As infants, we knew only our own needs and cried when we felt hungry, scared, or uncomfortable.
As we grew, we learned to be less selfish. We were taught to share our toys, do household chores, and help others when they needed it.
Still, we came into adulthood “looking out for number one.” Until Jesus came along and declared, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
What is Selfishness in the Bible?
To understand why Jesus would ask us to take up the cross of self-denial, let’s examine how scripture describes selfishness, which the Bible describes as an act of the flesh (sinful nature):
Here, selfish ambition is surrounded by related attitudes, including jealousy, discord, dissension, and envy.
Is Selfishness a Sin?
As one of the acts of the flesh that Paul criticizes, it is easy to conclude that selfishness is a sin. But in case we need more convincing, James unambiguously describes the source of envy and selfish ambition as earthly, unspiritual, demonic (James 3:15).
He is equally clear about the outcome of selfishness in the next verse, saying that “where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:16)
Consequences of Selfishness
So if selfishness is demonic and leads to every evil practice, what does that look like in our lives?
Many selfish people seem to enjoy great success, wealth, and comfort from pursuing their own agenda. Is there really a downside to being selfish?
Proverbs 11:24 says: “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.” Yet this seems to contradict our observations about worldly success.
So we must understand that God is more concerned with our eternal outcome than our temporal outcome. When Jesus called us to self-denial, he warned us, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self” (Luke 9:25).
Selfishness often leads to gains in this life. But these gains are not lasting, and the consequence is that we forfeit eternity in exchange for a short-term benefit.
Such was the case in the earliest instance of selfishness:
Examples of Selfishness
Adam and Eve
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:2-5
God had given Adam and Eve everything they could possibly need. They had a perfect garden full of good food. They knew no pain, no toil, no violence, and no death. Most of all, God was present with them.
But the serpent’s deception made them want more. Instead of enjoying God’s good gifts, they wanted to be like God, so they ate the forbidden fruit out of selfish ambition.
For this, Adam and Eve were banished from the garden and their selfishness introduced death and sin into the world.
James and John
Just as the presence of God in the garden did not keep Adam and Eve from their selfish pursuit, learning directly from Jesus did not always help the disciples overcome their selfishness:
“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said…
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
James and John wanted to be declared the most important among the disciples and given the most power and authority.
Jesus’ response chilled their selfish ambition by reminding them that in the world, power and wealth come with strings attached, and can be taken away at any time. The disciples surely were familiar with the burden of being under such worldly authority, which was itself exercised with selfishness.
Jesus, by contrast, exemplified selfless service and calls us to do the same.
Overcoming Selfishness According to the Bible
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. ” Philippians 2:2-5
Jesus freely served his disciples and taught them to live as servants to others. He even proved his selflessness by giving his own life in exchange for the (eternal) lives of others. It is the selflessness of Jesus that undoes the selfishness that has plagued humanity since Adam and Eve first ate the forbidden fruit.
So Paul, continuing his letter to the Philippians, describes the mindset of Christ that overcomes selfishness. He further invites us, in Philippians 2:6-8, to consider Jesus’ specific actions as we seek to imitate him:
- Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
- He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,
- He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
As Christians, we ought to practice Christlike selflessness in all places. But most especially in the home:
Selfishness in Marriage
God has given us the gift of marriage so that we might have a place to understand and express the deepest and most intimate love. In marriage, we get a foretaste of God’s deep love for us. And it is for this reason, Paul says, that there is no room for selfishness in marriage.
Teaching that we must submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), Paul instructs both husbands and wives to be selfless:
- Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (v 22)
- Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (v 25)
All of our selflessness comes from Jesus and points back to Jesus. Not just because he is the ultimate model of selflessness, but because without Jesus and his love, we can never hope to be anything more than selfish:
If we want to overcome selfishness, our only hope is to experience the love of Jesus. As we are filled with his great love, he will transform our hearts and minds, turning our actions away from selfish ambition and into expressions of God’s love.