Why Selfishness Can Be A Good Thing

4 09 2009

In my last post, I made the statement that “When we’re living as God intended, receiving always comes before giving.” I’m convinced of this for two reasons: The first is that I see it reflected in how God made us; the second is that I think scripture makes it clear. As I explain, what I mean by this statement will become more clear.

First: How God made us.
Needy. That’s how God made us.
Which is, for some people, the worst way he could have possibly made us. Needy. That simple word inspires disgust in many of us. “I don’t want to seem needy”, we say. I’ve often felt that sentiment creeping up inside of me when I have to ask for help from somebody else.
To see how twisted that is, we just have to look back to the beginning of our lives. We come into this world covered in blood and yuck, completely helpless. Needy.
Actually, let’s start nine months earlier: We actually come into this world as parasites, living off of our mothers, stealing their food, blood and energy, and causing them a good deal of nausea to boot.
From day one in this world, we can do nothing on our own. We unashamedly scream and yell when we need something, feeling no shame at our neediness. Maybe some of you read that and say, “Yep, exactly. We’re sinful, selfish creatures from the very beginning.” But I don’t. I think God intended us to learn something from this arrangement. God set things up so that we’d learn the most important thing first: To live in this world as God intended, we must receive unashamedly.
“What do you have that you did not receive?”, Paul says. “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7)
Think about it: God could have set things up differently. He could have said to himself, “These humans are so freaking selfish! First and foremost, they’ve got to learn to give. So I’ll have them start out life by serving me hand and foot. Then, after they’ve learned their lesson, I’ll give them a little break.” Nope. That’s not how he did it.
Unfortunately, many of us grew up in homes where the receiving wasn’t so free and easy. Our parents are supposed to model God for us, to show us what it feels like to receive God’s free gifts and love. But scripture tells us there are awful consequences when gifts are not freely given, even indicating that it would be better if such gifts were not given at all:
“Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink”, he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten, and will have wasted your compliments.”
Have you ever experienced this kind of giving? Ever wished you could “vomit up” something that you received, which you thought was a gift, but found out later had strings attached?
Now imagine the same thing happening to an infant, who has no choice but to need, and take, and ask, and scream for what it needs. Imagine the frustration of having no choice but to take and take and take from someone who resents the giving. “Oh, but babies can’t tell”, someone might say. “They can’t pick up on that sort of thing.”
But can’t they? Aren’t children some of the most perceptive people you know? Isn’t there a chance that even you, as a child, could tell – at least a little bit – when your parents were frustrated with your constant neediness?
In overtly abusive homes, children are bluntly shamed for their neediness, for their constant need of help and care and attention. (“You’re so selfish! You never think of anyone but yourself, you ingrate!”)
But even in good homes, parents will, from time to time have a hard time with the constant giving that they are called upon to do as parents. And this continues the cycle: We subtly become uncomfortable with our neediness. We label it “selfishness” and try to cast it off into the darkness where we won’t be confronted with how vulnerable it makes us feel. But it pursues us.
Christians so often lament their selfishness. We think that’s the core root of sin in our lives. Now, don’t get me wrong: There is certainly a brand of selfishness that is sinful. But I think many of us – maybe most of us – have a sin that runs even deeper: Self-sufficiency. Our refusal to be weak and needy. We need to become willing to receive.
In this post I’ve argued from how God made us to show the importance of receiving. Next post I’ll delve more directly into scripture to show the same thing.



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