Self-focus is in our DNA. The boiling pot of a sinful heart releases the vapor of selfishness that animates us every hour of our lives. 

But our attention to and ambition for ourselves is dangerous:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:16)

If we take the Bible seriously, this is a four-alarm warning. Disorder and every vile practice! How should we, as Christians, fight against selfishness? 

Selflessness Is Not the Answer 

We might advocate for selflessness. On the surface, this seems right; instead of thinking so much about myself, I’ll try to think about myself less

But this approach still puts the self  in the spotlight on stage. We still focus on how frequently or deeply we think of ourselves. Not only is this unhealthy it’s also not what the Bible advocates.

The Answer is Love 

The greatest commandments, according to Jesus, offer a summary of the law as well as a foundation for all Christian ethics. 

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40) 

As we devote ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbors, we will inevitably turn our attention away from ourselves. This call to love is fundamental, demanding, and only possible for those who have been born again by the Spirit of God. 

Paul Guides Us 

Because of our self-centered instincts, we must follow the path away from selfishness all of our days. Paul gives us some guidance along this path in Philippians 2:1–11.  

He commands us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (v. 3), and the larger context offers positive pointers. 

Be of one mind 

Paul emphasizes the unity of the church body: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  

With the effort it takes to be “in full accord” and “of one mind” with our brothers and sisters, we will necessarily focus on others. 

Count others more significant 

At the end of verse 3, Paul writes that we must “in humility count others more significant than [ourselves].” We’re quite talented at asserting our own significance, but we’re not as good at highlighting others. 

Your brothers and sisters in Christ have great value and significance because they are both created in the image of God and adopted as his precious children. Thanking God for the blessings and contributions of others is a good way to highlight their significance. 

Look to the interests of others 

Paul isn’t finished pointing us toward others. He wants us to be invested in their interests: 

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4) 

What do your brothers and sisters value? Where are they hurting? What do they need? How can you attend to their wounds or encourage them? 

Consider Christ 

This is Paul’s all-in play. In verses 5–11, he highlights Jesus’s humility and sacrifice. Paul’s goal is to show us Jesus not only as an example but also as the crucified servant who is now resurrected, exalted, and worthy of worldwide worship: 

  1. Jesus did not cling to his own status, glory, or importance (2:6). 
  2. Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a servant (2:7). 
  3. And, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross (2:8). 
  4. God has highly exalted Jesus (2:9).
  5. At the name of Jesus every knee in all creation will bow and every tongue will confess his lordship, all to God’s glory (2:10-11).

Because God has brought us to himself, and because he is our sovereign, loving father, we can trust him to care for us. We don’t need to devote all of our attention to ourselves.  

Following the example and command of Christ, and empowered by his Spirit, we can now seek the good of others. 

Two Practical Suggestions 

In Philippians 2, Paul helps us consider what it means to love our God and love our neighbor. To obey faithfully, we must enter the practical realm. 

Worship with your local church.  

Yes, the church is messy. It’s often hard. But the local church is the expression of Christ’s body on earth.

If you haven’t yet found and joined a local church, I urge you to prayerfully seek out a Bible-based community in your area. Then, worship God with these people!

You will likely have different musical preferences than some and different theological positions than others, but the weekly gathering of the saints is a unique opportunity to love God and love others. 

Serve with your local church.  

Nothing binds Christians together as quickly or as deeply as shared ministry. And I guarantee your church has ministry needs!

Consider helping with the Bible study in the local nursing home, driving an elderly neighbor to the grocery store, or pitching in to prepare the coffee at church on Sunday morning. 

A Lifelong Path 

In our flesh, we love to sit in the dark, thinking of and serving only ourselves. And since the sinful flesh will not be completely eliminated on this side of heaven, our fight against selfishness is a war, not a battle. 

But God gives grace! Those who are in Christ are beloved by God. His great commandments are not only good for the world but also good for us. They are part of his plan to bring us into the light and make us conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29).

Photo Credit: Unsplash 


The Author
Ryan Higginbottom

Ryan Higginbottom teaches mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College. He lives with his wife and two daughters in southwest Pennsylvania where they are members of Washington Presbyterian Church. You can connect with Ryan at his blog or on Twitter.



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