I’ve been spending a lot of time on the problem of selfishness this week, as a result of studying Romans 15:1-4. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself…” (vs. 1-2) The Bible uses the word mostly in the context of selfish gain or ambition (Psalm 119:36; Philippians 1:17; 2:3; James 3:14, 16) or in the neglect of helping others. Today, we have many words related to selfishness, probably because it is so widespread, including self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-involved, conceited, prideful, self-important, opinionated, inner-directed…need I go on? The medical community has even appropriated the idea. “Selfish DNA is a term for sequences of DNA that have two distinct properties: the DNA sequence spreads by forming additional copies of itself within the genome; and it makes no specific contribution to the reproductive success of its host organism. (It may or may not have significant negative effects.)…it is not always easy to distinguish between some instances of selfish DNA and some types of viruses.” (1) And with us, it is often also difficult to distinguish our innocent, self-directed care from that which is dangerous and sinfully infectious. There are times when we have to care for ourselves as a priority; otherwise, we might be no good to others. I have known people who allowed themselves to become sick, burned out, or emotionally dysfunctional to the detriment of others. Jesus ate, slept, prayed, denied requests, and planned his ministry to be effective. However, Christ also lived selflessly in that all he did was for the sake of God’s kingdom and not for his own sake. We have an opportunity to live healthily without living selfishly, through the power, work, example, and instruction of Jesus Christ. “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:3-4)
In the first eleven chapters of Romans, we have a complete biblical explanation of the gospel according to God’s sovereignty. In the next five chapters, Paul teaches us how we should apply these great truths by “…total dedication to God (12:1–2); Marks of the Christian community (12:3-13:14); and A call for mutual acceptance between the strong and the weak (14:1-15:13).” (2) Chapter 14 addresses the problem of judgmentalness toward those who treat traditional holidays and food differently, building to Romans 15:1, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Now, before we jump to any assumption that we are the strong ones, let’s remember this: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) As our pastor said last night, “humility from God is the way out [of the problem of pride].” (3) “…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12) The question here shouldn’t be who is better or stronger, but how can we live so that we don’t live to please ourselves? This verse teaches us that one way is to be patient with those we perceive as “weaker” or those who actually are spiritually weaker. So let’s get back to step 1—the idea of living not to please ourselves, resisting this temptation to justify or entitle ourselves. By the grace of Christ, we have peace that supersedes dutiful, legalistic obedience. His blood is how we are freed, not our works. We are not to abuse our Christian liberty but live for the good of God’s kingdom, as Jesus did. His peace is our peace and motivation for service.
Christ saves us from selfishness to strengthen each other. “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:2) Here is yet another call to be counter-cultural. While our societies and nations, communities and individuals are excelling in tearing each other down, we are called to encourage and spiritually build each other up for our mutual good. We know the problems that develop when we beat each other down by unforgiveness, self-serving ideas and plans, legalism, superiority, impatience, lack of empathy and mercy, a critical or domineering spirit, holding grudges, arguing over inconsequential matters, resentment, jealousy, and slander. The biggest challenge on the mission field, in our ministries, and churches is our relationships as ministers of the gospel. We should be willing to serve each other sacrificially, yield to each other with understanding and sincerity, not insisting on our rights. We ought to be willing to confess and repent our pride and sinful attitudes, generously trusting and forgiving each other joyfully, prayerfully, lovingly and humbly. (4) “We get our eyes off the blueprint and get bogged down in the rubble. It helps to remember that what God is building is a temple. We do not…fully realize the part we are playing as we seek to build these other people up by focusing on the important matters, laying aside petty differences…[since] God is working, and the temple [of Christ] is rising.” (5)
“Jesus did not please himself but rather set out to please God for the benefit of others, and it concludes from that truth that we should follow Christ’s example [with his regenerative power]…What would happen to us if Jesus had pleased himself instead of coming to earth as a man and dying for our sins? Where would we be today if Christ had put his own interests first? Once Jesus asked this question of his disciples. As recounted in John 6, the Lord had explained the doctrine of election, pointing out that he alone is the true bread from heaven to whom all must come for life and that no man can come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). Later in the chapter we are told that many of his disciples objected, saying, ‘This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?’ (v. 60). Jesus, knowing that his disciples were confused, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!’ (vv. 61–62). In other words, ‘What would happen if I pleased myself and went back to heaven now, instead of dying for your sins?’ If there was ever an example of one who was willing to bear even the worst of abuses in order to please God the Father, it was Jesus Christ. …But it’s important to remember that in these verses [in Romans 15] Paul is not talking about Christians standing against the insults and abuses of the world, drawing on the character and power of Jesus to do so…Nor is he writing about spiritual warfare. He is talking about a far lesser matter, Christians merely getting along with other Christians, the strong bearing with the limited understandings of the weak and the weak bearing with the beliefs of the strong, whom they believe to be in error. He is simply talking about getting along with one another.” (6)
In what circumstance(s) do you tend to seek self-satisfaction and pleasure? Has this tendency changed lately? What “soul-peace” do you trade for pleasure? How can you use your time, energy, and money to encourage others rather than please yourself? How might this result in more peace for you? Or more peace for others? How does Christ’s intervention, example, and instructions help you to resist selfishness? “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
(1) Wikipedia https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selfish_DNA
(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Introduction to Romans, Outline, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
(3) Taha, Allen, in a talk on “Pride,” Congregational Meeting, September 4, 2019, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Boerne, TX.
(4) James Boice’s Expository Bible Commentary on Romans 15:1-4 reminded me of some of these sins. He lists others.
(5) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 15:1-4,Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
(6) Boice, Ibid.
September 5, 2019