Love Is Not Self-Seeking
March 17, 2019 / No. 3976
Our text for this message is the second main phrase of I Corinthians 13:5. Speaking of charity, it says: “Seeketh not her own.” This phrase hardly needs to be explained. Self-seeking, self-love, is the antithesis to true love. But there is a sense in which what is said here is difficult to express in words. How do I explain to you what is meant by this, that love is not self-seeking? That is almost impossible to imagine, is it not? A world in which no one is self-seeking!
That is because each one of us is motivated in his own life by a self-consciousness and by a self-love—not just a self-preservation, but a desire to put self ahead. This is true in our desires, it is true in our thoughts, it is true in our decisions, it is true in the things to which we are devoted and committed. And that is true of every individual. So, as we live in this world, we feel that we have to fight for ourselves, because who is there that can be trusted anyway? We kind of have this self-protective approach towards relationships because people are prone to manipulate us and to use us to their own advantage. I think we could say this, that alongside pride, this is the main sin issue that we have as human beings. This is pride manifested. This is the twin of pride. Pride shows itself in self-love. One who thinks more highly of himself than he ought to, which is what pride is, will love himself and put himself forward and seek his own. It is incredibly difficult for us to imagine a world without pride, in which every person loves and seeks every other person before himself. Perhaps when we get to heaven this will be the biggest surprise of all for us—a world without self-love. Will that not be a remarkable change for you? Will that not be a remarkable change for relationships—that no one seeks self first?
Yet, we are told in the Scriptures, and we see that here, that this is part of life in the church. This is part of who we are as new creatures constrained by the love of Jesus Christ, that we do not seek our own things and that, as we live together in the church of Jesus Christ and in our Christian homes, this is our experience, that others put us before themselves and that this is what we want to do as we love others—not put ourselves first and forward but put others forward.
Let us look at the words here in the text: “Seeketh not her own.” Some of the other translations in the English that are given to explain this are helpful. “Love is not self-seeking.” “Love is not self-serving.” Or, very simply: “Love is not selfish.” In one translation: “Love does not insist on its own way or its own things.” But actually, what we have here in the King James is very accurate in its translation of the original Greek: “seeketh not her own.” Perhaps we could add one word to the end of that, and then we have exactly what the Greek says: “seeketh not her own things,” or “seeketh not the things of itself.”
We observe here that love is personified. That is, the subject is not a person but the subject is love itself. But this is not actually talking about love. It is talking about those who love. It is talking about you and me as believers who have been filled with the love of Jesus Christ. If it is true that we love, then we should be able to put our name here and say: “I seek not my own.” That is what it means that I love.
The word “seeketh” here is a very common word in the New Testament. It is a word that means “to search,” or “to strive after,” or “to pursue something,” or even “to crave and long for something.” And it comes from a deep desire in the heart for that thing. So you understand how that seeking fits with the idea of love. Love is the pursuit of something, the pursuit of something that fills the heart. And that is love. Love seeks what it sets its affection on. “Seeketh not her own.”
I said that we could add the word “things.” What things? The English translation in the King James is helpful, but it leaves off the word “things” because it is kind of an ellipsis. You can put anything there. That is the idea. When it comes to self-love, there are all kinds of pursuits. “Seeketh not her own comfort; seeketh not her own pleasure; seeketh not her own popularity; seeketh not her own ease; seeketh not her own safety; seeketh not her own wealth; seeketh not her own glory.”
And, of course, all of us fall under what this verse says because all of us seek different things for ourselves. We do not all have the same pursuits and we do not all have the same interests. In the workplace, one person wants advancement, and the other person wants as few hours as he can get by with and as much free time as he can get. In the social world, one person wants friends and interactions with others, and the other wants solitude and quiet. Yet, each of those pursuits is as selfish as the other, is it not? This is what pleases me, this is what I seek after, what I want. So the text is really asking us this question: What is the affection of your heart? What are your interests? And then, though it is not wrong for you to have those affections and those interests, how is your pursuit of those things getting in the way of your love for God and your love for others? We can soon make an idol of our interests. Love seeketh not her own. Love and self-seeking are mutually exclusive.
But the question comes up, does not the Bible tell us to love ourselves? And psychology today will add to that. It will say something like this: You have to love yourself, and you can’t love others and you can’t love God until you love yourself. This self-love is promoted as the answer to problems of insecurity.
Now, there is, of course, a proper kind of self-love. I do not know if self-love is the best way to describe it. Maybe it would be better to call it self-care. You feed yourself, you wash yourself, and you do that out of love for others so that you are not a burden to others. You pick up after yourself, you make your bed, you do your laundry. You have a life that is structured and organized because you love others around you. Ephesians, chapter 5: “Husbands, love your wives,” and then it says, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh but nourisheth and cherisheth it.” That nourishing and cherishing is this self-care that we are talking about. There is not a problem with that. The problem is when that becomes first, when that becomes a priority, when that becomes central, when my interests become an idol, when what I love I seek above all else.
That is not the self-love that is biblical. When Jesus says in the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He is not adding a third commandment to the two others. He is not saying, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, love your neighbor, and love yourself.” No, the great commandment is to love the Lord your God. And the second is like it, you love God by loving others. When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He assumes that we love ourselves. We do not need to be told to do this. “No man,” Ephesians 5, “ever yet hated his own flesh but nourisheth and cherisheth it.” And Jesus is really saying this, that there is no one in the world whom you love and care about as much as yourself. He is not endorsing self-love, but He is saying that comparatively we love ourselves too much. And that self-seeking love that we have should be the standard for how we love others. That is what He is saying. Let that be the standard for how you love others, how much you seek your own things.
The answer to insecurity is not self-love but, as a Christian, to realize that God has loved us as we are, not because we deserve it but, in spite of the fact that we are undeserving of it, He has loved us—that is grace. We recognize that God has made us who we are. God has made you who you are, and that is God’s sovereignty. We rest in those two things: the grace of God and the sovereignty of God, and there is the answer to our insecurity. When we see those two things, then we can love God and then we can love others. We can love God because, in grace, He has loved us. Amazing! Wonderful! He has loved us. And then we can love others as they are because God has made them who they are, and God has made me who I am, and God has put them in my life. And then we can be content, resting, in the sovereignty of God, with who God has made us. The answer is not self-love but resting in the love of God.
Sometimes the problem with our insecurities is that we get to the point, not where we are thinking too highly of ourselves, but we are thinking too often of ourselves. This is where love comes in, does it not? Seeketh not her own—let us be thinking about others rather than being consumed with thoughts of self. Love seeketh not her own.
How does that selfless love express itself? And we can ask along with that: How does selfishness express itself? There are many different ways. We could talk about relationships; we could talk about parenting; we could talk about marriage and living in marriage selfishly or selflessly; we could talk about friendship; we could talk about different situations in life—in the workplace, in church, even this: driving in traffic. (Perhaps self-seeking expresses itself nowhere so evidently and clearly as traffic.) Or, think of society more broadly—economy and business and entertainment. But in this message, I want us to think of three specific areas of life where selfless-love should come to expression and where, very often, our selfishness is most evident. We want in this message for the Word to come and have application to us and to our hearts and to our lives. So, there are these three areas: desire, decisions, and devotion.
Desire. That has to do with our thought-life, it has to do with what we want. Are our thoughts, are our desires, are my thoughts and desires selfish? The rest of our life is lived out of our thought-life. So, what is going on in the inner man? What are your aims, what are your goals in life? What do you expect to get from life? What are your plans for today, for tomorrow, for the next five years? Are they self-focused or are they focused on the glory of God and the well-being of others? Who, when you think about your plans for this year and next year and for work and for college and for retirement, who is front and center in your desires? Is your main aim the glory of God and the welfare of others? In II Corinthians 5:9 the apostle says this, and he is talking in the context here about being present in the body and absent from the Lord, or absent in the body and present with the Lord, and he says, “Wherefore we labor [that means that we work, we aim at something] that whether present or absent, here or in the life to come, we may be accepted of him [or we may be pleasing to him].” The apostle is saying, This is my one aim, not to please self but to please Him. Can you say that that is your ambition? You see, if our desires are contrary to the glory of God and if we put our desires before others, then we do not love God and we do not love others. We are self-seeking. Where are your desires?
Then a second area: decisions. Decisions in our life. In our lives we are presented with many opportunities and options. What is it that makes you choose to go in a particular direction in your life? In the big decisions of your life—career, education, and so on—or even in the little daily decisions of your life as you seek to live with other people. How often do we set ourselves aside because we know what will be pleasing to others? You see, more often than not, we are asking the question: What is best for me? Or we are asking the question: What is best for my family, what would be most convenient for us, what will be the easiest for us? We should be asking, What will glorify God and what will serve the good of others? The breakup of the family—the lack of commitment that we see in our society today—is driven by this question, is it not? What will make me the most happy? rather than, How does this affect others and how will this bring glory to God?
When you think about your life, can you say that you live in your marriage without selfishness? That, in the raising of your children, you are not self-seeking? Are you willing to sacrifice self? Are you an example to your children of selfless, sacrificial love? Your decisions.
Then a third area: that is our devotion. Am I more committed to myself, to my desires, to my opinions, to my happiness, or am I committed to others? Love requires faithfulness. Love requires long-term commitment. Selfishness, on the other hand, says that I am in this for as long as it benefits me and does not require too much of me. And that plays itself out in marriage, it plays itself out in the workplace, it plays itself out in the church. We live in this world where commitments in church and marriage and work really reflect something like the little boy who, when not getting his way when playing ball, takes the ball and goes home. This is especially important in our life in the church and in our families as well. We are not put together in the church; we are not put together in our marriages; we are not put together in our homes and families—all in order to get from others. But we are put together in order to give. The church is the body where I am to serve, not to see what I can get. And so it is in marriage. I am not in marriage to see what I can get to make me happy, but to give. So, the question of devotion, commitment, that is a test of our love, is it not?
Desires, decisions, devotion. Love seeketh not her own.
We have the pattern for this in the Savior’s sacrificial love. Perhaps that is summarized nowhere so well as in Philippians 2. I think we could almost say that Philippians 2 is the parallel to the practice of love that is described here in I Corinthians 13. Only, I Corinthians 13 describes what the love of the Christian should look like. What Philippians 2 does is describe the perfect love of the Savior. “Let nothing be done through strife [that is, selfish ambition], or vain glory. But in lowliness of mind, let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things but every man also on the things of others.” Now, how is the apostle going to bring home the weight of that admonition? How is the apostle going to talk to us about what that looks like? He says, let this mind, this mindset, this mentality “be in you.” What mentality? The one he has just talked about—”not seeking your own things but the things of others, not doing things out of selfish ambition and vain glory, but esteeming others better than themselves.” Let this mind be in you. Let this be your mindset. Let this be your mentality. Which mind, he says, was also in Christ Jesus. This is the mind of Christ. Now, where do we see it? In the gospel, in the sacraments. “Who, being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, took upon himself the form of a servant, was made in the likeness of men and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Love seeks not her own. This was the mind of the Savior.
You know the love of Christ, Paul says in II Corinthians 8:9. He does not mean that you know it on paper, or you know it from a history book, but you know it personally. You know it because, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that through His poverty you might be made rich. Let this mind be in you. Love seeketh not her own.
This is the heart of Christian living. This is the heart of discipleship. This is what it is to follow Christ. What does He say? “If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This is what the grace of God produces. This is what being constrained by the love of Jesus Christ does so that we seek not our own things. We die to self so that we might live for Him, that we might live for others. Has there been a funeral in your life—you died to self? Is there a funeral in your life again, every day—dying to self? Here is joy, not in self-seeking and self-love, but by being filled with Christ and emptying self and living in this love. Charity seeketh not her own. Amen.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. It comes with a power that pierces to the thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Yet, it comes also with this power—that this was the mind of Jesus Christ, this is how He has loved us. What a love, what a Savior, who became like us, who took the weight of our sin on Himself, who esteemed our needs above His own, who gave Himself. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Father, may the love of Jesus Christ, which is shed abroad in our hearts and which constrains us, move us also to live this way, as Thy people, with one another and in the love that we would show also to our fellow man. We pray it, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.