Healthy Relationships: Neither Selfish Nor Selfless

I married young in the late 90s.

It was an interesting time in the evangelical church and its colleges–

  • Josh Harris was famously parading the fact that He “Kissed Dating Goodbye” in his best-selling book of the same name.
  • True Love Waits was surging like a tidal wave through churches.
  • “Traditional Family Values” were touted as an excuse for exclusion and oppression.
  • Christian Colleges were what Dating Apps are now.
  • The shift from “traditional” to “contemporary” services was both the rage and controversy at the same time.
  • “Give it to God” was the mantra applied to everything.
  • Mental Health was not spoken of.
  • Divorce was second only to blasphemy in terms of sins.
  • Counseling was done by pastors.
  • Psychology had no place.

Any 80s and 90s kids out there who can relate?

I entered my first marriage, naive, idealistic, and with the belief that marrying a Christian was the ticket I needed to cash in to “live happily ever after.”

I knew nothing of self-actualization, identifying my own needs, and advocating for those needs. I’m not even sure I knew boundaries existed outside of football fields and volleyball courts.

Terms like narcissism and gaslighting were foreign to me and would remain so for many years to come.

One term I was familiar with the silent treatment, but that’s only because I had a brother.

To be completely honest with you, the idea of creating a boundary to me in those years would have seemed like one of the most “unchristian” things I could do.

It would be years before I would come to understand the importance of my own mental health, of self-care, and of healthy boundaries.

I don’t know where you are in life right now or what your life looks like, but I hope that this series has allowed you to pause and think about your own mental and emotional health, your inherent self-worth, and the importance of identifying and advocating for your needs. 

These next couple weeks we’re going to tackle the very difficult of boundaries.

I hope as you walk away from this series, you have a clear understanding that boundaries are positive and they are modeled for us in scripture. 

They are, in fact, not “unchristian” at all!

Today, I want you to think about what the bible really says about selflessness, selfishness, and loving others because, without an understanding of these ideas, I think too many Christians will struggle with the idea of boundaries.

Selflessness in Scripture

One of the tenets of my evangelical upbringing was the importance of selflessness–the idea that in order to find God’s favor and make sure you made it to heaven, you should sacrifice yourself at all times for the sake of others.

Here’s the thing–that’s not in scripture.

There are a myriad of scriptures relating to loving others, treating others with kindness, helping the poor, etc. 

That isn’t what I’m talking about here.

There’s no doubt that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves,  to seek peace, to support the poor and oppressed, and to treat others with kindness and gentleness.

I’m talking about the selflessness that leaves people paralyzed in marriages, friendships, and families–the selflessness that preaches a sacrifice of self so severe that self-care, needs, and identities are sacrificed on the altar of selflessness.

There are scriptures that are often taken out of context for the sake of proving this point. For example, in isolation, I Corinthians 10:24 (NIV) might look like it’s saying to live a selfless life when taken out of the context of the letter. Paul says:

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Colossians 10:24 (NIV)

When you read that without reading verse 24, you might miss the entire point of this section of the letter! Verse 23 (NIV) reads:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 

Colossians 10:23 (NIV)

Put them together, and the message changes completely.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Colossians 10:23-24 (NIV)

Paul isn’t speaking about living a selfless life here–he’s speaking about making choices that might negatively influence another person. He’s encouraging the Corinthians to think through how their decisions are affecting other people before they make them. 

That’s very different than living all aspects of our lives for the good of other people.

The other scripture that is often touted as a poster for selflessness is John 15:12-13 (TPT):

“So this is my command: Love each other deeply, as much as I have loved you.  For the greatest love of all is a love that sacrifices all. And this great love is demonstrated when a person sacrifices his life for his friends.”

John 15:12-13 (TPT)

Jesus is speaking to his disciples as his crucifixion is drawing closer. He’s explaining to them how he wants them to love other people as He has loved them. He closes this statement by explaining that this great love he is speaking of is demonstrated when a person sacrifices his life for his friends.

Without getting too hermeneutical here, the love that is used when Jesus says “great love” is agape love–or the unconditional love God has for us–a product of God himself–a perfect love. 

The call to sacrifice our lives for our friends is a call to lay down our old selves, our sinful selves, to walk with God daily, to put our old selves to death, and to live daily cultivating the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

And, it was a radical idea for this time and culture.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “But, Jesus was selfless, and I’m supposed to be like Jesus,” take heart friend, I’ll talk about this in detail next week!

Selfishness in the Scriptures

Now that we’ve established the Scripture does not explicitly preach selflessness in our lives, let me be explicitly clear here:

Scripture is exceptionally clear about selfishness!

Philippians 2:2-4 (MSG) says:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Philippians 2:2-4 (MSG)

Paul is encouraging unity among believers. He’s encouraging the church to agree with each other and love each other–not to push their way to the front or try to get to the top.

If that’s still too cryptic, James is pretty straightforward in 3:16 (TPT):

So wherever jealousy and selfishness are uncovered, you will also find many troubles and every kind of meanness.

James 3:16 (TPT)

Finally, Paul doesn’t pull any punches in Romans 2:7-8 (TPT)

For those living in constant goodness and doing what pleases him,  seeking an unfading glory and honor and imperishable virtue, will experience eternal life. But those governed by selfishness and self-promotion, whose hearts are unresponsive to God’s truth and would rather embrace unrighteousness, will experience the fullness of wrath.

Romans 2: 7-8 (TPT)

Those governed by selfishness and self-promotion will experience the fullness of wrath.


The In-Between:

While it’s blatantly black and white that God does not want us to be selfish, but a little grayer when it comes to selflessness, what does that mean for us as believers?

What does that mean for us when it comes to setting boundaries?

I’ve mulled this over for a bit and read quite a few books and experts on this topic.

What we know without a doubt from scripture is that we are to:

  • Love others
  • Love our neighbors as ourselves
  • Serve others
  • Think of the needs of others
  • Think about how our actions affect other people

There are scriptures upon scriptures that reinforce these ideas.

All of these ideas about others hinge on one important concept: love.

Thankfully, Scripture also tells us exactly what love is (I Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)

  • Patient
  • Kind
  • It doesn’t envy
  • It doesn’t boast
  • It isn’t proud
  • It doesn’t dishonor others
  • It’s not self-seeking
  • It’s not easily angered
  • It keeps no record of wrongs
  • It doesn’t delight in evil
  • It rejoices in the truth
  • It protects
  • It trusts
  • It hopes
  • It perseveres
  • It never fails

And, in Colossians 3:12-14 (TPT), Paul tells us how to love one another:

  • Be merciful as you try to understand each other
  • Be compassionate, showing kindness to all
  • Be gentle and humble–unoffendable in your patience with others
  • Tolerate weakness and forgive
  • Let your heart be guided by the peace of Christ

There is this place between selflessness and selfishness where we are called to live, and that place is governed by the above qualities that show us what it really means to love others AND ourselves.

That’s important too.

We are called to love our neighbors AS OURSELVES.

That means we are called to love ourselves as well.

Why Boundaries?

Let me be clear here–I am in no way advocating for anyone to live a selfish life.

I am advocating for living a healthy life, for loving others in a healthy way–the way Scripture tells us to love others and to love ourselves in a healthy way–again, in the way the Scripture tells us to love ourselves.

BUT, not only are we supposed to love ourselves and others in this manner, but others are supposed to love us in this manner as well.

Did you get that?

You are to be loved and served in this manner as well.

So, what happens when you’re not?


Boundaries, friend.

Tune in next week for some amazing examples of how God and Jesus implemented boundaries! 

Reflection Questions:

  1. When you think about not living selflessly, how does that make you feel?
  2. What is the biggest struggle you have when it comes to loving yourself in the manner Jesus spoke about in the New Testament?
  3. Who are the people in your life who don’t love you in the way that Jesus defined in the New Testament?

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5 thoughts on “Healthy Relationships: Neither Selfish Nor Selfless

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  1. These! I was also married young in 1994… A child of indoctrination. I understand your perspective and appreciate the reflection questions.

    When you think about not living selflessly, how does that make you feel?
    What is the biggest struggle you have when it comes to loving yourself in the manner Jesus spoke about in the New Testament?
    Who are the people in your life who don’t love you in the way that Jesus defined in the New Testament?


  2. I love that you included the highlights of 1 Cor. 13 – it really does teach us what love should look like.

    I have never thought I was selfish; but I have to guard against self-centeredness. In other words, I focus on self a little more than I should. I can be all involved in my dreams, plans, goals, etc., and sometimes forget others.

    I will be interested in your post about boundaries!


  3. You’re right – proper boundaries need to be taught and emphasized! I appreciated your post and the challenge you give us to think differently about the true definition of “selflessness.”


  4. It took decades for me to learn the balance, I knew God wanted me to love others in a certain way and I understood boundaries that I needed to respect in other people. But it took that long to finally hear God that the same boundaries I put on myself need to be in place with others in my life, healthy boundaries that speak of honor and respect. Thank you for this beautiful post Kristen … 🙏💕


  5. I struggle with boundaries and loving myself and others the way God wants me to. Not from how I was raised about God but because I was raised in a dysfunctional family. So, for me, God and the Bible help me to do this. I am learning a lot from your point of view, lessons, and wisdom on healthy relationships.


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