Love is Not Self-Seeking (1 Corinthians 13:5)
by Ted Schroder
Love is not selfish. Love does not insist on its own way. Love does not ‘seek her own’ (KJV). Love does not ‘insist on its own way’ (RSV). Love does not ‘pursue selfish advantage’ (JBP). Love is concerned with the well-being of others, not solely with its own welfare. Love is prepared to give up for the sake of others even what it is entitled to. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves. His sacrificial life is the model of self-denying love. He said to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Those who follow Christ are motivated by his sacrificial life to give rather than to get, to serve the good of others, and not just our own good.
How do we reconcile this way of life with proper self-love that affirms our own worth? Are we not meant to seek the fulfillment of our own potential, the realization of our personal identity and destiny? Is life not a matter of finding out who we really are and becoming what we are created to be? How is love for others compatible with this search?
We seek to know ourselves. Life is a quest for self-knowledge. We seek to understand ourselves by searching for our origins in our family history, in the lives of our parents and ancestors. I am intrigued by what motivated my forbears. I try to find clues about them from histories of the periods in which they lived. I collect materials on the colonization of New Zealand, and the immigration of my great-grandparents from England and Prussia.
We seek to find ourselves through counseling and therapy. We look for enlightenment through exploring our subconscious. We explore our childhood experiences, and the influences of significant people in our lives. We uncover forgotten traumatic incidences that have been buried or denied over the years. We read biographies and memoirs and identify with incidents in the lives of others. Documentaries and movies also trigger associations.
We seek for illumination in our spiritual lives, through prayer and Bible study, through discussion groups and classes. Love does not prohibit such searching for our true, God-given selves, that are in the process of becoming what he wants us to be, as long as the search doesn’t become an end in itself, and cause us to be so self-obsessed with our search that we become self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs of others.
Seeking to become what God wants us to be, and has created us to be, is surely part of our divine vocation. We are put on this earth for a purpose and we should be seeking to fulfill that purpose. We should not be settling for less than what God has called us to be. We cannot excuse ourselves from self-improvement on the grounds that love does not want us to become a better person.
What then is love cautioning us against? Love cautions us against making our self-seeking an end, the ultimate goal of our lives, the final aim of all our efforts in life. Our search for self-knowledge and self-actualization is a means to love others as ourselves. It is not to be sought for our own selfish fulfillment. Psychologist Abraham Maslow made self-actualization the pinnacle of his hierarchy of needs, but it should be seen as the stepping stone to the highest value of all – true love.
If we make ourselves the end or goal of seeking, we become the supreme good. We become self-centered. We see others as means of contributing to our good, instead of seeing how we can help them. We assert our rights, our opinions, and our needs, at the expense of others. We seek ourselves in ideal terms, as we wish others would see us.
Lewis Smedes writes, “A composite portrait of the typical secular ideal self, as portrayed in the escapist literature, television, and film of our day, would disclose a combination of all that is creative, charming, clever, and courageous. Such a person is healthy and vital, good-looking, sexually interesting but capable of deep caring. Not only does this ideal person know much, he or she has the wit to express it vividly. Confident yet not arrogant, religious, yet not other-worldly, this ideal is strong against temptation, but understanding of those who yield. When he or she loves, it is always from strength. This is a frame into which most of our ideal selves fit; each of us make a private portrait by adding a few unique features.” (Love Within Limits, p.50)
Seeking self-fulfillment, as the be-all and end-all of life results in either self-deception, or disappointment, that is divorced from reality, and distanced from truly loving relationships. We become so preoccupied with our own search that we lose our perspective on ourselves, and neglect helping others. On the other hand, love moves us to make others the center of our concern. It causes us to ask, “How can I use what God has given me, and made me to be, and what wisdom and insight I have discovered, to help others.”
The true ideal self, as seen in Jesus, seeks to go beyond the limited vision of self-fulfillment to the maturity of self-denial for the sake of loving others. Such love is not the doormat variety, that denies self out of self-hatred, or fear, or ignorance. It is a love that draws strength from an awareness of who you are, and what you are called to be, to offer yourself in service to help another. Far from being a doormat, and passive in our relationships, sometimes loving others requires us to assert ourselves.
Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). The king forgave his servant a huge debt. He did not assert his right to be repaid, but instead denied himself so that his servant could remain free. The king took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But immediately the forgiven servant assaulted one of his fellow servants and demanded payment for a trifling sum. Instead of forgiving the man as he had been forgiven, he had his debtor thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the king heard about it he asserted his right to be paid also, and had him committed to prison. Initially the king was not self-seeking. He did not assert his right to be repaid. But when he found that his lack of self-seeking was misused by his servant, he reasserted his right. By doing so he protected the other servant from this ungrateful man’s own self-seeking. He helped his neighbor by asserting his own rights to be repaid. That was the loving thing to do even though it caused his ungrateful servant grief.
Sometimes we have to assert our rights in order to protect others. It is the loving thing to do for an abused mother to seek protection for herself and her children from a violent husband. Failure to do so results in children filled with self-hatred as Pat Conroy chronicles in his books. It also perpetuates the violence into the next generation. Parents have to seek adequate wages in order to take care of their children. Abandoned wives have to seek adequate compensation when their husbands and the father of their children leave them for another woman. We have to seek appropriate remuneration when we are negotiating for a position because we are responsible for our family, and for those who come after us in the position. We are to seek the freedom and opportunity to fulfill our God-given purpose and vocation. We are to seek to safeguard our reputation for the sake of the work God has called us to do, and the witness we are called to bear for his sake. Rosa Parks was not self-seeking for asserting her right to sit in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama because she did it, not only for herself, but for others. Martin Luther was not self-seeking when he refused to recant his witness to the truth of the gospel of grace, because he was doing it for the whole church.
Love needs to discern when it is appropriate to assert one’s needs or when it is wise to deny them for the sake of others. We need to pray for wisdom to know when to speak up and when to keep silent, when to act and when to wait, when to fight and when to surrender. Love knows the more excellent way of helping others. It transforms self-seeking into seeking to serve others in the most effective way. This calls for prayer and the courage Jesus can give. We cannot do it in our own strength. We need the power of the Spirit of Jesus.
February 18, 2007
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