A recent poll revealed that 61 percent of Americans believe the main purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment. We all want to be happy, but the problem is that our traditional view of happiness tends to ebb and flow with the circumstances of our lives. If good things are happening, then we are happy. On the other hand, if bad things are happening, then we are unhappy. We effectively derive our happiness from accomplishment, accumulation and, to some degree, escape. The problem is we cannot always accomplish something noteworthy. There will be times when we fail miserably. The things we accumulate will go out of style, grow old, break, or may even get stolen. Then what? Do we strive for more accomplishment, more accumulation?
You see, we want to live in our own private universe. We expect everyone and everything to cater to us. There is only one problem with this mindset: people. There are other people in our universe, and they don’t necessarily want what we want.
One of the most self-absorbed generations that has probably ever lived is the baby boomer generation, of which I am a member. And now we have children who some experts are saying may even be more selfish than their parents. They have embraced the conventional wisdom of today, which says that if you want to succeed in life, you need to do whatever it takes. If you need to lie, connive, or manipulate to get ahead, it’s OK, because that is how the world works.
Selfishness is at the root of almost all problems. Most of the quarrels and conflicts we have in life occur because self is either being threatened, challenged, or ignored. It is all about us. We want our own way. And that, by the way, is pre-wired in us from the earliest days. There is no getting around it: We are all naturally selfish. And selfishness flavors, colors and ruins so much of what we do.
The Bible presents a radically different paradigm for happiness: True fulfillment does not come from putting our needs first, but from putting the needs of others first. It is upside-down living. We will find success through humility. The way up is down. The way to self-fulfillment is thinking of others first. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV).
Do you know someone who has a need right now that you could help meet? Do you know someone who is hurting whom you could reach out to? The problem is that we like to surround ourselves with those whom we look like, dress like and think like. But can we extend love to an unlovable person?
Corrie ten Boom, who, along with her family, was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp for hiding Jews in their home, devoted her life after the war to traveling and speaking about the forgiveness of God. One day, after speaking at a church in Germany, a man came up to her and extended his hand. She suddenly remembered him as the Nazi who had treated her and her sister so cruelly. He told her, “I, too, am a Christian, Fräulein ten Boom. Would you forgive me?” Her hand froze as she felt the hatred for the man rising inside her. But out of obedience, she reached out, took hold of his hand and told him, “I forgive you, my brother.” She said that the moment she did this, she felt forgiveness.
In the same way, if we wait to feel forgiveness, we won’t feel it. And if we wait to feel love for people, then we never will do anything. Putting others before ourselves doesn’t come naturally to any of us, because we are self-centered. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Talk to a man about himself, and he will listen for hours.” There is a place, however, for some self-interest. After all, we need to feed and care for ourselves. But we also need to think about others, because we tend to be so self-absorbed.
The Bible teaches that if we want real success and true happiness, if we want a deep and abiding joy rather than fleeting happiness, then it is found in following Christ and in loving others. It is not in living for self-fulfillment and personal happiness.
If we spend our lives pursuing self-fulfillment, then we will be miserable. But if we will remember that our purpose in life is to glorify God, to love God and to love others, then we will find the personal fulfillment we have always wanted. And we will find happiness as well.