English, like any language, has its strengths and weaknesses. This week I want to talk about an English word I consider awkward – the word “selflessness”. “Selflessness” is a term meant to convey a beautiful character trait – the ability to thoughtfully put the needs of others ahead of our own. If you’ve ever met a person who does this well you know how uplifting and helpful they are to be around.
I do, however, have some difficulties with this particular term and would like to find a better way to express this wonderful attribute. What I’m debating is not this godly attitude itself, but the word, which, if put literally into use, would cause disaster. I shall call its literal use “actual selflessness”.
What are some problems with the term “selflessness”?
1. Actual selflessness expresses a practical impossibility
We’ve all been given a sense of self-preservation – a necessary trait if we’re to survive and thrive. If I don’t look out for myself, to some extent, I’m in trouble. I’m of no use to anyone else if I don’t take care of my own essentials. If I give all my food away to the hungry, for instance, and never eat, my ministry won’t last long. It’s true that others sometimes reward my generosity by giving back, but certain needs will only be met if I meet them myself. Some assertiveness is required. Even Jesus, sought “me time” by rising early to spend time alone refreshing His spirit with His Heavenly Father.
2. Actual selflessness may enable the selfish
If I always put others ahead of myself, there are people who are more than happy to make that the status quo. Instead of appreciating my attitude and reciprocating by sometimes saying, “No, you go first this time,” they just get used being selfish. Children, given their immaturity, are especially prone to this tendency. Our generosity simply becomes, in their eyes, an entitlement. Their selfishness not only hurts others, it hurts them as well. It’s not good for any of us to always get our own way nor does it help us succeed in the real world.
3. Actual selflessness, ironically, causes others to disrespect us
What do you think of a person who never says “No”? Do you respect them more or do you wonder why they’re so weak; thinking them a pushover? Often, it’s the latter. Paradoxically, folks often appreciate our “Yeses” more if they hear an occasional “No.” The well-chosen, “No,” or “I don’t think so,” shows them that we have the strength to refuse when we think it best.
4. Actual selflessness is not a trait promoted and modelled in Scripture
We’re told in Scripture to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 27:39). Jesus, in particular, had clear personal boundaries, and often pushed back against the beliefs and expectations of others when He thought it best to do so. That’s one reason some religious leaders hated Him (John 5:18). The same was true of Peter, Paul and many other believers.
The intended meaning of “selflessness” is good, but taken too literally it can cause problems. A more accurate rendering would not be “selflessness” but “less of self”. Our actual problem is not that we take into account our own needs and desires, but that we consider them too much. The real goal is humility, involving better balance; where the needs of others become just as important as our own and, in fact, where we often freely choose to put others ahead of ourselves.
A better term to use is “unselfishness”. It’s still not my favorite word, though, since it’s negative; implying a lack of something with its prefix “un”. But I can’t think of a better word. Tell me if you know one.
How can I become more unselfish?
1. I become more unselfish by learning to lean more on God to meet my needs
One of the reasons we focus too much on our own stuff is fear; fear that our own needs won’t be met if we aren’t constantly vigilant. As we learn to rely more on God’s care and faithfulness, to “cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), we’re able to relax and shift our focus more on the needs of others. God’s got our back. We still need to do some planning for personal care, but it’s not necessary to do it constantly.
2. I become more unselfish by being filled with God’s love for others
If one reason for selfishness is fear, another is a lack of love. We’re selfish because we don’t care that much about others. When we really love others, a natural part of that is discovering their needs and trying to help meet them. Jesus, loving us, and knowing our need for forgiveness, offered himself up on the cross for us. Almost all of us love at least someone, but the goal of unselfishness is to love a wider range of people and to increase the depth of our love in general.
3. I become more unselfish by learning to give without strings attached
Some of what passes for unselfishness is mostly “quid pro quo”, or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. It’s manipulation. True unselfishness gives out of love without assuming payback. This doesn’t mean that we never express our own needs, or address an unhealthy giving imbalance, just that we try to give freely without keeping score. Often, this kind of giving does result in our receiving as well, though it may not be from the same person we originally gave to.
4. I become more unselfish by shifting my focus toward service
We live in a society that’s consumer-oriented. “What’s in it for me and mine?” seems to be the dominant question, even in the church. The Bible tells us of Jesus, though, in Mark 10:45: “ For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And Jesus says, in Matthew 20:26b: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. . .” What is your highest priority as you relate to others each day? Is it to find ways to serve or to be served? Both are legitimate, but an unselfish heart is usually other-focused.
5. I become more unselfish by not expecting too much recognition
If we give, hoping for a “thanks”, we set the bar too high. It’s true that some folks are very grateful and express it, but many don’t, especially if you’ve been rendering them service for a long time. They may merely become accustomed to it. “Thanks” is nice. But “Well done, good and faithful servant”, said by the Lord, is the ultimate thanks. Serve Him first, even when you’re serving others. He always notices and rewards.
Unselfishness brings us a wonderful freedom. A selfish focus absorbs a lot of energy and generates quite a bit of frustration as well. As you may have noticed, the world doesn’t revolve around us. Unselfishness also often brings out the best in others. The sense of competition for resources is reduced. We’re more likely to work together. And unselfishness glorifies God. It’s God Himself who is most unselfish – creating this gorgeous world for us, sustaining us in a million ways, and reaching to us through His Son so that we may live forever with Him.