Enlightened Selfishness

Enlightened Selfishness

She had just learned to speak a little, but her intent and focus was clear to all: “Me first.” It was her mantra from the moment she was able to speak into any and all situations. (Christian upbringing caused a happy ending to this mantra, and the #1 Syndrome evaporated over time, you will be pleased to know.)

For many in society, however, the phenomenon of putting oneself first in line continues to be problematic. It is a bane to societal functioning. Why is this so? Dennis Weaver in his excellent work ‘Ideas Have Consequences’ observes that the sin of egotism always takes the form of withdrawal. What he means is that striving for personal advantage becomes paramount; the individual gets out of step with his or her community, the community where people are related on the plane of spirituality, sentiment, and sympathy.

Such withdrawal, which has been given the euphemism of ‘enlightened selfishness,’ is pulverizing society. It is the simple nature of egotism that the ‘I’ becomes dominant and the entire environment in which the person functions suffers a distortion, a dissonance, a breakdown of harmony. The Greek philosopher Plato saw it as follows, “The excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offenses; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always prefer his own interest to the truth.” Self-absorption is a process of cutting oneself off from reality and social harmony.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American novelist (1804-1864), called selfishness ‘the unpardonable sin.’ He has a point. Self-absorption sets the ‘I’ on the throne of supremacy, the throne which rightly is owned by God, and gainsays all that God the Holy Spirit strives to work in the human being as part of a societal body. The English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), by contrast, puts forth the idea that ‘knowledge is power,’ implying that knowledge leads to the desirable social status of domination, inflation of self. It is a concept which reduces knowledge to utilitarianism, looking to what extent knowing something is useful. This is instead of having a knowledge of the true and the good, as the Creator-God set it forth in His realm (and which is integral to the character of God Himself), a knowledge which aims at promoting the fruit of the Spirit in all societal contexts.

Work as Worship
Is all the aforesaid relevant? Does owning or not owning the right concept of self and knowledge make any difference to the way a society operates? Absolutely! Just ask any business owner who employs several workers. When utilitarianism becomes enthroned and the worker is taught that work is a mere necessity and not worship, interest in quality will inevitably decline. Pride in workmanship will evaporate, and employment is reduced to doing the job with minimal effort and still getting the paycheck.

By contrast, there is the worker who sees work as worship. He understands that bringing glory to God is done by virtue of being the best craftsman he can be, by showing righteous abhorrence of shoddy workmanship and lax task approaches. His task is to set the beauty of God before all, and at all times. He knows that work is not about earning money primarily, it is about honouring God. One preacher astutely remarked that God does not need to have honour directed at Himself, for He is self-sufficient; rather that He is to be set before His fallen creatures as the One worthy of all honour. Consequently, the God-oriented worker will not have the paycheck as the goal of his labour, but his primary concern will be about setting forth the beauty of His Lord in all situations. Labour then is not a commodity; it is an act of worship. He will also contribute to church and the wider society willingly and with full commitment, even when there is no financial gain to be had.

When the egotist thinks of himself first and the task second, he is reducing the concept of work to a means of profit rather than duty and honour; he suffers from enlightened egotism. It is a phenomenon that this author has caught among young people in the church as they discuss among themselves the prospect of certain jobs on offer. Much of the conversation revolves around how much money for effort is at stake. Some decide not to accept a (part-time) job because it does not pay enough. Here we see a manifestation of enlightened selfishness, where the person is effectively saying, “I am worth more,” and the job is not regarded as an opportunity of worship and God-glorification. It is, from the Biblical perspective, a worrying reductionist view of work. Indeed, it would be an unpopular man who should suggest to many of the present generation that work is a divine ordinance.
However, when men cease to believe that work is a divine ordinance, their attitude toward it is limited to material gratification. Work is no longer to be performed as ‘under my great Taskmaster’s eye,’ but for my boss whom I don’t rate all that much. It leaves people usually discontent with their portion and dubious about whether work is a good thing at all. Thus we get slogans on T-shirts which unashamedly proclaim that ‘I work for the weekend,’ or ‘I hate Mondays.’ This author was advised not to buy a car which had been assembled on a Monday or a Friday, because there would be a good chance that the weekend gremlin might have wrought recall potential in the machine.

Thinking of Myself Less
It has been said that ministry and Christian school teaching are vocations or callings, and so they are. But let it be clear that all our work environments, be they paid or unpaid, at school as students, or as politicians in government, are callings ‘under my great Taskmaster’s eye.’ He who calls you is the owner of all this real estate on which we exercise our God-given cultural mandate. Those who understand this will have as their mantra what a US military pilot had written on his business cards: ‘Me third’ (after God and my neighbour).

As Tim Keller, an American apologist says, “The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and snivelling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”

Herm Zandman
FRC Southern River

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