Selfishness – The Mortal Sin?

Selfishness – a definition

  1. 1:  concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself :  seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

  2. 2:  arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

Of course, none of us fall into this definition.  But my job is to explore this topic in order to uncover those things that mostly are hidden, or are kept hidden.

Curious thing about selfishness – it doesn’t appear to be a talent or skill that needs to be taught.  It comes pretty naturally, and at quite an early age, too.  But, the term ‘selfishness’ is illusive, so we need to understand what we are talking about.  While most people would confess to being generous (I use this term as a way of describing the opposite of selfishness), and not selfish, the truth is that there are a wide variety of degrees of both selfishness and generosity.  Viewed in this light, we might say that to some degree we are all selfish, and to some degree we are also generous.  In other words, we fall somewhere on the line that is drawn between being selfish and being generous.

Let’s further complicate things a bit, as this is a very interesting topic.

We don’t have to learn to be selfish, but we mostly have to learn to be generous.  By the time we reach adulthood we credit ourselves for having overcome our selfish tendencies, and are proud of our displays of generosity.  But, let me use an example to show that understanding our selfish nature and our generous nature are not always easy to understand.

Example 1

The local school has a drive to raise money for a worthy cause (any cause will do).  At the end of this drive donors will receive special recognition for their sacrifice at some event.  You feel like you want to participate in this cause, but because of your generous spirit, you are not concerned about credit or receiving recognition, so you prepare to give your donation anonymously.  But, wait–  is that a check you are writing?  Is that a credit card you are using?  That’s not anonymous.  So, you check yourself, once again, and go to the ATM and pull out the cash amount.  You pat yourself on the back, for, once again, doing the noble and right thing.  In fact, you feel so good you double the normal donor amount.  So, you now ask a friend to place the unmarked envelope in the donor basket.  Wait — that’s not anonymous – your friend knows, and we all know if your friend knows, everyone knows.  Once again, you feel good, because you almost made a mistake.  So, you slip up and look around, and when no one is watching you place the unmarked envelope in the basket, and walk away.

But, it’s not over yet.  Although, you know you won’t be recognized because nobody knows that you gave, you decide to attend the award and recognition ceremony anyways.  They go through the list of donors, with each one being called up to the platform by name.  The MC gives each one a handshake, and there is a round of applause.  Of course, you participate, too, clapping for each one who gave.  Then the MC pauses, and says, “Folks, we count it a special privilege to announce we have a special anonymous donor who has given twice the requested amount.”  You can start to feel your chest expand with a small sense of pride, as the MC continues.  “While this gift has been given anonymously, I think we all know who this is.”  Oh gee, did someone see me giving the gift?  You start slowly looking around to see if there are clues to how this mystery was solved.  The MC continues, “I want this person to come forward, and though they prefer to not be recognized, I think they will forgive this one action.”  As you start to rise from your seat, you sit back down quickly, because someone else has stepped to the stage – Bob Shinker.  BOB SHINKER???  He has never given a dime to any cause in his life.  The MC announces, “Folks, can we have a big round of applause for Bob Shinker, who has given so generously to this cause?”  The room explodes, and there is a standing ovation, but all of sudden you are not in the mood for clapping anymore.

What has just happened?  Well, the basic point I’m trying to make is that although we count ourselves as generous and not selfish, there are limits to our generosity, and selfishness can arise at any moment, unannounced.  We label it under different terms, “justice”, “it’s simply not right”, “it’s unfair”, etc… but it really all comes down to the same thing – we didn’t get the credit we felt we rightly deserved, and to top it off, the credit for our accomplishment went to someone else.  As you can see there are a lot of things going on here.  We might even conclude that in the example above it wasn’t selfishness that motivated the feelings of the donor.  Maybe it was pride, or something else, but if we really examine it carefully it does come back to what we feel we deserve for being generous, or unselfish.

Ok, on to another aspect….

The degree to which we want to be generous is limited by many things.  I believe the biggest limiting factor to our level of generosity is the level of sacrifice that will be required.  In this short blog I define ‘sacrifice’ as simply “how much will this hurt me?”  In other words, little pain yields big generosity, while great pain yields little generosity.  Now let me clarify something – the above statement is what we ‘think’ will happen, not what has already happened.  If we think that great pain, suffering and sacrifice will be required we are inclined to be less generous, whereas, if there is little or no pain anticipated we are inclined to be more generous.  Can you see how ‘selfishness’ factors into this?  Let me try and go a bit further.  If the pain, suffering and sacrifice will be on someone else’s part, then we can be inclined to be more generous, as it doesn’t directly affect us.  Now do you see the impact of selfishness?

This is a big topic, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.  But, before closing this posting I need to address the title.  Why would I call selfishness a mortal sin?  Maybe mortal isn’t the right term.  Maybe I should have used ‘core’ instead.  I wonder if selfishness isn’t at the root of virtually all sin.  If we look at just the sins that are listed in the 10 commandments we can quickly see that selfishness may play a significant role in each one.  Why does one commit murder?  Well, there are many reasons including anger, vengeance, money, love, jealousy, envy, etc…  But, aren’t all of these dealing with how a person feels about those things that most affect him or her?  In other words, selfishness?  All of the reasons listed above as motives for murder, have to do with the individual’s own feelings of how they were treated (anger, vengeance), what their status is in life (money), or what they feel is being taken away from them (jealousy, love).  In brief, the motives listed above are about ME, ME, and ME.

Maybe this is why Jesus said, “If anyone will follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

It may also answer why there is no indication there were any who answered and said, “I will”….


One Response to “Selfishness – The Mortal Sin?”

  1. Barbara McGuire Says:

    Wow!! Such an excellent blog and especially at this time of year. Sure makes one think! I really enjoyed this and it is so true! Blessings to you and yours for a great New Year!

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