But, Isn’t That … Selfish? The Paradoxical Nature of Love

But, Isn’t That … Selfish? The Paradoxical Nature of Love

This is part 1 of an ongoing series. Find the rest of the series here.


Last month I shared an article referencing a sheet of paper I have hanging up in my office with the title, “7 Responses for Healthy Systems”. This list comes from Peter Steinke’s excellent little book How Your Church Family Works. Each of the seven responses are prescriptions for responding to conflict in a loving way that promotes a minister’s own emotional health and the health of his or her church family.

A friend who read my last post encouraged me to say more about each of these seven responses and what they mean to me in my ministry. I’m taking up her challenge. Over the next several posts, I’ll share some of my thoughts on each one of these seven responses and how they continue to influence my understanding and approach to ministry.

I suppose I should say up top, I’m not presuming to write these posts from the position of an expert. I’m simply a minister who is trying to learn what it means to live and lead like Jesus. Part of this process includes gleaning from the wisdom and insight of others. Here’s just a little bit of what I’ve gleaned so far.

Healthy Response #1: Focus on SELF, not others

On its nose, this little nugget of wisdom sounds like the worst ministry advice imaginable! Isn’t being focused on yourself and not on others the very definition of selfishness? Isn’t it the opposite of Christ-likeness? Haven’t the great theologians of the past warned us that being “curved inward on oneself” is the very definition of sin? [1]

Obviously, it’s important to try to be clear about what we mean and don’t mean by “focus on SELF, not others” as a healthy response to conflict in ministry.

To start, let's consider these examples:

  • A family of birds successfully launches nine of their children out into the world, but their youngest refuses to launch. Every time they push him over the edge of the nest, he refuses to flap his own wings and speeds like a bullet toward the surface of the ground. Inevitably, his parents become so alarmed that they swoop in to save him from crashing into the floor of the forest. This pattern continues for weeks, stunting the opportunity for the bird parents to leave their bird nest and enter into the next bird phase of their bird lives. One day, Baby Bird wakes up to an empty nest—abandoned by his parents. In a fit of rage, he hurls himself over the edge of the nest to teach his parents a lesson about abandoning him. Before he hits the ground, his wings come out and he soars into the sky—soon forgetting all about his little nest and his stubborn refusal to fly. [2]

  • A CEO of a major tech company launches a major project. Her team is so paralyzed by the thought of disappointing her, each one lies to their direct supervisor about how much progress they’ve made. The entire project is months behind, but the CEO forges ahead with the launch, costing her company millions of dollars and losing the trust of her board members and customer base. To atone for this grievous error, the CEO makes the bold leadership decision to fire every single employee who worked on that project...except for herself. [3]

  • A minister offers his congregation brilliant and insightful sermons each week, penetrating and insightful pastoral wisdom to those in times of crisis, and can espouse the leadership wisdom of the ages to his leadership team. His church loves and celebrates him as a great champion of the faith and praises his bold compassionate character. He speaks with forceful power about the need to love the poor of their city and work for God’s justice. And yet—his church refuses to get with the program, step out of the comfort of their suburban lives, and start ministering to the neighbors! The more he talks at them, the more frustrated he grows. The more frustrated he grows, the harder he tries. The harder he tries...

What we DON’T mean

Focus on SELF and not others does not mean that we think we are superman or superwoman and swoop in and try to fix everyone else’s problems for them, like Baby Bird’s parents. To do so would be to operate with an overinflated sense of our own capacity to influence others.

Focus on SELF and not others does not mean that we callously tolerate the suffering of others, but always protect ourselves from pain. Like the CEO mentioned above, a focus on self requires us to take responsibility for our own actions—even and especially when those actions influence others.

A focus on SELF and not others does not mean that we set out on a course and—no matter how anyone else responds—we stay the course! Like the preacher mentioned above, who is intent upon leveraging his position and influence to change the behavior of others without changing his own.

What we DO mean

Edwin Friedman writes, “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them." [4]

Assuming that we can—through our own force or manipulation—control another person’s behavior is the exact opposite of love. Love recognizes freedom, agency, and respects another person’s integrity. Love respects that I cannot change you; I can only change the ways in which I relate to you. Love empowers us to do what is best for the one we love, even when that action might cause us and/or the one we love great discomfort or pain that might lead to growth.

Of course, Jesus always finds the best way to put these things: "No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, CEB).

In Jesus’s words, we see that even the ultimate example of a life lived for the sake of others, requires us to focus on our own response (“to give up one’s life for one’s friends”) and not the response of the other. What if your friends refuse to receive the offer of giving up your life? Some of Jesus’s friends did! Then again, some didn’t. But the loving, healthy response was the same for all of them.

In Sum

The paradoxical nature of love requires us, especially in times of crisis, to focus more on our own response than on the response of others. Christ-like love is tenacious in its ability to love others no matter how they respond. Only Christ-like love could compel someone to endure the shame and suffering of cross for the sake of others.

What do you think? Have you seen focusing on self and not others as a healthy response to ministry challenges? Is this principle truly selfless or just selfishness in disguise?


[1] This phrase is traditionally attributed to Augustine of Hippo. Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and others have expounded on its meaning.

[2] See Edwin H. Friedman, Friedman’s Fables, (The Guilford Press, 1990), 67-72.

[3] This scenario is based on a recent plotline on the TV show Silicon Valley (HBO).

[4] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, (Seabury Books, 2007), ix.

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