Is Christianity Just Another Form of Self-Seeking?

I received this question from a reader recently:
What would you say to someone who claims that “all people watch out for themselves first, even Christians come to their faith in order to selfishly serve themselves and to secure a positive afterlife.”?
I would respond to this claim by pointing out that the Christian ethic is acutely opposed to selfishness. This is exemplified by our God who self-sacrificially gave himself for us; forfeiting glory in exchange for shame, dishonor, discomfort, and death in order to save us. We are then encouraged throughout the New Testament to follow that example in how we relate to others: to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s mission, which is to rescue people out of darkness and death. Christians are encouraged to not seek our own good first, but to sacrifice for the good of others.
A great scripture on this is Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When it comes to salvation, it is too simplistic to claim that Christianity is only about obtaining a “get out of hell free card.” Jesus said in John 17:3 that the essence of eternal life is knowing God; this means that for Christians, salvation is more than just being saved in the afterlife, it is being saved in the here and now, essentially giving up your life here on Earth for God’s plans and purposes, and this life of salvation continues on beyond death – which is what humans were originally created for to begin with, but which was ruined by sin (and the curse of sin, which is death).
This person would not be wrong in saying that many people turn to Christianity for purely selfish reasons. This is nothing new. A lot of people look to God as useful to them, but when you understand the Gospel, that changes: you begin to no longer see God as useful, you begin to see Him as beautiful, and that becomes your motivation in worshiping and serving him.
Do you see God primarily as useful or as beautiful?
Just because some people “do it wrong” doesn’t mean that the flaw is with Christianity. In fact, Jesus himself criticized such people harshly – particularly the Pharisees, who sought to use religion for selfish gain rather than giving up their lives to serve God and serve others. Jesus said that anyone who tries to hold onto their life will lose it, but only the person who gives up their life for the sake of the gospel will find it. The gospel he is referring to is the mission of God to rescue people – thus what he’s describing is a life of sacrificial love and service to others, which helps work out God’s plan for their life (that they would know God and be rescued from sin and death both now and for eternity).
One last thing: this person seems to be making a common assumption: that selflessness is the highest virtue. Consider this quote from CS Lewis on this topic:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.
– CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 
For more on this, check out this article from the CS Lewis foundation, which goes into more depth on the topic of ethics and virtues.

The Fat Belongs to the Lord

This Sunday at White Fields I taught 1 Samuel 2 and the story of Hophni and Phineas, the priests who were doing shameful things in the Tabernacle. (Click here for audio of that sermon: “Messed-Up Ministry”). There was a detail of that story that at first seems a bit odd and obscure, but is worth serious consideration.

In 1 Samuel 2:15-17 we read about how the Law required that the fat be burned off the meat before it was eaten. The law about this is found in the Book of Leviticus – and as I mentioned on Sunday, the reason for this is because at that time, the fat of the meat was considered the best, most luxurious part. But God required that when a sacrifice was made as an act of worship, the fat be burned, which would create a lot of smoke and it would be a “fragrant offering” unto the Lord.  Any of you who like the smell of bacon cooking know what I’m talking about. Those of you who are vegans, well, you can eat your tofu bacon and pretend you know what I’m talking about!  

The fat belongs to the Lord

But the idea that the fat belonged to the Lord represented a fundamental belief that we should give the best to God. Many people are in the habit of doing just the opposite – keeping the best for themselves, and giving the rest (the left-overs) to God. Rather than making their offering check the first check they write every month, they wait until the end of the month to see if they have anything left over. God asks that we give him the best, not the rest.

But there’s something else worth taking note of here: when the people in those days gave the fat of the meat to the Lord, they thought they were really giving up a lot – they were really “sacrificing” something, in obedience to God. They were giving up luxury and “the good life”. However, what we now know is that fat kills. At our last men’s prayer breakfast, one man brought a creation called the “bacon explosion” made of various lard extracts which I am convinced reduced my life span by 2 months per bite!
But here’s the point: by telling them to sacrifice the fat on the altar, not only was God teaching them an important values lesson, but he was also sparing them from something which was bad for them, even though they couldn’t possibly know that yet! It would only be thousands of years later that people would realize that God wasn’t only asking them to give something up, he was actually protecting them – even though they didn’t understand it yet, much like all of us parents do with our children.

God is good and all his ordinances – the things he tells you to do and what he tells you to steer clear of – each and every one flows out of his love and care for you.

“I never made a sacrifice”

This past Sunday at White Fields church I spoke about how when we give everything over to God, although we often fear what we will lose, the reality is that we always get more than we bargained for. Like Jesus said, it is when we give our life fully over to him that we find true life and really start living. (you can listen to the audio of that sermon here)

One example of this that came to my mind, but I didn’t share on Sunday was a quote by David Livingstone – the 19th century British missionary who gave his entire life in service to Christ, exploring and evangelizing the interior of Africa. Today, as a direct result of his work, sub-Saharan Africa has become a place where Christianity thrives, where 200 years ago it was almost non-existent.

David Livingstone – Missionary and Explorer of the interior of Africa

Livingstone made several trips back to England during his time as a missionary in Africa, in which he would go on speaking tours. He was considered a national hero in England, and was invited to speak at universities and to dignitaries.

One of the questions most frequently asked of Livingstone was how he was able to make such a great sacrifice, as to give his life in service as a missionary. He was an educated man who could have had a comfortable, upper-class life in England, but instead he chose to spend the prime of his life in the bush of Africa.

Here is what Livingstone said in response to this question in a speech he gave at Cambridge University in 1857:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.