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“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
– Philippians 2:4 NASB
Sara is a college sophomore who stands out among other young women her age. While other girls spend their weekends at parties or the mall, trying to snag a guy or buy up the latest trends, Sara uses her free time in an entirely different way. Whenever she’s not in class or studying, she can be found volunteering at the local nursing home or taking care of needy children in the community. Instead of spending her summer vacation making extra money or going to the beach, Sara spends every break going to the mission field, working in orphanages around the world and ministering to neglected children. She doesn’t do any of these things in order to make herself seem more spiritual. Rather, she is passionately in love with Jesus Christ, and she can’t help but pour her life out for those in need around her.
When I observe Sara, I notice a radiance, a glow, a loveliness that is unusual in modern young women. It’s the beauty of selflessness. Sara has chosen to deny self, to silence the voice of her own whims and wants, and sacrificially pour out her life for Jesus Christ.
In my book Authentic Beauty, I described a scene I once witnessed in a college hang-out on Friday night. Eric and I were sitting in an artsy little coffee shop, a popular student gathering place not far from a state university. The place was packed to capacity. A local musician was performing, and dozens of college students were crowded around the little tables, drinking cappuccino, playing cards, chatting, studying, or hooking up. I sipped my chai and gazed around at the scene. The room was full of flirtatious girls and guys who eyed each other from across the room and then ended up at the same table, engaged in lively, flirtatious conversation. The students were acting like every other college group I’d ever been around – until suddenly I noticed her – a sandy-haired young women with a radiant smile on her face.
She was sitting at a table near ours, a bright-eyed young woman who looked about twenty-one. To her left was a girl in a wheelchair, who was unable to lift her head, use her limbs, or even speak. The sandy-haired young woman was softly touching the disabled girl on the arm, smiling and talking casually to her about the local musician’s amazing guitar talents. At first I thought she might be some kind of nurse or aid for the girl in the wheelchair, but soon I realized that she was simply another college student, out on a Friday night with one of her good friends.
For the next hour, I stole glances at their table, intrigued by how they communicated back and forth, and especially by how sensitive and caring the sandy-haired young woman was toward her friend. She seemed to glow with an inward sparkle that exuded total peace and confidence. She was completely delighted to be spending the evening with the girl in the wheelchair, even though they made an unusual pair among the rest of the students. She appeared fully content to help her friend with her drink and chat with her about the music, oblivious to the flirting and hooking up going on all around her.
I found out later from Eric, who had chatted with her while he stood in line for a refill, that the two girls were roommates and that the girl in the wheelchair had been severely disabled since birth. The sandy-haired young woman spent much of her spare time helping her roommate with her day-to-day challenges, and the two had become close friends. Eric noticed that the sandy-haired young woman didn’t seem to want to talk about herself, but she glowed as she went on and on about her roommate’s amazing qualities – things that people often didn’t notice because of the disability. Her sincere and sacrificial love for her friend was obvious.
As the night went on, this young woman fascinated me. She seemed to radiate with an unshakable confidence. She could have easily blended in with the dozens of other girls there, but instead, here she was, joyfully pouring herself out to serve her roommate. In fact, she seemed to be having more fun than any other girl in the whole place. As the musician wrapped up his final set, I glanced out the window and saw the sandy-haired young woman whizzing through the parking lot on the back of her friend’s wheelchair, the two of them laughing with childlike delight as they raced past the rows of cars. From all appearances, this young woman had just had the best night of her life.
Though I never officially met her, I would venture to guess that this young woman knows Jesus Christ in an intimate way. Radiance, confidence, and stunning inner beauty sparkled from within her. She was blissfully unaware of self – and totally caught up in her King’s priorities. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold.
How to Cultivate a Selfless Life
First Peter 4:2 tells us that we should no longer live the rest of our time “for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
First Peter 2:11 exhorts, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”
And Galatians 5:16 commands us, “...Walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”
All throughout Scripture, we are told to yield to the voice of God’s Spirit, rather than the voice of our flesh. But to most of us, the word flesh is just an outdated, vague term that we don’t really understand.
Here is a vital truth we must recognize in order to live a successful Christian life: flesh is just another word for self – our selfish, put-my-own-wants-first side. Many of us don’t even realize we have a selfish, fleshly side. We make decisions based on our own whims and desires. We do what makes us feel good. We follow our selfish wants. It’s easy to live as a slave to our flesh without even realizing it, especially if we go to church and spend time doing spiritual things.
Our culture, even our Christian culture, has a tendency to encourage us to listen to our fleshly side: “Follow your heart! Pay attention to your emotional and physical needs! Don’t just meet everyone else’s needs – take time for you! What do you want out of life? How can you fulfill your destiny?” All of these questions cause us to focus inward – on what we want, what we need, and who we are.
And yet the Bible makes it clear that if we yield to the flesh, we cannot yield to the Spirit of God. The flesh wars against all the things of God – and it must be silenced in order for us to deny self, take up our cross, and follow our King.
As Ian Thomas so eloquently said,
The Christian life can be explained only in terms of Jesus Christ, and if your life as a Christian can still be explained in terms of you – your personality, your willpower, your gift, your talent, your money, your courage, your scholarship, your dedication, your sacrifice, or your anything – then although you may have the Christian life, you are not yet living it.
Contrary to what our culture insists, this life is not about us. It’s about Him. And only when we put to silence our selfish side can we radiate with divine heavenly beauty. So how do we learn to yield to the Spirit instead of fulfilling the lusts of the flesh? It starts with simple, everyday decisions.
Often, it starts with your morning alarm clock. Do you yield to the beckoning whisper of Christ’s Spirit, asking you to get up and spend time with Him, or listen to your own selfish desire to stay in bed? Our entire day is filled with those kinds of decisions. We can either claim this life as our own, and do what our flesh desires, or we can deny self, take up our cross, and follow Him. The more we yield to His Spirit, the more we are able, by His supernatural grace, to live the set-apart life He has called us to live.
Daily life is filled with hundreds of choices to either give in to selfish whims or yield to Christ’s Spirit. But most of us are so used to obeying the commands of our carnal desires that our ears are deaf to the Spirit of God. Silencing our selfish side takes a lot of focus and a heavy dose of supernatural enabling grace. But Christ is more than interested in equipping us to put to death the desires of our flesh.
When you woke up this morning, did you think of your day as belonging to you, or Him? Did you live as if your time and decisions were your own, or His? Did you allow the distractions and allurements of this world to turn your head, to occupy your thoughts, or to dictate your choices? Or was He your sole pursuit? How did you spend your free time? Doing what you felt like doing? Or pouring out your life for Him?
The choice between selfishness and selflessness affects just about every part of our femininity – from what we wear to how we interact with others. For example, the way we choose to dress and carry ourselves makes a very loud statement about our inner priorities. All too many of us have fallen prey to dressing selfishly and seductively. We want eyes to be on us. We want guys to notice us. Our goal is not to bring glory to Jesus Christ, but to bring approval and attention to ourselves. We selfishly lead guys to stumble rather than heroically protecting their inner purity.
The way we act socially also speaks volumes about our inner focus. We are typically so caught up in our own world that we don’t take time to think about what would be the most honoring to those around us. And as a result, we never showcase the captivating beauty of selflessness that God intended us to have.
Look at the example of Jesus – He always saw the needs around Him. He didn’t put his own needs or wants first. His entire life was one of poured-out servanthood and sacrificial love. Because of His absolute selflessness, He willingly embraced the greatest suffering this world has ever known. Hebrews tells us that Christ endured the cross, despising the shame. It was not easy and comfortable for Jesus to give up His life. It was not delightful and pleasant. Taking up His cross caused Him more pain and misery than anyone has ever known or imagined. It was so difficult that the night before it happened He wept exceedingly, sweat drops of blood, and cried out to His father, “Is there any other way?”
What if Jesus had simply listened to His own selfish wants that night in the Garden of Gethsemane? What if He had yielded to what His emotions and human desires were telling him? What if He had said, “Surely God does not want me to embrace something that makes me feel so miserable. Surely I shouldn’t see this as an opportunity from my Father! Death is a curse, it’s shameful; it’s painful. Why would I surrender to something that doesn’t make me feel happy?”
In our self-focused culture, it’s easy to see absolute selflessness as extreme and unnecessary. A lot of us take on the attitude that says, “I’ll just do the bare minimum so I can stay on God’s good side” – especially when it comes to dressing modestly, living in purity, and caring for the needs of others. But in light of what Christ did for us on the cross, how can any sacrifice for Him be too extreme? Cultivating selflessness in these areas of our lives is just one small way of reflecting the beauty of our King and expressing our gratitude for what He has done for us.
First Peter 2:21 reminds us, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”
Ask God to show you any area of your life in which you are inward-focused rather than outward-focused. Do you draw attention to yourself in social situations, or do you continually point others to Jesus Christ? Do you flirt with guys and dress seductively, even in subtle ways? Are you moody and sullen when someone irritates you? Repent of any selfishness He convicts you of, and then write down specific ways in which you can begin to turn outward, rather than inward, in those areas of your life. You might find it helpful to recruit a trusted accountability partner to help keep you on track as you develop selfless habits in these areas of your life.
Hannah Whitehall Smith wrote, “One of the most effective ways of conquering [selfishness] is to make a rule that, whenever we are tempted to dwell on self, we will at once begin to dwell upon the Lord instead.”
This is wonderful advice. Whenever you are tempted to turn inward, the best thing you can do is fill your mind and heart with thoughts of your great King, letting all thoughts of self become swallowed up in Him.
Most of us have selfish habits that need to be remade by Christ’s Spirit. I would encourage you to spend some focused time in prayer and waiting on God, allowing Him to gently reveal those areas of your life that need His transforming touch. Allow His Spirit to open your eyes to any part of your daily existence in which you typically yield to your selfish whims and desires. You may find it helpful to write down anything that He brings to mind. Then, pray specifically for the grace to silence your selfish side in each of these areas, and begin putting it into practice in your everyday life. (For example, choosing to joyfully respond when your alarm clock goes off, instead of lazily pushing the snooze button or angrily hurling it across the room.)
It may take a few days, weeks, or months for those old habits to fully die. But if you allow Him to retrain your daily decisions and enable you to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him” (see Matt. 16:24), you will soon understand from firsthand experience what Paul meant when he said, “...it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).*
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