A Message on Living Selfishly

-Sermon Given on 11/23/2010.

About 4 years ago I got married to my wife Rose. Shortly after our honeymoon I started my 60 hour-a-week sales job. It was an extremely exhausting and demanding job. I remember within my first week on the job coming home from work absolutely dead to the world. Rose was making dinner, so we sat down to eat dinner. It was our usual friendly conversation about our days. After dinner I retreated to the couch, turned on the tv as any good husband would do after a long day to begin my nightly ritual of relaxing in front of the tv. I’ll never forget the look on Rose’s face. It was the “I’ve been just as busy as you today, the least you can do is help do the dishes” look. And in that moment I had a very keen awareness of how selfish I was. For those of you who are married, I’m sure you can relate with having a new awareness of how selfish you can be through your marriage. I often think back to that night in our apartment as a reminder of how selfish I can be when I don’t make an effort to care for my wife before myself.

Selfishness from God’s people is nothing new. In the book of Judges this selfishness comes out through the story of Jephthah. Judges 17:6 does a great job of summarizing the whole book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” Essentially, no one provided spiritual direction, so the people lived selfishly, doing what was best for themselves. The people of Israel struggled with the same thing we struggle with: putting our needs over the needs of others and focusing on ourselves instead of God.

As we cover the story of Jephthah in Judges 10:6-12:7 I’ll give a brief overview of the story. The story of Jephthah is very similar to the stories of other leaders spoken of in the book of Judges. Israel has gone from being led in military victories by Abimilech, after his death they begin to be oppressed by other people groups and they turn away from God to begin worshiping the gods of the other people groups. God then, in his frustration with them, brought more oppression on the Israelites. As they did had before when oppression was getting worse; Israel pleads with God to rescue them and they stop their worship of foreign gods. Israel then finds a leader either on their own or through God’s anointing, and in this case they appoint Jephthah to lead their military. He is the son of a prostitute and was abandoned by his family at a young age. Jephthah begins some diplomatic discussions with nearby nations who had been oppressing Israel and the discussions eventually result in a war won by Jephthah and Israel. After the victory, a specific group of Israelites challenges Jephthah for not using them in the war against the foreign nation and a civil war breaks out which is won by Jephthah as well. In the end Jephthah ruled over Israel for 6 years and brought Israel out of oppression. It would only be a short time after when Israel was fall back into the same cycle of oppression and worship of foreign gods. This cycle of oppression, worship of foreign gods, turning back to God, God providing a leader who leads Israel to military victories, and then back to oppression is seen time and time again in the book of Judges.

Just as in the time of the book of Judges, it is normal in our society to live selfishly. In many ways our culture teaches us the subliminal message that our needs are most important. Whether it be ipods, youtube, houses with fenced in yards. All of these things in and of themselves are good things, but they also teach an underlying message that our needs are most important; that we should get what we want, when we want it. I read a statistic that said, 51% of 18-25 year olds most important life goal is to become famous. Not to serve others, not to make a difference in the world, but just to be known by others. If our culture is teaching us that selfishness is a good thing and it is a part of our sinful nature, it is no wonder we struggle with focusing on God and those around us before ourselves.

The first thing selfishness does is it causes us to put our needs over the needs of the people we love. When I was doing my undergrad work I would come home for Christmas break for usually 3 weeks. With all my extra free time I would often play my younger brother in video games. My brother and I have a weird relationship. We’re both very competitive so when we play against each other its usually a death match of sorts. Being that I’m almost 10 years older than him I can easily beat him at pretty much anything, so I always took the chance to beat him at video games. I would always tell myself, “it’s okay if you destroy him every game, you hate losing.” And it was true, I hated losing, so much so that my brother would end up crying after playing me. He’d run to my mom (he was 10 years old back then) and sure enough my mom would come downstairs and tell me to go easier on him because he was young. I never did and it was selfish of me to put my needs of being competitive over his needs to be able to have fun with his older brother.

In the story of Jephthah there are 2 instances when selfish people care more about themselves than those near and dear to them. Late in chapter 11 Jephthah makes a crazy vow to God that if they win the battle (Judges 11:30-31), he’ll sacrifice the first person to come out of his house. It was crazy because God had promised all along to take care of Israel and because human sacrifice was against Israelite law. In the end, he sacrificed his own daughter. Later in chapter 12, after Jephthah had defeated the Ammonites, the men of Ephraim complain that Jephthah did not use them in the battle against the Ammonites (Judges 12:1). Instead of thanking Jephthah for bringing the nation of Israel less oppression, they are upset because they weren’t asked to be a part of the battle. Their need to be wanted and used became a selfish desire. Rather than uniting as a community of Israelites, Jephthah then goes to battle with the men of Ephraim and defeats them as well. Reading on throughout the rest of the Old Testament we see that the people of Ephraim never played a key role in Israel’s history again. Their selfish desire was the end of their influence and power as a community.

The 2nd thing selfishness can do is that we focus more on our needs instead of our need for God. This plays out in Judges 11:4-11 when the leaders of Gilead ask Jephthah to become their leader. In other stories of the promotion of a judge, the community leaders often ask God to provide in that way, but in this instance the mention of God’s guidance is never stated. Their promotion of Jephthah was done quickly and clearly without the Lord’s leading in their decision-making process (Judges 11:8). Their need to have a military leader at the helm was more important than placing themselves under God’s leading. This isn’t to say Jephthah wasn’t the right man for the job or that the leaders of Gilead were ungodly people, but even Godly people can make selfish decisions without God’s guidance.

It is often our successes that can begin to create in us a more selfish mentality rather than reliance on God. The Israelites fell into the worship of foreign gods time and time again in the book of Judges, despite God releasing them from oppression many times. Their military successes did nothing but impart a selfish mentality they were unable to break.

I once heard a pastor named Craig Groeschel say, “The difference between where you are and where God wants you to be, is the pain you are unwilling to endure.” In our culture, I think often this pain is a death of self and selfishness. The pain we’re often unwilling to endure is giving up our needs to focus more on what God needs from us. There is no denying it, dying to self and getting rid of selfishness is a painful process.

The people of Gilead raised up Jephthah to bring about military victories as we just read in Judges 11:4-11, but what they needed was a nation that would focus first on God before their need to be less oppressed. Military victories was not what they needed, true worship of God was.

Back in high school, I was a part of many plays my church would put on around Christmas and Easter. Part of being in a play is memorizing lines. If you have a main role, it is possible that you might have to memorize hundreds of lines or even worse, an entire monologue. The first few play practices are typically with scripts in hand and the director allows all the actors to use the script so that they lines don’t get in the way of working out the acting of a scene. The difficult part of preparation for the play is when rehearsals begin to go off-script. Instead of having a piece of paper give you lines, if you don’t have a line memorized you have to do the embarrassing thing of asking the director for your line. I always found those first off-script rehearsals incredibly difficult because the script had become a crutch, it was what I had gotten used to and comfortable with. In the same way, I think our culture has allowed us to get used to and comfortable with everyone being selfish. The message our culture sends us is that getting what we want, when we want it, is a perfectly normal thing to expect.

1st Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” This idea of selfishness is completely contrary in the kingdom of God, because in his kingdom we don’t own ourselves. We are His. Made to be used by him, as instruments in his great work. The Christian life isn’t about selfishness, it’s about sacrifice. Jesus showed us as the ultimate example, now must be follow. We aren’t our own, we were bought at a price. Whether we change the way we interact with those closest to us or give God the devotion from us that he deserves, we cannot underestimate the negative force that selfish living can have in our lives. We must turn ourselves over to Him.

In studying for this sermon I came across what is known as the Wesley Covenant Service. John Wesley used to hold Covenant services on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day as a kind of counter-cultural way for the church to gather without partying. He would always finish the service by reading a prayer of surrender and sacrifice and I think it is the perfect way to end this message on the importance of selfless living.

(Link to the Wesley Covenant Service Prayer)