Love over Selflessness

29 04 2011

Before my Easter posts, I was writing some posts that argued pretty strongly that the words “selfless” and “selfish” have become potentially damaging words, because of the way they are often used in our world.

Good ol' C.S. Lewis, smoking his pipe, saying amazing things.

But I don’t want to focus just one what I don’t like!  I’d much rather focus on what’s good and beautiful.  So let’s take some time looking at some values that – at first – seem very similar to the value of selflessness.  I want to show why they are better and more Biblical values.

Specifically, I want to look at sacrifice and generosity.  I am convinced these values are subtly and significantly different from what we mean when we talk about condemning selfishness and extolling selflessness.

How are they different?

Selfishness and selflessness are focused on a negative rather than a positive.  The way the words are often used implies that the thing that’s “bad” about selfishness is not that it hurts anyone else, but that it benefits the self.  And the thing that’s supposedly good about selflessness is not that it benefits anyone else, but that it detracts from the self.

I’ve 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 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.” (The Weight of Glory)

Self-mutilation is an increasingly common issue today. Check out

You may think that I’m making too much of this.  But I frequently see the negative effects of misunderstanding truth in this area.  As a counselor, I’ve dealt frequently with hurting people who have come to pursue selflessness – rather than grace – as the path to becoming more loving.  They feel guilty for thinking about themselves too much.  They feel upset that they spend so much time doing things that benefit themselves.  Despairing because of their inability to be more “self – less”, they punish themselves in a compulsive effort to destroy the self: indulging in all kinds of self-damaging behaviors, some of which serve no other purpose than pure self-destruction, such as cutting themselves.  The logical end of such beliefs and behaviors is the total negation and annihilation of the self: Self – LESS -ness.  I have great compassion for these people.

Buddhism teaches about the elimination of the self. Christianity teaches about LOVE.

What we must realize is that this is not Christianity; it is Buddhism!  “Nirvana”, the ultimate goal of Buddhism (contrary to the common understanding), was not originally a state of heavenly perfection and joy, but a state devoid of all pleasure, desire, pain, or sense of self.  It is non-existence.  The ultimate goal of the Buddhist is to achieve this non-existence, this self-less-ness.  The ultimate goal of Buddhism is soul-suicide.  Kurt Cobain was not a Buddhist, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the lead singer of a band named “Nirvana” tragically ended his own life with a shotgun.

The core value Christians try to teach when we use the words “selfless” and “selfish” is love of others.  But the core value that Satan wants us to hear is hatred for the self.

This value is vastly inferior to the Biblical value of sacrifice, and is downright ugly when compared to the Biblical values of love and generosity.

Let’s take a look at those – next time.

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3 responses

2 05 2011

Good stuff, I look forward to your continuing thoughts.

One thought along these lines that has bothered me for years is when I hear people quote John the Baptist in John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.” I have heard this in sermons and worship songs used to forward the idea that God’s goals is “less us” in our own lives and “more God,” which follows along the line you’re laying down and give Satan that little crease to put in “there is nothing good about you, just disappear,” rather than God’s statements about “fearfully and wonderfully making” us or us being His “Masterpiece.”

In context, it seems clear to me that John the Baptist was talking about fame or number of followers, and his points are very apt. We should desire God to be famous over us being famous. Jesus should (and thankfully, does) have more followers than me. Those thoughts are good and true, and to the degree we apply them, all the better. But I don’t think God meant for us to take John’s words as a call to minimize ourselves. John was very much himself, and was lauded by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived.

Anyhow, that’s my response.

4 05 2011
C.R. Leighton

I would like to note that there is a difference between this state of non-existence, as you say, and the real goal of Buddhism which is emptiness. Emptiness is not the same as annhilation. Rather, it’s a way of seeing the world as it is, without distortions and personal opinions interfering with one’s clarity.

I challenge you to think that Christianity isn’t the only school of thought that believes in love. Buddhism, in advocating for emptiness, isn’t preaching a self-hatred. Rather, it’s desire is to rid oneself of ignorance that prevents one from seeing the world exactly as it is. This kind of clarity also encourages self-respect and a lifestyle that views all living things as sacred. That’s the kind of perspective we need to have when advocating love.

6 05 2011
Tim Courtois

Thanks for your comment. It’s certainly not my goal to disrespect or misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment thoughtfully on what you read, even though you found it to be inaccurate.

In my own studies (including a class on Buddhism taught by a Buddhist priest), I was taught that “Nirvana” was originally taught by the Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) as the state of “emptiness” that you’re describing – but also that it can only be achieved by a complete elimination of all Karma (attachment). When this is achieved, the person having achieved it will simply cease to exist after death, instead of being reincarnated in a new form. I was taught that Siddhartha Gautama saw all of existence as only a great “wheel of suffering” (Samsara), the only escape from which is the elimination of Karma and non-existence.

I was taught that over time, these ideas developed and changed, so the idea of “Nirvana” came to be viewed more as an eternal, heavenly state of peace as most people conceive of it today – even though that’s not what Siddhartha himself originally taught.

If this conflicts with your understanding of these concepts, I can see how it might be frustrating to see non-Buddhists promoting (what you perceive to be) inaccurate ideas about Buddhism. So please let me know – does this response clarify my ideas at all, or does it just muddle things up further?

In response to the second part your comment: I certainly don’t think that Christianity is the only school of thought that believes in love! (I’m sorry if I made it sound that way.) But I do think that Christianity (and specifically the teachings of Christ) offers the best philosophical and practical understanding of love that anyone has ever offered. I don’t say that out of self-righteousness or pride, as if to say, “MY ideas and philosophies are better than yours!”, but rather in humility: They aren’t “MY” ideas; I was won over by them, having formerly been a non-Christian, and at one time having considered Buddhism as a philosophy, but having found Buddhism lacking.

This is not to say that Buddhists can’t love; just that I don’t think the Buddhist view of reality is the *true* view of reality.

Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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