I have heard some folks declare a moral dilemma between not being “selfish” and what they have been taught is the “selfish desire” to save themselves from hell by trusting Jesus. Both of these moral values are understood as the teachings of the Christian Church, rightly or wrongly. They perceive that it is a selfish act to declare their faith and trust in Christ as a means for a reward in heaven or to avoid eternal damnation in hell.
What they may be asking is “how can I possibly express my faith and trust in Christ without seeming to do it for selfish, self-serving reasons?”
I agree that such motivation to cause or force ourselves to “believe” for these reasons IS selfish. For me, it is also not a very inspiring reason to believe. It is self-serving.
The promise of “reward” or threat of “punishment” for believing or not believing misses the mark of God’s intention. In Islam, such threats are both coercive and temporal. They literally force conversions upon people by threatening severe punishment. In the message and methods of many Christian evangelicals the threats and promises are spiritual and eternal. In both cases, the motivation to “believe” is self-serving and not as God intended.
Here is one way to look at it. Do you love a spouse to avoid punishment? Wouldn’t THAT be a horrible relationship. Do you love a spouse to get a reward? Sometimes. Hopefully that is only a subsidiary “perk.” Are either of these the best motivation for love? Not really. These are selfish and self-serving reasons.
On the other hand, are you able to selflessly love a spouse because of their character, goodness, beauty and their love and care for you – without feeling selfish?
Another example: Think of your favorite singer. You think the world of him or her. You respect them for their talent and dedication to be as great as they are. You get a chance to meet them in person, not to satisfy your own passion, but to convey a message of praise and encouragement to them – telling them how they make you feel when you hear them sing and how much you appreciate their music. Was that selfish on your part? I didn’t think so.
Ok, shifting gears. We have a God we say we believe exists. He created everything. He created beauty, music, life. He did us favors along the way through his angels or Holy Spirit. He had a son, Jesus, who is part of God’s being, who asks us to trust Him for eternal life in a paradise with Him.
Here we have a choice of motivation. We can trust Him for selfish reasons to get us out of a major jam and get a reward in the bargain. Or we can trust Him because of his character, goodness, beauty, and His love and care for us, unselfishly because of our appreciation and admiration of Him.
Which way do you think He would have it?
Like selfishness, jealousy is not a good thing either. Unless you are God. He is a jealous God. This means that He wants us trusting in Him more than anyone or anything else. We are not selfish when we do that. We are His creation. We love Him because He first loved us.
Here is an article I found on the internet on the same topic that may be helpful…
The Selfishness of Salvation
This is a rant mostly relevant to my fellow Christians. Anyone else is welcome to come along for the ride though.
Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. After all, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.
That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the train cars struggling to air-condition the smell away.
But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.
While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.
The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.
Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.
Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?
This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.
This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.