You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a person who thinks it’s acceptable for a Christian to be selfish. Selfishness is the antithesis to Christianity, implicitly at odds with it. Even non-Christians recognize this and are often quick to point out when the life of a Christian contradicts this principle.
This idea is, of course, underscored repeatedly in Scripture. “Do nothing from selfishness,” Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi (Philippians 2:3, NASB), adding in his first letter to the Corinthians that love “seeks not its own” (13:5, KJV).
Christ Himself perhaps put this concept in the boldest of terms, proclaiming that “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, NKJV). Though we perhaps don’t take this verse as seriously as we probably could, we still recognize the poignant call to abandon all self-interest.
Scripture is clear: simply put, in the heart of the Christian there is no room for selfishness.
And yet something strange happens when we discuss the most basic of Christian ideas: when it comes to framing the concept of salvation and eternal life, we typically express it in the most selfish of terms. Indeed, we often start people on their Christian journey on an implicitly-selfish road, only to try to pull the rug out from under them later on by telling them they shouldn’t be selfish as Christians.[i]
But such messages work at cross-purposes, since the whole foundation of their Christian experience rests upon a selfish motive to begin with.
Think about it. The average “gospel” presentation goes something like this: you’re a sinner who deserves death, but if you want to be saved and live forever you need to believe in Jesus. Salvation is thus always presented as something to attain from God for the benefit of self—and faith is the currency by which you acquire that benefit from God.
Just yesterday, I heard a well-meaning radio preacher who illustrated the whole concept in such terms. Comparing salvation to a woman who jumps out of a burning house and into the net that the fireman is holding below, he proclaimed that God has done all for our salvation but we must still take the “leap of faith” in order to be saved.
Such a scenario appeals to a person’s most primal emotions: fear, panic, self-preservation. But such emotions are implicitly at odds with the motive and way of Christianity.
In fact, one might go so far as to insist that presenting salvation within such a framework is anti-Christian altogether. “All pagan religions are self-centered in their appeal,” Robert Wieland has noted, “and since almost all Christian churches accept this pagan-papal doctrine, they get locked in to what is basically an egocentric mind-set” (Grace on Trial, p. 29).
Not to be outdone, secular psychologist Alfie Kohn, writing within the context of childrearing, posits that such an approach is actually “by its very nature dehumanizing” (Punished by Rewards, p. 25). Furthermore, the great challenge with using rewards as a motivator is that “the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed” (Ibid., p. 17). And thus, within a Christian framework, we are simply setting people up to live in an endless cycle of requiring future benefits in order for their faith-journey to be sustained.
With such a paradigm—and with faith as the currency I use to acquire benefits—my faith is only as strong as the benefit is in its appeal. And as soon as I can no longer detect an obvious benefit, my faith ceases to be active. Thus, Wieland notes, “when we distort faith itself to become egocentric, the gospel is paralyzed” (Powerful Good News, p. 33).
This is all an echo of what Ellen White has poignantly proclaimed repeatedly throughout her writings: “Love to God is the very foundation of religion,” she wrote. “To engage in His service merely from hope of reward or fear of punishment would avail nothing” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 523).
So, too, does it echo Jesus’s words quoted above. His followers, He shockingly declared, should not desire to save their lives. Personal salvation should not be the impelling force. On the contrary, Christ’s followers should desire to lose their lives—an idea that stands at incredible odds with the presentations we typically give.
So what’s the solution?
Instead of presenting the gospel as something that will yield a future benefit, let’s present it as something that has already benefited. “To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life,” Ellen White explained (The Desire of Ages, p. 660, emphasis added). This transforms faith from being an instrument by which we attain rewards to an instrument by which we express gratitude. And gratitude, unlike self-interest, is an unstoppable force that enables the Christian to reach infinite heights.
Paul unpacked this when he explained to the Corinthians what the motive of his ministry was. “For the love of Christ compels us,” he proclaimed, “because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). He recognized that by His death on the cross, Christ had already accomplished something for him—that Christ’s death was his death, thus already absolving him of the debt he owed by virtue of his life of sin. And he found such a thought to be compelling—to the point that all who recognized this glorious reality would “live no longer for themselves [that is, motivated by self-interest], but for Him who died for them and rose again” (v. 15).
Such distinctions are critical, especially for those living at this juncture in earth’s history. Those who stand in the last-days will be ridded of all selfishness. They will not stand tall for God as a calculated way of hedging their bets. Heaven will not be looked upon as the greatest retirement plan so long as they continue making regular faith-deposits. To consider it such sets a person up to be an easy victim of the enemy’s tactics.
On the contrary, God’s people in the last-days will love “not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11, KJV). Standing firmly on the sacrifice of Jesus—grateful that He “emptied” Himself (Philippians 2:7) and, for all intents and purposes, gave up eternity for them—they will live ever for Him, regardless of the temporal or eternal consequences. Indeed, those living in the last-days will experience this mind-boggling idea that Ellen White laid forth in Steps to Christ: “We should not make self the center,” she instructed, “and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved” (p. 71).
We thus need to move beyond a gospel that makes “self the center.” Instead of framing salvation in transactional terms that confirms listeners in their primal selfishness, let’s lift up the heart-melting message of Christ’s self-emptying sacrifice and the benefits we’ve already been granted by Him as a result, thereby setting us on the path of gratitude.
[i] I realize it may not align with the Dictionary definition of “selfish,” but I would simply define selfishness, and the definition with which I am working in this piece, as the desire for personal benefit as the end goal. It is thus possible to want to be saved for unselfish reasons—e.g., to grant Christ the reward for His sacrifice as the end goal—but this is very rarely the framework within which salvation is presented.