Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Love seeks not her own."

"Love is not self-seeking."

If it were required to give a brief and summary description of man's original apostasy, we might say that it was his departure from God, the fountain of his happiness and the end of his existence, and retiring into himself, as the ultimate end of all his actions. And if it were also asked what is the essence of his sin, the sum of his moral depravity, we might say, to love himself supremely, to seek himself finally and exclusively, to make self, in one shape or another, the center to which all his busy thoughts, anxious cares and diligent pursuits, constantly tend. Self-love is the most active and reigning principle in fallen nature; self is the great idol which mankind are naturally disposed to worship; and selfishness the grand interest to which they are devotedly attached. But the grace of God, when it renews the heart, so corrects and subdues this disposition, that it is no longer the tyrant of the mind. The grace of God plants in the human bosom, the principle of benevolence—a principle which as it leads us to love God supremely, and our neighbor as ourselves—and is the direct opposite of selfishness.

Believing that the perfection of all virtue lies in unselfish love, it follows, that the nearer we approach to this state of mind, the nearer we come to sinless moral excellence. This is the temper of the innumerable company of angels, and of the spirits of just men made perfect. It has been argued that we take delight in the happiness of others, because their happiness increases our own—but the circumstance of our happiness being increased by promoting theirs, is itself a convincing proof of the existence and exercise of an antecedent good-will towards them. Our felicity is raised by theirs. Why?—because we love them. Why am I made unhappy by the sight of another's woe?—because I have good-will to the subject of distress. It is true I am gratified by relieving him, and my comfort would be disturbed if I did not—but what is the origin of these feelings?—certainly a previous good-will towards them. It is not affirmed that all pity proceeds from holy love—but that where love does exist, and in the proportion in which it exists, it is unselfish, and is distinguished from selfishness.

It may be proper here to distinguish between self-love and selfishness; not that they are etymologically different—but only in the use of the terms as they are employed in common discourse. By SELFISHNESS, we mean such a regard to our own things, as is inconsistent with, and destructive of—a right regard to the things of others. Whereas by SELF-LOVE we mean nothing more than that attention to our own affairs which we owe to ourselves as part of universal being. Selfishness means the neglect or injury of others, in order to concentrate our views, and desires, and pursuits in ourselves. While self-love means only that proper and due regard to our own interests which we may pay, without the neglect or injury of our neighbor. Self-love, when exercised in connection with, and subordinate to, good-will to mankind—is not only consistent with virtue—but is a part of it; but when not thus connected, it degenerates into selfishness.

Selfishness leads men to seek their own interests—in opposition to the interest of others. Multitudes care not whom they oppress, so as they can establish their own power; whom they vilify and degrade, so as they can increase their own fame; whom they impoverish, so as they can accumulate their own wealth; whom they distress, so as they can augment their own comforts. This is the worst and most cruel operation of selfishness. It is the same propensity, only sharpened, and guided, and rendered the more mischievous by the aid of reason—as that which exists in the vulture and the tiger, and which gorges itself to excess—deaf to the piercing cries of the hapless victim which struggles in its talons! Intent only on gratification, it riots amid misery, if by this means it can aggrandize itself. Looking on the possessions of those around only with an envious eye, it is solicitous that they may be appropriated in some way, to itself. This is a horrible and truly infernal disposition; for it would reign with a kind of universal despotism, would subdue all into vassalage, and allow nothing to exist—but what was tributary to its own comfort.

Selfishness sometimes leads its subjects only to neglect the things of others. They do not oppress, or injure, or steal; they are neither robbers nor calumniators; but they are so engrossed by self-interest, and so absorbed in self-gratification, as to be utterly regardless of the miseries of the world around them. They have no sympathies, no benevolent sensibilities—they have cut themselves off from their race, and care nothing for the happiness of any of their neighbors. Their highest boast and attainment in virtue is "to wrong no one." Their idea of excellence is purely of a negative kind. To dispel sorrow, to relieve poverty, to diffuse gladness—especially to make sacrifices to do this—is an effort which they have never tried, and which they have no inclination to try. The world might perish—so long as the desolation did not reach themselves! Miserable and guilty creatures, they forget that they will be punished for not doing good—as well as for doing evil. The unprofitable servant was condemned, and the wicked are represented, at the last day, as doomed to hell—not for inflicting sorrow—but for not relieving it.

A man is guilty of selfishness, if he seeks his own things out of all proportion to the regard he pays to the things of others. From a regard to our reputation, we may not live in the total neglect of those around us; and in deference either to public opinion, or to the remonstrances of our consciences, we may be compelled to yield something to the claims of the public. Yet, at the same time, our concessions may be so measured in quantity, and made with such reluctance and ill-will—that our predominant selfishness may be as clearly manifested by what we give—as by what we withhold. That which we call our liberality, manifests, in this case, our avarice; that which we denominate generosity, demonstrates our sinful self-love.

Selfishness sometimes seeks its own under the pretense and profession of promoting the happiness of others. Where the ruling passion of the heart is the love of applause—large sacrifices of wealth, and time, and ease, and feeling, will be readily made for fame! And where men have objects to gain, which require kindness, conciliation, and attention—nothing in this way is too much to be done to accomplish their purpose. This is a disgusting operation of this very disgusting temper, when all its seeming good-will is but an efflux of kindness—which is to flow back again in full tide into the receptacle of self! Many are the detestable traders, whose generosity is only a barter for something in return. How much of the seeming goodness of human nature, of the sympathy with human woe, of the pity for poverty, of the concern for the comfort of wretchedness—which passes current for virtue among mankind—is nothing better than a counterfeit imitation of benevolence—is known only to that God whose omniscient eye traces the secret workings of our depravity through all the labyrinths of a deceitful heart!

But notice now the SUBJECTS in reference to which selfishness is indulged.

Property is the first. It shows itself in an concern to obtain wealth, and an unwillingness to part with it—a disposition as greedy as the sea, and as barren as the shore. You will see some men so excessively eager to get profit, that they are ever watching to take undue advantage; and so keen-eyed in looking after their own, that they need be closely inspected, to prevent them from taking more than their own—for a man who is prevailingly selfish can hardly be honest. And what they gain, they keep—neither the cause of humanity, nor of true religion, can extort a farthing from them—except now and then, to get rid of an importunate suitor, or to prevent their reputation from being utterly ruined.

Selfishness is sometimes exercised in reference to opinion. Some will not bear contradiction; they must be listened to as sages; to question what they say, is to insult them—and is sure to bring down on the 'presumptuous skeptic' their contempt or their frown. They will scarcely allow any one to speak but themselves; they must be the oracle of every company, and the director of every affair—or they retire in disgust, and refuse to act at all. In the concerns of our churches this is often seen and felt. What is it but pure selfishness that leads any one to wish that he should dictate to the rest; that his opinion should be law; and his wishes be consulted and obeyed? This is not love—no! love does not seek her own, where conscience does not interfere to forbid it—but meekly and quietly resigns its wishes to increase peace and promote harmony. Love's object is the public good, and its law is the best means of promoting the general welfare.

If in the communion of life, or the affairs of a church, every individual determined to consult only his own views and wishes, society would be dissolved, and its separate parts embroiled in a state of mutual conflict. In the various discussions which come before a public body, Selfishness says, "I am sure my opinion is correct; and I will if possible have my way!" But the language of LOVE is, "I have stated my opinion and my wishes; if this does not carry conviction, I by no means wish my opinion to be adopted, nor my desires to be gratified—I am anxious for the comfort of my brethren, and I yield my wishes to theirs."

Some people have acquired selfish habits in their general conduct, which are exceedingly annoying to others! They have areas of personal gratification, peculiarities of humour, in which it is impossible to indulge without greatly incommoding those around them; but so detestably selfish is their disposition, at least with regard to these practices, that let others be disturbed, offended, or put to serious inconvenience—they themselves will not forego in the least degree their accustomed indulgence. When the unfortunate sufferers were expiring in the Black Hole at Calcutta, and entreated the sentinels to represent their agonizing and fatal condition to the tyrant who had imprisoned them, the guards answered, "No; he is enjoying his repose, and it will be certain death to us if we disturb him, even for your relief." And what better in principle, though certainly a less degree of its operation, is that regard to their appetite, ease, or humour—which many indulge to the annoyance of their neighbors, and which they indulge against the remonstrances of those who suffer? In short, that regard to our comfort, which leads us to neglect or sacrifice the felicity of another—is the selfishness which kindness opposes and destroys.

This hateful disposition has contrived to conceal itself under many false names and DISGUISES, and thus to find protection from much of the ridicule which it deserves, and which would otherwise be more unsparingly heaped upon it.

The plea of frugalityor a just regard to the claims of a family—has often been urged as an excuse for the selfishness of avarice. A man certainly must take care of his own—but not to the injury, or even to the neglect of all besides. "I have no more," it is often said, "than I need for my style of living; and that style I think necessary for my rank in life. I spend all I get upon my family, and hoard nothing—how, then, can I be selfish?" Mistaken mortal! do you forget that a man's family is himself multiplied—himself reflected? Selfish! yes, you are detestably so—if you spend all upon yourself and family—however lavish and unsparing you may be to them.

No expression, no sentiment, has ever been more abused than that of the apostle—"Do all to the glory of God." It has been employed to disguise the most improper motives, and never more frequently, nor more profanely employed, than when it has been used to give a character of religious zeal to actions—which every other eye could discern, originated in unmixed selfishness. It is to be feared that when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, it will be found that while much has been professedly done for the glory of God in the affairs of true religion—pure zeal for God's glory is a very rare thing. Certain it is, that much of what has been carried on under the authority of this truly sublime phrase, has emanated from a far less hallowed principle.

The Gospel has been preached by ministers; places of worship have been built by hearers; distant lands have been visited by missionaries; yes, imprisonment and death may have been sought by martyrs, in some cases, not from pure zeal for God's glory—but under the influence of selfishness! All sorts of artful practices have been supported—all kinds of stormy passions have been indulged—all kinds of injuries have been inflicted—under the pretense of glorifying God—but which, in fact, are to be ascribed to selfishness! When a man is identified with a party—what he does for that party—he does for himself.

The same remarks will apply to many of those actions which are performed on the professed ground of regard for the public good. Pure patriotism is a scarce virtue, and is found but rarely in the bosoms of those who are loudest in their praises and professions of it. Many a noisy and self-eulogized patriot—many a zealous supporter of public institutions—many an active reformer of popular errors—many a liberal contributor to humane or religious societies—could their motives be exposed, would be found to act from no higher aims than to get a name for themselves—and to be praised by their fellow-creatures!

Some indulge this disposition under the pretext of regard for the truth. Attaching an overweening importance to their own opinions, as if they possessed the attribute of infallibility, overbearing in debate, impatient when contradicted, determined to crush the opinions and resist the influence of those who are opposed to theirs—they quiet their conscience, and silence the voice of remonstrance, with the plea that their vehemence is pure zeal for the interests of truth. They would be less anxious, they say, if it were their personal interests at stake; but they have a right to be earnest, yes, even to be contentious—in the defense of the faith! But they don't know themselves—or they would discern that their conduct springs from a proud, imperious, and selfish spirit!

It is time to contemplate the EVIL of selfishness.

Selfishness is the direct opposite to divine benevolence, and is contrary to the habitual temper of our Lord Jesus Christ, "who pleased not himself." Selfishness is the cause of all sin, the opposite of all holiness and virtue. Selfishness is the source of innumerable other sins, and is placed by the apostle as the head and leader of the eighteen vices which he enumerates as the marks of perilous times—"Men shall be lovers of themselves." Selfishness was the sin which introduced all guilt and misery into the world—for the first transgression, by which Adam fell from innocence, and by which his posterity fell with him, was an effort to raise himself into a state of independence; by selfishness he laid the world under the burden of the divine condemnation! Selfishness is a rejection of all the claims, and an opposition to all the ends and interests of society; for if all people were under the influence of predominant selfishness, society could scarcely exist! Let each one seek and grasp his own, to the injury or neglect of the rest, and the world becomes a den of wild beasts, where each plunders for his prey, and all distress one another.

Selfishness defeats its own end. God has endowed us with social affections, in the indulgence of which there is real pleasure—the exercise of kindness and the enjoyment of delight are inseparable. "If there be any comfort of love," says the apostle; by which he implied, in the strongest manner, that there is great comfort in it; and, of course, in proportion as we extend the range and multiply the objects of our love, we extend the range and multiply the sources of our happiness. He who loves only himself, has only one joy; he who loves his neighbors, has many. To rejoice in the happiness of others, is to make it our own; to produce it, is to make it more than our own. Lord Bacon has justly remarked, that our sorrows are lessened, and our felicities multiplied, by sharing them.

Mankind had been laboring for ages under the grossest mistake as to happiness, imagining that happiness arose from receiving—an error which our Lord corrects, by saying, "That it is more blessed to give than to receive." A selfish man, who accumulates property—but diffuses not, resembles the stagnant pools, into which whatever flows remains there, and whatever remains corrupts! He is not like the perennial fountain sending forth fertilizing streams! Miser is his name, and miserable he is in heart. Selfishness often brings a terrible retribution in this world—the tears of its wretched subject fall unpitied—and he finds, in the gloomy hour of his want or his woe, that he who determines to be alone in his fullness, will generally be left to himself in his sorrows; and that he who in the days of his prosperity drives every one from him by the unkindness of his disposition, will find in the season of his adversity, that they are too far off to hear his cries for assistance.

Selfishness is not an incurable temper—but it is a disease that requires an immediate and diligent attention! Where selfishness not only exists but predominates, the spring of human action must be renewed by regeneration, and we must have that new heart, which is brought to love God supremely, and our neighbor as ourselves. We must meditate often upon the deep criminality of selfishness, and look upon it in all its deformity, until we hate it! We must be careful to strip it of all the disguises which the deceitfulness of the heart has thrown over it! We must abound in contemplation of the character of God, as infinite in love; and of Jesus Christ, as an incarnation of pure, unselfish affection. We must exercise great mortification, laboring to the uttermost to subdue, and if possible to eradicate, this vile disposition! And repeating this again and again until we begin to taste the pleasure and to feel the habit of kindness. Above all, we must pray earnestly for the help of the Holy Spirit—to assist us in the mighty work of vanquishing a selfish temper!