We live in a world that is increasingly fostering the ideology of self-importance. Even what may seem to be good and for the benefit of others, like giving to the poor, albeit a good act, can still have an undertone of self-interest. An old friend once said to me something along the lines of “No-one can truly be selfless, with completely no gratification on our part. Even when we help others, give our time, our money, etc, we still get a good feeling from it.” Intrigued by this statement, it has stuck with me for years. Is there such a thing as true selflessness, in a world that indulges in self-gratification? How far have we fallen from the selflessness Jesus exhibited on the cross? Jesus’ life and His crucifixion were the ultimate demonstration of selflessness and was symbolic of the life that God’s people are to live. Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus commissioned His followers to live a life of sacrifice- not for self, but for others, and this was the mandate for anyone wanting to call themselves His.
Selflessness is defined as “to regard the wellbeing of others as more important than one’s own wellbeing” (1). This means putting others before ourselves, regardless of the cost. Oftentimes this term conjures up ideas of helping the needy, serving at the soup kitchen, or letting others go before you in the line at the grocery store, and so on; but according to scripture there is a far greater depth to the concept. It is easy to want to help the less fortunate, or give to those who have not wronged us, but what about being concerned for the wellbeing of those who have hurt us, rejected us, and even slandered us? In the Gospels, Luke gives an account of Jesus’ teaching concerning loving our enemies:
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)
This teaching of Jesus’ was not just an eloquent speech given to His disciples, but rather instructions for the way in which we are to live selflessly, just as Christ did. We see in this passage the emphasis on loving others, even when it is painful for us. Jesus did not exhort His disciples to simply love those who loved them back- those who they cared for or who were kind to them, rather the exact opposite. This is the true, self-sacrificing love of Christ. Throughout Jesus’ ministry He was ridiculed, persecuted, mocked, and ultimately crucified for what He was teaching. He is the embodiment of true selflessness- being torn apart, spat on, and nailed to a cross naked for the sake of all, including those who persecuted Him; not for any gain of Himself. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was not the end, rather it was the beginning of salvation. The Apostle Peter wrote “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). The word follow in Greek is ‘epakoloutheo’ and means “to tread in one’s footsteps, i.e., to imitate his example.” (2) The Apostle Paul admonished the Church of Corinth to “be imitators of me [Paul], just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus’s disciples understood that He did not “pay it all” at the cross, rather He demonstrated the life we, as believers, are meant to live; dying to ourselves for the sake of others. This is a life of true selflessness, and ultimately the agape love of God.
The Early Church understood that the life Jesus lived on this earth was an example to His followers, and that we are to follow the pattern He set before us. Origen wrote,
With his own deeds he taught meekness and a praiseworthy humility to those eager to learn. But it was necessary for him to teach this in deeds, “giving his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to the blows, not hiding his face from shame and spitting,” doing this, it seems to me, in order to save us who deserved to suffer all these indignities, by suffering them for us (cf. Isa 50:2-7). For he did not “die for us” (Rom 5:8 and elsewhere) so that we would not die, but so that we would not die for ourselves; and he was not struck in the face and spat upon for us so that we who were deserving of all this because of our sins would not suffer these things, but that, suffering them for justice’s sake, we would accept them gladly. (3)
Origen explains that through Christ’s sufferings, He demonstrated to us how to die for the sake of others. Death to self, let alone dying for others, is not a widespread understanding taught within today’s Church. This type of death is not a physical death, like Jesus’ on the cross, rather a laying of one’s life down for the benefit of others, in whatever way that may be. The Apostle Paul said, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31). Paul was not enduring a physical death daily, rather he was enduring through his trials and tribulations for the sake of others, that they might be saved. He wrote “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). The Apostle Paul understood what it meant to suffer for the sake of others; he strove to live as Christ did- laying his life down for his brethren (see John 15:13 and 1 John 3:16).
Jesus said to His disciples “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one that this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” (John 15:12-14) Jesus also said that the two greatest commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) and to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). If love, according to scripture, is the laying down of one’s life for others, in obedience to the commandments (see John 14:15), how can we say we love the Lord if we are not living a life of self-sacrifice for others? John understood this concept and wrote “whoever has this world’s good, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17) and “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8).
In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles we read,
For the Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ did not scruple to “lay down His life,” as Himself says, “for His friends.” (Joh_15:13) If, therefore, the Lord of heaven and earth underwent all His sufferings for us, how then do you make a difficulty to minister to such as are in want, who ought to imitate Him who underwent servitude, and want, and stripes, and the cross for us? We ought therefore also to serve the brethren, in imitation of Christ. For says He: “He that will be great among you, let him be your minister; and he that will be first among you, let him be your servant.” (Mat_20:26, Mat_20:27) For so did He really, and not in word only, fulfil the prediction of, “serving many faithfully.” (Isa_53:11) For “when He had taken a towel, He girded Himself. Afterward He puts water into a basin; and as we were sitting at meat, He came and washed the feet of us all, and wiped them with the towel.” (Joh_13:4, Joh_13:5) By doing this He demonstrated to us His kindness and brotherly affection, that so we also might do the same to one another. If, therefore, our Lord and Master so humbled Himself, how can you, the labourers of the truth, and administrators of piety, be ashamed to do the same to such of the brethren as are weak and infirm? Minister therefore with a kind mind, not murmuring nor mutinying; for ye do not do it on the account of man, but on the account of God, and shall receive from Him the reward of your ministry in the day of your visitation. (4)
The Apostles of the Early Church continued in the teachings of Jesus, through Apostolic Succession, not merely by word, but by action. Above we read that they strived to imitate Christ, becoming humble servants (selfless), just as He was. The Apostle Paul said the laying down of one’s life is our reasonable service: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1). To live a selfless life, setting aside our own needs, desires, wants, attitudes, and so on, is the calling card of Christ, in order that we may be considered His. We must go through the process of crucifixion too, in order that Christ can increase and live in us (see Galatians 2:20 and John 3:30).
What does a life of selflessness look like for us today?
Early Church Father Origen said,
On this account let every thought and every purpose and every word and every action become a denial of ourselves, but a testimony about Christ and in Christ; for I am persuaded that every action of the perfect man is a testimony to Christ Jesus, and that abstinence from every sin is a denial of self, leading him after Christ. (5)
Selflessness goes beyond giving to the poor. True selflessness according to Scripture and the Early Church is about the laying down of our life for others. Origen explains that this process is not merely in our actions, but also in our thoughts and words (see also 2 Corinthians 10:5). Dying for others is not an easy process- especially when it involves laying our lives down for those who persecute us, but this is how we share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13), and ultimately how we come into the fullness of His character. Even when we are bloodied and beaten, spat upon, and whipped, the Lord’s desire for us is to take up our cross, and follow Him, for the sake of others. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” (Philippians 2:3). All glory to God, who gives us the strength.
1. Webster’s Dictionary: “Selfless”
2. Thayer’s Greek definitions: “Follow” (G1872)
3. Origen- Spirit and Fire (Pg. 127)
4. Constitution of the Apostles Book III, Ch. XIX.
5. Origen- Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew Book XII, Ch. 24
6. Image http://www.stgeorgeministry.com/christ-cross-part-ii/
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.