I heard a story recently, about a mother who died in the Japan earthquake. She was found by a rescue team leader, dead inside the rubble. The wall of the house had collapsed on her, like so many other earthquake victims. The team began to move on, but the leader felt prompted to check again. The woman’s position was awkward, like she had been praying, or leaning over something. The rescuer reached in through the debris, this time under the woman. He felt the warmth of a sleeping baby’s breath against his hand. This mother knew her child would die in the earthquake, and she gave her life to save his.
We’ve all heard the stories of mothers (or fathers) who make the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their children. We are inspired by these stories, and we hope that one day we will have the courage to do the same. We praise them for being so “unselfish” or “selfless” in sacrificing their lives for another. Often, we use these stories as teaching tools about the love of God for us, and say that we should love with this same “unselfish, selfless” kind of love. We are called to “love like God loves,” and clearly, that love is not selfish, or self focused, or motivated by anything but the good of the other person… Or is it?
Is it true that Jesus died for us for our sake, having absolutely nothing in it for Himself?
Is that what the Bible teaches?
Is that Love?
Hebrews 12 says Jesus went to the cross “for the joy set before Him.” At Passover supper, He says he “eagerly desired” to eat dinner with his disciples. In John 17, Jesus keeps repeating “I desire!” about all sorts of different things. Wait a minute Jesus. I thought that this wasn’t supposed to be selfish! What’s with doing all these things for your joy, and to satisfy your desires about? Shouldn’t you be enduring the cross for my joy? Shouldn’t you be having Passover because the disciples desire it? It seems Jesus missed that whole lesson on being “unselfish.”
God doesn’t love us apart from His own desires, and He didn’t save us simply because we needed it. He did it because it brought Him pleasure to be with us. He saved us because we bring Him joy. As we see in John 17, Jesus did what He did because he had a whole bunch of things that he desperately wanted, and he was willing to pay any price to get them. Yes, Love does always seek the greatest good, but the greatest good is not just some abstract concept. The greatest good could also be called “the greatest pleasure” or “the greatest fulfillment.” Love seeks the ultimate happiness of both the lover and the beloved. As a matter of fact, the ultimate happiness of the lover is only found in the ultimate happiness of the beloved.
Ask that mother who gave her life for her baby what would have brought her more pleasure: saving herself, or saving her baby? Look into her eyes. There isn’t even a shred of wavering in her voice as she answers. “There is no comparison, the only choice that could bring me joy is to save him.” The very thing that makes it the Love that is like God’s Love is that no matter what the cost, it hardly even feels like a sacrifice.
Better still, look into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus, was it worth it? Or would it have been better to just keep enjoying everything in heaven? Which one had more in it for you?
“I would give up heaven 100 times over for the pleasure of being with you, even if you were the only one I would ever save.”
That is Love.
To say love is selfish is a bit of a stretch. It doesn’t perfectly convey the truth of what love is, but it helps.
So often we look at “unselfish” or “selfless” Love as void of any personal desires or pleasures. Sacrificing my needs or my good for the sake of others; giving up what I want so you can have what you want. But this is not Love. To Love like Jesus means sacrifice comes from the joy set before you, not from forsaking your joy for another’s sake. Love’s greatest happiness and fulfillment, its greatest pleasure for itself, comes from giving everything for the beloved. Try telling someone who is in love that they are sacrificing too much to be with their lover. Their response will be “no, I’m hardly sacrificing anything. I would give so much more if only I had it to give.” They only see the joy set before them.
Sacrifice is something that those who are not doing the Loving focus on.
We also carry in our idea of unselfishness this notion that we are to forgo our needs to meet the needs of others. We call this love; you responsible for my needs and me responsible for your needs. This too, is unbiblical. Paul writes to the Corinthians:
While this verse is immediately speaking of finances, there is more to it. You have been given the gift of yourself, and you are in charge of how you give it. To Love is to give of oneself. Whatever you give must not be given reluctantly or under compulsion, or else it ceases to be Love. To put it another way, it’s only Love when you aren’t doing it because you “should.” Love gives freely, without pursuing self-benefit, but when one’s needs go unmet to start, Love has nothing to freely give.
I’ve heard a lot of messages where pastors and speakers are telling their congregations to love like God loves, and ending it at that. They don’t tell you how to do it, they just leave you feeling like you are doing something wrong, and should be loving more. That feeling you leave the service with? It’s called condemnation. They are telling you what you should do, but not empowering you to do it. This is the very reason why the law was such a burden to the Jews in the first place! Jesus says Love with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and all you can say is “I CAN’T!” But Jesus didn’t end it there.
Jesus said all the law and the prophets were summed up this one command, to love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself. The thing most of us Christians fail to notice is that we are no longer under the law. This is the ministry that brings death! It’s no wonder we are having so much trouble finding life in this commandment! We cannot “do” this commandment, we have to “be” it. We have to live it out naturally, out of the overflow of our new identity in Christ, not out of striving and shoulds.
In this New Covenant, Jesus gives us a new commandment: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” When that speaker told you to Love like God, he forgot to mention that you can only Love like Him once you have been Loved by Him. We experience the love of God, then from that experience and that Love we now have something to Love other people with. When your needs have been met by God, and by His people made in His image, then you can Love people like Him. When you are filled to overflowing, then you can cheerfully love with your whole heart, free from compulsion. The most important step to Loving more is experiencing more Love. Notice that even in the old covenant commandment, we will be incapable of loving others if we cannot Love ourselves first.
How can you Love your neighbor like yourself when you are practicing self hatred by ignoring your needs and desires? Love for others is built on the foundation of love for oneself.
So when I say that Love is “selfish,” what I mean is while Love is selfless, it is so enraptured in joy and fulfillment that it hardly notices. Love seeks the greatest pleasure. Love does not ignore the self, but as a whole and satisfied self it does what is best for the other person. Love gives because it is glad to, not because it has to. Love makes sacrifice feel easy. Love doesn’t have to lay down its life, it gets to. As our Japanese mother has shown us:
Love never fails.