Question: "What does the Bible say about selflessness?"
Answer: The characteristic of being selfless is one of the most important traits any Christian can have. It’s so significant that Jesus said it is the second most important of all God’s commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; cf. Galatians 5:14). Jesus wasn’t creating a new law here; He was merely agreeing with and expounding on an Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:18). James calls this the “royal” law to emphasize its supreme value to God (James 2:8).
Jesus had much to say about selflessness during His earthly ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, He goes beyond what some may think of as selflessness—helping a friend, ministering to a spouse, caring for an ill child, etc. Jesus extends selflessness far beyond normal expectations—we are to love our enemies, even, and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Jesus taught that it’s easy to love a friend or a spouse—even unbelievers do that (Matthew 5:47). The Christian is expected to love the unlovable, because this is how we become more like God, who gives blessings to everyone (Matthew 5:45). It’s a difficult thing to lay aside hurt feelings and wounded hearts, but that’s part of being selfless.
As in so many areas, Jesus is the ultimate example of selflessness. In coming into this world, “he made himself nothing” and took upon Himself “the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). Now, as followers of Christ, we are to “have the same mindset” (Philippians 2:5). Jesus came not for His own benefit but for ours. He came to minister to us and die for us: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Humanly speaking, Jesus gave up His will for God’s will (Luke 22:42)—and this is another salient point: selflessness involves more than putting other people first; it is putting God first. As John the Baptist said concerning Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). More of the Lord; less of us.
Selflessness is illustrated well in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:29–37. It’s a story about a man from Samaria who encounters a robbery victim. The Samaritan has compassion on this man, who had been stripped, beaten, and left for dead (Luke 10:30). The Samaritan immediately puts his own plans on hold and tends to the man’s wounds (Luke 10:34). Not only does the Samaritan give selflessly of his time and his sympathy, but he gives selflessly of his assets. The Samaritan places the wounded man on his own animal, takes the man to an inn, and takes care of him there (Luke 10:34–35). The next day, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper money enough for a few more days at the inn, with a promise to return and pay the balance of whatever was owed (Luke 10:35). Jesus’ story reveals the Samaritan to be selfless in numerous ways. He put the needs of others ahead of his own and went out of his way to shower benevolence on a battered stranger.
Selflessness runs counter to human nature, which is why being selfless is so much more difficult than being selfish. It’s natural to care about ourselves, and we are encouraged to think selfishly from all sides. However, the Christian must daily heed the words of the apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). No believer, young or old, can live a selfless life without a constant abiding in the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is only through Him that our attitudes can be changed and molded toward unselfish behaviors. If Christ indeed lives in our inner man and we keep in step with Him, we should find ourselves identifying with, rather than marveling at, the Good Samaritan.