Selfishness vs. Selflessness

Remarks delivered at a BYU Devotional Assembly, 27 October 1981

Selfishness vs. Selflessness

Elder William R. Bradford

Throughout my life I have studied the scriptures and have sought spiritual guidance regarding our Eternal Father’s plan. I have developed a mental picture which I would like to share with you.

If the veil that covers our remembrance were somehow lifted, we would see ourselves in that glorious assembly where our Eternal Father presented to us the plan of salvation and exaltation. It must have been a most interesting time, and there probably were some anxious moments of intense emotion, anticipation, pondering, and discussion. Father was about his work, teaching us how to exercise our agency by unfolding truth to our understanding.

As these truths unfolded, there must have been many concerns on our part—questions about the creation of the earth; our leaving Father’s presence; our need for physical bodies; the veil; living by faith; symbolic ordinances; death and resurrection; conditions upon which our return to Father were based.

There must have been anxiety when we learned of the need to leave our Father and come to this earth through a veil of forgetfulness. We must have known that there would be opposition, choices to make, the possibility of mistakes and failure. If we forgot all, how would we know the right thing to do or how to do it?

It must have been a great comfort as Father made covenants with us to send one member of the Godhead to be a guide and companion—one with delegated power to communicate the truths of the plan to us, that by the power of spiritual communication we could make correct decisions and grow and mature after the nature of our Father, who is a God. We know this great counselor as the Holy Ghost.

A pattern began to unfold as the Father taught us. It must have been obvious that there would be many things that we could not do for ourselves.

We would not be able to provide for ourselves the physical bodies we would need to become like Father. And once given bodies, we would not have power during our infancy to sustain ourselves. Some would need to serve us by being our parents. It would not be possible for us to create, nor control after its creation, the world upon which we were to be placed. This world would have a delicate environment—its relationship to the sun, the need for rain and fertile soil to sustain life, the governing laws of gravity and electricity, the elements and their reaction with each other would all have to be assured for us. And since we would have no real power over these things, someone would have to control them for us.

We also learned that our physical bodies would be temporary and subject to weakness, disease, and finally death. If we were to return to Father with bodies like his, someone would have to do something for us to reunite our spirit and physical bodies after the pattern in which God our Father created us.

There were some other serious needs. It was clear to us that because of the influence of opposition we would make mistakes. Since Father taught us that these mistakes constituted sin, and that no sinful thing could return to his presence, we were faced with a dilemma. There would have to be a way to overcome these mistakes. Someone would have to intercede for our sins—a Redeemer. Who would it be?

A sense of calm and peace must have then come to us as the Father made covenants to give us a Redeemer who would have power to do all things for us that we could not do for ourselves. He would sustain the world in the laws by which it was to be governed. He would take upon himself our sins and die for us that we might live eternally. He would govern the truths taught us, that we might walk in light.

Opposed to that plan was Satan, who came before the Father and issued the most selfish of all statements ever spoken in the heavens: “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” (Moses 4:1.)

Then the most selfless of all service in the heavens or upon earth was offered as Christ, the “Beloved Son, which was … Beloved and Chosen from the beginning,” came before Father and said, “Thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Moses 4:2.)

By holy covenant between Father and his children, Jesus Christ was sent to serve us in all things—to do all things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.

The laws and covenants were clear to us. They required that we come to this earth to work through the natural processes of growth and maturing that will take us back to Father. We are to work through this process. The work is one of serving and being served. The pattern is clear.

Our eternal destiny is welded to our service to others. At the very foundation of our existence is interdependence upon one another. Happiness can be obtained only by establishing the proffer balance between serving and being served. We are social beings; we cannot live in happiness if we attempt to live alone. Self-imposed celibacy and isolationism are extreme expressions of selfishness and an unwillingness to serve or be served.

A mother serves by giving birth to a child and continues her service throughout the child’s life. For life to continue, the process must repeat itself. When one is serving, another is being served. Faith, love of God and fellowman, patriotism, and self-esteem all depend on how we practice serving and being served.

Perhaps this principle is best defined as selflessness—the giving of oneself both in serving others and in being served by others.

In infancy and childhood we are predominantly served. Our parents provide us with food, clothing, shelter, and they nourish our spirits with love and companionship. But the very act of acceptance is a returning of the gift to the giver. Parents find joy and comfort in the progress of the child—a joy which falters only when their service is rejected through disobedience. Their selflessness becomes its own reward and encourages them to keep giving of themselves despite the setbacks.

If the relationship we have built as children with our parents has had the proper balance of selflessness, we will have developed kinship ties that no physical separation can ever break. And when the time comes to seek for ourselves expanded experiences and companionships, we will maintain joy in the beautiful companionship with our parents that has been created.

Very often, as young adults move away from the home environment, they suffer a tremendous emotional shock. Suddenly the balance of service and being served is drastically altered. Friendships are new and unproven, and old relationships seem distant. We call this homesickness. It is a period of adjustment and growth, when parent-child relationships undergo a transformation and we become involved in teacher-student or employer-employee relationships. As these peer relationships are added to our kindred relationships, the need to understand the principles of selflessness becomes increasingly important.

In order to understand selflessness we must also understand its opposite, selfishness. Selfishness is closing the door on service to others, and refusing to allow others to serve us in love. At the same time, we attempt to serve ourselves or wrongly exact service from others.

In its simplest form, selfishness is the holding to one’s self that which he has power to righteously share. The greed or lust or wrongful intent soon creates men whose “hearts are not satisfied,” and who “obey not the truth, but have pleasure in unrighteousness.” These are they who “will not give [their] substance to the poor. … whose spirits are not contrite, and whose bellies are not satisfied, and whose hands are not stayed from laying hold upon other men’s goods, whose eyes are full of greediness, and who will not labor with [their] own hands!” (D&C 56:15–17.)

That which a man serves himself upon the platter of selfishness and greed may appease his mortal appetite, but it will leave him spiritually starved and malnourished.

There is no happiness in selfishness; it is a sin. Its product is misery and loneliness, and it alienates companions and develops enmity in human relationships.

Selfishness and greed, put into the heart of Cain by Satan, caused our first parents, Adam and Eve, to mourn before the Lord for him and his brethren. It was Cain’s selfishness that caused him to bind himself up to Satan and, to get gain, murder his brother Abel. Selfishness debased the children of Israel as they drank and played and corrupted themselves around the idol of the golden calf. And only selfishness could have induced Judas to betray the holy, selfless Lord.

Selfishness is the basic substance—the raw material, if you will—of almost all other sins that Satan has introduced upon the earth. Under his skillful management, this sin manifests itself in such a myriad of ways that virtually no one escapes its influence. Its magnetic tentacles stretch out and draw to itself every indulgence that can block the path to exaltation.

Greed, envy, covetousness, lust, rebellion, thievery, idleness, lying, hypocrisy, backsliding, immorality, infidelity, pride, arrogance, gluttony, and most other evils are the products of a selfish life. If we place sin in the sunlight, it will cast the shadow of selfishness.

As a thought precedes an act, so does selfishness precede sin. Immorality of every kind is founded in selfishness. Why else would a person commit an immoral act, if not to satisfy his own pleasure?

Selfishness breeds corruption as men scheme and bribe and take unfair advantage to satisfy their wants and obsessions. It becomes pride as men forsake things of eternal value, even marriage, family, and God, for supposed high position and fame.

Consider how many are unfaithful to one another—and to God—as they selfishly squander their lives and means on the evaporative pleasures of what the world holds out as fashionable.

Satan’s subtle use of selfishness causes parents to justify idling away countless hours before a television set, absorbing violence, sensuality, vulgarity, and the foolishness of the world, while their children (who are usually allowed to view the same things) are starving for affection and attention. Can such selfishness be condoned, or are they bringing condemnation upon themselves by not using this time to teach their children “the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands … to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:25, 28)?

Selfishness draws men into a spiritual vacuum where, absorbed in self service, they shut out all others.

Selfish idleness, with its “I’ll-do-it-later” attitude, keeps righteous work from being done. Since Satan has decreed to do all possible to stop righteous endeavor upon the earth, what better way than to cause men to procrastinate? Within the Church this is manifest in a failure to faithfully comply with callings. Home teaching goes unattended; tithes and offerings go unpaid. There is neglect in keeping personal histories, compiling family records, and doing temple work. There is an unwillingness to give service in the missionary effort. How it must please Satan to so influence those who could be the builders of God’s kingdom!

Of all influences that cause men to choose wrong, selfishness is undoubtedly the strongest. Where there is selfishness, the Spirit of the Lord is absent. Talents go unshared, the needs of the poor unfulfilled, the weak unstrengthened, the ignorant untaught, and the lost unrecovered.

Viewed in its true sense, selfishness is the absence of empathy and compassion. It is the abandonment of brotherhood, the rejection of, God’s plan, the isolation of ones soul. Just as selflessness can carry us to exaltation and eternal lives, so can selfishness lead us to destruction and eternal damnation.

Life too often seems a competition with others. We compete for companionship, for recognition, for possessions, for status, for money. And as we size one another up, we too often forget that our sanctification depends in part on our service to others.

We may be like the man who, came running to Jesus, asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus explained to him the commandments he must live, and the man assured him that he had done all these things from his youth. Then the Savior told him he lacked but one thing. “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

“And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:17–22.)

Or are we like the widow who cast her two mites into the treasury? Jesus, seeing her, said to his disciples, “This poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

“For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” (Mark 12:43–44.)

If we would be truly happy, our acts must be acts of selflessness, turning sadness into joy, radiating kindness, and dispelling hypocrisy. Selflessness fosters love, confidence, and trust.

Indeed, those men and women who righteously share themselves, their talents, and their means in benevolent service to God and humankind, are blessed with freedom, growth, nearness to Divinity, and worthiness to have the companionship of the Spirit.

By selflessness we demonstrate our true relationship with the Savior. It is the one great virtue that binds together the family of God.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Selflessness vs. Selfishness” individually or as a family, you may wish to consider some of the following questions during a family home evening or study time.

1. Why is it necessary for us to feel the influence of opposition in our mortal lives?

2. The author points out that “Immorality of every kind is founded in selfishness.” Why is this so?

3. Think of times in your life when you have experienced great joy and great sorrow. Would the circumstances have been any different if you and others had been more selfless? More selfish?

4. Discuss specific ways in which you or your family can grow toward greater selflessness.

5. Review the scriptural accounts of the rich man (Mark 10:17–22) and the poor widow (Mark 12:43–44). What important distinctions does the Savior make between the qualities of a selfish and selfless character?