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Sermon Illustrations on Selfishness

From We to Me

Over the next few years I collected data to suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe. It wasn’t hard to find such data. For example, between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. 

The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls. Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention…I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary…Somebody should write a biography about me.” 

The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.4 The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”

David Brooks The Road to Character, Random House, 2016.

If Life is a Competition

If a man is forever concerned first and foremost with his own interests then he is bound to collide with others. If for any man life is a competition…then he will always think of other human beings as enemies, or at least as opponents who must be pushed out of the way…and the object of life becomes not to help others up but to push them down.

William Barclay, The Letter to Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1960), p.40.

Meals in Heaven and Hell

I once heard a description of what meals are like in heaven. The saints are seated on either side of a four-foot-wide banquet table. The table is set with delicious foods on every plate. The only thing that appears out of the ordinary is the silverware. All the utensils have three-foot-long handles. The dinnertime rule is that everyone must eat using the long forks and spoons. Amazingly, the dining room in hell is designed exactly  the same. What makes heaven heavenly and hell hellish? In heaven, the diners immediately set about feeding their brothers and sisters across the table using the perfectly proportioned utensils, while in hell each person rages at the ill-fitting utensils as they attempt the impossible task of feeding themselves.

Our relationships to what we eat and to each other are important here on earth. We humans have the ability to eat a highly varied diet. We can eat fungi, mollusks, birds, grains, fermented foods, nuts, insects, flowers, tree sap, bees’ honey, fish, eggs, cow’s milk, and plant roots.

Who figured out that the bark on one tree made cinnamon and the bark of another made poison? We will never know. Our relationship to food is vital. Food is not an option. It is a necessity we can merely eat our fill, or we can be nourished. We can choose foods that are good for us or ones that do us long-term harm. Our choice of diets can encourage sustainable, ethical farming, or we can support agriculture that is out of sync with long-term planetary and human health.

Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet, Zondervan.

Mine! Mine!

Do you remember those birds in Finding Nemo? They get me every time. As they fight for what’s on the ground, they are flying around screaming, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Never has Disney nailed a picture of the selfish human condition better than in that little scene.

Sadly, we do the same thing. Our tendency is to fly around screaming, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” We do that with our ideas, our projects, our ministries, and our roles. Choosing positivity forces us to recognize that whatever we have has been given to us as gifts to develop.

Clay Scroggins, How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, Zondervan, 2017.

Studying the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum

Researchers at the University of Kentucky and University of Central Florida who explored the neurobiology of the selfish-selfless spectrum found that most of us are neither extremely selfish (which results in becoming aggressive psychopaths) nor extremely selfless (which results in becoming zealous altruists).

Most of us are between these extremes, moving closer to one side or the other on the spectrum depending on the circumstances. When it comes to selfishness and selflessness, it turns out we’re not static, nor are we incapable of moving toward one end or the other.1 Breaking stories often prove out this fluidity, as they often include someone on the psychopath end of the spectrum who has done something extremely selfish; the answer to that are the altruists who step up and remind us there are amazing people ready to act, to call a halt to the actions of those who epitomize selfishness.

Richard Lui, Enough About Me: The Unexpected Power of Selflessness, Zondervan, 2021.

Taking Selfishness Seriously

In 1976, Richard Dawkins claimed in his bestselling book The Selfish Gene that we can’t expect humans to be anything but selfish: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

…One of Dawkins’s fans was Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who pulled off the largest accounting and corporate fraud ever, resulting in shareholders losing $74 billion. Skilling said his favorite book was Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which was in the evolutionary spirit of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Even though Darwin was by all accounts a kindhearted man, his theory ultimately inspired some controversial philosophical and political positions, such as social Darwinism and eugenics. Social Darwinism. The late-nineteenth-century English professor Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” because he saw natural selection as “red in tooth and claw,” a brutal description of the competition for scant resources. He didn’t value protecting the weak. If more weak people died, more beautiful, healthy, strong, and smart people could thrive. Spencer believed this would improve the condition of humanity over time.

Richard Lui, Enough About Me: The Unexpected Power of Selflessness, Zondervan, 2021.

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Selfishness. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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