Being Selfish vs. Selfless

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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The path to holiness is almost always simple in theory but difficult in practice. For example, the whole law of God can be neatly summarized in two basic commands: love God and love your neighbor. This teaching is simple to say and easy to learn, but putting it into practice is the work of a lifetime. In my own study of the spiritual life, I am learning that the secret to becoming Christ-like is to not be selfish. Again, this is a very simple concept that is astoundingly difficult to put into practice.

Someone once said, “If you don’t believe in original sin, just put one cookie on the floor between two toddlers and watch what happens.” We are born selfish creatures. Babies think only about themselves. They want to be fed. They want to be cuddled. They want to be rocked to sleep. They want to be entertained. As they grow from infants into toddlers, their desires also grow. They want their toys. They want other children’s toys. They want to watch their TV shows. They want mom and dad to pick them up. They don’t care that mom and dad are busy unloading groceries and so can’t carry them at the moment. They want what they want and they want it now!

We were all like this as toddlers and young children. No one has to be taught selfishness. It is the fallen human nature we have inherited. A selfless attitude is something we have to learn. Most of the early lessons of childhood teach us to think of others first. We are taught even before kindergarten about the importance of sharing. We are told it is nice to share our toys and share our snacks. The games we play teach us to take turns. These are important lessons, which many adults would do well to remember.

But as adults, being selfless means so much more than sharing and taking turns. It means putting the good of others before your own, even if that means you must go without so that others can be happy. It means thinking about how things might affect other people before thinking about how they will affect you. It means suffering annoyances and even personal injustice with patience, without complaining. It means living for others more than for yourself.

Selflessness is the key to holiness because Jesus is selfless. To become Christ-like we must be selfless like Him. The second reading this Sunday contains St. Paul’s great hymn on the selflessness of Christ from the second chapter of Philippians.

Have in you the same attitude
that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

As God, Jesus is perfect in every way. He is perfect in goodness. He is perfect in love. Perfect love is not content being contained within its own perfection. Perfect love must be shared. It must be given. It must be poured out.

St. Paul says that Jesus “emptied Himself.” The Greek word Paul used is kenosis. It literally means “an emptying.” But it is not an emptying into the void for the sake of being empty. It is an emptying into something — in this case, into us. Jesus emptied Himself of His divine nature (at least in part) to take on our human nature so that the divine nature might be poured into us! That divine nature is love (see 1 Jn 4:8), and love must give itself to the beloved. Those of us reborn in Christ are now sharers of this divine nature, and so we, too, must be poured out to others.

To grow in holiness is to grow in love, and love is the antidote to the poison of selfishness. Love drives selfishness out. The two cannot coexist, as one is incompatible with the other. This is not to say that love and selfishness cannot both be found in the human heart. They can, and certainly do in all of us who are still journeying on the path of sanctity. But those places in our heart that remain selfish are precisely those places where we have not yet allowed love to fully reign. Selfishness is the disease caused by original sin; self-giving love is the cure given to us by Christ.

The cure is not just given to us by Christ, but it is Christ Himself, which is why Christ administers the cure by pouring Himself out for us. Becoming like Christ means undergoing our own kenosis. We must empty ourselves, not for the sake of being empty, but for the sake of giving ourselves in loving service to others. When we pour ourselves out in love, we find we are continually refilled with Christ — that is, we are continually refilled with Love Himself.

Learning to be selfless is the principle work of our lives. We begin learning these lessons first in the family, by learning to share our lives with our parents and our siblings. We learn not simply to share and take turns, but to find joy in the happiness of others. We learn these lessons when we begin to reach out beyond the boundary of our immediate family and form friendships. We learn them most poignantly when a friendship blossoms into romance. What begins as eros flows into agape (self-giving love) as we bind ourselves for life to another individual whom we promise to give ourselves to fully (and to receive fully their gift of self to us). From the moment you enter into holy matrimony, you are no longer the most important person in your own life.

That is only multiplied when you become a parent. Children are great teachers of selflessness. To raise children means always placing your own desires second (or third, or fourth…). It means taking delight in someone else’s successes, someone else’s discoveries, and someone else’s happiness; because their happiness means so much more to you than your own.

Those who enter religious life, or take holy orders, are also given opportunities to grow in selfless love by serving others. They are called to live out the kenosis of Jesus in a special way, by becoming living icons of Christ’s love for the Church and for the world.

No matter your particular station in life, the path to holiness always involves learning to think less of yourself and more of others. But there is a way in which Christians should think of ourselves. We need to think of ourselves in terms of our relationship with God. How is God giving me the opportunity to grow in holiness today? Where does selfishness still have hold in my life? What do I need to offer to God for healing? What is God calling me to do with my life?

A daily examination of conscience is important, because selfishness can easily lead to pride. A selfish heart is quick to take credit for our successes, while blaming others for our failures. A selfless heart, by contrast, is quick to thank God for our successes, and to ask forgiveness for our failures. The former is pride, the primordial sin that leads to hell. The latter is humility, the key virtue that is the prerequisite for heaven.

Christians might be called selfish by some only in the sense that we desire the unending joy of heaven. But a selfish heart can never experience this joy, because the joy of heaven comes from a never-ending kenosis of the blessed emptying themselves out into God, the divine well of love from which they are continually refilled for all eternity. This is who we are created to be; saints in perfect union with the God Who is Love. One of the great mysteries Christ teaches by His kenosis is that we can only truly know ourselves by emptying ourselves in love.