The Challenge of Selflessness

There was a time when I used to wonder why narcissism was such a popular topic online, a subject of many YouTube videos, psychology essays, and even Christian articles. Then I wised up. My eyes were opened. I realized, or accepted, just how much narcissism characterizes our culture. I understood just how inherent selfishness is in many of us.

But where people so readily lob accusations of narcissism at others, I say that selfishness is a part of each of us. In varying degrees, but a part of each of us, myself included.

I’m willing to admit, maybe more than the next person, that I struggle. I struggle to not be right in every debate. I struggle to show patience to people who keep making bad decisions. I struggle to choose God’s will over my own, especially when He doesn’t seem to be on my side. 

I struggle with selfishness. Do you?

Maybe you’re certain you do, confident you don’t, or are just not sure.

What is selfishness? The definition I posit is to think and behave in self-preferential ways to the detriment of someone else. The dictionary says likewise, and more cleanly, “devoted to caring only for oneself.” Too often, we use the word selfish to describe taking care of ourselves but miss the part about selfishness, meaning caring only about yourself. Taking a vacation, going to the spa, going out to eat, all in an effort to feel better, none of that is selfish. You can’t healthily take care of anyone else if you don’t know how to take care of yourself.

That’s why Scripture says to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Despite the misdiagnosis at times, we are correct about the larger point. As a culture, we are selfish. There’s a reason why society promotes sex and body positivity, or encourages divorce for the sake of your own happiness. Not your spouse’s. Not your children’s. Yours. We are selfish as much as we are sinful. The quality comes with the package. Selfishness is innate.

Yet, while we accuse many others of being that way, we believe ourselves to be selfless, altruistic, and deeply attuned to people’s needs. In reality, selflessness is hard.

Scripture calls us to love others as we love ourselves, but Scripture can only make this statement because, so often, loving ourselves comes with ease. Loving others is the challenge we don’t want and figure we don’t need. Indeed, to be selfless is very, very difficult.

5 Reasons Why Selflessness Is Hard

Selflessness is hard for a variety of reasons. Understanding those reasons is key to edifying our behavior and becoming more like Christ. If we know why we struggle, we can figure out how to overcome those hurdles.

1. Fatigue. When people keep asking for support or seem to be asking for the wrong reasons, the temptation can be to shut them down. Sometimes turning people away can be a wise choice, this way, we don’t enable bad behavior. But if we turn people away, we should make sure that our motivations are purely motivated. Sometimes we don’t need to turn them away completely, but rather, should set appropriate boundaries.

2. PrideDo their needs really matter more than my own? We all grapple with that question at one time or another, especially when we dislike the other party. Pride can keep us stuck in valuing ourselves over other people, but that means pride keeps us from seeing them as God does. Not as superiors but as people just as important.

3. Habit. If you’ve made it this far through life, why change? Habits become so ingrained in us that without constant effort and enough time, they remain cemented. Selfishness is a habit. Selflessness requires training. In order to break an old habit, we have to form a new one. Constant effort. Enough time.

4. Fear. If you’ve been hurt before, your desire to be selfless diminishes. Why bother doing something that’s caused problems in the past? Again, this is when we have to default back to the truth presented in Scripture. We’re called to love others as we love ourselves. 

5. Ignorance. We don’t have to think about how we’re selfish to be selfish. The quality comes naturally. However, we do need to consider how to be selfless in order to change. Scripture and conventional wisdom can make up for what we don’t instinctively know.

5 Ways to Be More Selfless Today

With the problems identified, we can move on to finding solutions to our selfish behaviors. By endeavoring to be more selfless versions of ourselves, we better represent God’s kingdom here on Earth.

1. Do the Inconvenient Thing. Being selfless starts by doing for others what does not come naturally. You may be surprised, but simply noticing someone and saying hello can make their day. Or you could ask someone what they need and seek to provide that thing – maybe it’s a hug, maybe it’s a chore. The more selfless we are, the more we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone.

2. Contribute, Don’t Just Consume. There are places we frequent without adding anything. There are people we visit who constantly serve us, but we don’t think much about serving them. Consider trips to grandma’s place for the holidays. Do you ever give her more than a thank you? If you frequent places like the library, could you donate books or buy cookies for the staff? Consider the places and people you frequent and how they could be served.

3. Volunteer. We all work to make a living, but what things could you do for others without expecting a paycheck? Volunteering is a great way to give and not anticipate a return. Maybe joining an organization doesn’t fit your schedule, but could you volunteer your time one weekend for a church event? Could you volunteer yourself to help out a neighbor with a task around their home?

4. Engage with People. When we are selfish, we engage with ourselves. Conversely, to be selfless is to engage with others. Find ways to enrich your conversations with other people. Limit your phone usage when present with company. Actively find ways to help them. The more we know about someone, the more we understand how to serve.

5. Love without an Agenda. Ultimately, to be selfless is to love without an agenda. You do for others because you do for yourself. And you do for others because you recognize what God has done for you. Selflessness isn’t easy, but the rewards are clear on this side of life and the next.

Aaron D’Anthony Brown

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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