Summary: It is so easy to judge and condemn the perceived selfishness of others. But rarely do we turn that discerning eye and critical judgment toward ourselves leaving our personal selfishness virtually unchallenged.


Philippians 2:3-4

If you look around, you see endless examples of selfishness. We often lament their existence: We lash out at the pork spending of politicians for their constituents. We despise the self-serving culture of corporate greed. We protest the selfish motives of many wars and ruling parties. We cry out against the injustice of unnecessary poverty and hunger in an age where the 1% live ostentatious, selfish lives focused on themselves. It is so easy to judge and condemn the perceived selfishness of others. But rarely do we turn that discerning eye and critical judgment toward ourselves leaving our personal selfishness virtually unchallenged. Recognizing selfishness in others is easy. But claiming our own selfishness is more difficult to accomplish. It is, after all, far more painful to admit.

Selfishness is being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. Selfishness is putting our goals, priorities and needs before everyone else even those who are really in need. In our scripture passage today, Paul compares selfishness to “empty conceit”—a term that could be translated “vanity” or “arrogance.” It refers to an overly high opinion of oneself. Selfishness, then, is akin to narcissism. It is often expressed by building up oneself by tearing down others. Galatians 5:20 calls it one of the “works of the flesh.” James 3:16 says it leads to “disorder and every evil practice.” Selfishness caused the children of Israel to “willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved.” Psalm 78:18. Selfishness caused the rich young ruler to turn his back on Jesus. Matt. 19:21-22. Selfishness ruins friendships (Proverbs 18:1) and it hinders prayer (James 4:3).

Are you selfish? To find out, take this short quiz. How would you answer these questions: I rarely let others borrow anything.

I don't lend things out unless I get something as a deposit.

Sometimes I think I ask too much of the people around me.

I don't always let the guest get first pick.

I don’t want to hear about your problems. It's not MY problem.

I’ll do anyone a favor, but expect one in return.

I take credit for things, even if it is a team’s work

I have a negative reaction when someone asks me for a donation for a charity.

The fact is we are all selfish at times. There are various degrees of selfishness, but the general traits are the same: putting yourself first, only caring about your needs and wants, being unable to see another’s perspective, and being uncaring of others. There are times we all have been guilty of one or all of those traits, but what sets self-centered people apart is that they behave that way all the time.

But are humans naturally selfish? Professor Jay Hoffman of The College of New Jersey writes, “If you don't think most of humanity is selfish, try going shopping early on Black Friday…Or try yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. And driving anywhere these days one sees a horrific display of selfishness. Drivers are aggressively competing to get ahead of each other…”

The opposite of selfishness is altruism, the selfless concern for the well-being of others, and our inclination toward it is supported in research. Studies of 18-month-old toddlers show that they will almost always try to help an adult who is visibly struggling with a task, without being asked to do so: if the adult is reaching for something, the toddler will try to hand it to them, or if they see an adult drop something accidentally, they will pick it up. Another study found that 3- to 5-year-olds tend to give a greater share of a reward (stickers, in this case) to a partner who has done more work on a task — again, without being asked — even if it means they get to keep less for themselves. Fundamental tendencies toward altruism aren’t only seen in children, either. Worldwide, the aftermath of natural disasters are typically characterized by heroism and a sharing of resources both within the affected community and by others outside. During the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there were no accounts of people being trampled rushing out of the World Trade Center towers; rather, those who needed assistance descending were cared for. The same occurred after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan in 2011. And in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy, the nation pulled together to donate millions of dollars and tens of thousands of people volunteered and sacrificed to come help rebuild.

So if we aren’t innately selfish, what causes selfishness in us and others? First is the culture we live in. An article for New Scientist Magazine on self-centered cultures states that cultures which emphasize individualism, such as America, fail at being able to take on another person’s perspective. Cultures that emphasize interdependence, on the other hand, like those in Asia, are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of others and be more empathetic. Our American culture not only supports but pushes individuals to put themselves and their own happiness first. Sociologists have noted that people take pride in being self-centered and for caring only about their needs and wants. Ayn Rand has written a book entitled Atlas Shrugged in which she argues that being selfish is actually a viture.

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