The Virtue of Selfishness

There are those who believe the Church today is perfect. Maybe they are in a great church with people they know well, people they’ve known their entire life. Maybe their church is like their family.

Those people are the lucky few, and this article is not for them.

For most of us, the experience of Church is not so hot. What makes it unpleasant? The building? The songs? The requirement to get up early on Sunday? No. It’s the people.

Anywhere you go, I can pretty much guarantee that whether you have a good time or a bad time depends mostly on the people you encounter. Honestly, you can have a great time in the worst places if the people you are with are great. The same goes for bad people: you can be on vacation in a tropical paradise, but if the people around you are unpleasant, you will be in a living hell.

Maybe I’m just unlucky, but I can only remember attending one or two churches in my entire life where the people didn’t immediately turn me off. In those two churches — both were small and poor but very happy — the people were open-hearted, quiet, humble, ready to listen, and ready to share. They didn’t get in your face. They were just normal, gentle people who wanted to know you and wanted to know God. Simple. Almost childlike. Peaceful. And the one thing that tied them together was that they desperately wanted God; they were begging for God. And God showed up.

In the rest of the churches the people were all the same. Bold, brassy, even snobby. They formed cliques and cold-shouldered newcomers. They seemed more interested in showing off their charity work, their groups, their volunteer work, and all the ‘A-list’ things they do every day than listening to another human being’s troubles. Disinterested in spiritual things, much more interested in talking baseball or last weekend’s BBQ. They also used church as their personal promenade; wearing their flashiest clothes to church, new high heels by Chanel or whatever they could afford.

PS: I’m not specifically knocking wearing nice clothes, or saying that poor is better — it’s NOT. Trust me, being poor is a curse; the Bible is clear on that. But when you buy clothes specifically for the purpose of wearing it around like a badge of honor, rubbing it in other’s faces and sneering at (even starting evil rumors about) those who are dressed in hand-made clothes, there is something seriously wrong with your spirit.

I won’t go into a list of what the majority of Church people did that made them so unpleasant to be around. If you have had this experience of being uncomfortable around Church people, you have your own list as long as your arm. What I would like to talk about is WHY Church people are this way. The root cause. The bitter spring from which this water flows. And why more than 95% of all Church people (to be fair, mostly Protestant Church people since in my experience Catholics seem nicer in general) seem to be in this nasty category.

I believe that the institutional Church, at its foundation (and this applies to all denominations, and in fact many different religions as well), believes something utterly false. It is this false belief which poisons everything they do.

It is also the reason that, at least in my experience, Catholics are generally more community-oriented and truly warm and friendly as opposed to Protestants who are very self-centered and exclusive. Please keep in mind these are broad generalizations. To gain a generalized view you will have to know MANY Protestants and Catholics, attend both varieties of Church MANY times, and experience a WIDE variety of groups of both sorts before you can begin to see the common threads.

Here is the short version of my theory: the Church has absorbed a belief from Satan’s world (what we call the normal world, the wide world, or the secular world) which is wrong… yet the Church believes it to be a truth without even questioning it. In fact, it is the Church’s favorite truth to teach about in sermons, especially in Protestant circles.

It is the virtue of selflessness.

I present you a challenge right now: go to a Bible you can search, such as an online Bible, and search for the word “selfish” or “selfishness.” Guess what: you won’t really find anything. There is only one place you can find the word ‘selfish’ in the KJV, NKJV, or NASB versions of the Bible (maybe it exists in some of the more liberal translations which adopt a lot of modern slang, but I am trying to work with old established versions I am familiar with). That place is where the Bible mentions “selfish ambition.”

Selfish ambition combines the concept of self-interestedness with ambition, which is the desire to achieve a goal, often a lofty one. What selfish ambition means is this: unlike pure selfishness, ‘selfish ambition’ is the pursuit of one’s own personal goal first before anything else. It is putting your goal before even your own welfare.

So just to be clear: selfish ambition is not putting yourself first. It is putting a goal first, even before yourself.

This type of ambition would violate many Biblical laws, including “worship no other god before Me.” It is also unwise. If you put your goal before even your own welfare, you will end up like so many businessmen today: burnt out and miserable, and likely to lash out at others in a cruel manner, because you are not caring for yourself. Selfish ambition is literally putting your own goals before anything… including loving yourself. It is the love, and even the worship, of a goal as a savior.

Selfish ambition is not just wrong but stupid. That should be obvious to anyone with a bit of spiritual sense.

Selfishness, however, is not mentioned in most translations of the Bible for a reason. That reason is this: Western culture has a different view of selfishness than Eastern culture has. In Western culture, including America, Britain, and most of Europe, self-interest means you act like the people in Church that I was describing. You are only interested in your own self, act like a Narcissistic abuser, and you treat others with contempt.

In Eastern cultures however, like ancient Hebrew culture, there is no real way to cut oneself off from the community. There is no way to be exclusive. Every person is bound to his or her community and family in deep ways that the Western mind can’t fully understand (especially since we ditched the concepts of honor and duty). Because of this, no one is going to totally cold-shoulder anyone else who is part of the community. It can’t happen. There is a bond. Selfishness, or the interest in the self, therefore takes the form of merely taking care of oneself, that is taking care of yourself before you take care of others. (Because taking care of others is implied; it cannot be avoided.)

Because Eastern people don’t get so obsessive about personal exaltation and “being the best,” they tend to be much more relaxed in general than Western people. They are nicer. Easier to be around, but only if you are part of their community. (They can be pretty unfriendly to outsiders, I have to admit.) Catholics, too, tend to be more focused on the bonds of their community. There is a deep obligation between Catholics to other Catholics that Protestants don’t really “get.”

There is a teaching in Israel that I learned from a nice Orthodox Jewish family who had me to dinner. The father of the household explained over Shabbat dinner, while we ate an excellent matzah soup that had been passed down for six generations from Poland, that a Jewish person’s obligation is to first take care of themselves so that their own needs are met, afterward to take care of one’s nuclear family so that their needs are met, then to take care of one’s community until its needs are met, then to take care of the whole world. Jewish society functions on this model.

It only makes sense. If you are exhausted, sick, broke, and lacking almost everything, you will be literally useless to anyone else. You MUST make sure your own needs are met first: make sure you are well, fed, clothed, housed, safe, etc. Only once your own situation is taken care of can you possibly be any real use to your family.

Once you have taken care of your own personal family, and they are all well, fed, clothed, housed, safe, etc., then you can begin to focus your time and money on the community. And on it goes.

The wise man of that little house in Jerusalem expressed a simple idea to me that changed everything I thought about the Bible. I realized: GOD’S BOOK IS WRITTEN WITH THIS UNDERSTANDING. The apostles lived like this. They understood this concept of concentric rings of care; self, family, community, world, like a bullseye with rings getting bigger and bigger taking in more and more people.

At the core of the bullseye is self.

This is why Jesus commanded us — didn’t ask, he COMMANDED us — to love ourselves. He put it in a way that seems to us so nonchalant and offhand that us Western-minded people miss it: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It is commanded in the Torah (book of Leviticus, 19:18), several times by Jesus in Matthew and once in Mark, repeated by Paul in Romans and Galatians, and by James himself in the book of James II. It would not be an understatement to say that the Bible considers this concept very important, as it repeated this direct commandment to redundancy.

Clearly, we must love our neighbor in the manner in which we love ourselves. But with the Church preaching “selflessness” constantly, what does loving oneself mean? Western culture doesn’t understand this concept because at its root Western culture is all about denying the self. The Bible would define this as self-hatred (hatred in the Bible is not violence, but simply ignoring something in contempt).

Let me trace this for you. Western culture grew up around the idea of striving. It came from cultures which emphasized the individual striving to conquer his surroundings, including other people. This kind of competitive nature is good in one way: it lays the foundation for advancement, excellence, and change. We should all have a little bit of this ambition to be better.

The problem is that if this is taken all the way (and the desire to ‘be better’ implies that one can always do better, forcing a person to continue and continue along a route until one reaches it extremes), the desire to ‘do better’ firmly implies that a person is not good enough right now. There is a deep self-doubt in this mindset. The self is flawed and wicked; how often have we heard those sermons? More than I can count. At its heart, the Western mindset denies — or rejects — the self as it is now, and demands that it change to become perfect.

The fact that Mankind is flawed is so obvious that it really doesn’t need to be harped on Sunday after Sunday. In Eastern culture this truth is just assumed; everyone knows people are flawed. So what? They don’t ignore it, but they do accept it and move on. It is not a cornerstone of their life, it is not their driving force.

Eastern people are focused on building a good world DESPITE being flawed. The flawed nature of being human is taken for granted, but there is also a firm belief that while 40% of a man might be junk, the other 60% is capable of doing good; and the man should focus on that 60% of himself, and do all the good he can before he dies.

Obviously the Eastern is not necessarily superior to the Western way. Both have their advantages; I want you to understand. What I am driving at is that the Church, an organization meant to be international and span all of the globe, has become so Western-minded in America that it is completely off-balance. We need to steer back toward the Eastern way of doing things, at least until we are in the middle between the two. That is why I am explaining the advantages of the Eastern mindset carefully.

So to be clear; the Eastern mindset focuses on the 60% of a person (or whatever that percentage may be) which is good, and focuses on using that 60% and basically ignoring the 40% (which is kind of a problem in some situations, admittedly.) On the other hand, Western-minded people are focused on that 40% which is bad, and sermon after sermon is preached on how to shrink the percentage of your evil and be better, be more good, be EXCELLENT!

Guess what. You can’t. You cannot change your sin nature. You cannot make yourself good. Period. It just isn’t possible. A good bit of the Bible is dedicated to explaining why it is impossible for humans to change their basic nature, so I won’t go into it. Just take it as a fact: you cannot “fix” yourself.

So what to do?

First, trust God with that bad 40%. Second, shift your thinking, Church, to the Eastern mindset that originally wrote the Bible! Stop focusing on the sinful aspect of yourself, stop focusing on ‘getting ahead’ and ‘being better’ and ‘gaining more’ and all that competitive stuff meant to improve your basic nature. Focus on what you HAVE. Focus on the good part of yourself that you can use to do good. Maybe you only have 10% of yourself which is any good; USE IT. Doesn’t matter if 90% of you is rotten to the core, just ignore all that. Use what good you’ve got.

When Jesus said “love yourself” he didn’t mean ‘be so self-centered that you are cruel to others.’ He meant to love yourself in the Eastern way: take care of yourself first, then your family, then your community, then the world.

Are you taking care of yourself first? Are you making sure you are comfortable, fed, clothed? Are you making sure you are safe? Strong? Are you not just feeding your body, but are you feeding your mind and spirit? Do this before you do anything else. This is your imperative. If you do not do this, you are no use to anyone else. Even God.

Let’s go back to the mean people in Church now. You can see her in your imagination: the lady who has her fingers in ten charities, wears designer clothes, and is just the meanest person you’ve ever met. She’s probably a pillar of the Church. She’s on the board of directors or her husband is. She’s on the A-Team. Does she love herself?

In one way, maybe; she definitely makes sure she’s clothed. She might brag about herself and she might seem to think she’s all that. But is she focusing on whatever percentage of her is good, and on using and feeding her good, or is she focusing on the part of her that is bad and trying to shrink that percentage by human effort? (This is vanity; it’s impossible.) Is she striving constantly for excellence as Western culture teaches, going to extremes to try to become perfect?

Is she loving herself, or hating herself?

What does the Church preach Sunday after Sunday? Selflessness. Why? Because it’s people are generally selfish (selfish in the Western way, where you hate everyone); the Pastor sees this and is trying to correct them. But he’s falling into the same trap. He’s focusing on the actions of his church members that are bad; he is focusing on that 40% of evil that most people carry around (and for many that percent is a lot higher). He’s trying to shrink that percentage of evil, and by his attempt he is feeding into his flock the idea that they are flawed. He feels that if he preaches hard enough about selflessness, his people will finally let go of their backbiting ways (why, because of guilt?) and begin to love one another.

Won’t happen. The only way people are going to learn how to love is to preach about how to love. To focus on the good percent, and just leave the bad percent to God. Only God can deal with the wickedness of Man. Only God was ever meant to deal with the wickedness of anything, Man or angel alike. Our job is to focus on love; love yourself. Focus on the good part. Pastor: what does your Church do well? Focus on that. Grow that. Leave the rest to God.

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