The first person was my own Father. Dad was an active Christian all his life who raised me in our local United Church of Canada and sang in the choir of every congregation to which he belonged. After I had grown and left the family home his involvement attained the chairmanship of our church’s Board of Session while Mum chaired the Board of Stewards. Anyhow when I was a very small boy, I used to hear Dad comment on selfish behaviour by others, “Why don't they hear Jesus’ words, ‘Deny thyself.’”
Later, when I learned the Easter story in Sunday School, I took note of the part following Jesus’ arrest when Peter denied Jesus. In my private pondering of what I had learned, I put this lesson together with Dad’s earlier comment and determined that I should endeavour to avoid denying Jesus, but rather deny my own self. Whether successfully or not so successfully, I do try to reduce and limit the realm of my own self-interest.
Throughout my life since then, I have experienced times when I have had a real sense of God close with me and other times when God seemed distant or even non-existent. What seems really strange is that it is precisely on those few times when I most successfully deny myself that God seems most remote.
The second person was an older medical doctor who befriended me, a stalwart in his community and the United Church I attended at the time. When I knew him, he was of an age to have active memories of the period of active temperance organizations and alcohol prohibition in the United States.
On one occasion, as we visited, he got into considering the familiar saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” My doctor friend stopped and suggested that this means more than commonly accepted, good intentions not carried out. Rather, carrying out “good” intentions, free from any self-interest, themselves could pave the road to some form of hell.
He gave the example of the temperance movement and alcohol prohibition. He recalled the active movers and shakers within the temperance movement as involved Christians with strong “good” intentions to save their neighbours from the ravages of alcoholism. They had nothing to gain for themselves from prohibition and approached the issue with true Christian nothing-in-it-for-themselves unselfishness. They succeeded in their “good” intentions and brought complete alcohol prohibition to the United States and wrought the hell of a sharp rise in criminality and gangsterism within that country from which it has never fully recovered.
Intelligent and well educated as he was, my doctor friend did not resolve this contradiction.
The third person is actually an amalgamation of several people I have encountered whom I will present as a single individual who would “never trust any person for whom that person’s own self-interest in a matter was not readily apparent," and would "be offended if you sacrificed what is in your own rational self-interest in order to do for me, but be welcoming of anything you do with me out of your own self-interest.”
As an active non-believer, she contended, “Your St. Paul got it all wrong when he wrote, ‘Love is never selfish.’ In fact, love is always and entirely selfish and rational self-interest is good, not the evil you Christians project it as being.” She argued, “You Christians regard love as existing when the well-being of the one loved is viewed as more important than the wellbeing of the one loving, the thinking of the slave and the altruistic victimized,” and went on to claim, “Love exists when the well-being of the one loved is recognized as necessary to the well-being of the one loving, the rational and wholly selfish thinking of a truly free person within a community.” I have never felt confident in answering this challenge.
The odd fact is, this non-believer is actually among the kindest and most generous people with whom I have crossed paths. When questioned about her kindness and generosity, she always came back with a highly rational explanation as to how that kindness and generous action fit entirely within the realm of her own self-interest.