Four Ways to be Less Selfish
My son has learned a new phrase. When he is frustrated and not getting his way, he says, "But Dad, I want what I want." In some ways, it is an important developmental step for his little four year old mind. Recognizing that he gets frustrated because he isn't getting what he wants can be good. Learning how to respond appropriately to that desire is something we are still working on...
But his phrase has also been illuminating for me. Hearing him say "I want what I want" has shined a spotlight on my own selfish tendencies. I have been reminded that my heart is prone toward selfishness. And it has been very clear that the most common reason behind my anger or frustration is that I am not getting what I want.
When I get frustrated with the other drivers on the road, it is usually because I am not getting what I want on the roadway. Wouldn't life be so much easier if everyone knew what I wanted and made it happen... When I get angry at my children, it is often because I feel personally wronged, because they have not done what I wanted. In conflict with my wife, a barrier for my own repentance and reconciliation is often that I don't want to give up what I want.
My son's own revelation has led me to recognize I am far too often motivated by my own selfish desires. At my core, God is still working on my heart and still changing my desires. It has been a helpful reminder as I fight my sin of selfishness. Here are four ways I think we can be less selfish.
Remember that Jesus was unselfish toward us
One way to disarm our selfish hearts is to remind ourselves that Jesus was unselfish toward us. There is truly no greater example of selfless and sacrificial love than Jesus dying on the cross to redeem us from our helpless plight. Jesus was innocent. Rather than selfishly keeping his innocence, he gave it away to us. In fact, I would argue that keeping his own innocence wouldn't have been selfish at all, because it was rightly his. But rather than keep what was his, he gave it to us. And in return he got our sin. He took our shame and our guilt, nailing it to the cross.
Jesus even prayed in the garden that this cup would pass, but ultimately he wanted to do the will of the Father. Jesus was entirely selfless toward us. When we feel a desire to be selfish, and to "get what we want," it can be helpful to remember how Jesus acted toward us, and respond in the same way toward others.
Get enough sleep (and other healthy habits)
I had a couple late nights last week, because I stayed up to watch the finale of one of my favorite shows. I noticed pretty quickly the next morning that I was going to have to battle my own crabby and selfish heart, which seems to have more power when I am tired. Michael Hyatt has done a lot of writing on the impact of sleep, and its effects on your life. Lack of sleep can have a very negative impact, so we must fight to be well rested.
Additionally, healthy eating and exercise can help us grow in our patience and grace. John Piper, in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, talks about the importance of making wise choices with our health, ultimately in the service of a greater purpose.
"My aim for pastors is not your maximum physical health. Nor is it to help you find ways to get the best buzz for your brain. My aim is that you will find a way of life that enables you to use your mind and your five sense as effective partners in seeing the glory for God and that you be so satisfied in Him that you are willing to risk your health and your life to make Him known." (pg. 185, Brothers we are Not Professionals)
Here is how I see this working out practically. We need to pursue rest and physical health, so that when the time comes for us to sacrifice those things in the service of selfless acts (ultimately in the service of God's glory and the good of others), we are equipped to do so. When my child is up in the middle of the night scared because of a night-terror, I want to be well rested enough to sacrifice my sleep in the moment to care for them well. Or when I need to give up my meal for someone who needs it more, I want to have cared for myself well, so I am in a right frame of mind to sacrifice my food for the good of another.
Caring for myself is extremely important, but always in the service of a greater purpose. If I tell my child in the middle of the night that I can't help them deal with their nightmare because I really need to get some rest, so that I can be less selfish tomorrow, that would be crazy.
Care for yourself now, SO THAT you can sacrifice yourself later.
Choose intentionally selfless acts
One way we can fight our propensity toward selfishness is to intentionally and consistently choose selfless actions. When we purposefully choose selfless acts, we train ourselves to choose them again in the future. Like the muscle memory of an athlete or musician who practices the same simple action over and over again, so that they can repeat the action flawlessly under the pressure of performance or competition, we can train ourselves to move in the direction of selflessness rather than selfishness.
When we know we will be entering a situation that will require self-sacrificing choices, we can plan ahead and prepare ourselves. Or when we have the opportunity to be selfless when it is "easy," we can prepare ourselves to fight selfishness when it is hard. Think about ways you can make the intentional choice to be selfless, and plan ahead to act in that direction. Choose intentionally selfless acts and thereby train yourself to be sacrificially loving toward others.
Remind yourself of God's love for you
One of the key drivers for selfishness is the fear of losing out on what we so badly desire. We are often selfish out of a desire to protect ourselves and what is ours. Selfishness is heightened when we feel insecure and afraid. We fight to gather and retain what is ours. But when we remind ourselves of God's love for us, and the security He brings to our lives, we are more prepared to fight the temptation to be selfish.
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39 ESV)"
This passage in Romans 8 is a great reminder of who we are in Christ. Who can separate us from God? Can famine, nakedness, danger or sword? No! We are more than conquerors through Christ. What in this world is worth our selfish desires when we have the love of God? The God, "who did not spare is own Son, but gave him up for us." That is the kind of love the Father has for us. When we are confident in God's love for us, we have less need to seek our security in the world, which leads to less desire to "have what I want," which leads to sacrificial love toward others. Fight selfishness by reminding yourself of God's love for you in Christ.