I heard someone preach a sermon recently about selfishness, and how it is the root of almost all sin. I hear this preached a lot, by lots of different people. It depends on defining selfish as “wanting things for yourself”. We are exhorted to deny ourselves, which is taken to mean that we stop paying attention to our own desires and instead focus on glorifying God. This is the tough, mentally disciplined approach that God wants from us.
So, to summarize:
- Selfishness is the root sin
- Selfishness means wanting things for ourselves
- We should stop expecting to have our own needs met
- Instead we should only worry about glorifying God
- A life of doing this will be disciplined and well-ordered and pleasing to God
While there is some important insight in this overall teaching, I think it’s wrong.
First, every Christian should go read John Piper’s book, Desiring God, and then rethink the points above.
Second, the Scripture itself does not, to my knowledge, name selfishness as the root of all sin, although I admit it gets close. It talks about idolatry and coveting and pride and fleshly lusts. Here is how I see the different meanings of these terms, in the context of this discussion.
- Selfishness: wanting things for myself
- Idolatry: looking to someone or something other than God to meet my deepest needs
- Coveting: comparing what I have with what others have and then becoming frustrated that I have to live my life instead of theirs
- Pride: making it my highest priority to manage my own happiness
- Fleshly lusts: impulses for short-term satisfaction — I should ignore them if that would be better for me in the long run
James 3 and 4 also talk about something closely related to selfishness. James 3 speaks of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” and explicitly says that all kinds of sin spring up from these. James 4 explains that our strife with others comes from envying them and coveting what they have. The passage goes on, though, to point to pride and idolatry as the real culprits. The problem is not that we want things; it’s that we look somewhere other than to God to find them.
The biggest problem with the selfishness doctrine is that it leaves faith out of the picture. Instead of telling us to realize how much we need God, it exhorts us to need nothing. A more Scriptural approach would emphasize these truths:
- We have many desires, some of them deep and some less so.
- Some of our desires are for things that won’t really satisfy, so we need to have a healthy skepticism towards our desires.
- God Himself is the source of all true satisfaction. We need to pursue him with all our hearts to find our needs really met. (“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”)
- Once we trust in God, he will call us away from pursuing many of the things that we think will meet our own needs. The test of our faith will be whether we are willing to let go of what seems to satisfy us and trust him to bring us real satisfaction.
- Sometimes, he will call us away from even having certain desires. Even that, though, will be based on our trusting that His wisdom is greater than ours, and that He has a better set of desires for us to have.
The practical consequence of these ideas is this:
- Have all the desire you want, but …
- Take all your desires to God. Believe with all your might that he and whatever he gives will truly satisfy you.
- Because you are trusting him to take care of what you want most deeply, leave it with him. Hope, but don’t pursue. Instead focus on loving God and loving others. Expect God to bring you the desires of your heart as a by-product as you live for Him.
- When others are needy, don’t tell them to get over themselves; rejoice with them that God cares about the desires of their hearts too.
The difference is really important. It is one thing to say to someone, “Stop wanting so much! Focus on loving God and others!” and quite another to say to someone, “Trust God to fulfill all your deepest desires! Focus on loving God and others!”