Chapter 9 – The Curse of Selfishness

“If I have eaten my morsel alone.” Job 31:17.

This is classed by Job among some of the basest and most abominable offences against God and humanity. He gives us a catalogue of seven different crimes of which men are guilty, and solemnly asseverates his innocency of all.

The first of these respects the law of purity; the second, of honesty; the third, charity toward the poor and helpless; the fourth, greed and avarice; the fifth, pride and vainglory; the sixth, idolatry; and the seventh, vindictiveness and malice toward his fellow-men. To have eaten his morsel alone places him in the same category with all these gross and glaring vices, and to his lofty sense of right it is just as odious and abominable as licentiousness, idolatry, or greed of gain.

The expression here used stands for selfishness in all its forms. It represents the heartless and self-centered spirit that absorbs all the blessings of life to itself, and neither thinks nor cares about the needs and sufferings of others. Our Lord has given us His estimate of this spirit in the parable of the rich farmer, who lived only for his wealth, and who is described as saying to his soul, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” The parable has told the story of his fearful doom, and lighted it up with the solemn moral, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Selfishness has a thousand forms, but no matter what its aspect, it is always the deep fountain of all human sin and the worst foe every one of us has to face. Archbishop Whately said: “If you ask me to tell you who it is that causes you the greatest trouble, and threatens you with the direst danger, I can only say that if you will look in the glass, you will see an excellent picture of him.” The sin of selfishness puts you in the place of God, and is high treason against the sovereignty of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Let us look a little at this monster who so easily disguises himself that he has become the rival of heaven and the idol of every human heart.

Selfishness is contrary to the very law of nature itself. The scientist will tell you that every plant and animal is adjusted according to a law of mutual dependence and helpfulness. It takes two flowers to produce the seed that will reproduce and perpetuate the blossom. They must meet in the exchange of the fertilizing pollen which gives life to the plant, and in the distribution of the pollen every element of nature and multitudes of living creatures are made to minister to future generations. The honey bee, as he sucks from flower to flower the sweet nutrition, deposits the fertilizing pollen of some other flower in the cup that he visits, and thus ministers to others while satisfying his own industry and appetite. The very life of a plant is built on the principle of its death in order to give life to the next generation. The beautiful blossom withers and dies, but out of its sepulcher comes the little seed pod which is to create a new summer of radiant blossoms. The wild creatures of the wilderness and the birds of the air band together in herds and flocks for mutual protection, and the instinct of motherhood leads them to provide for the next generation with the most self-sacrificing care, and even lose their very lives for their young.

All nature is full of interdependence and helpfulness. The philosopher calls this altruism. It is just a little foreshadowing of divine love. Emerson has well expressed it:

“All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone.”

And Burns has put it still more strongly:

“God never made an independent man;
‘Twould mar the general concord of His plan.”

The very animals themselves are inspired with the instinct of helpfulness to the suffering. A dog will risk his life to save a belated traveler or a wandering sheep. Not long ago the papers told about a noble dog that had been cruelly beaten by a rough man. In the scuffle the man fell into the river, and then the noble dog leaped in and rescued him, and brought him safe to land.

A missionary surgeon in Madras tells how one day he set the broken limb of a little dog that he had found on his doorstep, and the next morning he heard a scratching and whining at the office door; and when he went out there was the little dog whom he had healed with another dog who also had a broken limb, and the grateful little animal had brought him to the friend that had helped him in his distress.

Oh, ye who are eating your morsel alone, who are hoarding the gold of earth or the Gospel of heaven while others are perishing! The very creatures that you despise will some day rise in judgment and condemn you for a selfishness which is worse than inhuman, nay, worse than brutal, because the very brutes themselves would be ashamed of it.

Selfishness is contrary to every instinct of humanity. God has put upon the heart of man an intuitive feeling of consideration for others and appreciation of benevolence and self-sacrifice. There is nothing more wonderful than the social law which binds humanity together in families and communities. Henry Drummond has given us a beautiful picture of the development of love in the human breast. It did not spring from lust, but from a far sweeter, purer fountain; namely, the beauty and influence of a little child. Is there anything more touching than to see some strongman pursuing his daily toil in the dirty mine or the rushing factory, or the sun-scorched harvest field, day after day and year after year, in exhausting labor for the small pittance of his weekly wages, but happy and satisfied if, on a Saturday night, he can take to his little home the means to supply the wife and children whom he loves better than his ease and selfishness, and rewarded over again a thousand times by their smiles of affection and the happy gladness of the little ones as they climb upon his knees, or tax perhaps his strength in hours of watching by their beds of pain? The secret of it is the instinct of love which God has put in every human breast. Once this man cared for none of these things. His life was free, his pleasures were coarse and selfish, but a gentle hand has touched his heart, the magician Love has bound his life with the bands of God, and he never again can be willing to eat his morsel alone.

True, we find everywhere, even in human nature, exceptions to this law — the coarse and brutal and selfish natures that can prey upon a famine-stricken land, and put up the price of corn to fill their coffers just because the poor are starving; the capitalists who can keep back the coal from the perishing, and with fiendish delight rejoice in its rise in value, caring nothing for the helpless women and children that pine; the ruffians that fight for life in the burning ship or flaming building, and trample down the innocent and helpless in their struggle for escape; the boors that can monopolize the best seat and look out for the main chance, and laugh at their shrewdness, while they get the best of the weaker and duller minds around them: these are abnormal types.

But this is not true human nature. Public opinion and humanity condemn it and denounce it, and all the heroism of history are made out of the very opposite material. The noble captain standing upon the deck till the last of the passengers is saved; the brave swimmer plunging into the surf to rescue the drowning victims; these are the types of character that win the admiration of the world; these are the heroes that illumine the pages of history.

Selfishness is contrary to divine law. God’s law is a law of love. His very nature is beneficence. All-sufficient in Himself, and needing no creature to minister to His happiness, yet He called into being this glorious universe and surrounded Himself with the happy beings on whom He poured out the riches of His goodness. Every ray of sunshine, every radiant star, every tinted blossom, every song of warbling bird or holy angel speaks of His love. He might have made this earth a torture to its inhabitants; but He has fitted every color to every sense, and but for sin it would have been a paradise of happiness. God’s blessedness goes out in blessing to others, and therefore He has put a curse on selfishness in its every form. Nothing ministers to our real happiness that is not prompted by love. There is a law of retribution that, in the end, brings upon the selfish one the curse which he seeks to escape.

Aesop’s fable tells of the poor suffering ass that begged his companion, the horse, to draw part of the load. “For, if you do not,” he said, “I fear I shall die, and then you shall have to carry it all.” The lazy horse, however, shirked his load, and the poor ass sank and died under his burden. Then the farmer made the horse carry the load alone, and in addition he laid upon him the burden of the dead ass. “Foolish horse,” said he to himself, “that I was, not to heed my companion’s appeal. Now I have not only to carry a double load, but a dead weight, too.” Selfishness always becomes a dead weight upon every life that is characterized thereby.

Even the heathen tell of the abhorrence of the heavenly powers to selfish purposes and aims. They have a fable of a selfish chief that dug a well and posted a law that none should drink of it but his own family. The well, however, failed to have any water. At length they appealed to the oracle, and the oracle told them that it would be dry until he shared it with the people. Even then he contrived to hold on to his selfishness, but in another form, by announcing that the people could have it all night but he should have it all day. The following day the water failed to come until the sun went down, but then, as the multitudes gathered around with their empty vessels, lo! the gurgling waters came bursting from the springs beneath and filled the well to the brim, and they drank and filled their vessels and went away rejoicing. But when the morning came the water disappeared again until the selfish monster learned the truth that we gain by giving and live by loving. In an old churchyard you may read this epitaph and epigram:

“What I gave, that I have;
What I kept, that I lost.”

God’s law is a law of love. Even His commandments to His people, as He told them of old, were “for thy good always.” The denunciations of the prophets of Israel were chiefly brought against the selfishness of their luxurious age. Listen to Amos as he cries, “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, that lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock and the calves out of the stall; that chant to the sound of the viol, that drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.”

Selfishness is in defiance of the law of Christ. “The Son of Man came, not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” He gave to His disciples a law of love higher even than that of the Old Testament. It is no longer “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” but it is ” Love one another, as I have loved you.” His birth in Bethlehem, His toiling youth, His life of constant self-surrender, sacrifice, and privation, His ministry of benevolence and unceasing blessing, and His death of voluntary shame and agony; all these have lifted up a flaming protest against the selfishness of man — a protest that makes it mockery and blasphemy for any man or woman to call themselves the followers of the Lamb, who are living for gain, aggrandizement, or pleasure.

Selfishness is high treason against the throne of God. It sets up another god instead of Him. The one you seek to please, the one whose will you uniformly obey, the one whose interest you supremely seek — that is your god. Selfishness is the worship of man and worse than the worship of humanity. It is self-worship, it is blasphemy, it is rebellion against the throne of God, and it will bring upon your head the damning curse of a God of love. You that want your way about things, that think the universe was made for your convenience and comfort, and that fret and fly into a passion because things go contrary to you — you are arch rebels against the King of love, and will go down with Satan, your king, to the rebel’s doom.

The followers of Jesus Christ are called to a life of self-sacrifice. Discipleship means learning of Him, following Him and being disciplined by Him. Only those who walk in His steps of self-denial and unselfish love dare call themselves His disciples, and the one badge evermore of true discipleship is the cross mark of the Lord Jesus. As Whittier has sung so truly and so grandly:

“Wherever through the ages rise
The altars of self-sacrifice;
Where love its arms has opened wide,
Or man for man has nobly died;
I see the same white wings outspread
That hovered o’er the Master’s head.”

Dear friend, have you these cross marks on your life ? Are you welcoming the glory of partnership in His love and sacrifice, and saying day by day:

“The cross of Christ I’ll cherish,
Its crucifixion bear;
All hail, reproach and sorrow,
If Jesus leads me there.”

The selfishness of Christians is in strange contrast with the Spirit of Christ.

Shall we attempt to describe the normal life of the modern church member? A carnival of fashion, dress, equipage, entertainment, and pleasure: fashions and furnishings designed chiefly to afford opportunity for more lavish expenditures than others have been able to reach; not only one home, but even three; a stud of horses, a summer yacht, a summer trip, hundreds of thousands for decorations and art, enough for a single banquet sometimes to send a score of missionaries, and in the humbler walks of life a wretched imitation of the splendid pageant of the rich and great.

Let an angel come down from heaven fresh from listening to the song, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”; let him read the summer advertisements in our newspapers and magazines; let him take a flying trip to our seaside watering-places, our summer hotels, our lawn parties and summer entertainments, and even our religious amusements, and I think I hear him say as he turns away from the disgusting spectacle, “There must be some mistake. This cannot be the world for which He died. These surely cannot be the men whom my Lord redeemed by the precious blood of Calvary.” Put the picture of our selfishness, our folly, our mad race for money and enjoyment up against Gethsemane and Calvary, and we, too, will want:

“To hide our blushing face,
When His dear Cross appears.”