“I want to do what I want to do!”
I figure that George Bailey was 26 years old when he shouted the above line in It’s a Wonderful Life. After he graduated high school, George worked for four years to raise money for college, and then after his father died he worked four more years while his little brother went to college in his place. He utters the above line the night his brother returns home as a college graduate, so 18+4+4=26. Of course, it’s a fictional world, so his age isn’t really that important; I only bring it up because I am turning 26, and sometimes I want to shout the same thing.
However, just like George, I never can quite let myself get away with that attitude. Just like George, I have places I want to go and see. Just like George, I have moments where I want to be free from responsibility and duty. But, just like George, sometimes I don’t get to do what I want to do. And sometimes I have to do what I don’t want to do. Such is life, and it is still a wonderful one. However, sometimes I still catch myself in a mood where…
I want to do what I want to do!
I want to sleep in late every morning. I want to go back to Israel. I want to travel to Alaska, Nova Scotia, England, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, etc, etc, etc. I want to get my degree. I don’t want to do my homework. I want to eat every piece of food I see. I don’t want to pray. I want to be alone in my introverted world so I don’t have to talk to people. At the same time, I want to be noticed and liked. I want to be happy, I want things to go my way, and I don’t want to have to exert myself to make it happen.
I’m no more selfish than the rest of us. We all want things, and sometimes we are frustrated when we have to wait or are denied. I don’t think it is wrong to want to travel or to want to eat delicious food. It’s okay to be by myself sometimes, and it feels good to be noticed. But sometimes I get tripped up when I focus so intently on these things that I only think of myself, when I couldn’t care less about what happens to everyone around me.
I want to do what I want to do! George Bailey, one of the most generous and self-giving characters in any movie I’ve ever seen, a man who for me has always been larger than life, shows that he too deals with the selfishness that eats away inside each of us. Often this selfishness isn’t very bad; it’s just enough to keep our eyes turned inwardly, always worrying if we are going to get the last blackberry muffin before anyone else can grab it. But this attitude of wanting to do what pleases us best is indicative of a very basic dilemma: it is the furthest thing possible from Christlikeness.
If it is possible to sum up the Seven Deadly Sins in one word, it would have to be Selfishness. This is easier to see with some of the more carnal sins: gluttony, lust, sloth, and greed. However, it’s still pretty clear with the others as well: pride, envy, and wrath. All of these sins are sins because they fulfill something I want at the expense of others. Traditionally, people have called pride the first sin, the sin that brought down Satan and then Adam and Eve as they desired to be like God. I would argue instead that selfishness is the root of this and every sin. Selfishness is the decision that I am going to think of myself and what I want first and foremost, to take for myself first and worry about everyone else later, whether with lustful eyes or a gluttonous stomach or an angry mouth or a mind that loves to have its ego stroked.
On the other hand, if I could sum up Jesus in one word, it would be Unselfish. His whole life, from the moment he left heaven to the moment he died on the cross, is about serving others and not reaching out to take for himself. Not that he didn’t have a chance to take for himself, mind you. How many times have you been offered every kingdom on earth if you would give in to a temptation? I bet it hasn’t happened too often. He could have had anything he desired, yet we never see one instance where Jesus fails to give himself to those around him.
One of my favorite bands, mewithoutYou, uses the image of a carrot, a stick, and a string to illustrate how we are all held captive by Satan in our selfishness. We are compared to a donkey who is lead along because it is trying to get at the carrot that is dangling just out of reach on a string beyond its nose. Satan led the whole world along in this manner until Jesus refused to be baited by selfishness. As the band puts it,
“And the snake who’d held the world
a stick, a carrot and a string
was crushed beneath the foot
of your not wanting anything”
Satan had no idea how to fight against someone who wouldn’t take his bait, who was simply unselfish. And so Unselfishness crushed Selfishness.
Jesus is defined by his lack of want and his lack of need to satisfy his own desires, to take for himself, to promote his own welfare before that of others. His whole life is one long act of unselfish self-giving. Paul writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-7). When James and John asked for the seats at the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom, Jesus replied that he did not come to be served, but to serve. He said the greatest among his followers would be the servant of all (Mt 20:27-28).
The irony in that statement is that to be great, one must not pursue greatness. Greatness cannot be the goal of a Christ-follower’s life at all. Neither can worldly contentment or power be the goal. Giving our lives in service and love to the world is the task of the Christian, and if one of us comes into a position of power along the way, so much better to serve the world.
How do we become like Jesus? We give ourselves to the world. Many times for me that means spending time with people who can use my company (and I can always use theirs) when I’d rather be alone. It means allowing something I do to go unrecognized, even though I’d love some credit. It means rethinking how I spend my money and my time and rethinking where I travel to coincide with where God wants to lead me.
Chances are the ways you can be like Jesus and give yourself to the world are very different than mine. Just look for the areas of your life that you are holding onto for yourself, and start there.
My prayer at 26 is that I become unselfish as I follow Christ’s example. I close with a line from a song by the band Fleet Foxes, and I pray that the answer to their question is “yes.”
“Oh how could I dream of,
Such a selfless and true love,
Could I wash my hands of
Just lookin out for me?”