In Scott Adams great little book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, he says that putting yourself first is crucial for being able to help other people:
“In hard times, or even presuccess times, society and at least one cartoonist want you to take care of yourself first. If you pursue your selfish objectives, and you do it well, someday your focus will turn outward. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I hope you can experience it.” Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 50). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
For many Christians, this kind of talk sounds verboten. At first glance it appears to contradict several data points in Scripture:
- God’s testimonies are opposed to selfishness. (Psalm 119:36)
- Love your neighbor as yourself (Levitivus 19:18).
- Put the interests of others above your own (Philippians 2:3-4)
- Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Mark 12:30).
- Selfishness leads to disorder. (James 3:16)
Now, the kind of selfishness the Bible is against appears to be a sort of self-interest that opposes humility before God, the pursuit of the common good, or the acknowledgment of the importance of others and their needs. In other words, it is living a purely self-directed life. For instance, John Gill’s comments on Philippians 2:4 are:
Not but that a man should take care of his worldly affairs, and look well unto them, and provide things honest in the sight of all men, for himself and his family, otherwise he would be worse than an infidel; but he is not to seek his own private advantage, and prefer it to a public good; accordingly the Syriac version reads it, “neither let anyone be careful of himself, but also everyone of his neighbour”; and the Arabic version thus, “and let none of you look to that which conduces to himself alone, but let everyone of you look to those things which may conduce to his friend”; but this respects spiritual things, and spiritual gifts: a Christian should not seek his own honour and applause, and to have his own will, and a point in a church carried his own way, but should consult the honour of Christ, the good of others, and the peace of the church; he should not look upon his own gifts, he may look upon them, and ascribe them to the grace of God, and make use of them to his glory, but not to admire them, or himself for them, and pride himself in them, and lift up himself above others, neglecting and taking no notice of the superior abilities of others
But, if we were to read Scott’s word “selfish” to mean “self-interested,” then I think the playing field changes. The Bible teaches self-interest and indeed condemns selfishness in the name of self-interest:
- Getting wisdom is only guaranteed to benefit yourself in the end. (Proverbs 9:12)
- Getting wisdom is showing love to your soul. You’re commanded to be wise, so you’re commanded to love your soul. (Proverbs 19:8)
- Proverbs challenges us to be good at our jobs. (Proverbs 22:29)
- Jesus appeals to our sense of self preservation to tell us not to be financially selfish or obsessed with riches. (Matthew 16:26)
So, is there a sense in which Christians should care for their own needs and desires first? I think that the answer is yes. For instance, if somebody evangelizes all the time without first repenting and believing the gospel, they may find themselves in the position of those Jesus never knew in the first place in Matthew 7. Similarly, one who has no savings account can have no money for mercy. One who knows not, in depth, the Bible, cannot live to benefit others in a way befitting to the words therein, and so-on.
On the other hand, is selfishness, as I defined it above, evil? Yes.