Christianity and Egoism

I began writing this on Ash Wednesday. On this day, many Christians fast, eating only one meal, and begin a Lenten discipline, abstention from something enjoyed. Over time, various Christian traditions have recommended different Lenten practices, but all who observe Lent do so by giving something up until the Friday before Easter. Can a religion which encourages such self-negating practices be called egoistic?

Christ himself said “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25, NABRE) This theme of “death to self” runs through the New Testament, with all three synoptic gospels recording an incident in which Jesus endorses two commandments as the core ideas on which all other moral teachings hang: (1) Love God with everything you have and (2) love others as you love yourself. Although this incident is not in his gospel, John picks up the same theme in his first epistle, saying that if God loves us, we must love each other. These commandments could easily be read as profoundly anti-egoistic.

However, another theme runs throughout Christian thinking: There is nothing on Earth or in Heaven that will make God love any person any less. As St. Paul said, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NABRE). As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “Though the mountains fall away and the hills be shaken, My love shall never fall away from you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” (Isaiah 54:10, NABRE) These claims declare nothing less than that the all-powerful, all-knowing essence of goodness Himself loves every individual. St. Paul even sounds arrogant in his question “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, NABRE). Is it egoistic to regard oneself as inescapably loved by the foundation of all existence? Some critics of Christianity do argue that for one to think God created the world and everything in it to have a relationship with them is profoundly egotistical.

One way of reconciling these two currents requires reference to one more idea, which goes by many names: glorification, divinization, theosis, sanctification, and more. These terms may not mean exactly the same thing, but they cover a similar enough theme: through the salvific power of Christ’s Earthly life, death, and resurrection, human beings may become godly. Peter describes it this way: “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4, NABRE) And Jesus Himself is quite explicit according to John’s gospel: “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? (John 10:34, NABRE)

Christians have faith in this promise: that by loving God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, creator and sustainer of all, He will make us “share in the divine nature”. This is not to say that we will become equal with God or absorbed into Him or creators of universes in which we will play His role, but rather that we will be in perfect harmony with the nature of the Good, the foundation of all that exists, God Himself. We will lose the things we think are our own but are merely the things we have picked up contrary to our nature. We will “throw off the work of darkness [and] put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” (Romans 13:12-14)

So, what is there in Christianity for the egoist? There is the emptying out of the self, the negation of what we imagine we desire, the loss of control over the direction of our lives, and the recognition of our helplessness. Yet through this, there comes filling up with the glory of everything good, crowning as an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and the highest fulfillment available to any human being. The egoist can be exalted, yes, but only through letting their ego die – and being born anew in Christ.

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