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One of the joys of being a new parent is learning just how to parent. I came across this little tidbit of wisdom the other day that I have found very helpful in understanding my son. It’s called, “Toddler’s Rules of Possession.” (I know you’ve seen this before, but it’s worth repeating).

  1. If I like it, it’s mine.
  2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
  3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
  4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
  5. If it’s mine, it must NEVER appear to be yours in anyway.
  6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
  7. If it looks just like mine, it is mine.
  8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
  9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
  10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

We chuckle, but the reason we do so is because it’s so true. You don’t have to train a child to be selfish, he’s already selfish by nature. The funny thing is, selfishness is something children never grow out of. They become selfish adults, just like you and me.

If you made a list of all the “possible sins” a person could commit from murder and adultery down to angry words and worrying, you would find that the root cause or the origination of all of those sins would come down to two possible “heart sins” — selfishness and pride. While both of these sins wreck havoc in a relationship, selfishness is perhaps the most destructive. Selfishness is the cancer that eats away and ultimately destroys relationships.

Think about it for a second… The last time you were angry with your spouse, it was mostly likely because you wanted something from him or her and didn’t get it. When you expressed angry words with your children, it was probably because you wanted something from them (their respect, their obedience, to be considerate of you, etc.) and did not get it.

When we are focused on our self and our needs and wants (selfishness) and then we don’t get those things, we get angry.

In fact, that is exactly what James says: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (Jas 4:1-2). Don’t you love it when the Bible is that clear? The source of anger and quarreling in relationships are our own selfish lusts and wants. Nothing will kill a relationship quicker than selfishness. Selfishness is the “root” sin behind so many of our relationship problems.


Killing the Cancer of Selfishness

So what is the solution? Is there any cure to this cancer? Thankfully, in Christ, we can begin to put an end to selfishness. The beginning of even becoming a Christian is “denying yourself” (Matt 16:24). A Christian is someone who has done just that — denied himself. A Christian is someone who has given up on his own efforts to be “good enough” to please God. A Christian is someone who has finally come to God and said, “I surrender. I can’t live up to your standard. I’m a sinner. I deserve death. Please have mercy on me and forgive me.” A Christian is someone who has denied himself. It is only in Christ that the cycle of selfishness can be broken. But that is only the beginning.

While coming to Christ in salvation breaks sin’s bond over us, we must daily work (by the Holy Spirit’s power) to “put off” selfishness and “put on” humility and others-ness. Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3-11 are so helpful for doing just that. In fact, he gives us a four-fold strategy for killing in the cancer of selfishness.

  • Kill all selfishness in your life (v. 3a)
    He says in verse 3, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit…” Read that again. He says, “DO NOTHING.” Does that leave out anything? Does he give us any exceptions? Not at all. And that is one of the first keys to killing selfishness: Selfishness dies a death of starvation. Like so many other sins, you kill selfishness by not feeding it at all. And that’s hard, if we’re honest with ourselves. It means we need to look hard and deep into our own souls, identifying and pulling up every seed of selfishness we find. It means being painfully honest with ourselves. Selfishness is so natural and normal to us, often we do selfish things without even consciously thinking about it… just like putting on a seat belt in car. How are we selfish with our spouse? In what ways are we “me” oriented with our kids, our parents, our friends, or our bosses? When are we the most susceptible to being selfish? After a hard day at the office? When the kids have been misbehaving? Killing the cancer of selfishness starts with honest soul-searching and then up-rooting the selfish thoughts and habits we find.


  • Really believe that others are more important than you are (v. 3b)
    The second thing that Paul says that is helpful for overcoming selfishness is: “…but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Ouch. Now Paul really “gets in our kitchen” by identifying one of the lies we believe that leads to selfishness: I am most important. I come first. He says that we need to really believe that others are more important than we are and stop believing the lie that we should always come first. Notice where that type of thinking starts: “with humility of mind.” Thinking rightly about others starts with thinking rightly about ourselves. Sin makes us think way more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Sin makes us larger than life, where everyone exists to meet our needs. Sin taints our view our own self, always self-justifying and pretending that we aren’t really as bad and wicked as we know we are. We need to stop believing the lies that we deserve respect, we deserve our rights, we deserve to have our needs met, and remember that all we really deserve is eternity in the lake of fire. When we humble ourselves before the cross of Christ, seeing ourselves as sinners who have been saved totally and wholly by grace, then we will begin to look at others rightly. God says in this verse: “Other people are really more important than you.” Your boss is, your spouse is, your children are, your parents are, and your friends and neighbors are. In our heart of hearts, we have to believe that.


  • Demonstrate the importance of others by making their needs your priority (v. 4)
    Paul goes on to say: “…do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Here is the litmus test to see if we really do think others are more important than we are: Are their needs our priority? Do we look out for their interests as well as our own? Do we regularly defer to their wants and desires or we always pushing for our own agenda? When we think more highly of others than of ourselves, we will put them and their needs first. Now, obviously, that does not mean if someone is encouraging sin or living in sin that we defer to them and say, “That’s okay.” What it does mean is that in “freedom” issues (issues where there is freedom to make any number of righteous decisions) we defer to the interest, concern or need of the other person. Husbands, how do you respond when the game is on but your wife really needs to talk? Wives, how do you respond when you’d really like your husband to do a project at home but you know he’s had a particularly hard week at work? Kids, when it’s time to pick a movie to watch, do you defer to what your siblings would like? In the church, are we seeking to minister to the spiritual needs of others or are we only looking for someone or some program to meet our needs? When we really believe others are more important, we will defer to their interests and seek to minister to them.


  • Follow the example of Christ (vv. 5-11)
    Some of you may be saying, “But wait, you don’t know my boss! You don’t know my wife or my husband! You don’t know how bad my kids really are!” It’s hard not to be selfish. It’s hard to put others first. But before we get too excited, we need to look at the last part of the verse: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…” We should follow the example of Christ. But watch where he goes with this: “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Here’s Paul’s point: Christ is completely and 100% totally God. If anyone had the right to exalt himself, it was Christ. If there was anyone who could righteously put himself first, it was Christ. After all, he is God! But get this… he didn’t. He chose not to. Instead, he humbled himself, laid aside his visible glory and became a man. He humbled himself even to the point of dying on a cross for undeserving, wretched sinners like you and me. Is that not the ultimate act of selflessness and humility? Is that not putting others interests ahead of his own? If Jesus did that for you and me, we can and should and must do that for others. Whenever the temptation arises that says: “But this person doesn’t deserve it! They don’t deserve to have their needs met!” All we have to do at that point is remember Christ’s example. His example kills that type of thinking. He of all people deserved to be served, yet he chose instead to humble himself, and put others first — even to the point of dying for them.


Selfishness, left unrepented of and allowed to thrive in our life, will ultimately kill our marriages, our relationship with our kids, our parents, our friendships, even relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a relationally fatal disorder. Selfishness in the body of Christ also demeans the name of Christ, because he is the perfect example of selflessness and humility. When we, as his body, act in a way contrary to his character, we speak lies about him to the watching world around us. Yet in Christ, we have the ability through his Spirit to put to death selfishness, and to honor and exalt the name of Christ by putting others first. Lord, make us selfless people; make us like you!

Dr. Keith Palmer is the associate pastor of Grace Bible Church.  He oversees all of the counseling training at Grace Bible Institute, and is the director of Grace’s community counseling ministry, Granbury Biblical Counseling.  He is also a Fellow (supervisor), grader, and board member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).

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