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Lesson 3: Serving the Self

Marla squeezed out a tear or two as the judge read the final divorce decree. She had initiated the separation and was looking forward to being single again. Of course it was sad, and she had a few lingering doubts about her decision. But soon Marla would have the opportunity to fulfill her destiny, just the way she had envisioned it a thousand times before. She would travel. She would paint. She would go to the theater and to gourmet cooking classes. She would have her own little condo, with a view of the city lights.

Her twenty-five-year marriage to Gary had been so confining—everyone knew he was a major control freak. All her friends agreed she was better off without him. Sure, he'd been generous with her, and he had made sure she had the best of everything. But Gary had never allowed her to "be herself" Instead, he was always telling her what to wear, what to cook, even what to think.

Now that the kids were away at college, it was her time to become the "real" Marla. Her son and daughter weren't at all happy about the divorce, but she shrugged off their protests. "You'll get over it," she had told them. "You have your lives, and now I have mine too.

The marriage settlement, as state law required, would give Marla half of everything, and in Gary and Marla's more-than-comfortable financial state, she would be set for life. Her intention was to dabble in real estate and to get much better acquainted with a certain man who'd caught her attention at her fitness center. He was young, great looking, and a free spirit, just like Marla. Her pulse speeded up at the thought of him.

"It's my turn to enjoy life," Marla whispered to no one in particular as she pulled her Mercedes out of the county courthouse parking lot. "It's about time I did something for me!"

The popular psychology that had inspired and permitted Marla's divorce offers many familiar opportunities: Find yourself Treat yourself with respect. Get to know the "real you." Take care of number one—if you don't, no one else will.

Have you noticed how much pressure we feel to think of ourselves before we think of others? It's our natural bent to do this, but we are now being brainwashed into believing that this is the only way to find fulfillment. Our culture is obsessed with the self. We are continuously encouraged toward self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and self-absorption.

This kind of philosophy doesn't mix well with true Christianity. In fact, it stands in stark contrast to the teaching of Jesus, who continuously taught self-sacrifice. He stated that we only find our souls when we lose them. And ultimately, He set an example for the ages by literally laying down His life for others. With all that in mind, it seems logical to consider selfishness as a primary impediment to spiritual maturity. Since it often lies at the heart of our other emotional difficulties, let's take a serious look at selfishness before we move on to other obstacles that may be blocking our way to emotional and spiritual health.

The True Needs of the Self

Abraham Maslow said, "Fulfillment and growth come from close attention to the needs of the self" He taught that the self is a hierarchy of inner needs and that culture and tradition push people toward unauthentic selves. In other words, living for others is a trap. At the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy stood the self-actualized person who was virtually independent of culture or of troublesome ties to others.

The problem with this philosophy is that it's so easy to do. You don't have to teach children to be selfish or self-centered. One of our biggest challenges as parents is to train our sons and daughters to share, to be helpful, to be considerate, to think of themselves as part of a family where each person has responsibilities as well as privileges.

Satan had a basic strategy when he tempted our first parents in Eden. He intended to create skepticism about God in them, to turn their attention to themselves, and to stimulate their desire to please themselves rather than their Creator. This first manifestation of selfishness is still evident. In fact, it is thriving in today's world.

Selfishness greatly impedes our spiritual growth because the whole emphasis of Scripture is on our relationships to others. We are instructed to . . .

  • Love others
  • Serve others
  • Honor others
  • Help others
  • Share with others
  • Encourage others
  • Admonish others
  • Restore others

With that in mind, it's quite evident that if we persist in nurturing the immature selfishness we were born with, we will not grow into mature and fruitful believers.

Abraham—God's Chosen Man

The story of Abraham (who was originally called Abram) and Lot draws a clear distinction between selfishness and the generosity that results from faith. God called Abraham to a great adventure in faith when He told him to leave family, friends, and homeland to go on a journey with God. He didn't know what his destination would be, but he believed God's promises, and he started out with everything he owned, bringing along his nephew Lot. And God gave him an amazing promise: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:2-3).

When Abraham arrived in Canaan, the Lord told him, "To your offspring I will give this land" (Gen. 12:7). But the land was occupied by the Canaanites, and Abraham was a nomad traveling with his household and all of his livestock. He traveled from north to south exploring his family's future inheritance. Abraham "had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold," (Gen. 13:2) and "Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram's herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot" (Gen. 13:5-7a).

As both Abraham's and Lot's herds of livestock increased, the need for pasture and water did too. So their herdsmen started a range war. Abraham took the initiative to end it.

So Abraham said to Lot, "Let's not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left" (Gen. 13:8-9).

I think I might have said, "Look, Lot, God told me to come here; He said He would give me this land. I've just let you come along out of the goodness of my heart. But if you can't keep your hired help from attacking mine, you'd better go back to Haran or Ur. This land is mine. God said so."

Instead, recognizing that they needed to separate, Abraham graciously gave Lot first choice of the land that lay before them. As he did so he demonstrated a powerful principle:

We can be generous when we believe God's promises.

There may be temporary detours on our paths, but when we entrust our lives to God, we needn't demand everything we think we have coming to us.

When I see how Lot responded to Abraham's generous offer, I'm reminded that sometimes those detours can contain some pretty sharp curves. Considering his uncle's generosity, "Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD. . . . So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company" (Gen. 13:10-11).

Clearly, Lot should have said, "No, Uncle Abraham, you choose first. God promised this land to you. I appreciate your bringing me with you. There's room for both of us, so I'll take my family and flocks in the opposite direction from where you choose." However, Lot thought only of what was best for himself. We learn from Lot that selfishness is focused on the temporal and the material.

Lot saw that the plain was watered by the river and was lush and green. From the looks of it, he'd never have to worry about water or pasture for his flocks. So he chose for himself the whole fertile plain of the Jordan. He thought only of the material and temporal advantages of living there. But we get a foreshadowing of the consequences of his selfish choice in the next verses, which tell us that Abraham "lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD" (Gen. 13:12-13).

Selfishness Does Not Consider Spiritual Hazards

Lot pitched his tents near Sodom, unconcerned that Sodom was notorious for its evil—a city whose inhabitants were wholly given over to homosexual perversion. Lot didn't calculate their influence on his family or on himself. He just wanted that nice, green valley for his flocks. The selfish person only thinks of the here and now.

Meanwhile, Lot's choice didn't change God's plans for Abraham one little bit. He simply continued to reaffirm His promise to Him. After Lot left, God told Abraham, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you" (Gen. 13:14-17).

As we reflect upon the story of Abraham and Lot's dramatically contrasting attitudes and behaviors, we learn some priceless principles about selfishness and unselfishness.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, let's take a closer look at the way this ancient story reveals how these powerful principles still work to help us achieve emotional growth.

Unselfishness Causes Us to Be Discriminating about the Source of Our Wealth and Advantage

Lot got into a great deal of trouble because of his selfish choices. Genesis 14 describes four kings who warred against five other kings in that area. Sodom was one of the defeated cities, and the victors carried loot and captives away with them. Guess who was included! "They also carried away . . . Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom" (Gen. 14:12).

So Lot was now living in Sodom. Apparently he considered the material advantages more important than the moral and spiritual concerns for his family in that environment.

When Abraham received news of Lot's capture, he could have said, "It serves him right. Let him take the consequences!" But that wasn't Abraham's style. Instead, he mustered 318 trained men from his own household and pursued the victorious kings until he recovered all the goods and people they had captured, including Lot.

When Abraham returned, the king of Sodom rushed out to meet him. All of the loot and the people Abraham had rescued rightfully belonged to Abraham. But a king couldn't be a king without people. So he approached Abraham to cut a deal, suggesting, "Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself"

But Abraham answered him, "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich" (Gen. 14:21-23).

What an opportunity for Abraham to multiply his wealth! But he resisted the temptation. He was determined to let God alone be the source of his prosperity. That's what I meant when I said unselfishness causes us to be discriminating about the source of our wealth and advantage. Abraham would never let anyone, especially the depraved king of Sodom, have the right to say he was the one who made Abraham rich.

Abraham could be unselfish and generous because of his faith in God's promises of blessing. Abraham had his eyes fixed on eternity.

There are good ways and bad ways to accumulate wealth. As Christians, we must be willing to forego the fast buck that might be legal but is really unethical or ruthless. We are to avoid being users of people, and we're not to be opportunists who cash in on others' misfortunes. Instead, we trust God to give us what we need.

Unselfishness Includes Intercession for Others

When we're unselfish, we put others' needs ahead of our own; this includes praying on their behalf. Again, this is demonstrated in the story of Abraham and Lot.

Many years after the Sodom incident, Abraham's unselfish concern for his selfish nephew was revealed again when Abraham interceded with God on Lot's behalf. Despite Lot's selfishness, Abraham had never stopped caring for him. He interceded for Lot when three visitors arrived at Abraham's camp. Although they looked like ordinary men, they were really the Lord and two angels.

As was his custom, Abraham treated the strangers with lavish hospitality. Soon Abraham realized who his guests were, and he heard from them that Sodom was to be destroyed. Realizing that impending disaster was about to fall on Lot, he pleaded for Lot's life. Abraham persisted in asking for God's mercy on his nephew until he was assured that Lot would not be destroyed. At that point, the visitors left Abraham, and two of them headed for Sodom.

Selfish Ambition Causes Compromise

The next part of the story shows how Lot's selfishness gradually caused him to compromise his beliefs and his standards as he became enmeshed in the prevailing culture: "The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. 'My lords,' he said, 'Please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning!

"'No,' they answered, 'we will spend the night in the square'

"But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, 'Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them"' (Gen. 19:1-5).

This passage tells us a lot, not only about the debauchery that permeated the city of Sodom, but also about how much Lot had acclimated to that city. He was now an important person in Sodom. We know this because the angels found him sitting at the city gate, where business and legal matters were conducted. The rulers of the city sat in the gate.

Have you noticed Lot's progression? First he pitched his tent near Sodom. Then he moved inside. Now he is a prominent member of Sodom's society. This couldn't have happened without some compromises on his part. He obviously knew what a wicked city he lived in, because he wouldn't let the two strangers camp out in the open.

Selfish Ambition Brings Contamination

The next principle revealed in this story is how Lot's selfish ambition caused him to be contaminated by the sinfulness that surrounded him. This ugly chapter in the book of Genesis gives us an accurate picture of what still happens today when homosexuality is an accepted, alternative lifestyle. As Christians we must be compassionate toward these individuals, but let's never waver from the biblical posture that homosexuality is a sin that God despises and judges.

As the story continues, we see how Lot himself was polluted by the immorality of Sodom. "Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, 'No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof" (Gen. 19:6-8).

So Lot offered his two daughters to the rapists. Protecting strangers was more important to him than protecting his daughters. It boggles the mind. Meanwhile, the Sodomites made no attempt to hide the contempt they had for Lot.

"'Get out of our way,' they replied. And they said, 'This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them' They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

"But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door" (Gen. 19:9-11).

The angels then urged Lot to get his family out of Sodom because God was going to destroy it. When he warned his daughters' fiancés of the impending judgment, they thought he was joking. He had no credibility with them, either.

Finally, the angels had to drag Lot, his wife, and his two daughters out of Sodom before the Lord destroyed it by raining down burning sulfur from heaven. The only reason Lot was rescued was because of his uncle Abraham's intercession; Genesis 19:29 says God "remembered Abram, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived." Lot's wife didn't fare so well; her ambivalence caused her to be turned into a pillar of salt.

Selfish Choices Affect Our Descendants

Ultimately, Lot and his daughters got out of Sodom, but Sodom didn't get out of them. After the luxury of Sodom they were reduced to living in a cave. Then the story took another unbelievable twist. When Lot's daughters realized they had no prospects to marry and have children, they took turns getting their father drunk and having intercourse with him. Each of them bore a son as a result of that incest. The descendants of those sons, Moab and Ammon, were Israel's enemies all their days.

Our selfish sins influence our children, even when we think they don't notice. We are their primary role models, and our responsibility to model unselfishness and godliness is enormous. Lot made the selfish choice to prosper personally, but as a result of his choice he lost everything: his home, his possessions, his status, and his wife. And you might say he lost his daughters to the culture of Sodom. Can you imagine what it was like living with them after their sexual impropriety?

Selfish Ambition Leads to Moral Failure

In the story of Lot and Abraham, we've seen how the selfish choices we make can lead us down the road toward not only material bankruptcy but also to moral and spiritual destruction. These are consequences we will face if we base our choices on material and temporal advantages. When we are focused only on the here and now, we will always choose what is best for ourselves. We often do so without a thought about the effect our actions may have on our future or on others, especially our families.

We May Do Unselfish Things for Selfish Reasons

Sometimes, in our selfishness, we are blind to our own behavior, having convinced ourselves that we are being sacrificial. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are unselfish because we are serving others. But it is entirely possible for us to play the servant's role with self-serving motives.

Even the disciples who lived with Jesus for over three years were infected with selfish ambition. They expected the Messiah to set up His earthly kingdom within their lifetimes, and they had great plans for themselves when He did. It's even more remarkable that at the exact time that Jesus predicted His death, James and John only thought of who would be top dog in the kingdom. These competitive young men even brought their mother into the act (see Matt. 20:17-28).

It's striking to contrast the self-seeking ambition of the disciples with the humility of their Lord. He left His throne in glory and came to serve, to give His life as a ransom for many. And He alone is to be our role model. We are not to model ourselves after people who achieve greatness through power, riches, or position. The greatest privilege we have on earth is not to rule over others but to serve them and give our lives to bring them to God.

Selfish Ambition Comes from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Selfishness. Selfish ambition. The desire to be first. The longing to have the most. These are not the characteristics of a person under the control of God's Spirit. In fact, the opposite is true. Scripture tells us, "If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice" (James 3:14-16).

Many sins have at their source selfishness and self-indulgence. As Paul warned the Galatians, "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21).

The person whose life is habitually characterized by these sins gives evidence that he or she is not a believer. But don't deceive yourself—believers aren't immune. The world, the flesh, and the devil exert all their energies and strategies to keep us from becoming the spiritually mature people God wants us to be.

The Holy Spirit Delivers Us from Selfish Ambition

How can we overcome this attitude and emotion of selfishness that so easily controls us? It takes a commitment on our part, which we must live out day by day. Paul wrote, "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (Gal. 5:16).

If we continue to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, we will conquer our own selfish natures. This means we are to listen to His voice, obey God's Word, and follow godly impulses. Each time we do so, the temptation to be selfish is conquered, and it gets easier and easier to put this goal into practice. Then, without effort on our part, the Holy Spirit will produce fruit in our lives, providing evidence that He lives within us.

Notice how these godly characteristics affect our relationships with others and ourselves: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22-25).

Love for Others Cures Selfishness

Did you notice the first fruit mentioned? Love! Agape is the love God has showered upon us. And agape is the love He will implant in our hearts for others. It's more an action than an emotion. It does rather than feels. It's described perfectly in 1 Corinthians 13:5, which says, "Love is not self-seeking."

When you feel selfishness seeping into your actions and attitude, replace it with love. The way to stop the wrong behavior is to replace it with the right conduct. Paul tells us how to do this in Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Our Selflessness Changes Others' Lives

Since we are all members of the body of Christ—children in God's family—the apostle Paul also exhorts us to be united in spirit, in purpose, and in love for each other.

Selfish ambition or vain conceit has no place in the life of the believer.

We will care about the people we work with and for. Maybe the boss is irritable and demanding because he or she is carrying a personal burden we know nothing about. Instead of resentment, we can make the boss's job less stressful by being the best, most considerate employee he or she has. And we'll certainly pray for the boss!

We will not always wait for our husbands to do something nice for us. Instead, we'll think of ways to make our homes safe havens for them. We'll welcome them with warmth, love, and laughter when they come home from a cold, demanding world, where they are often battered and bruised.

We'll give up some of our ambitions so we can be available to our children. It's a great sacrifice to put a career on hold to stay with babies, and the time seems to drag so slowly until they are teenagers—and eventually out on their own. But our sons and daughters need their mothers' presence, attention, and care. No one can substitute for Mother. The emotional and social consequences of not putting the interests of our children first will haunt us through future generations.

We'll also give of ourselves unselfishly by serving on boards and committees, not because of the power they give us, but because of a desire to do the best for the most people.

We'll speak up for what is right, even if it means personal loss.

We'll share with those in need.

We'll go a few blocks out of our way to bring someone to church who doesn't have a way to get there.

We'll work with a woman in a crisis pregnancy and help her through those long, lonely months.

We'll cook an extra casserole and bring it to the sick or grieving.

We'll tutor kids in the inner city and demonstrate the love of Christ to them, enabling them to acquire basic skills and encouraging their self-worth.

We'll let our adult children run their own lives, but we'll always be there to hear their joys and struggles, willing to help when they need us to.

We'll give a young mother some free time by taking the kids off her hands for a few hours.

We'll come alongside a woman or a couple having difficulties, and we'll work with them for months, even years, to save a life or a marriage.

We'll be happy to serve without applause because we are serving the Lord and want only His approval.

Perhaps as we've worked through this study on selfishness you have recognized that you've been living a very self-centered life. If so, confess your sin to the Lord and let Him cleanse you. Then be on the lookout for ways to serve other people. Ask the Lord to make you sensitive to their needs. Follow your good impulses and begin to experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from thinking of others rather than yourself.

The temptation to be self-centered is one we'll struggle with all our lives, but we can set our wills to follow the Lord's example. Like Him, we have been called to put the interests of others before our own. Let's begin today.

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