The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

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Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). It was almost prophetic.

Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.

Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.

On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and sveit0499sSt. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.

My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!

The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.

Our first two days in Rome were hell.       

What do you do with disappointment?

Carla is a Planner (with a capital “P”); she scores a very high “J” on the Myers-Briggs personality test. I score “J” as well but not quite as high. Carla wanted our vacation to accomplish as much as possible; I wanted our vacation to relax as much as possible.

Perhaps you have also experienced this kind of impasse with your spouse. At the very least, it kills romance. We each had high expectations for a fun two weeks together, but our unique personalities and differing desires created a storm, but not of passion.

It may seem simple, but working through fiery problems while in the fire is incredibly difficult. Carla was deeply hurt by my bad temper and I was terribly frustrated by her “If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium” approach to our vacation.

Who first extolled, Vive la difference, anyway?

The self-centeredness of unselfishness

Carla and I were experiencing fiery pain in our relationship. What was going on? I think we were experiencing the self-centeredness of unselfishness.

In our planning, Carla “unselfishly” let the city-itinerary (Florence vs. Assisi vs. Pompeii …) be fluid, and I “unselfishly” let Carla choose what we would do once we arrived in the next city. We both “unselfishly” gave up something so the other could have what they wanted, but—let’s be honest—we felt pretty good about our own unselfishness.

We were self-consciously (and a little self-righteously) unselfish.

And both of us were a little irritated that the other person didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of our own unselfishness. Couldn’t she (or he) see how good we were? We felt ill-used and unappreciated for our deep self-denial.

Unselfishness can reveal self-centeredness. It focuses on me; me giving up something in order to be unselfish. Real love (charity) focuses on the other person, helping them find joy. C. S. Lewis once said, “If people knew how much ill-feeling Unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit” (Screwtape Letters).

It’s easy to love someone when they’re fantastic

Before the wedding, every future spouse seems wonderful. We say we’d climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest ocean. But when their imperfections appear, we climb no more mountains. We don’t even want to rise and do the dishes.

We marry—in part—because of how good the other person will make us feel. We look forward to a life filled with their love for us.

Jesus had no such delusions. He didn’t love us because we were lovely. We became lovely only as he loved us. Before proposing to us, Jesus knew us to the bottom. Anything ugly was laid naked. Yet he did more than climb the highest mountain; he swam the depths of the fires of hell to woo us, to marry us, and to make us lovely.

If God loved us because we were amazing, … frankly, so what! But if he loves us even as we disappoint, that’s real love. Sometimes I wonder if too many Christians want to start a relationship with God by feeling they are amazing: “I’m a good person,” or “I’m worthy of God’s love.” But that offers no security. Someday we’ll fail at something.

Don’t we get it? God’s love was proven when he loved us before we were so fantastic. We can’t disappoint him; he knew everything about us from the start. And loves us still.

So what happened to our vacation?

I would like to tell you that in those moments of anniversary hell, I thought about Christ’s great spousal love for me and it changed me. But I didn’t. I thought more of my sore feet.

After two days, however, Carla and I talked. We shared our disappointments and frustrations. Somehow, in hearing each other’s pain, something shifted in both of us. Somehow we both began to want a great vacation for the other person. There was a miracle in Rome!

The next twelve days were delightful. I think it was simply God’s grace.


P.S. When Carla and I got to Rome, I found I had forgotten to bring my camera. So I asked dozens of people where to buy one, and no one could help. I wondered if there was a single camera store in all of Rome. It turns out “Camera” is Italian for Hotel Room … just what a romantic couple on their anniversary should be looking for.

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What do YOU think?

15 thoughts on “The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

  1. Sam,
    Thanks for sharing your marital struggles. I can relate with the lack of emotional honesty with my wife. It’s been something I have spent 27 years learning! And I still have more learning ahead…

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks. As you love to say (and write): our life is a journey.

      It’s sad, isn’t it, when even in our attempts at morality we can be so self-centered?

      Alas. We REALLY need God!


  2. Sam,
    I wondered how it was going. Thanks for your honesty. Glad you and Carla worked things out and enjoyed most of the trip. I think most of us who have been married for any length of time can relate. See you soon.

    Mike Frison

    • Hi Mike,

      Yes, if we’ve been married … or ever related to another human. We all have things to work out!



  3. Thanks for more great insight Sam. As always, you have a talent for using examples common to us to lead us to greater thoughts.

    And I’m glad you ended up with a great vacation. I am fortunate, both my wife and I would rather be boating and diving.

    • Hi John,

      Great to hear from you again. Now if only they would make a good underwater museum.


  4. Needed insights, with the sting of daily life I tend to find myself too close to the canvas – needing such insight regularly.

    • Hi Terry,

      Thanks for the thanks. We all need each other, don’t we. I need your reminders and you need mine. (And of course we need our spouse’s!)

      I think God meant it that way.

    • Hi Brooks,

      (I just typed “Brookes” as in Brookes Shields … but I don’t think you are her.)

      I look at my motivations–scare thought–and I suspect other people will resonate.

      I still wonder at some Christian leaders who (it seems) feel the need to describe how they do everything right. Don’t get me wrong. I want to improve. But I find I learn from mistakes (mine and others) quite a bit as well. Maybe more.


  5. Sam
    Thanks for making it clear-like looking in a mirror. Love = her joy. Very different preferences in our home too. Hope you’re under water soon and often this summer.

    Rand S

    • Hi Rand,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, “Love = her joy” not “love = my magnificent self sacrifice” (which is kind of “me” oriented).

      I hope I get underwater (in the scuba sense) soon too.


    • Hi Rachelle,

      I think that some “sacrifices” can come from bad motives, even selfish motives (though not all necessarily, of course).

      If I said to God, “I’m going to sell everything and move to Timbuktu so that you’ll love me and take me to heaven” — then what I’m really trying to do is make a bargain with God, as in “I’ll sacrifice the next twenty years in order to gain eternity.”

      It’s like the older brother (in the Parable of the Prodigal son); he says, “I slaved for you ….” He’s angry with the father. And the father says, “But everything that I have is YOURS.”

      The Father is talking grace; the son is talking a business transaction.

      Sometimes we sacrifice and do something “good” but we are really hoping to “get” something out of it (fame, prestige, self-esteem, glory, applause, etc.).

      As always Rachelle, I love your questions.