Unselfishness and Selflessness

selfless loveAnd now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. – 1 Corinthians 13:13 (KJV)


I just finished reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  These letters are from Screwtape, an experienced old demon, to Wormwood, his young nephew.  Wormwood has been assigned his first “patient,” and his assignment is to turn this patient to the dark side.  Screwtape responds to Wormwood’s reports with advice on how best to do this.  There is a lot in this book to facilitate hours of good discussion.  But one letter discussing the difference between “Unselfishness” and “Charity” has kept me thinking.


“Note, once again, the admirable work of our Philological Arm in substituting the negative unselfishness for [God’s] positive Charity.  Thanks to this you can, from the very outset, teach a man to surrender benefits not the that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them.  That is a great point gained.” – The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (141)


Throughout The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape’s advice is always in the subtle rather than the overt.  And this teaching on unselfishness and charity, too, is very subtle.   I’ve always thought of unselfishness as a good thing, something to aspire to:  yielding my rights, compromising, not having my own way.

How can these draw me away from God?


“But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” – Matthew 6:3 (CEB)

Screwtape gives Wormwood this example:

“Something quite trivial, liking having tea in the garden, is proposed.  One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of ‘Unselfishness’.  The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their ‘Unselfishness’, but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practises petty altruisms.  But he’s not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either.  He insists on doing ‘what the others want’.  They insist on doing what he wants.  Passions are roused…[and there is] bitter resentment on both sides.” – The Screwtape Letters (143-144)

This first person isn’t really being unselfish.  Rather, he is putting others in the awkward position of having to choose unselfishness or be seen as selfish themselves.  The unselfish act would have been to remain silent and enjoy tea with his friends.  If you are telling someone you are going to be unselfish on their behalf, it’s like telling your left hand what your right is doing.  This is an important learning but it really goes even deeper.


When I think of charity, I usually think of giving to someone in need.  This is our modern understanding of the word.  But The Screwtape Letters were written in 1942 when the most common Bible (especially in Protestant England) was the King James Version. (Who would think you need to translate something written in English in 1942?)

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. – 1 Corinthians 13:13 (KJV)

Most of us aren’t as familiar with the KJV of this verse, but here it is in the NIV.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)

C.S. Lewis wasn’t talking about giving to those in need, although that is certainly one component of Charity.  C.S. Lewis was talking about love.  I think this is critical to understanding his point how unselfishness can actually be unloving.  I’m not going to stop aspiring to unselfishness or confessing my selfishness; however, I need to guard my heart to make sure love encompasses my motives.

This “love” is the Greek αγαπη, which is God’s selfless love for us.  This is more than being unselfish – it’s being selfless.  The difference seems so subtle but it is monumental.



It may be as simple as accepting a compliment with a simple thank you rather than deflecting it.  It may be accepting help from a friend rather than telling them you can manage yourself.  It is seeing the needs of another and choosing to respond rather than ignore it.  It is joyfully putting others first rather than putting myself first.

Unselfishness always begins with me.

Selflessness (love, charity) always begins with you.


Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully. – John 13:1b (CEB)

We are still in Eastertide, which means we are still in the season of selfless love.  Jesus’ acts on Maundy Thursday were not simply unselfish – they were loving.  Rather than spend the evening by himself to prepare for what was to come, Jesus continued to love his disciples fully.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross wasn’t merely unselfish – it was a selfless act of love.

So this is my challenge – to love selflessly rather than simply unselfishly.  May I be generous with the love that Christ has selflessly poured into me so that I can selflessly pour it into others.  Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.


No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. – 1 Corinthians 10:24 (NIV)

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4 Thoughts to “Unselfishness and Selflessness”

  1. How can you love selflessly if you are involved in the act?

    Love is always personal and is therefore never selfless. Without a person being involved, there is no love. Which makes all love selfish.

    If you understand?

    1. There’s an episode of friends where Joey tells Phoebe there is no such thing as an unselfish act because we get some happiness from them. I guess that’s true. But in love, we can act for others against even our own best interest, and in that way it can be both selfless and unselfish.

  2. Eddy Huffman

    Well done. Alas I see myself in part of this. Thanks for your highlighting.

    1. I see myself as well.

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