“Which ones are your least favorite so I can save the ones you like for you?” Stephen asked me this last night when we were talking. He was referring to the flavored Tootsie Roll candies, and while I don’t think it was a huge sacrifice on his part to eat the lemon and lime flavors and save me the cherry and vanilla ones, his offer reminded me once again of his selflessness. He’s always deferring to my needs or wishes instead of his own, and would even be willing to go to a movie he has no interest in seeing if I want to go. (If he thought I would enjoy it, I imagine he’d count the lint on my shirt with me.) I commented on his selfless nature, and after we got off the phone I started thinking about how rare it is to find people who care enough about you to place their needs second to yours, and how I could stand to learn a lesson about being selfless myself.
Think about it: we live in a self-driven culture. Look out for number one; do what makes you feel good; if it feels right to you, do it; have it your way, and on and on. We’re a selfish people, and everything in our society is catered to appeal to our innate selfish desires.
The thing is, it’s not as though this self-first philosophy is really working. It’s certainly not working for me. I’m not overweight because I put myself last. I’m overweight because I want good food, I want it now, and I think I deserve that extra piece of pie or that milk shake at two in the morning. The problem is that we are far too concerned with ourselves and not nearly concerned enough with others, and, more importantly, with God. Look at Mother Theresa–she did not make an impact because of her relentless pursuit of her own selfish desires; she made an impact because the last thing she thought about was what she wanted. She gave everything to others in service to God, and that is what people remember her for. How many times do you hear people remark of someone who is dead, “Well, he put himself first, and that’s what made him the great man he was”? Never. No one says that because we all know that in the end selfishness is nothing to admire, nothing to aspire to.And in reality it’s not anything we have to aspire to, since we all are born inherently selfish.The thing society should be shouting is, “Forget yourself, if even for just a minute!Put God first, others second, and yourself last!”Imagine the change that would bring.Indeed, imagine the change that would bring if I would practice that myself!
I remember an experience I had in Nairobi, on the last day of our trip. Before heading to the airport, we went to Kibera, which is the third-largest slum in the world and the largest in Africa. To see the degree of poverty there, the filth, the lack of adequate plumbing or even toilets, was one of the most sobering experiences of my life. The missionary who accompanied us led us to a “school” located in a central part of the slum, and while we were walking there, I saw eyes peering out from every angle: dark, soulful eyes full of hunger and curiosity, some older and surrounded by wrinkles, others youthful and wide. Some of the children we passed called out to us, “Hello! Hello! Jambo!” and followed us as if we were celebrities. Once we arrived at the school, which was a room about the size of my bedroom and had little in the way of furniture or supplies, students began flocking from every direction. Before we knew it, a little choir of sorts had assembled in the middle of the “playground,” and we were treated to renditions of “This is the Day” and “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” which they had been taught by some church group and which they sang in the most joyful, precious little accents.
After that, we started passing out what candy we had left from the week, and you would have thought we were handing out gold coins, the kids were so excited. And instead of grabbing as many pieces as possible, each child would take a piece and then give one to his or her sibling or best friend. There was no grumbling or whines of, “But I wanted the cherry flavor!” or “His piece is bigger than mine.” Just brilliant smiles and lots of laughter. It wasn’t long before we ran out of candy, and we were a bit apprehensive of how they would react to this, but that is when the most amazing thing happened. After showing them our empty candy bags, the children began sharing their candy. This boy, who was no more than four, unwrapped a sucker, took a few licks, and then passed it to a friend. Another had a piece of gum, tore off a tiny bit, and then it was passed from hand to hand until about ten children were sharing a piece of gum most of us would consider not even worth halving. I was stunned. Here, in a world where clean clothing was hard to come by, these children were sharing what little they had with each other. There was no hoarding, no shoving or fighting, but only love. I had to turn away to keep the kids from seeing the tears welling up in my eyes. These kids had a greater understanding of selfless love than I had. They knew more of Calvary love than I could pretend to know. That day in Kibera, a four-year-old was my teacher, and I the humble student. That day in Kibera, I wanted to give all that I had because true poverty is not just a physical state, but a spiritual one. That day in Kibera, I looked in the faces of children and saw all that I wanted to be–selfless, pure, and simple. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” ~Matthew 5:8
I don’t say this to somehow romanticize poverty or dismiss it. The starvation of those children, and millions more like them, is real and urgent and requires our attention. And yet I can’t shake the thought that the most selfless–and yes, even the most joyful–people I have come into contact during my brief time on earth have been those with little in the way of earthly wealth. So many of us are wealthy in our pocketbooks but destitute in our souls, and that hurts the heart of God just as much as hunger.