In one of the biggest theological upsets of the 20th century, an unknown graduate student named Valerie Saiving challenged theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr on the definition of sin. Niebuhr had suggested that the sin besetting modern man was pride, and its antidote humility. Saiving pointed out that while that might be true for (white) men, the opposite was often the case for women, who exercised humility to the point that their very selfhood disappeared.
I think we need to bring a similar caution to our understanding of selfishness and generosity. While regard for self often supersedes others in an unbalanced way, a certain amount of self-centeredness is healthy and appropriate. The “me” and “mine” phase we laughed about in church yesterday is a normal and necessary stage of development, as the toddler learns to differentiate himself from the people around him. As adults, we need to draw healthy boundaries and take care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
The accusation of “selfishness” has been used to keep women in abusive relationships, reconcile black Americans with their position in society, and turn hearts from their deepest yearnings to somebody else’s idea of who and what they should be. I’m not saying our discussion of selfishness and generosity is wrong! But I want to flag the ways we can use this topic to flagellate ourselves and manipulate others.
A healthy amount of self-centeredness is necessary to live into our call as children of God. It is only from that place of self-awareness and self-care that we can truly give ourselves away.
How do you find balance between self-care and self-absorption? What do you think of the notion of different kinds of sin?