Christian Living in the Modern World – By James Chapman

Chapter 5

Selfishness And Unselfishness

Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others (Philippians 2:4)

Commenting on the reversed order by which the Hebrews were accustomed to conjugate the verb to be, one versed in both the language and the religion of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, offered the following explanation: “It was the regular custom of the fathers to omit the name of God when reading the Scriptures or when speaking of Him in regular conversation. So instead of saying God did this or that, they simply said He did it, and so the pronoun became first of all a synonym for God. Then it was but natural that arranging the order of language, God should be first. Then there were the teachings of the sacred Book regarding the attitude of a good man toward his neighbor in which it was enjoined that the neighbor should be given preference over self. So the place for the neighbor came right next after God, and so the order was and is, ‘He is, thou art, I am,’ instead of ‘I am, thou art, and He is,’ as you have it in English. It is the modern who has reversed the order, the Hebrew order is the original and correct order, for it is God first, my neighbor next and I last.”

As a matter of form, some have the ability to say, “God first,” who break down when it comes to saying, “My neighbor next, and I last,” for the philosophy of selfishness has invaded and all but inundated the world. The Golden Rule has in too many instances been replaced by the rule of gold, and men have asked incredulously, “If I do not look out for my own interests, who will look out for them?” The answer to that question is, If you will look out for the interests of God and your neighbor, God will look out for your interests. It is said that Queen Victoria once called upon a British business man to undertake a mission for the government that would require all his time and attention for an extended period. When the matter was stated to him, the man was distressed, and in near panic inquired, “But if I go away for a long period like that, what will become of my business?” The noble queen replied, “You look after the queen’s business and the queen will look after your business.”

But many find it difficult to believe that the Golden Rule is practical. They accept it as an ideal, but hold reservations as to its application. They try to forget that their competitors are their neighbors, so they can omit them from the list of those to whom they owe preferential treatment. To believe fully in the practicality of such an attitude as the Golden Rule involves, one must be able to see farther than just the twenty-four hours in which he lives; for sometimes one must wait many days to take up again the bread which he has cast upon the waters. But Christ’s philosophy of life is exceedingly practical, and the “good neighbor” policy pays in “the long run.” On the other hand, when one takes it upon himself to look after his own business, the King pretty much leaves it with him to do it. The responsibility belongs to the King only when the person in question makes it his business to attend to the King’s business. Likewise, when one looks to his own affairs first, pretty soon those he has to deal with learn from him to look to their own affairs, and in the end the man has a bigger job than he would have had if he had “swapped work” with those with whom he has to do.

Just a little while ago I received a letter from an acquaintance in which he spoke of a difficult problem in connection with the work of the church. He wrote, “We had the problem pretty well worked out, and could have carried through all right, except that Brother A____ allowed his selfish interests to interfere, and he refused to go along with us, unless he himself could be assured against loss of any kind.” And it often occurs that the problems of life miss out on solution because someone connected with them is weak in the faith that he will fare well himself, if he but gives attention to see that others prosper. To look out first for the good of others does not mean that we will fare the worse ourselves. Rather it means that if we are sincere in our concern for others, our own vineyard will have better care than though we gave our first thought to it ourselves. This advantage cannot be the motive, otherwise the plan will not work. But if the motive is pure and high, then it will work without our having to force it.

Some time ago I ran across a listing on “Marks of selfishness,” and “Marks of Unselfishness,” which was very interesting. Of course we must take into consideration that few will be willing to plead guilty to the charge of selfishness, and for that reason we shall have to just observe the marks and make our own deductions. Or perhaps, better than this, we shall be benefited if we find out what these marks are and give attention to shunning those which point us out as selfish, and run hard after those which testify that we are unselfish.

1. Marks of Selfishness:

(1) It is a mark of selfishness when we have the tendency to make self the benefactor, and bring self to the fore when any choice or action is being considered.

(2) It is a mark of selfishness when our tendency is to make ourselves the subject of conversation, and when we find delight in reciting stories in which we ourselves appear in favorable light.

(3) It is a mark of selfishness when we are found to be unusually “touchy” and thin-skinned.

2. Marks of Unselfishness:

(1) It is a mark of unselfishness when we make “others” the chief consideration in our going or staying, in our choices and actions, and account ourselves beneficiaries only when we can be such along with the others for whom we bear our principal concern.

(2) It is a mark of unselfishness when we find it possible to deliberately choose to see the best in others, even when to do so is to bring our own glory into at least partial eclipse.

(3) It is a mark of unselfishness when we find it easy to make God and others the chief topics of conversation, and when we can deliberately, and without ostentation, turn favorable comment intended for us to the credit of someone else.

If one will take the trouble to analyze the “Marks of Selfishness” which are enumerated, he will find that they pretty well cover the attitudes and tendencies which make us nonsocial, and “hard to get along with.” When you propose a line of action, and your companion says, “But I don’t see how that will bring any pleasure or profit to me,” he has already said more than his words imply. He has said that he is not interested in anything that does not minister to his pleasure or profit, and you know right away that here is one very much in need of “being born again.” It is not enough now to enter into argument to prove that the course proposed will, after all, be to his interest, for you have found that this is not a person of whom you can expect unselfish action. But since we know this of another, it should not be difficult for us to bring ourselves to class meeting, and there find out why we do or do not do things. Is it because our minds race quickly to the consideration of how much the course will contribute to our own pleasure or profit? And if we find this is our norm, we should be as ruthless and fair in taking the remedy ourselves as we were in prescribing for another.

Of course we know more about ourselves and our own experiences than we do about other folks and their experiences, but this is just another reason why we should not talk too much. If we refuse to talk about ourselves, we Shall not so often be guilty of excessive talk. But if we must talk about ourselves, then we do well to select the instances in which we were corrected and taught valuable lessons, rather than to major on the instances in which we were the hero and the instructor. We all know this form of despicable egotism when we see it in others; but it is sometimes easy to imitate the vices we despise, and in the lists of conversation, there is a temptation to meet the lion with a bigger lion, until Herod fairly out-Herods Herod. Perhaps some of the fault may be unintentional, but it would be well for us all to check and see how well we stand on this matter. When a noted preacher remarked that he found he had inadvertently made a promise which it was inconvenient for him to keep, the colored boy who operated the elevator, replied, “Yes, sir, it sure is easy to over-talk.” And I think we all know this to be true. Often in thinking back upon occurrences and conversations, we have mused, “Now, if I had just thought, this is what I should have said.” But looking back over my past as a Christian I can think of many more instances in which I said what I now wish I had not said than of instances in which I was quiet and now wish I had spoken. Even our divine Master found time for golden silences amidst words that were always like ripe yellow oranges in baskets made of silver.

In the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul spoke of love as being “not easily provoked.” Our modern speech has abbreviated this phrase into “touchiness,” or being “thin-skinned.” No matter about the word, we all know what it is, and we know how disagreeable it is to have someone around who will always be taking things that do not belong to him in the sense of being “hurt” over words or actions that had no more than general reference to him. These thin-skinned people are accused also of having their feelings spread out until one walks on them unintentionally, scarcely being able to miss them if he walks on the floor at all. But it is not our purpose to preach. It will do more good for each one of us to examine himself in this matter. Pride and selfishness are the basis of touchiness, for touchiness springs from an exaggerated sense of importance. Why should I think people mean me when they tell things that apply to me, which things indeed may also apply to many others ? There are so many who are better known examples of both wisdom and folly than I am that the chances are I was not in the thinking at all. And if I was intended as the butt, why should I feel that I am insulted? Upon what ground could I claim immunity? If what they say or do is uncomplimentary to me, I should know that I either deserve it, or else not deserving it, my spirit and conduct will constitute my best defense.

But perhaps there is nothing more exacting than the demand to see the best in others. Someone asked Dr. H. C. Morrison what he thought Paul meant when he said, “Love thinketh no evil.” His reply was, “I think he meant that if I have perfect love I will always put the best possible construction on everything and deliberately seek to see the best in everybody. Suppose, for example, I am a Sunday school superintendent. One morning as I walk down the street, I see a brother who is a teacher in my school turn into the grogshop near the corner. If I am filled with perfect love I will think to myself, ‘God bless that good man. He has gone in there to ask the bartender to send his children to the Sunday school. Here I have gone right by this place every day and never once have I thought to turn in there and ask the bartender about his family, and here one of my teachers has reproved me, and by God’s grace, I shall be more zealous and shall look out more diligently for opportunities for winning people to the Lord.’ Now it may turn out that the Sunday school teacher was a hypocrite and turned in there to get a drink. But until I knew his purpose was bad I gave him credit for a high motive. That, in my judgment, is what is meant by the saying that ‘Love thinketh no evil.'”

Perhaps we would explain our reluctance to undertake an unselfish life on the basis of the fact that the world is full of selfish people who will take advantage of us. We reason that if others find out we will do them favors without expecting anything in return they will bankrupt us with their asking. If they find out we will turn to their account any good word spoken, they will exploit this tendency for their own undeserved popularity, and that will make us partners to a public wrong. We would be unselfish if others would be unselfish too. We would give to others, if they would in turn give to us. We would speak kindly of others, if they would just not forget us when the praises are passed around. Perhaps we do not see that such a situation as we imagine would make unselfishness impossible. Nay, the very essence of unselfishness is the will to be overlooked.

Finally, Jesus gave the supreme test to unselfishness when He required His disciples to love their enemies and do good to them from whom they could expect nothing but harm. Paul made a summary of it when he exhorted, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” A Christian is laid under special obligation to his enemies. If he neglects anyone, it must be his friends, from whom he may reasonably hope for charity and consideration. But he must never overlook or mistreat his enemies. For although he may rely upon the faithfulness of his friends, he must yet win his enemies before he can depend upon them, and with this bigger task before him, his enemies become his special charge.

In the old school reader there was a story under the title, “The Noblest Deed of All,” a story which may now be somewhat new just because it is so old. It related to a very wealthy man who had three sons to whom, when they were all come to years, and while he was yet alive, he divided his fortune. This division affected all his money and goods, except a very valuable diamond which was an heirloom in the family. Concerning this gem, the father said, “I cannot divide this diamond, and I do not want to sell it that I might give to each of you his share of the money. But I want to give it to one of you, and when it is given, it is your property to keep or to sell, as will give you the most satisfaction. But here is what I have decided to do: I want us to all go on our way, now. At the end of a year I want us to meet here again at my house, and then I will ask each of you to tell what he thinks is the noblest deed he has performed during the year, and to the one whom I judge to have done the noblest deed of all, I shall give the gem.” To this plan all agreed. At the end of the year they came together and the sons one by one recited what they considered their noblest deed of the year. One told how he had leaped into the water, at the risk of his life, to save the life of a drowning child. At the conclusion of the story the father said, “My son, you have done well, but not nobly.” The next told how he had found a friend in hunger and nakedness and had given his own rations and cloak for the saving and sustaining of the life of his friend, even when the articles in question were given at the risk of his own starvation and exposure. To this, too, the father responded, “My son, you have done well, but not nobly.” The third told of finding a mortal enemy at whose hand he had once narrowly escaped death. This enemy was found asleep on the edge of a precipice over which he could have easily been pushed, and into which he would probably have fallen from the effect of the slightest stir in his sleep. To the side of this sleeping enemy this son had crept noiselessly that the enemy might not be awakened and endangered thereby. With gentle care he had drawn the enemy away from the edge of the cliff, and then had awakened him to tell him of his danger, and had gone his way, expecting still that he would be repaid only with the continued curse and injury of his enemy. Scarcely had the story ended, when the father cried, “The gem is yours, my son, for yours is the noblest deed of all.”

Once when John Ruskin was about to conclude a lecture on Art in London, he came to the place where he was to give examples of the standards of excellence which he had described, and here he said, “I shall not multiply examples. I will just name one — the name is Michelangelo.” And so in this address we have mentioned no names, and now we shall name but one — Jesus Christ, “Who, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor that ye through his poverty might be rich.” He is the example of unselfishness. Let us look at Him, and then pray to be like Him. We can never be like Him in the plenitude of His infinite character, but we can be like Him as the drop of water is like the ocean.

We come in Thy name, O Lord Jesus, and we ask for that grace that purifies the heart. We ask that Thou wilt come in the fullness of Thy Spirit’s ministry and purge out carnal selfishness from our hearts, and fill us with that love which enables its possessors to be kind and helpful even to their enemies. We believe that our own best and deepest interests will be served by our forgetting them in the interest of Thy glory and the good of other men. Help us to believe this so firmly that we shall put this faith into practical life today, and every day, until we shall see Thy face in heaven. Amen.