Selfishness Is Not a "Right"
There's a lot of talk about "rights" in our world -- and rightly so. Valuing the dignity of an individual or community is essential for harmony and progress. In the Declaration of Independence, the leaders of the American Revolution described what they believed to be a sure foundation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We have the right to these rights, as they are God-given and cannot, by definition, be surrendered. How do we go about claiming or demonstrating these rights? Let's focus on the last one. How does our "pursuit of happiness" impact others?
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew begins with this very subject: "How happy are those who … " (Matt 5), and then he gives us the answer in his Beatitudes, his attitudes for life. For instance: "How happy are those who know their need for God, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs" (Matt 5:3 Phillips).
In studying Matthew and looking at several commentaries, I was caught by a phrase in Craig S. Keener's Matthew commentary:
But the moment we become Christ's followers, our own lives and wills become forfeit; we die with Christ to sin (that is, to the right to make selfish choices; Rom 6:3-4)…." (210)
Reasoning from this statement, we can say that sin is believing that we have the "right" to make selfish choices. A lot of the world, religious and secular, may argue that we do indeed have that right -- to think of ourselves first. But let's look at some meanings of the word, "selfish," to see if it really aligns with the spirit of one's right to "the pursuit of happiness."
According to Webster, the definition of "selfish" is "concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others." Rodale's Synonym Finder further reveals the nature of selfishness by adding these synonyms: "egotistic … self-indulgent … greedy, avaricious… hoggish, piggish; covetous … mean … uncharitable … sordid."
Which of these words suggests true "happiness"?! Essentially, being selfish -- thinking only of ourselves and how to satisfy our own desires -- brings out some pretty ugly traits. What's more, it hurts others and can lead to actions that are harmful and destructive to the world around us.
Selfish choices may not seem to hurt others initially. (How could they, since they're about us, not about others?) But ultimately, and sometimes sooner rather than later, such decisions do hurt others -- including the planet. And ultimately, they hurt the very person they were supposed to bring happiness to -- oneself.
In the short-term, making choices based solely on our own desires or views may seem to be the expedient thing to do. But in the long run, these choices create problems, some of which escalate exponentially. All we need to do is go online, turn on the TV news, or listen to the radio to find problems created by selfishness.
Now, as human beings, and especially as Christians, we need to find ways to counteract selfishness -- to heal the problems initiated by self-centered, self-indulgent thinking and acting.
How do we begin? Let's begin with God, who, after all, created us to glorify Him, not to gratify our egos: "I have created him [us] for my glory" (Isa 43:7 KJV). Let's ask God some of these questions:
- How can we be self-less caretakers of our family -- helpful, listening, and creative children; caring, supportive, and harmonious siblings; attentive, compassionate, and strong parents; loving, devoted, and faithful spouses?
- How can we be unselfish and insightful stewards of our land and take care of it and the living beings that share our planet?
- How can we be good friends, neighbors, and citizens?
Every choice we make has an impact, for everything is connected. It's impossible to get out of the circle of Life. God is encircling us with Love. If we think we have the right to do anything that is self-serving and therefore un-loving, then we're fighting against the universe, really; we're fighting against God. We just can't win that fight.
But the fight we can win is the fight that pursues happiness in a way that blesses others, our planet, our world, and yes, us. Even if we've read it before, the Sermon on the Mount is a good place to re-discover all about blessings and to gain a fresh perspective on what pursuing happiness really means. We may even discover our own interpretation of a Beatitude: "How happy are those who…"!