Kelsey looked so ridiculously small on that horse. The consent form I had signed before she could ride it warned, “Horse riding is the only sport in which a predator seeks to exert his control over an animal three to four times his own size and power.” But eight-year-old Kelsey’s heart was set on riding horses while we vacationed at the beach (“and I’m not riding a pony!”), and besides, I thought, it can’t be too dangerous or these people wouldn’t still be in business.
We opted for the trail ride, and soon my three kids and I were slogging through the Oceanside forest. I was in the rear on the largest horse, Kelsey followed the leader, and Allison and Graham were in front of me. About 2/3 of the way into our ride, the lead horse caught scent of something that scared him. He bolted back, and Kelsey’s horse reared around in panic, passing Graham’s, running toward Allison’s, and creating a general melee.
The last time I had ridden a horse, I was ten years old. I know nothing about controlling an animal that you couldn’t pick up watching Bonanza reruns. My horse tried to bolt right, but I jerked it back to the left so I could keep Kelsey and the other kids in my sight. As the three horses bolted toward me, I remember thinking, I don’t believe this. I’m going to have to stop Kelsey’s horse.
I’ll never forget two things: the look on Kelsey’s face as that massively larger animal decided to take over, and the way time seemed to stop as I had no idea of what to do other than put myself in her path so she couldn’t get by. I didn’t think about my own horse rearing. I wasn’t thinking about falling off. I was consumed with the thought, How do I get my daughter’s horse to stop?
The trail leader apologized profusely. She had never had something like that happen before, and we slowly made our way back to the barn.
There’s a clarity to our vision when we completely forget ourselves and concentrate solely on the task before us. It’s an energizing feeling to be so focused on someone else that there is no thought of our own welfare, predicament, or problems. Though it seems ironic, it’s a blessed state, far more meaningful than when we are obsessed with our own trials and tribulations—but it’s not one that naturally colors our spirit. Self-centeredness can creep up on us in so many ways. Our fallen nature and our culture collide with the force of an avalanche to push us ever further down the hill of self-centeredness, but true faith calls us back to the summit of selflessness.
Giving When It Hurts
Paul taught that Christian faith leads us to be oriented around the needs of others: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…” (Rom. 15:1-3)
In fact, Paul took this line of thinking one step further. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1 Cor. 9:19) Because Paul’s writings are so familiar to us, it is easy to glide right over the depth of Paul’s willingness to put himself completely at others’ disposal.
The extreme to which Paul adhered to this selflessness is, in fact, shocking to modern sensibilities. The great apostle tells the Romans that he wishes he could cut himself off from salvation if in doing so he might save Israel (Rom. 9:3). Again, let’s not quickly pass over this. Paul was fully aware of the total horrors of hell—the physical pain, the emotional angst, the spiritual alienation—yet still he proclaims, “I wish I could be damned in hell for all eternity, if in my damnation the rest of the people of Israel could be saved.”
Where did Paul get this selflessness? How could a man become so others-oriented, so willing to play the role of a servant? I believe it essentially comes down to this: Paul took the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) literally, and found that they were true! Throughout his letters, Paul is effusive with his thanks and affection for others—clearly, his service on their behalf brings tremendous joy to his life: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4) “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2 Cor. 2:4) “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.” (Phil. 1:7) Paul’s affection for others was real; the enjoyment he derived from serving them and sacrificing on their behalf was tangible and at times intense. These are not the words of a man who only grudgingly serves. These are the words of a man who has found service to be the most meaningful life imaginable, creating an intimacy many of us could only dream about.
Paul found the hidden, quiet blessing of a selfless life, the kind Solomon talked about when he wrote, “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” (Prov. 11:25) Ironically, this attitude of selflessness actually creates a fountain of joy. It seasons our faith with meaning and applies purpose to our pain.
“The pursuit of happiness”—for which aim our forefathers fought a war—wouldn’t even register in Paul’s top ten priorities. His goal in life was much more simple: “And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:15)
Everything Paul experienced was put through this grid. He even learned to “rejoice” in suffering, because by suffering “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24)
Paul didn’t look at what hardship did to him. He was entirely preoccupied by what his suffering accomplished for God’s church. When he was imprisoned, Paul took heart in the fact that “because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Philip. 1:14)
The key to Paul’s joy is adopting Paul’s mission: i.e., become a champion of God’s work on this earth. Sacrifice, serve, and tirelessly work to build the Kingdom of God in this world. If you do that faithfully, you may find, as did Paul, that the selfless life, though not an easy life, though filled with much pain, anguish, and heartache, is the most meaningful life that can be lived. When you know you’re doing something solely out of love for God and a desire to see His Kingdom prosper on this earth, there’s an unrivaled inner satisfaction that fills your soul. This satisfaction has been testified to for ages, beginning with the classical Christian writers.
The Classical Chorus
Augustine captured the spirit of Paul’s writing precisely when he wrote that “God fashions us, that is, forms and creates us anew, not as men—for he has done that already—but as good men, which His grace is now doing.” In other words, when God’s Spirit transforms us and re-creates us, He does so with a view toward making us different—i.e., less selfish and more inclined to serve others, that is, to make us good. He doesn’t just save us, but intends to change us.
What else is the meaning of Ephesians 2:10? “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But here’s the delightful irony: in Augustine’s mind, acts of good will and charity, far from being a nuisance and a burden, actually promote true happiness: “Acts of compassion…towards our neighbors, when they are directed towards God…are intended to free us from misery and thus to bring us to happiness—which is only attained by that good of which it has been said, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’ (Ps. 73:28)”
Augustine had plenty of opportunities to live out this thinking. When he first became a Christian, Augustine’s ambition was to become a quiet monk, living out his final days in prayer and contemplation. His piety soon became noticed in high places, however, and church authorities asked Augustine to become a Bishop, which led him into a very public life—the opposite of what he wanted. Even so, Augustine agreed to take on these responsibilities. He eventually discovered that a life of service was preferable to a life of self-absorption, so much so that he was willing to risk his life for others. Ultimately, this selflessness led Augustine to an earlier death.
In 427, the Arian Vandals advanced into North Africa, where Augustine lived and ministered. Genserik, the Vandal king, specifically sought out Christian churches, as he heard they were particularly rich with treasures. Refugees poured into Hippo, where Augustine was settled, and soon, Genserik laid siege to Augustine’s city.
The refugees brought more than heightened responsibilities for Augustine; they also brought disease. So many people, packed into so tight a space, inevitably created a sick environment, virtually over night. At this point, Augustine had three choices: he could flee (as bishop, Augustine could have abandoned his people and post and sought safe sanctuary elsewhere in the kingdom, receiving sanctuary in the highest and safest places), he could stay holed up in his palace and ignore the needs of his people, or he could go out, get his hands dirty, and risk becoming ill himself.
Augustine didn’t know how to be a bishop “from afar,” so he kept up his active schedule, being with the people—and paid dearly for his service. During the third month of the siege, in August of 430, Augustine developed a high fever, from which he never recovered. He gave his last hours offering refuge to a frightened flock.
The ancients were not masochists; they wanted true joy like any of us do. Certainly, they sought fulfillment, and even happiness (properly defined), but they discovered that happiness is best experienced in a selfless life; that self-centered living creates its own misery. Fenelon, a seventeenth century French mystic, wrote, “The forgetfulness of self…does not mean never seeing anything in relation to ourselves, but only never staying shut up within ourselves, concerned with our own possessions or welfare. It is the preoccupation with ourselves, which keeps us from love pure and simple, which contracts our hearts, and which turns us from our true perfection, because it makes us seek it with pressure, trouble and uneasiness, for love of ourselves.”
Rather than drink from the satisfying waters of selflessness, our culture has developed a dangerous appetite for the bitter drink of selfishness. “Obsession” is actually used as a popular and inviting word when marketing a book or movie these days: “Obsession… passion… a great read.” It’s as if we think nothing is more interesting to watch than a man or woman in the throes of a genuine obsession. But if you’ve ever met someone who is truly obsessive, there is no romance about it. Being psychologically obsessed is a limiting, tyrannical state, with little freedom, tremendous angst, and much anxiety. Obsession shrinks life rather than focuses it. The word may seem romantically mysterious but it is in actuality a painful foretaste of hell, a tremendously limiting world that will ultimately suffocate our spirits.
Self-forgetfulness, on the other hand, leads us to increased joy because we can truly celebrate when others face blessings, thus multiplying our opportunities for celebration. Fenelon explains, “The entirely pure and detached souls…regard the mercies shed on others with as much love and satisfaction as they do the mercies which they themselves have received.”
The literature of the classics is a veritable chorus of dying to self so that we might truly live. In Beyond Personality, C.S. Lewis writes, “The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you’ll find your real self. Lose your life and you’ll save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep nothing back. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
Self-centered faith ultimately becomes very disillusioning. In the long run, living for our own good—even using religion to do so—leads only to hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. Dying to ourselves and living solely for God and his kingdom, and thus being enlisted to do good to others and focus on serving, gives us God, and in God we have everything.
Like Augustine, Lewis knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the benefit that comes from selfless living. During the Second World War, Lewis took in numerous children who were fleeing from London and other cities vulnerable to German bombing. Bringing children into the Kilns was a lot of extra work—not to mention the excess noise—but this act of service also opened the door to one of Lewis’ greatest life works. You see, one afternoon one of these evacuated children grew interested in an old wardrobe and asked Lewis if she could go inside it and if, perhaps, there was anything behind it?
Thus was planted the seed for perhaps the most beloved of all of Lewis’ books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. George Sayer, one of Lewis’s biographers, writes of this period, “Having children in the house benefited [Lewis] immensely. He had been shy and ignorant of them, but he now gradually acquired the knowledge and affection for them that made it possible for him to write the Narnia books. Without their presence, it is unlikely that he would even have had the impulse.”
The truth is, we need to serve God more than He needs us to serve him. Service can open doors of ministry we never would have dreamed of otherwise.
All of us have a choice to make. For most of us, this choice is unconscious, the result of many mini-decisions, the implications of which we may not be aware of. But whenever we choose selfishness, we limit our life. Whenever we choose service, we expand it.
Let me explain. When our happiness is dependent on what happens to us and when our self-focus determines our daily mood, our joy will necessarily be limited to whatever good happens to fall within our own limited experience. But when we truly learn to delight in the welfare of others and rejoice in what God is doing in their lives, the potential for increased joy skyrockets. Even when Paul was in prison, he could rejoice over what God was doing in Colassae; as death drew near, Paul took joy in the rise of Timothy’s ministry; as persecution followed upon persecution, Paul rejoiced at the strength and witness of the Philippians. Because Paul was so others-focused, nothing could get him down. There was always someone to rejoice about and to thank God for! This is the incredible miracle of joy that springs forth when selflessness takes hold in our lives.
Selfishness, on the other hand, is a form of slow suffocation, choking us on the limited air of our own self-interest. I remember Dr. J.I. Packer telling a class at Regent College about a New Yorker cartoon in which a smiling woman is talking to a glum-faced companion. The smiling woman says, “Well that’s enough about me. Now let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” “The happy state,” Dr. Packer commented, “which we know only rarely, is the unselfconscious state in which all our attention is being given to the people around us, to the situation outside us and we’re forgetting ourselves in the service of others. You see that to perfection in the life of Jesus.”
Self-centered living is suffocated living; it reduces our world, our focus, and our concerns to an almost unbearable degree, always eventually leading to misery and, ironically enough, unhappiness.
Perhaps that’s why, scripturally, selflessness isn’t reserved solely for mature Christians. Paul urges all of us to adopt it. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” he tells the Philippians, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) Spiritual health—in Paul’s mind, at least—is marked by a vibrant, others-centered compassion and concern. Far from simply absorbing blessings, we are called to lavish God’s love on others.
If I find myself becoming disillusioned or apathetic about my faith, one of the first things I check is my orientation. Am I focused on how God is “failing” to serve me and answer my prayers the way I want them answered, or on how I am serving God? Am I bitter over how others neglect me, or am I concerning myself with noticing and encouraging others? When I do this alignment, I find that selflessness truly does set me free and lead to many of the Bible’s greatest promises: joy, peace, contentment, and soul satisfaction.
Set Free From Self
My wife startled me with what seemed like a bizarre suggestion. “I think we should let the Smiths borrow our van for the weekend,” she said. Just weeks earlier, we had purchased our first brand new vehicle in almost fifteen years. Finally, we were able to secure a minivan that hadn’t been driven halfway into the ground and littered with a previous family’s supply of fast-food and playground dirt. I was determined to make the car last—and keep the mileage down—for as long as possible. The thought of someone else taking our new minivan over the mountains, dropping 1,000 miles on it in three days (when the car had just 700 miles on it to begin with) wasn’t a pleasant one.
But I knew God had set me up. My morning devotions that day had been taken from the book of Acts, and these were the main verses: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Sometimes, it’s “safer” to schedule your Bible reading in the evening, after all your important decisions have been made!
When I saw that Lisa was serious, I winced. Clearly this was a case where God had provided and we could help out another Christian couple.
Even so, I was reluctant.
“If money wasn’t an issue,” I protested to my wife, “I wouldn’t mind letting them borrow our brand new van. It’s just that this is our only vehicle, and I want it to last. We’ve been trying to keep the mileage down, and now we’re going to let someone else take it over the mountains?”
Having been married to me for over sixteen years, Lisa knows how to read my face. I wasn’t acting nobly, but I was certainly feeling guilty, and guilt usually wins out. “Should I call them?” she asked.
“I don’t want you to,” I confessed. “But I think God wants us to.” Sigh. Deep breath. Second sigh. “Yeah. Go ahead.”
Here’s the irony: making that decision actually set me free. While I selfishly held onto a piece of metal, it “owned” me. I winced when neighbor kids slammed the door a little too hard. I became worried whenever I thought I saw a new nick somewhere on the body. I began looking for parking spots that might be farther away but which offered increased protection for the minivan’s exterior.
Once I relinquished this van—emotionally and spiritually—I saw it as the tool it was, something that’s inevitably going to get banged up a little bit, but that’s what it’s for. Offering the car to someone else risked increasing the mileage, but what I lost there I gained many times over in spiritual freedom.
Some people are imprisoned by their demand for comfort. Others are imprisoned by their demand to be noticed, or appreciated, or respected. Some of us are imprisoned by being selfish with what we own.
God invites us to experience a new freedom and a new joy that is found when we ignore our first selfish impulses and allow God’s Spirit to give us a heart for others. He wants to expand our focus and turn our eyes away from own small world, and to find ourselves by losing ourselves in service to His people.
I can virtually guarantee you that this is one truth that will be tested in your life within the next 24 hours. For your own sake, I pray you’ll choose the blessed path of selflessness.