Christianity and Selflessness – A Contradiction?

Today I want to put two verses out there that seem contradictory to me. I would love it if someone could direct me to scripture that ties these things together or even give me a different perspective when it comes to interpreting these verses. I am NOT looking for scripture that is in direct opposition.

One of the things that confuses me a little about Christianity is the emphasis on selflessness. Of course I understand the concept, but it sometimes seems that we are exhorted to be selfless so that we may reap some ultimate reward. Isn’t that a contradiction? Isn’t that selflessness for selfish reasons?

It could be argued that even Jesus’ sacrifice (which I really feel is beyond words or explanation), could not be called selfless. Yes, the Bible speaks to His agony and sacrifice for the sake of others, BUT He knew the outcome before he died and while it meant salvation for people, it also was a way for God to save the creation he loves. Make sense? Just following a train of thought. Luke 6:35 is a prime example of incentive for selfless acts:

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great…”

Now, I feel that grace deserves a place in this conversation as well, because Luke 6:35 also seems to indicate that we can “get” something out of our actions. What is the “reward” to which he refers? I always have subscribed to the teaching that regardless of WHAT we do, on our own we can never earn our way to salvation. How, though, can I reconcile that with James 2:14 and 2:17?

“What good is it my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Somehow I think I’m missing the point here… would appreciate some help squaring these apparent contradictions.  Thanks!!



2 thoughts on “Christianity and Selflessness – A Contradiction?

  1. I’ll start with James. His point seems to be that if our faith has no accompanying works, it is no kind of faith at all. If I tell my husband that I have faith in him, but never follow any of his advice, protect myself from his decisions, and live as though he can’t really be trusted and relied upon, do I really have any faith in him? Probably not.

    If a person does not trust Jesus enough to live how he says they ought to live, then exactly what kind of faith do they have in him? It is a heart matter, and we can’t know for sure where the line is – whether or not another person truly trusts Jesus and has surrendered their life to him. But, Jesus says you will know them by their fruit, and then we have James saying that faith is indicated by works. How we live shows what (or who) we have put our faith in.

    Then the question of selflessness. Biblical references to selflessness seem to have to do with higher verses lower rewards. If we live for temporary and immediate pleasures and rewards, we will get them – but at the expense of greater and eternal rewards. This is not a matter of manipulation (God throwing us a bone so he can get what he wants out of us), but an actual cause and effect idea. If we live for things that will last for eternity (building the kingdom of God, seeing the lost saved, developing a relationship with God), those are things that will follow us in heaven. We will see people who are there, enjoying God and the delights of heaven for all eternity – because of our investment. We will experience God’s pleasure that we loved him enough to share in his passion, his burden, and his work .We will be proved servants, ready to take on fulfilling responsibilities in our resurrected life. Etc, etc.

    So, it is a question of loving as God loves (desiring and facilitating the highest good of another, even at great personal sacrifice). If we love God and others, eternal reward will not be our only motivation. Selflessness gives out of love even when there is no perceived personal benefit. But I don’t think selflessness is an end in itself. It is a characteristic of love – and it does not exclude any idea of joy or reward. You are correct to point out that Jesus was motivated by a reward.

    “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” Hebrews 12:2

    It is definitely not wrong to be motivated by the anticipation of joy or pleasure that will result from our actions. Love takes pleasure in the good of its object. It IS wrong to sacrifice the highest good of another person for our own perceived benefit. But loving others will always ultimately be the best thing for us. There’s no getting around it – and trying to pretend like it isn’t true is just silly.

    Selflessness is not hating on ourselves or ignoring ourselves. The greatest commandment assumes that we will love ourselves and offers this kind of love as a guide for how to love our neighbor…


    Sorry, this is a bit long and scattered, but I was thinking and writing on the fly. Hope it helps some!

    1. Thank you! Hebrews 12:2 is a new verse for me – really interesting! And I agree with your thought that “… selflessness is not an end in itself.” Sometimes I get caught up in the words we use and what I feel like is inaccurate understanding. Thanks again for the input. Definitely what I was looking for. 🙂

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