Some time ago, one of my adult children said, “Mom, I finally figured out what is wrong with the world — everyone is selfish.” She nailed it. Jesus implied it also, not directly but when He offered the cure to take care of a problem, He was obviously thinking of selfishness:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”(John 12:24-26)
Living a fruitful life that pleases God and is helpful to others requires death, a denial of self. Jesus calls selfishness ‘loving his life’ — a phrase that is loaded with meaning. We might call it “Looking out for number one” or “taking care of me first.” Sometimes it shows up blatantly. Sometimes it is more subtle.
Subtle is illustrated by the woman who said to me, “I love helping other people because it makes me feel so good.” At that I sarcastically thought, ‘Would you do it if it didn’t feel good?’ But I am not so cynical now. I’ve also done the ‘helping others to make me feel good’ thing. It is a ‘politically correct’ way to express my selfishness. Another one is to simply ignore the needs around me, or just pray for them without doing anything. Selfishness can look nice.
Sacrificial service can feel good too, but often does not. Whatever is done for others with even the best of motives, some of them, or at least the extremely selfish people out there are never satisfied. They want bigger, better, or more and are not content or thankful for what they have. That doesn’t feel good. I recognize both sides for I can be like both.
Jesus was not like that, not selfish and not double-minded about personal sacrifice. As the day of His death approached, He knew it was coming. He prayed:
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:24–33)
Jesus knew He had to be lifted up on a cross to die even as He asked the Father to spare Him. His great purpose was to glorify God and that took priority. He gave up all that might have stood in the way of this main goal, including His right to life. His attitude was as far from selfish as it could be, and because of His willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice, the world has never been the same.
In practical terms, what does it mean to “hate” my life in this world? To die to self? To follow Jesus in service? The Greek word is intense dislike, aversion. Perhaps Jesus uses this word to give no wiggle room for me to be preoccupied with ‘my life’ rather than being concerned for others. However, there are biblical grounds to take care of me. Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
This verse broad because of its context. Taking care of my own interests cannot be an excuse for selfishness:
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. (Philippians 2:3–8)
In other words, I’m responsible for my home, family, work, and so on, but not to the point that it becomes self-serving. Even in taking care of my own interests, I’m still required to be an obedient servant of God, concerned for His glory and the needs of others.
Today I wrestle with prayer. It is for my own good, but that cannot be my reason for praying. It is for the good of others even as it draws me closer to God. However, prayer is hard work and my whole being selfishly whines for something easier, or at least easier prayer. It would be easier to read some prayers rather than speaking from my heart. God does not allow that excuse either. What I want is not the issue. I’m to listen and talk to God. Period.
Lord Jesus, I can write easier than talk, do anything easier than talk. Prayer is hard. Hear what I must say today. And grant me the energy, grace, and right attitude to be selfless rather than selfish when I do it.