Overcoming Selfishness in Middle Age


The piece below is one I wrote a couple of years ago. It has yet to be published, but is a good reminder today of where my focus should be,

Overcoming Selfishness in Middle Age

It is a running joke in our family that the males have a “curmudgeon” gene.  As I move deeply into middle age I see I am being true to my heritage. In the last year especially I have woken up to the truth that I am as ill tempered, selfish and crusty as anyone in my family. But I also have determined that this behavior is no laughing matter. In fact, it has become destructive to my family, my fellowship with Christians and my outreach to those outside the faith. I don’t like the person I have become and would like to become more others-centered as I get older.  However, it has been easy for me to make excuses to avoid focusing on other people.  For example, one excuse I have to remain aloof from others is my perception that other people, including Christians, have “done me dirt”.

Inspirational speakers such as Dan Miller and Bryan Dodge tell us that the important question to effect change is not to focus on how to do it, but why we should.  They tell us that if we focus on “the why”, the “how” will come into view.  So why should I reach out to others when the record seems to show that people will bite the hand that feeds them or pull a “bait and switch”-offer one thing that seems attractive and then present me with something very different? What I need to understand is why unselfishness is important enough to make the effort to overcome excuses of this kind.  I have recently found this inspiration in reflecting on the message of a movie, thinking on the lives of people I have known and recalling the teaching of the Bible.  

First, a movie I watched recently showed me that acts of kindness and unselfishness can reverberate to large numbers of people.  In the movie Pay It Forward, a seventh grade social studies teacher gives his class an assignment to come up with an idea which could change the world.  Trevor, who comes from a broken home with an alcoholic mother, comes up with a plan to do “something big” for three people, who will in turn do the same to three other people.  Trevor generally thinks his plan is a bust when over the short term he doesn’t see results from others or from himself.  While to Trevor his results are mixed at best, unbeknownst  to him he sets in motion a chain of events that impact people positively in several states and in his own family.  His charge to “pay it forward” down the line causes a man to prevent a suicide, moves his mother to forgive her own mother, and motivates a convict to influence the lives of other prisoners. Trevor illustrates how one person can effect change in themselves and many others.  Deep in my heart, past the crusty exterior, Trevor’s example motivates me because I really do want to impact the world.      

Second, the unselfishness I have personally experienced from other people has changed my own life. My wife has put up with my crankiness for 26 years, encouraged me in my career and ministry and sacrificed a lot to make a home for me and my kids.  My best friend Tom has given to me spiritually, emotionally, and financially over the course of the last 30 years. He has mentored me, been transparent about his own life, and believed in me when others have seemingly given up on me.  Tom is a missionary. Most Christians would think I should be supporting him, at least financially. But Tom has received little in return from me except my undying friendship and gratitude.  Yet he keeps coming back to help me out.  Along the way, I have had individual people bring furniture to our home, give unsolicited money, pay my airfare, put me up for long periods of time and provide opportunities for fun and rest.  I have done little of this in return. It is time I return the favor before it is too late and follow the examples of others who have shown acts of kindness to me. Reflecting on the lives of others who have changed my life inspires me to overcome my own unselfishness and help others in the same way.  

Finally, unselfishness is important to God.  One would think that I would have conquered selfishness by now because the idea of reaching out to others is something I have been taught as a Christian my whole life. I learned as a young Christian involved in a parachurch group in college that ministering to others is at the top of God’s priority list.   In II Timothy 2:1-2 Paul exhorts his disciple Timothy to take what he has learned and give it to reliable people who will in turn do the same to others. God invented the idea of “paying it forward”.  But even though I have sought to disciple others a good part of my life in one form or another, I notice as I have entered middle age I have stopped reaching out.  As mentioned above, I have my convenient excuses.  I have become more like ornery Nabal, who refused to help David out when he was running from Saul.  Nabal’s excuse was that there were lots of people rebelling against their masters and it wasn’t his job to help them out.  If it wasn’t for the intervention of Nabal’s wife Abigail, David would have killed him. (He died a little later anyway from the shock of hearing his wife’s story.)  I don’t think God was particularly pleased with Nabal’s excuses, nor do I think he cares for mine.  Oswald Chambers says that we should be disillusioned with other people, but avoid cynicism or criticism.  Chambers notes that Jesus is our example in this because “He knew what was in man” (John 2:24, 25), yet did not despair of anyone.   Jesus tells me in John 13:34, 35 that I should love others as He loved me. This proves I am His follower.  If I want to please God (and I do), I will seek to reach others for His sake.     

So, I have received inspiration to change from a little boy in a movie, my real friends, relatives and acquaintances and from the Word of God.  It’s my aim to not muddle through middle age, but learn from the examples of the real and fictional people described above and the example of Jesus and start reaching out again. It won’t be easy to overcome years of bad habits. But I am motivated by the Scripture, which says in Ephesians 5:16 to “make the most of your time because the days are evil”.  I’m a big fan of baseball, and a word picture from the game helps me to visualize how I want to live the rest of my life. In baseball terms, I’d prefer to go out swinging instead of taking a called third strike.

I am just beginning to make the change.  Yes, I think there may be hope that I can overcome my curmudgeon gene because I see the benefits of being unselfish.  Recently I gave a Bible which had been given to me a few years ago and was gathering dust at the bottom of a box to an African student who was returning to his country.  It turns out he is a Christian, and I had  the opportunity to pray for him and his future. This was personally enriching.  In addition, my wife tells me I am changing.  The knowledge that my marriage and my family will improve as a result of my move from selfishness to love is quite a motivator. But the most important charge I am getting out of being unselfish is that I know it pleases God. As a young man, an important Bible verse for me was Colossians 1:10. Paul explains here that he is praying for the Colossians so that they will “lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Revised Standard Version). In my middle age this verse is coming back to me and reminding me that I still have time to make a difference and receive a “well done” from Jesus when I arrive at the gates of heaven.


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