Does Our Moral Teaching Create Selfishness?

When I was nine or ten years of age, I hit my sister. (I’m sure she deserved it).

My parents were not happy. They sat me on the sofa. They told me that my behavior was unacceptable. They asked me if I wanted to be the kind of person who retaliated with violence.

And then they orchestrated unpleasant consequences.

I don’t remember the actual consequences of that day, but whatever they were, they worked. I never again retaliated with violence.

But look at the motivations for my morality. My parents appealed to my identity (I didn’t want to be THAT kind of person), and they appealed to my comfort (I didn’t want to experience THOSE kinds of consequences).

In other words, my parents taught me morality by appealing to my self-centeredness.

The problem

The problem with the world is people lie, cheat, and steal. But we lie, cheat and steal precisely because we are self-centered. Our moral teaching replaces one selfishness (lying, cheating, and stealing) with another selfishness (identity and comfort).

We’re curing heart disease with cancer; and it’s going to metastasize. Someday our well nourished selfishness will not be offset by selfish-identity or comfort; then we’ll lie, cheat or steal. After all, we’ve been taught to act in selfishness.

Scripture promises that someday the law will be “written on our hearts.” God doesn’t merely mean we’ll memorize the law. He means we’ll have changed hearts. Someday we’ll avoid violence because we love others not just because of the consequences.

Let me show you how God did this very heart transplant in an Old Testament prophet.

The curious case of Jonah’s heart

Jonah’s story is famous because of the whole “whale” thing. Instead of the whale, let’s look at Jonah’s heart. In his story there is a “see-saw” activity between God’s Voice and his Orchestration. Eventually we see a change in the desires of Jonah’s heart.

His story begins with a Voice, “Jonah, go the Nineveh and preach” (Jonah 1:2 paraphrased). Jonah disobeys and flees. So God Orchestrates a consequence, the whale.

God’s Voice comes a second time. This time Jonah goes to Nineveh. But his heart is not yet changed. He preaches the world’s least loving sermon, “You’re all going to burn and I’m going to roast marshmallows” (Jonah 3:4, okay, that was paraphrased a bit too).

God acts through Jonah’s sermon despite Jonah’s graceless heart (he doesn’t even offer the option of repentance). Despite Jonah’s oversight, the Ninevites repent of their evil and violence (Jonah 3:5-8).

God relents of his judgment, and Jonah is mad (no judgment of those nasty people). God then Orchestrates a plant to grow and it comforts Jonah from the heat. Then God Orchestrates for the comfort to disappear. And Jonah is even madder.

Finally God’s Voice speaks one last time, “You have compassion for a mere plant, but you did nothing to make it grow, and it came and went in a day … Shouldn’t I [God] have compassion on … 120,000 people who do not even know their right hand from their left? (Jonah 4:10-11).

This time Jonah’s heart is melted. The law is finally written on his heart.

How do we know that?

How can we know Jonah’s heart is changed? Because the book of Jonah was written.

In his book, Jonah describes his own weakness and sinfulness. Jonah confesses his disobedience; he describes his own bigotry and hatred of the Ninevites; he shows his desire for punishment not mercy; he expresses his anger at God for showing mercy; and he confesses his own selfish pettiness at the loss of the plant.

Only a changed heart can do that. The story of Jonah is the story of a man confessing his self-righteousness. Prior to God’s Voice and Orchestrations, Jonah could easily have prayed, “Lord thank you that I’m not like those evil Ninevites” (Luke 18:11). Afterward Jonah would have prayed, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Jonah’s story is the story of a moral but self-righteous man needing God’s mercy.

God is after our hearts

The final words in the book of Jonah are, “Shouldn’t I [God] have compassion on … 120,000 people who do not even know their right hand from their left?” Clearly God is pursuing Jonah’s heart. God isn’t satisfied with Jonah’s external (even selfish) obedience. God wants Jonah’s heart to be changed.

The unwritten final question in the book of Jonah is, “What will we do with our hearts?” Will we be the selfish, self-righteous Pharisee who prays, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other sinners?”

Or will we be like the man with a tender heart who prays, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner?”

Sam

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23 Responses to Does Our Moral Teaching Create Selfishness?

  1. A friend and really good man, responded to this post on Facebook. He asked:

    Sam, I see your point from scripture. But as a father always looking to be better, how would you apply this idea to your original example of you hitting your sister?

    Below is my answer.

    • My goal in this article is to help us examine our own—adult—hearts. Will we be satisfied with mere external conformance, or will we push deeper for a heart that longs to love?

      As for raising kids, I still believe in using Voice (setting up boundaries) and Consequences. It clearly is God’s pattern.

      I once read a book that really helped (but I forget who wrote it). The author said that God’s commands (voice) and consequences (orchestration) are like wooden “forms” we place around cement. The forms hold the cement in place while it “cures.” Eventually the wooden forms can be removed because the cement will have enough internal strength to remain in place.

      I think that is a good picture of what we do with our kids. We use the wooden forms of word and consequence; and we desperately pray to God that he’ll “cure” the hearts of our kids so that they hold fast from internally changed, Godly desires.

      And it’s a good prayer for us too 🙂

  2. Billie Cano says:

    Thanks Sam!

    You continue to enlighten me!

    Best,

    Billie

  3. I never knew how much Jonah and I have in common. Even in my freedom I have a tendency to be angry because people don’t get it instead of having compassion. Maybe I should put my baseball bat down for a minute. Thanks Sam for making me think with my heart, as well as with my mind.

    • Mike,

      I’m with you man. I’ve been studying the book of Jonah, and–Yikes and Alas–I find that I am so very much like him.

      But I find these things every so encouraging:
      1) God acted through Jonah even though his message was weak (he didn’t even offer a chance for repentance) and his heart was cruel.
      2) God brought life and repentance to a whole city
      3) God changed Jonah’s heart so he was willing to admit his FAILURES even more than proudly displaying his SUCCESSES.

      Isn’t God amazing? I mean, how can he accomplish so much?

      It also makes me think of how I want to bring God’s message:
      1) I want a heart that is pure (Please God, come purify!)
      2) I want to admit my failures more than my successes. I think our failures–and seeing God act–speaks louder than our success.

      I know you share this hope. I read your posts!

      Sam

      • kenstewart says:

        Failures always speak louder than words, and mean more to us. Why else are we so drawn to the “failures” of the Bible: Moses, David, Peter, etc.? Randy Clark (of Global Awakening) told of one of the greatest lessons he learned from John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Movement), when John was doing “healing clinics” (teaching people how “everybody gets to play”)–at one service EVERYONE got healed (it seemed) and the next night NO ONE got healed. He went to Wimber and said, “What did we do wrong?” Wimber said, “You don’t get it, do you? We didn’t do anything different…When it succeeds, I don’t take the credit; when it doesn’t I don’t take the blame.” Randy said he thought, “Well, if John Wimber can fail, so can I!” And that has led to great success subsequently for him… I like John Maxwell’s term “Failing Forward”!

  4. Thanks for this. This idea used to really mess with my head. I had an identity crisis when I first realized that I could be obedient to God out of selfishness. If selfishness can motivate obedience, how can I prove I’m better than my neighbor? Turns out I can’t prove something that isn’t true; we’re all equally undeserving, but God is so good.

    • Hi David,

      You know, isn’t that actually kind of comforting? We CAN’T prove we’re better than our neighbors, but we can admit we’re not (that’s easy … sort of).

      And that’s when God can come in and say, “Let’s do this together.”

      Thanks,

      Sam

  5. An interesting article, but although you frame the question in a very interesting way, appealing to our self-interest is exactly what God does. All through the Bible, the reader is left in no doubt – getting straight with God will lead to a good hereafter, and living outside of fellowship with God, or in outright defiance will lead to a bad hereafter. The prodigal son, archetype of all repentant sinenrs (ie, christians?) ‘comes to his senses’ and goes home. He doesn’t even feel bad or apologise. Seems to me that we are SOOOO inherently selfish that even God hasn’t got a better way.

    • Catherine,

      You are absolutely correct. God does appeal to our natures. But I think he also–in the long run–want to renew our deepest heart desires.

      Just this morning I was reading CS Lewis’ Weight of Glory. In it, he talks about a kid learning Greek, first because he is told he must (a type of self interest), but eventually the child will read Greek of out love for the stories and poetry. Lewis says this:

      But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

      Thanks for the great comment.

      Sam

    • kenstewart says:

      Catherine, I think even God thinks “selfishly,” but His “selfishness” has a purity that we reflect, but in a tainted way b/c of sin. God set things up so we appreciate rewards and dislike punishment–even He is motivated by rewards–it specifically says in Hebrews that Jesus was motivated by “the joy set before him”–obviously by God the Father–to endure the cross and despise the shame, to the end of “seeing the travail of his soul” (Isaiah) and being thus rewarded. Even Revelation says that all of creation is for the PLEASURE of God. The whole scheme of the Fall and subsequent Salvation is no accident–God specifically designed it so HE would get MORE GLORY–the height of “selfishness,” it seems to me! Bruce Wilkinson points this out admirably in A LIFE GOD REWARDS–Scripture is very clear on the subject of rewards as motivator. So, yes, “God hasn’t got a better way”–He specifically designed it that way!

      • Ken, I think you’re making life very complicated for yourself. Have you ever heard of occam’s razor?
        God bless

        • Catherine,

          Nope: I use a Gillette.

          (I couldn’t resist. Well, more accurately, I DIDN’T resist).

          Actually, I think this very point (God appealing to our self-interest) is a HUGE issue. It would be a fun one to discuss at length.

          If nothing else, it has certainly got my mind whirling around (which actually appeals to me a great deal!).

          Sam

          • You’re right – that’s what blogs are for, I guess. Anyway, your post is extremely interesting!

          • kenstewart says:

            Sam, I too like a mind whirling (and your NOT resisting…). I’ve only learned to really play since I hit my mid-50’s (I turn 60 next week!)

            One of my favorite sayings–I first saw it on a “Living Center” (what a misnomer for a Nursing Home!) wall (only without the chocolate & latte parts, but I like them!):

            Life isn’t a journey to the grave
            with the intention of arriving safely
            in a well preserved body,
            but rather to skid in sideways,
            chocolate in one hand, latte in the other,
            body thoroughly used up, totally worn out
            and screaming ‘Woohoo WHAT A RIDE’!

            LOL

        • kenstewart says:

          Catherine, you’re doing great at keeping this discussion interesting! I had to look it up–had heard of it but forgot its implications. I would appreciate an explanation of how you think it applies to my logic, b/c to me, it appears that my explanation of (by implication) ALL beings operating “selfishly” (including God)is actually a simpler explanation than trying to posit sin as the cause of selfishness. The selfishness simply got short-circuited by sin (Romans 7 is a great mind-twister on this idea) and took mankind for a ride.
          Have YOU heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Seems to me it kind of throws another kink into Occam’s (Ockham’s) Razor leveling…

        • kenstewart says:

          Catherine,
          I woke this morning thinking some more about the Occam’s Razor concept, and it is a good concept in some ways, but approaching things that way (i.e., that “all things being equal” we should always reduce to the simplest or least complex explanation [my questions is, how do we KNOW that all things are REALLY equal?]) is in itself a limiting approach. Whether we like it or not, we are the products of Graeco-Roman linear thinking rather than Eastern non-linear (and often more holistic) thinking. Thus also, we have reduced our feelings into analytical bits and bytes, or tried unsuccessfully–we still operate out of desire, and ultimately do only those things we (un- or sub-consciously) want.

          I like far more the approach of thinking of things paradoxically, of two (or more) opposing concepts held in tension, but equally valid. Corrie ten Boom applied this to the Gospel (and for me, the Wisdom of God) in this way: It has to be simple enough for a child to understand, but complex enough that the wisest theologian can never fully comprehend. It’s like chess: it takes 30 minutes to learn, and a lifetime to learn well. Far better to enjoy the journey (the game) than to analyze it to death (like the frog in American biology class).

          Ultimately, I look at it mathematically: if all possibilities are a sphere, like the universe, of unimaginable size (God, in essence), then all we know is a pinprick (the earth). What we KNOW WE DON’T KNOW is a larger pinprick (the Milky Way, which dwarfs the earth), but what we DON’T KNOW WE DON’T KNOW is all the rest of the universe.

          And then I sit back and smile. I don’t even NEED to know even that much. God is in control, and I can rest in His loving care, like the sparrow. And that is simple enough. Suzy Wills Yaraei has a song in that respect that I like, titled “Simple”–“All I want to do is keep it simple…” I like to mull all this kind of thinking over, like a well-spiced cup of hot cider in the dead of winter, without having to analyze all the spices that go into making it. God has orchestrated (like that, Sam?)the beauty of creation so that we can do neither, either, or both. (and enough rambling for now…)

          • I think you may be taking a slightly reductionist approach to Occam – the simplest applicable approach is not the easiest. It is the least complicated. The least encumbered with unnecessary elements and distractions. When I mentioned it, I was thinking that your argument really brought an unnecessary element into the equation. Right and wrong are not about how I feel, but about what God says – and the consequences HE has set out. Parental limits and sanctions are a reflection of that reality. In any case, doing away with punishment which a child may in future wish to avoid (we hope!) and appealing to his sense of something higher is just another appeal to his ego – wanting to feel superior. Or an effort to make him feel guilty. And we’re still on what we feel about the situation. No further on. Focusing on God is the only way to make any sense of anything. The less me, myself and I figure in the picture, the simpler … and so the better, if I follow Occam’s reasoning. What do you think?

            • kenstewart says:

              Caroline,

              Sorry for now answering sooner. I was on vacation the week of Labor Day (without readily-available internet access, so simply checked emails daily), and had a lot of work to catch up on this past week.
              You may be right–I may be reducing too much. But I still think our culture “disses” the idea of “feelings” and their importance far too much. I think we are too much the product of Greek/Roman thinking (“logic” and “objectivity” are the gods of that line of thinking) rather than the holistic Hebrew/Eastern way of considering all of life sacred (e.g., Jews sometimes have prayers on their bathroom walls thanking God for cleansing).
              We operate out of our feelings–in the final analysis, we only do what we truly want (which is the core of teachings like John Eldredge’s on DESIRE as a prime motivator).
              Ideally, the idea of true discipline in children is to motivate them in ways that lead to their finding their truest calling and shine with the glory of God specifically intended for each one individually. I’ve heard a teaching about the scripture, “Train a child up in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” that states that there is a very SPECIFIC way EACH INDIVIDUAL child is to be trained up that is unique for him, and will result in his/her becoming “truly alive” in a way that brings the most glory to God.
              I also think the scripture “I must decrease and he must increase” is wrongly applied in this arena of our lives. God gets the most glory when each of us is most truly alive in the way he fashioned us INDIVIDUALLY–we don’t subsume our personality into a nihilistic nothingness or a Buddhist state of non-feeling. I like Bill Johnson’s concept (of Bethel Church, Redding CA) of “dreaming with God”–he points to King David and points out that the “tabernacle of David” (mentioned later in Acts 15) was totally David’s idea–God didn’t at all direct him as he did Moses. Picture it this way: Would I as a father be most proud if my son ONLY did what I thought he could do? Wouldn’t I be more proud if he went far beyond what I wanted and became more spectacular and glorious than I could have imagined? Yes, God still has pre-knowledge, but WE aren’t privy to it, and perhaps, perhaps in our wildest imaginations (“more than you ask or think”), we can actually SURPRISE him with a glorious PRESENT he wasn’t expecting! That’s MY DESIRE! To leave a legacy far beyond anything I had ever thought possible!!! I get excited just thinking about it!
              Don’t know if that really addresses what you were saying about reductionism, etc. but “that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!” LOL

            • Nothing to disagree with there! Keep up the good work.

  6. Beth Cole says:

    G’day Sam
    Iam gobsmacked with the topics you talk about. This has been constantly on my mind lately.
    Sometimes I get really stumped on how to think and act. My question to myself is “why Beth, why do you constantly do that, you know there are no tricks with God, He just loves you”.
    Another brain teaser, thanks Sam.

    • Hello Beth from Down Under,

      When you said I had “gobsmacked” you, I wasn’t sure if that meant I had committed an act of violence. (Just joking, my sister-in-law is from Oz and my brother lives there with her … she’s increasing my Aussie vocabulary).

      I like your self-talk, especially, “You know there are no tricks with God, He just loves you.” We all need to do that.

      Thanks.

      Sam

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