Reclaiming Holy Selfishness

9 11 2009

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.” (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

If you’re like me, you don’t have to know what the word “philological” means to know that CS Lewis is onto something here. (Incidentally, I just looked it up: It means, basically, the philosophy or study of language.)Anyhow, it’s been almost 70 years since Lewis spoke those words, but I still hear the virtues of unselfishness praised much more than the virtues of love. 

I’ve already written some on this blog about what I would call the “virtues” of selfishness, but I think there’s much more to be said on this matter, because its implications are so far-reaching and potentially damaging to ourselves, to the Church, to our relationships with God, and to just about everything else. To put it bluntly, I think that by a simple trick of language Satan has tricked us into valuing something that is not a Christian value in the least. (C.S. Lewis himself calls it, “no part of the Christian faith”.)


What does it mean to "take up your cross"?

Why have we bought so easily into this trick? Well, let’s face it, when things aren’t going well in our lives, it’s often we ourselves who are getting in the way. So when we read exhortations in Scripture to “deny” ourselves (Luke 9:23) it’s easy to make the logical leap into assuming that there is simply too much of the self; that we would be better off if there were “less” of the self, or less “self-ish-ness”. In a word, we should be “self-less”.

Ugh. There’s an awful word. “SELFLESS”. To be a person who has no self. This is what we subtly affirm when we hold up unselfishness – rather than love – as a value.


Is this what Jesus had in mind?

But God does not value self-denial for its own sake; it is only a means toward greater blessing for all. He doesn’t encourage us toward self-denial because he hates our desires and thinks they are bad! Desire, in fact, is an essential ingredient in what it is to be human.


Are our desires good for us?

I believe that God’s hope isn’t for there to be less of you, but more of you: In fact, that your selfhood should grow and increase; that your desires should become stronger and more fully formed; that the unique shapes and colors of your personality should become more and more clearly defined so that the glory he created you to express – which is a reflection of his own glory – sings all the more loudly to the world.

Though I am single, I’ll take the risk here of using marriage as an example. I often hear it preached that selfishness is the problem, and selflessness is the goal. But when I think of what I hope for in a marriage, I hope not for a woman who is “self-less”, but for a woman with a strong sense of self, who “takes up space” in my life. When C.S. Lewis lost his wife to cancer, he missed all of her: “with all her resistances… all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality.” (from “A Grief Observed”)

In fact, I would argue that it is only when one has really discovered a sense of self and deeply owned his desires that he can truly let go of them so as to serve another. Desire is not the problem. Self is not the problem.

Anyone remember the movie, “Coming To America”, where Eddie Murphy (the Crown Prince of Zamunda) was introduced to his betrothed “queen to be”? He tried to get to know her. He tried to ask her about her self: about her preferences and desires: “What do you like to do? What kind of music do you like?” But no matter how hard he tried, he got the same answer: “Whatever kind of music you like.”

This woman had mastered the art of selflessness, and became a caricature of a person; a nobody, with no opinion, nothing to actually engage in a relationship with.

As Lewis said, “Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.”





11 responses

10 11 2009
Mike Kastler

Wow! Time, that is an incredibly eye-opening and deep concept. Would you rather have the virtue of being unselfish or selfless OR the virtue of love? Interesting, never really thought about it before. Thanks for posting and waking me up!!!


10 11 2009

I found your blog via a friend… something interesting to read that I think related to this loosely

10 11 2009
Tim Courtois

Thanks for reading & posting the link. Love when others move the conversation forward!

11 11 2009

Speaking of “moving the conversation forward”… fairly interesting and challenging book:
An even better book… if you like C.S. Lewis (called Macdonald his master): George MacDonald – Unspoken Sermons completely free to print, and legal

11 11 2009
Tim Courtois

Awesome! I’ve read MacDonald’s “Phantastes”, knowing that that was one that CS Lewis said hugely influenced his life. And, as I imagine you know, MacDonald shows up as a character in Lews’s “Great Divorce”. Thanks for sharing.

11 11 2009

Feel free not to post this 🙂 I know it is moderated first… which means you read it… or you could edit it…

I L-O-V-E-D Phantastes… I read all of the unspoken sermons first, then Phantastes, then Lilith, then The Baron’s apprentice, and in the midst of some other things I’m working on The miracles of Jesus right now…

All of that was just a rant… I wonder if you’ve read MacDonald’s other works? If you have… I wonder how you understand and relate to his theology… especially since I see you graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary… and MacDonald is known for being particularly not Calvinistic… I guess this isn’t a blog conversation… ha ha… I’m totally curious about how you personally understand reformed theology and if it does or doesn’t vibe with you… you should write a blog about it if you haven’t…

16 11 2009

Hi Tim! Enjoying your blog greatly.

It’s always fascinated me that the second most important commandment is not just ‘Love your neighbor’, but ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.

The greater our selfhood (in the sense you describe above), the greater our capacity to love people.

13 12 2009

Awesome… kinda amazing matter. I will write about it too.

23 03 2011
Does the Bible say that “selfishness” is wrong? « Snapshots of Glory

[…] It might seem like it. But I don’t think so.  Let’s talk about it. (Again.) […]

29 04 2011
Love over Selflessness « Snapshots of Glory

[…] quoted CS Lewis on this topic before, but I’ll do it again – this is one we should all have in our memory banks: “If you […]

7 05 2013
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Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.

Anyways, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back often!

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