Hating Selfishness… is Un-Biblical?

9 04 2011

I think this is most Christians favorite way to insult themselves.

My last post showed that “selfishness” is referenced only 8 times in the Bible (NIV translation).  Considering how often we hear “selfishness” condemned as a vice in Christian teaching, this should trouble us!  Why is there not more Biblical support for a teaching that we so frequently espouse?

And when we take a closer look at what those 8 verses are actually saying, I think the situation gets even worse.  Let’s take a look:

Of these 8 verses, two of them are in the Old Testament (which was written in Hebrew) and 5 are in the New Testament (which was written in Greek).  Let’s look at the Old Testament ones first.

#1: Psalm 119:36 says, “Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.”  The word here translated as “selfish” is “betsa”, which means covetousness or unjust gain.  In other words, we’re not talking about a single Hebrew word that means, “selfish”; we’re talking about a single Hebrew word for which there is no exact equivalent in English that has therefore been rendered by the semi-equivalent phrase, “selfish gain”.  The Hebrew suggests that the “gain” or profit it is referencing is wrong because it is unjust – not because it benefits the self.  On the other hand, the English tells us that the profit is wrong because it benefits the self.  This is a very dangerous shift!  The Bible is telling us that we must value justice; the NIV is implying that we must devalue the self.

#2: Proverbs 18:1 says, “An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.”  The original language of this verse is a little confusing.  The Hebrew word here translated as “selfish ends” is “ta’avah”.  It means desire – and can refer to different types of desire.  Sometimes it refers to good desires and longings of the heart.  The same word is frequently used in the Old Testament to refer to good desires that God himself affirms and fulfills! (Psalm 10:17; Proverbs 10:24, Proverbs 11:23; etc.)  At other times, it refers to corrupted desire, such as lust (Psalm 106:14; Psalm 112:10; Proverbs 21:25).  All this to say: If the same word here translated “selfish ends” is sometimes used to refer to something good and righteous, then we can not use this verse to teach that selfishness is bad.

Hating selfishness... is not Biblical.

That’s it!  That’s an analysis of every verse of the NIV Old Testament that uses the word “selfish”.  All two of them.  From this, I suggest to you that hating selfishness is not a Biblical value, but rather an un-Biblical value that modern translators have mistakenly read into these verses.

Now let’s look at the New Testament.

There are 5 verses in the New Testament that use the word “selfish”: 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20; Phil. 1:17; Phil. 2:3; James 3:14; and James 3:16.  All of them use the phrase “selfish ambition”, and in each of these verses, the phrase comes from the same Greek word.  (Again, there is no one Greek word being translated as “selfish”, but rather the phrase “selfish ambition” is an attempt to render into English a Greek word that has no exact English equivalent.)  That word is “eritheia”.  This word means, basically, “electioneering”, or seeking political office or personal power by unjust means.

Not a Biblical vice, but not a Biblical virtue either. Ayn Rand was nuts. Brilliant, but nuts.

Once again, we see that the Bible, in it’s original language, does not identify “selfishness” as a sin or a vice.  Instead, the Bible tells us that corruption and injustice are vices.  Elevating one’s own benefit over the benefit of others is wrong, not because self-benefit is wrong, but because injustice and corruption are wrong.

What are the implications?

There are a few implications that I’ll go into further in future posts.  But for now I’ll say a very simple one:

If the Bible says so little about selfishness, then perhaps teachers of Biblical truth should focus less on preaching about the evils of “selfishness”, and more on the beautiful values that the Bible itself actually focuses on: such as love, justice, compassion, and righteousness.

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11 responses

11 04 2011
John

Great post, I liked the way you approached it a lot. I have been getting a lot of grief lately for taking actions to secure my future and this was a nice break from all of that illogical hypocrisy. Don’t let them wear you down.

11 04 2011
John

Actually, faith itself could be viewed as an ultimately self-serving action. Believe in God in order to go to heaven. By their definition of selfishness of greed, believing in God is selfish! lol
“…whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But those who do not believe in Him don’t get eternal life…so if eternal life would benefit you and death would not, the selfless thing to do would be to not believe in God.

12 04 2011
Tim Courtois

I personally wouldn’t go that far. I like what CS Lewis said: “It is far more important that heaven should exist than that I should ever get there.” In other words: The proper motive for loving God is because he’s lovable; the proper motive for believing in God is because he’s real; the proper motive for trusting God is because he’s trustworthy.

My hope isn’t to say that we should make it our goal to be “selfish”, but that when we focus on selfishness, we inadvertently bring a lot of other junk with it (like self-contempt). I think it’s better to put the idea of “selfishness” aside, and focus on Biblical values, like love, generosity, and service.

Agree?/Disagree?

16 04 2011
hannahmariewilson

it seems like there are a lot of things jesus says that would indicate that it is blessed, good, and right to [in love & obedience] choose to put another person’s wellbeing before ourselves, to sacrifice on behalf of another, to love when it comes at a cost to us…

-But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. [Matt 19:30]
-there are so many more verses i want to list, but my computer is being slow at searching for them on biblegateway. there are just tons of places where jesus talks about loving people sacrificially, and his whole life, climaxing at the cross, shows how he, though he was definitely entitled to not chose this, humbled himself and honored the undeserving above himself [bearing our punishment, washing the disciples’ feet].

i think what i’ve heard a lot is people teaching on how selfishness [usually defined as choosing to put ourselves above or before other people] is something that can get in the way of this kingdom value & lifestyle that jesus models for us.

in my own life, it is so clear how a lot of the times how much i prioritize, think of, praise, glorify, and care about myself keeps me from loving god or taking the opportunities he gives me to freely give away what he’s given to me. i fall into greed, pride, and loving myself far more than i love god. though it might not explicitly be in the bible dozens of times, i think that being overly-self focused, selfish, etc very easily can inhibit and enslave us, keeping us from life & freedom in the love & obedience that christ desires us to have.

17 04 2011
Tim Courtois

Thanks for commenting Hannah!

Everything you’ve said here is great, and is a good counter-point to a lot of the things I’ve been thinking & writing about recently. Honestly, my words are sometimes reactionary against some of my own pet peeves that I see in our culture (that is, America and American Christianity): I see self-contempt and self-debasement held up as a counterfeit version of love.

I have a series of posts written that will be posting in the coming weeks exploring this topic further. I think I’ll end up in a good place, and I hope that I hold the truth in proper tension: That God *does* want us to focus our lives on loving him and our neighbors, but does *not* call us to self-contempt or self-debasement. My prayer is that I move the conversation forward in a way that challenges others to think more deeply about the topic; and that by God’s mercy I don’t lead others astray by promoting an un-Biblical, self-seeking and self-oriented lifestyle. That is *not* my goal. I would be doing others a disservice if I lead them away from the truth that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Mt. 16:23-ff)

(And in response to your comment, I decided to go back and soften a little bit of the language in my last couple posts.)

Hope you stick around, and I would be honored to have you call me out if I go too far.

21 04 2011
hannah

thanks for all of your thoughts/full response – i like them.

and i like what you’re reacting against. there’s no reason for us to love people as god calls us to, to lay down our lives for them, if they aren’t worth everything [like the cross declares]. and it’s not somehow true that everyone else is has infinite worth and we don’t. you’re totally right- there’s no reason for self-contempt in the church.

what a complicated mess of things jesus was able to hold in balance/tension…

21 04 2011
hannah

thanks for all of your thoughts/full response – i like them.

and i like what you’re reacting against. there’s no reason for us to love people as god calls us to, to lay down our lives for them, if they aren’t worth everything [like the cross declares]. and it’s not somehow true that everyone else is has infinite worth and we don’t. you’re totally right- there’s no reason for self-contempt in the church.

what a complicated mess of things jesus was able to hold in balance/tension…

i plan on sticking around, and i’m excited to read more. your thinking challenges mine, and i have a lot to learn from you, tim.

22 04 2011
mikey

Tim, are you saying that when you hear people use the word “selfish” negatively, you see them often using it as a synonym for “self-concerned” or “self-aware”? Because I can see how lacking either of these could lead to self-contempt or self-debasement. But I think when I usually hear people use it, they mean “self-absorbed” or “self-centered”, so I generally don’t have a strong response when I hear selfish used negatively. Maybe we just hang around different crowds.

24 04 2011
Tim Courtois

That’s sort of what I’m saying.

I think it’d be more accurate to say that they use it to mean “self-absorbed” like you say, but the behavior that they’re describing is actually healthy behavior, thereby indicating a belief that any sort of self-concern at all is a bad thing. So, I’m looking to switch it up, saying that if we’re really going to call such things “selfish”, then I’m not really so sure selfishness is a bad thing.

Let’s say a friend is considering whether God is leading them to move to a new city: I’ve heard people say, “I hope you stay, for selfish reasons”, implying that the speaker’s desire is a bad thing.

I’ll add that, from a purely grammatical standpoint, the dictionary definition of the word “selfish” implies something I’m not comfortable with: If something is “greenish”, it’s sort of a green color. If you meet somebody at “2-ish”, you’re meeting them around 2:00. By analogy, one would think the definition of “selfish” would be, “having to do with the self”. By defining it as a completely bad thing, we imply that anything having to do with the self is a bad thing – even if the dictionary definition says something slightly different.

12 05 2011
John

I think that God gave us our faculties of reason and logic for a reason. We have them to further our faith in God. However, I don’t think it is reasonable to believe in something simply “because it is” or believe that something or someone is good “because they are good. ” I think that reason and faith can go hand in hand–just like Aquinas–and believing in something simply because “it is” is not reasonable.
There must be some motive behind all of our actions. I think that that motive must ultimately be self-service. I think that, whether we mean to be or not, we Christians are all Christians out of selfishness.
This is a response to a very thoughtful response to my earlier post. Sorry if it seems out of place.

12 05 2011
John

But it is certainly regrettable when the values that you mentioned earlier are put on the back burner in favor of ones I’d consider less significant. I agree with you there.

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