If you had children in the 1980s (and maybe even if you didn’t) you will remember:
We all live in a capital I
In the middle of the desert
In the center of the sky.
All day long we polish up the I
To make it clean and shiny
So it brightens up the sky.
For those not familiar with the poem above, it is the opening line to a Sesame Street animation called “Capital I.” It had an infectious melody, and featured video about a group of men who lived inside an enormous capital letter I. They spent their days polishing and scrubbing the I to make it beautiful and shiny. To this day, it ranks as one of the most popular and memorable Sesame Street animated clips.
For the Christ follower, however, “I” is rather problematic. Obsession with self is the antithesis of what Christ modeled, and the opposite of that to which he calls us.
For years I have heard 1 Timothy 6:10 grossly misquoted to claim that money is the root of all evil. No. It is not. While the LOVE of money is A root of all KINDS of evil, the true root of all evil is self, I, selfishness.
I have come to the conclusion that all sin can be traced back to an obsession with self. I believe you can think of a sin, any sin, and if we trace it back as far as we possibly can, to its base, its origin, we will find that root cause of that sin was self.
1 – Self is a Heart Issue
Obsession with self, self-interest, self-aggrandizement begins in our hearts.
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth … For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. – James 3:14, 16, ESV
The heart is where my loves and passions reside. It is in my heart that I decide what is important, cherished, treasured. When I begin to treasure others above myself, I am on the path to which Jesus calls me.
It was the heart, rather than the stomach, that drove Israel to put God to the test.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. – Psalm 78:18, ESV
The Psalmist called out to God for a transformed heart that loved God’s statutes rather than self.
Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. – Psalm 119:36
2 – Self is Expensive
Pursuit of self is poisonous and destructive. Jesus laid down serious truth when he said:
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? – Mark 8:36-37, NASB
How do we put a price on our soul? Yet we do this through our self-seeking passions and behaviors
3 – Self is a Blessing & Prayer Blocker
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. – James 4:3, NASB
God is unwilling to pour out the treasures of heaven onto one who is self-obsessed and hoarding. But when we prove to be trustworthy, godly stewards of what we are granted, more will be entrusted.
4 – Self is a Relationship Buster
Selfishness is at the heart of most problems between people, because so often self-seeking requires that we tear down others in order to elevate ourselves. Instead, we ought to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding,” (Romans 14:19).
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. – Ephesians 4:19, NIV
5 – Self Clouds Sound Judgment
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. – Proverbs 18:1, ESV
I love the old King James on this verse – “against all counsel doth he rush on.” So blinded by self-interest are we that we close our ears to the wise counsel of all but our own lust. This, again, can be a relationship buster.
6 – Self Has a Solution
The most prominent and powerful antidote for self is love. The apostle Paul told the church at Corinth, “[Love] does not insist on its own way,” (1 Corinthians 13:5) which puts love 180 degrees out from self.
Not only does love not seek its own, love regards others as more significant than self (Philippians 2:3). What is telling about that reality is the fact that self-seeking is paired with arrogance in Philippians 2:3 – an overly high opinion of oneself. Vanity and narcissism are not a particularly attractive qualities in a Christ-follower.
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. – Philippians 1:4, NASB
Selfishness loses its death-grip on my life when I begin to see beyond my own naval. I cannot esteem myself above my neighbor if I am esteeming my neighbor above myself. Esteeming my neighbor mandates that I drop my self-obsession.
Selfishness and Servanthood are as different as darkness and light. They cannot coexist. Jesus modeled selfless-servanthood to us and then reminded us that he is the Master and we are his disciples.
Jesus the Servant…
Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Matthew 20:28, ESV
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13, ESV
Servant the Master…
For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. – Luke 22:27, ESV
Selfishness dies the moment we take up our cross and follow Jesus.
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23b, NASB
The cross, despite what we have done with it in modern society, was an instrument of brutal, agonizing death. For Jesus to call us to “take up our cross” is no small matter. It calls for a death to self, a crucifixion of narcissistic desire. It is that which enables us to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,” an attitude in which Jesus “emptied Himself,” took on the posture of “a bond-servant,” denied his deity in order to “humble himself,” and ultimately became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Selfishness is supplanted by humility. Where selfishness destroys relationships, humility nurtures them.
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. – Romans 12:3, NIV
Ultimately, we need to know where our treasure is. The Christ-follower does not keep a white-knuckled grip on the transitory things of this life, but rather lays up treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, (Matthew 6:19-21).