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Monday, September 18, 2017

On Selfishness, Christians Have It Exactly Backwards

Gate agent at an airport. Image source.
I remember one time, when I was little, my family was the airport waiting to board the plane. We were going on vacation. One of the airport employees came and made an announcement: "We are looking for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight."

I was confused. I'd never seen anything like that happen before. It was so strange- in Sunday School every week, we learned lessons about doing the right thing, trusting God, being honest, etc, but I had noticed that reality isn't usually so clear-cut. Usually Nebuchadnezzar doesn't come up to you and say, "Worship this idol or I'll throw you into the furnace." Usually your teacher doesn't say, "Raise your hand if you believe in God."

Usually there aren't only two options, one being clearly correct and godly and the other being sinful and selfish. Usually the question, "Am I in a situation where I should follow the morality lessons I learned in Sunday School?" didn't have a clear answer. But here was an airport employee asking, "Would anyone like to give up their seat for someone else? Anyone here willing to obey Jesus' command to give up something in order to help a stranger, rather than being selfish?" [Not in those words, obviously.]

I didn't want my family to give up our seats. We were going on vacation- how on earth would we get there if we weren't able to get on this plane? And it's an awkward feeling, to believe your desires are clearly selfish and wrong, but you want them so much and you're not willing to do the right thing, so you hope if you just say nothing then the gate agent will quit asking and you can move on with your life and forget about how you failed this test of temptation.

I was a child, and incredibly confused about what was happening- I knew this wasn't my decision to make. I hoped my parents wouldn't volunteer and give up our seats. But... wouldn't that be the Christian thing to do? Isn't that what we learned in Sunday School? You should always give and help others, even when it's a big sacrifice for you- your own rights and desires shouldn't factor in at all. (To even think, "No I can't because that would cause a huge inconvenience for me" is SELFISH and WRONG.)

(And no, they didn't volunteer to give up our seats. And we all went on vacation and had a lovely time.)

But I was very, very confused.

There was another time, when I was a child and a bunch of other children were at my house for a party. One girl threw up on her clothes, and my parents told me to go get one of my shirts so she could borrow it. "But," they said, "give her a shirt you don't really like, so it's not a big deal if she doesn't give it back."

This, of course, was also terribly confusing.

They taught us in Sunday School that we should be generous and always willing to give and help others. And, they said, your heart is actually even more important than the thing you give. If you give something to a person in need, and they seem fine with it but you know that it wasn't your best... well your good deeds are like filthy rags. What good is it, to give away something that you don't even care about? Isn't it better to actually sacrifice, to give something that really mattered to you?

I don't remember what I did- I probably gave her a shirt that I didn't care about, and her dad thanked me so many times. But let's try a thought experiment: Let's imagine that I brought out a shirt that I really liked and wore all the time. What would happen next?

Well first of all, my parents would have said, "No you can't give her this, this is your favorite shirt, what if she doesn't give it back?" and I would have been too embarrassed to make any kind of "but God says we should give our best" argument- it would feel silly to say that out loud, anywhere other than a church. (You see, this was before my totally-sold-out-on-fire-for-God days.) But let's imagine that I did give her a shirt I really liked, and then she didn't give it back. I would feel sad. I would regret giving it to her. I would feel a little angry at her. But of course I wouldn't be allowed to feel those things, according to what I learned at church. Of course a real godly Christian wouldn't feel bad about what it cost them to "love your neighbor as yourself." (That would be selfish.)

It was so weird to be told by my parents, "DON'T give sacrificially." It contradicted everything I had learned in church.

(I'd like to point out, though, that our little thought experiment shows us one reason it's not a good idea to "give sacrificially" too much- what if the recipient of your generosity doesn't seem to appreciate how much you sacrificed for them? You might end up angry or resentful toward them. And that's a pretty bad result when you're trying to help others.)

And another example: Every time you wait in line, you're saying you value yourself getting whatever thing you're waiting in line for more than you value the extra minute everybody behind you is going to have to wait because of you. If you only cared about other people and didn't care about yourself at all, you would let everybody else go in front of you. But of course no one does this. (But you can weasel out of this while still upholding the "always put others first" logic if you argue that you're waiting in line to get something that benefits other people, not just yourself- like maybe you're buying something to be shared by a group of family or friends, or maybe it's something you need in order to be healthy so you're able to work and serve other people. Then you can say the benefits to the people in your group are worth the time cost of everyone behind you. Without factoring yourself in at all.)

And any time someone says, "Let's get there early so we can get good seats," they're putting themself before others. There is a limited number of "good seats" and even though you can't directly see who you displaced, we know that mathematically there MUST BE someone who wasn't able to get the "good seats" they wanted because of you.

Anyway my point is, Christians can talk a big game about giving and being selfless and always putting others first, but none of them actually live that way. No one can live that way, really, though I certainly tried to during my "on fire for Jesus" days. I remember one morning in college, I was on my way to hand in some important papers about registering for a class, when I saw a friend in the hallway moving all her stuff into a different dorm room across the street. And I stopped and I helped her carry all her stuff, even though I knew that I had to hand in those papers and if I got there too late, the office might be closed. I trusted that, because I had done the right thing by helping her, God would make sure the office wasn't closed when I got there. (For those keeping score at home, the office was not closed when I got there, so that worked out well.)

That's what I believed- that if I've spent a lot of time planning something, or I have something I really really like, but I realize that I have an opportunity to help someone else if I abandon those plans or give up that thing, then that's what I have to do. I'm not allowed to refuse for no other reason than "but I want this"- that would be selfish. (If, however, I had a reason along the lines of "but this thing I am doing is related to an evangelistic event" or anything else related to serving God or other people rather than "I want this", then it was okay not to give it up.)

But even then, I didn't "always put others first." No one can live that way. There were always parts of my life that I didn't apply that line of thinking to. But I tried, and it was constant stress- always wondering how I can spend less money on myself so I can donate it, always aware that I have to be able to drop whatever I'm doing at a moment's notice if someone asks for my help for anything, no matter how small. (It is extremely difficult to make any sort of plans if you believe that you will have to suddenly abandon those plans, no matter how much you've already invested, at the whims of random passersby who may possibly benefit from your doing so.) (And if you want to tell me I "took this too literally" you better be prepared to unequivocally denounce the idea of "always put others first." Because this is what "always put others first" would look like when someone truly believes and obeys it to the best of their ability.)

I don't believe that anymore, thank goodness. Now I believe that I matter, my needs matter, my desires matter, my rights matter, my emotions matter. I believe my own happiness is a good thing in and of itself, a perfectly worthwhile goal to aim for. I believe that I deserve good things.

I believe that I should care about myself first- that everyone should always care about themselves first. Sometimes it is good to make sacrifices for other people, but the size of the sacrifice should be constrained by how close your relationship is with that person and how big their need is- it's not "anything I can give up that might maybe benefit somebody, I need to give up, otherwise I'm selfish." No- meet your own needs first, then with your leftover resources you can help others.

That's not what I learned in church. I learned I should "always put others first."

Let's talk about something different now: prayer.

In church we prayed about everything. Any problem we had, we prayed about it. Anything we were worried about, we prayed about it. Someone has a cold? Pray for God to help them get better. Someone has a history test tomorrow? Pray for God to help them do well. Someone is going on vacation? Pray for "safe travels."

Christians pray about job interviews. They pray for God to help them find something they lost. They pray for God to "give them peace" when they feel nervous. They pray for the rain to stop. They pray about where to go to church. They pray about which house to buy. They pray for God to help them understand when they're confused about something the bible says. They pray about finding a parking spot.

But I don't really pray anymore. You know why? Because the idea of asking the Creator of the universe to treat me better than other people disgusts me.

That's what a lot of these prayers are- asking God to treat you better than other people. Other people have been in similar situations, and you're hoping God will help you get a result that's better than what those people got. (When someone has a life-threatening illness and you pray about it, the reason you're so focused on praying is because you know that a huge proportion of people in that situation do NOT have a good outcome. You know that, on the whole, God doesn't help people in that situation. You are praying that God would treat you and your loved ones different.) Or maybe it's a situation where you are in direct competition with others- praying about a sports game, praying to get a good price on something.

When I first moved to Shanghai and started searching for an apartment, I saw a lot of crappy ones that were much more expensive than I wanted. And after that first day of looking, I felt so discouraged that I actually considered praying about it. But then I thought, the prices are, at a macro level, determined by the reality of Shanghai's economy, which is a massive system of millions of landlords, renters, and apartment agents. You can probably find some apartments here or there which are less expensive, which are a better deal than what the average renter is getting. And of course, I hope I can find one like that. I am biased- I hope I can get a good deal, better than what other people get. It makes sense for me to be biased in that way. It does not make sense for God to be biased in that way. I don't want a God like that. That God is disgusting.

So let's recap: Christianity taught me I should put others first, that I should always give up what I want if it can benefit other people, that it's wrong for me to spend a lot of effort on things whose sole purpose is to make myself happy. But at that same time, they taught that we should pray about whatever problems we had, because God cared so much and "prayer works." God, who made every person in the world and theoretically should love them all equally, would treat you special because you prayed.

No. I now believe that I should put myself first- I am biased in favor of myself and people who are close to me, and that's a good thing. Everyone should be biased in favor of themself. But God should not be biased. I don't ask God to do things for me, because I know there are other people whose needs are far greater than mine. God should focus on helping them, not me. And I should focus on helping me, and then helping others second.

I was never allowed to put myself before others, but I believed in a God who would put me before others. And that is MESSED-UP.

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Next post: Christianity and "Selfishness": Here are the Receipts

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