N CLASSIC SEINFELD FASHION, GEORGE and Jerry are sitting at their favorite coffee shop, “Dinky’s Donuts,” talking about life’s challenges. George is lamenting because of a situation he and his fiancée, Susan, find themselves in. She wants to know his PIN number for his ATM card—the only thing George has left all to himself. To share the number with her would be to surrender everything he has to her. He wants to conceal it from her as his one last shred of independence.
Frustrated, he whines to Jerry, “Why does everything have to be ‘us’? Is there no ‘me’ left? Why can’t there be some things just for me?” And then he wonders, almost without thinking, “Is that so selfish?”
Without missing a beat, Jerry chides in, “Actually, George, I think that’s the definition of selfish.”
Though almost 10 years have come and gone since Seinfeld produced an episode, the show is arguably still as popular—and relevant—as ever. Television stations around the globe syndicate it daily, and at Christmastime each year another season is released on DVD. The show that prided itself on being about “nothing” was poetically about everything, parodying the spirit of the times better than any other show.
Ironically, what makes the show so popular is the fact that it reflects the deep-rooted selfishness that lies within everyone’s heart. It shows what people will do to get ahead in life. It shows everything people do out of their own self-interests. To put it plainly, it’s a show about selfishness. And many people, like George, innocently wonder if there can be just a little “me” left.
It would be naive of us to believe that this “me” syndrome lies exclusively in the secular arena, however. A lot of times this selfishness masquerades around as Christianity. It finds its way into our lives, all in the name of spirituality.
Some of us switch churches more than Kramer does hobbies, or Jerry does his girlfriends. We do it because the preacher is too boring and doesn’t make us laugh enough, or the music doesn’t stir our hearts.
Then there are some who go on short-term mission trips for selfish reasons as well. We want to feel good about ourselves, or we
want to be blessed. We want to feel like we actually contributed to the betterment of someone’s life.
Even our so-called “praise songs” can be laced with self. Take one, for example, and count how many times the words “I,” “Me,” or “My,” are used. Not all of them are this way, of course, but given the number that are, one has to wonder, as one of my friends pointed out on his blog, who is truly being worshipped.
Perhaps the most puzzling one of all, however, is the idea that we must first love ourselves before we can love anyone else. We’ve taken Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39* and Mark 12:31—to name but two scriptural texts) and turned it into this commandment: “Thou shalt love thyself.” Nowhere in the Bible is there such a statement, though, nor does anything come even close to it.
David W. Henderson poignantly points out: “Terms like self-love, self-expression, self-confidence, and self-fulfillment, none of which graces the pages of Scripture, begin to dominate the church’s conversations. Meanwhile, other ‘self’ words straight from the Bible [such as] self-surrender, self-sacrifice, self-denial, and self-control slip into disuse.” He adds, “When that happens, we may be preaching, we may be sharing faith, but what we are communicating is not genuine Christianity. In Christianity, the one place that self cannot be is at the center. That is the rightful place of God alone.”1
Unfortunately, many of our actions—even those that have the outward appearance of being selfless—are sprinkled with just a little bit of “me.” And a little bit of “me” is lethal. It’s what caused Lucifer’s downfall in heaven when he said in his heart: “‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High’” (Isa. 14:13, 14).2 The first person pronoun is a dangerous weapon that Satan has utilized ever since.
So what are we to do? Is there any hope? Is the gospel powerful enough to save a Seinfeld generation from itself? Or is this just the way it’s always going to be? We’re sinful human beings, with sinful human natures, after all. Surely there will never come a time, before Christ’s return, when a whole generation gets past its preoccupation with self and focuses on the needs of God and the needs of others.
But perhaps the gospel has some truly good news for us.
A Philippian Problem
Comforting or not, we read in the Bible that many in the early Christian church also battled with this “me” syndrome. Several of Paul’s letters reveal such a problem. One place, in fact, was the church in Philippi, to whom Paul wrote a letter. Although he wrote some nice things about these precious believers, there was still a little problem to which he wanted to call their attention.
So Paul, ever concerned with building up his fellow Christians, wrote a few words of encouragement, saying: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit . . . Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3, 4, NIV). A few verses later he added, “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (verse 14).
We don’t know what the exact problem was—maybe they were arguing about whether drums should be allowed in the sanctuary, or whether cheese should be served for potluck. Regardless of the problem, however, it is clear that certain
people in Philippi were placing their selfish desires above the needs of others. They were bickering and arguing, pushing their own agenda to get what they wanted. Thus, Paul had to step in and say, “Don’t be so selfish! Think of others instead of thinking about yourselves all the time.”
Of course, Paul’s message wasn’t simply for the believers in Philippi. As part of God’s Holy Scriptures, the advice has great relevance to Christians living today. It has relevance to us. When our Christianity—or any part of our lives, for that matter—is laced with selfishness, Paul’s words unequivocally serve as our reminder to stop being so selfish.
This is a tall task, for sure. That which Paul tells us to do is the precise problem we have—we can’t get out of our own way. Even if we wanted to we alone couldn’t get away from our selfishness. We’re born with it. As Jeremiah wonders: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23).
Does Paul propose we pull up our bootstraps and try really, really hard to be unselfish? Maybe if we go to enough support groups that teach us the 12 steps to unselfishness we can finally overcome this innate problem. Or maybe if we read enough “self-help” books we’ll be able to overcome the problem of “me.”
But Wait, There’s More . . .
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. He doesn’t simply say, “Be unselfish . . . and don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave.” There’s more to his wonderful admonition in Philippians 2. Right after telling his readers in Philippi that they should be unselfish—a tall task for anyone in any generation—he points his readers to the power by which this can be accomplished.
He writes, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” And then he goes on to write one of the greatest expositions on Christ’s incarnation that has ever been written. “Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Simply put, for Paul the remedy to selfishness is to ponder Christ in His selflessness. When we look to Christ in His great humility and see that He made that great downward descent from being in the universe’s highest position to its lowest, our hearts won’t be able to resist the selfless biddings of our Savior.
Interestingly, there is a subtlety that is often lost in many translations of this passage. Some versions basically translate verse six as saying, “Christ, even though He was God, did not consider it something to be desired.” The original language of the passage, however, makes it possible to take the verse another way.
Gerald F. Hawthorne points out in his commentary that one could actually translate this passage thus: “Christ Jesus, who—precisely because he was in very nature God—did not consider equality with God to be ground for grasping . . . ” (emphasis original).2 While the first way of interpretation implies that Christ’s incarnation was contrary to His character, the second implies that it was the precise reason for it. Christ became flesh and blood because He was God, not in spite of it.
When the 12 disciples entered the upper room that Thursday evening in Jerusalem, their hearts were full of pride and envy. They sat, talking about who was going to be greatest when Jesus set up His kingdom. After three and a half years of learning from Jesus, they still had a lot of “me” in them.
Noticing that there was no servant to wash their feet, they began to awkwardly look around, waiting for someone to step up and play the part. None of them, of course, dared to lower themselves to perform the task.
But then something strange happened. Jesus, their Master, stooped down, took the basin and the towel, and began to perform the duties that He had no business doing. He was the one who should have been served; instead, He was doing the serving.
The disciples, of course, were cut to the heart by Christ’s actions. They were completely disgraced and humiliated. Ellen White observed that “this action opened the eyes of the disciples. Bitter shame and humiliation filled their hearts. They understood the unspoken rebuke, and saw themselves in altogether a new light.”3
Long before it was ever written, the disciples got a front-row view of Philippians 2:6-8 in action. They saw that Christ’s great condescension wasn’t merely an act—He’s wasn’t just playing a “part”—His character necessitates that He is a humble servant to all.
Just as with the disciples, whose pride and selfishness was washed away by the hands of Jesus, we, too, can be humbled. In unSeinfeld fashion we, too, can look to Christ and allow Him to place that selfless mind in us.
He did it for 11 men in an upper room 2,000 years ago; He can do it for a whole generation of His followers now.
*Unless otherwise noted, all texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1David W. Henderson, Culture Shift (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), pp. 29, 30.
2Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 43 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983), p. 85.
3Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 644