Love and Unselfishness

This is another note I wrote on Facebook back in October 2009, with some minor edits. Quotations are from C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”

“If you ask 20 good men today what they thought were the highest of the virtues, 19 would reply ‘unselfishness’. But if you asked any of the great Christian of old, he would reply ‘love’.”

I’ve heard it more than a few times that the opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness. This can translate into the statement that if the opposite of love is selfishness, that means love and unselfishness are the same. However, there is a problem with this statement.

The virtue of unselfishness “carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence, not their happiness was the important point.”

As I have observed our society and the actions of others, including myself, I have seen a huge emphasis on the value of personal sacrifice, as though that is the pinnacle of a godly or virtuous life.

I don’t want to devalue the importance of sacrifice, however, I want to question the motives of those who place higher value on their own personal sacrifice than the well-being of others. This is not to say that an unselfish act won’t benefit another person. The pursuit of unselfishness means that the well-being of another person as a result of our sacrifice is a side effect and not the intended purpose. This is not the Christian virtue of love.

Christ’s sacrifice was indeed an act of unselfishness, however, it was an act of love first. The successful intent was the salvation of humankind, it was not a side effect on the road to another goal.

As a Christian with a desire to become more like Christ, the goal is not to abstain from as much worldly pleasures as possible and hope that a life of sacrifice will get us entry into heaven. The goal is to receive the good gifts of the Holy Spirit, which enable us to see others the way Christ sees them and to live a life of love, joy and peace.

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