I don’t like slow drivers. It seems every time I’m rushing to get somewhere on time, there’s a car in front of me driving way below the speed limit. I get frustrated because I feel like I’m wasting time, and time is quite high up on my value scale. My frustration reveals impatience, which exposes my selfishness in all its unflattering garb.
See, I do not own time. Time is a gift that I must share it with others just as I share life with others. That is a positive thing, for what would be the worth of time if I moved through it alone? Yet this process of sharing life and time also challenges my inherent egoism.
I am selfish. And I’m going to guess that you are a little selfish too. Maybe not all the time, but sometimes, in some circumstances. And somewhere in the shadow of all interactions between any two human beings, selfishness appears to be at the helm of humanity, spiralling us over and over again into harmful patterns of behaviour. Between selfishness and our ensuing guilt about it, we’re sitting on a huge pile of mess that we pass on to the next generation, and the next, and the next, perpetuating a pattern that is damaging, hurtful and unhealthy. Is there a way out?
I have found a solution in a concise set of ten rules. They’re written in the Bible in Exodus 20:2–17 and often referred to as the Ten Commandments—you’ll need to find a Bible and follow along for the rest of this article. (Or just websearch “Ten Commandments”.) These commands were given to the ancient nation of Israel as they escaped slavery in Egypt and journeyed across the desert to their Promised Land, but people in all times and places have found them valuable and authoritative. The first four of the Ten Commandments govern our relationship with the divine, while the last six direct our relationships with other humans.
Now, you’d think that any list of rules would be as dull as a law textbook, but allow me to show you four things in those Ten Commandments that reveal their power to change us from being selfish and harmful to caring selflessly.
1) Freedom (Exodus 20:2)
The first thing I will point out is that God values freedom. He brought a people out of physical slavery because this condition is unacceptable to Him. But physical slavery, outrageous as it is, is not the worst kind of captivity. A worse kind of captivity is enslavement to selfishness. It is selfishness that leads to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual oppression of others. It was self-interest that led the Egyptians to misuse their freedom by abusing their power over the Israelites. But with no better model, the liberated people were on track to become oppressors and perpetuate the painful pattern of egoism. That is why, beyond bringing about their physical freedom, God wanted them to be free of selfishness. To this end, He taught them the right use of freedom via ten rules. In essence, God said, I want you to break the destructive pattern and learn a better way. This better way is one of transformation from the inside out, of acquiring healthy patterns of thinking and being in relation to others. How do we acquire these patterns?
2) Worship (Exodus 20:4–6, 8–11)
Like any piece of literature, the text points to some key ideas, sometimes highlighted through repetition. Two of the commandments that govern our relationship with God are connected via the shared language of heaven, earth and water/sea, and, interestingly, both have to do with worship: the second command tells us how not to worship God (by not making and serving objects in the image of things in heaven, earth or water), while the fourth command tells us how to worship God (by keeping the Sabbath day holy). So, worship is a key motif that connects these two rules. As Creator of the skies, the earth and the sea, God is not to be worshipped through devotion to images of things that fly, walk or swim. These images have no power other than the power of distraction from the true God whose real power and example alone can help us overcome our tendency to selfishness.
It appears, then, that serving the right kind of god is crucial for understanding healthy patterns of behaviour and for implementing them in our lives. More on that below.
3) Relationship (Exodus 20:8–17)
Another interesting connection highlighted by parallelism is between rules four and ten—the last ones in each set governing our relationship with God and, respectively, with fellow humans. In the fourth commandment God lists seven beings that should rest on the Sabbath day. In the tenth commandment God lists seven things we should not covet. I suggest two connections here.
Firstly, these two rules are foundational to each set. Rule ten—don’t covet—is foundational to the previous five because envy is the root of all damage against our fellow humans. Envy is, after all, just another face of self-centredness—the source of all evil. If we can heal from it, so will our relationships. Likewise, rule four is foundational to the first three because worshipping the Creator God—represented in the Sabbath command—naturally results in rejecting false gods. Thus, worshipping the real God and gratitude appear to be foundational to healthy relationships.
Secondly, worshipping the true God is the source of gratitude. More specifically, when we worship God the way He asks of us—that is, by spending regular time with Him—we will increasingly become like Him. This is the plain reality of all interactions—we become more like those whose company we cultivate. Thus, a close relationship with God built on spending time with Him can transform us into people who are busier giving thanks for our blessings than coveting our neighbour’s. Now, you may wonder: if God demands our worship, isn’t that pointing to His selfishness, the exact thing we need to overcome? Is God then selfless, or self-serving? Is He capricious or committed?
4) Love (Exodus 20:5,6)
The text reveals God’s love and commitment to us, and it is precisely out of these attributes that He requires our worship. A relationship with God is like every other relationship: only mutual love developed in togetherness can ensure fulfilment and happiness. Yet our relationship with God is also unlike a connection with another human, because, while we fail time and again, God never does. Therein lies our hope. The word but in verse 6 shows two radically different ways in which God shows His love:
≈ He loves us by castigating the oppressors. Out of respect for our freedom of choice, God allows our selfish patterns to reveal their destructive force generation after generation, yet He doesn’t do so idly. Instead, He holds us responsible for our selfishness and the sins resulting from the perpetuation of these hurtful patterns. God’s justice, therefore, is not in opposition to His love, but is itself an act of love, seeking to rewire our stubborn patterns and uproot our ego-centrism. Sometimes the oppressor is the other, and sometimes I am the oppressor. In both cases, God’s response to injustice is a redemptive act of love for both the oppressed and the oppressor. His loving nature always seeks redemption, even if punishment is needed.
≈ He loves us steadfastly when we love Him. In other words, when we are in line with His moral law, His love does not need to be retributive. And how does He know that we love him? We show it by keeping the commandments. And how can we keep the commandments? By spending regular time with Him and becoming more like Him. This is the undoing of selfishness, the power and secret to breaking the destructive self-seeking patterns of thinking and behavioru.
Would the world become a better place if everyone aimed to follow these ten rules? To put things in perspective we can consider our own journey: Do we like being respected by our children? Do we cherish a chance to live our life? Do we value honour and loyalty in our intimate relationships? Do we appreciate others being honest with us? Do we hope that our belongings are a source of joy, not envy? I believe most of us would answer yes. And don’t we also desire to offer the same outcomes to others?
The more difficult question, therefore, is: how can we achieve all this? I have tried achieving it using my own willpower alone and have only reaped regret, failure and discouragement. The other way—relying on God’s example and power—seems to work better for me, and I am still so far from harnessing the endless potential of this relationship. What about you? What have you tried, and what are you willing to try in the process of becoming a better you and thus making this world a better place?
Adelina Alexe is a systematic theology student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts and meaningful conversations.