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Is all sin selfishness? From the structure of the 10 commandments it can be determined that there is only 1 commandment: Have no other god before him. Each commandment after that seems to be expanding on the previous one. If you keep asking "why would someone commit this sin", it seems to end up with some form of selfishness; which would indicate that a person is putting themselves before god: A Self Idol.

Edit: Therefore, is there a passage in scripture or some understanding that can be drawn from scripture which classifies the root of sin as selfishness?

I'm trying to determine the scale of man's sinfulness; if even the things which we consider selfless are also sinful.

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Please can you clarify the edit? The question itself relates to OT concepts, as does the accepted answer. If the edit is intended to clarify something or narrow the scope? If so: how? –  Marc Gravell Nov 13 '11 at 19:29
So do you want to say, the first commandment sounds like a selfishness from god himself? –  user unknown Nov 14 '11 at 7:46
Welcome to Christianity.SE! Unfortunately, although this question has garnered seven answers at this point--none of which factual, most speculative--I'm ruling this as question as Not Constructive. This post may help you understand this a bit more. However, the essence of it is this: The question, as it is worded, could be answered many different ways. All of these different answers are based on different doctrines within Christianity. Since there's no factual way to answer this, the question becomes a free-for-all. –  Richard Nov 14 '11 at 18:35
Having your question closed is not a death sentence for the question! On the contrary, this question may be reopened if it can be refocused to be constructive. Again, this post may help clarify this. If you edit the post to specify a doctrine/doctrinal tradition, just let us know (flag it for moderator attention) and we can reopen the question. –  Richard Nov 14 '11 at 18:36
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closed as not constructive by Richard Nov 14 '11 at 20:40

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7 Answers

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The first sin committed (by Satan) was him trying to exalt himself to God's position.

The sin that led to the fall of man was also in trying to exalt ourselves into God's position (Genesis 3:6).

The second human sin recorded was of Cain attempting to take God's role in determining the duration of life given to his brother (Genesis 4:8)*.

So, yes: I believe it is a more than accurate statement to say that all sin has as its root selfishness, pride, self-exaltedness, etc.

*Arguably, Cain's anger at God's acceptance of Abel's offering would be the second recorded sin - but since anger is not inherently sinful, I stand by the statement that the murder was the second recorded sin.

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In Genesis 3:8-13 we learn of (1)Adam and Eve hiding from God, then (2)Adam blaming Eve, and (3)Eve blaming the serpent. Depending on how strictly you interpret "sin", these might be considered the 2nd through 5th sins mentioned in the Bible. :) I think they are all borne out of selfish motives, though (self-preservation). So I think your answer still stands :) –  Flimzy Nov 11 '11 at 2:19
Ah... I like that... "subsins" :) –  Flimzy Nov 11 '11 at 2:35
Help me understand; how do 3 early examples show the general case here? I'm. It not sure that logically follows. –  Marc Gravell Nov 11 '11 at 6:11
@MarcGravell: It's an act done in response to an individuals desire/lust in rejection of God's ordinances on the issue. I don't know if it a useful line of reasoning or conclusion but it would be pretty easy to argue that such things always rely on mans self-conceived standards of morality/ethics thus making them inherently selfish. Personally I think pride is a more useful umbrella to understand sin under, but it's not so different in the end. –  Caleb Nov 12 '11 at 12:45
@MarcGravell: I actually think this is a useless question because it is circular. For the scope of this site we're not using the world's definition of sin -- Christianity defines sin as acts (or states) of rebellion towards God in favor of our own desires. All sin is thus selfish without making any leap at all. As for homosexuality: In the case you have in mind we don't share the same ethical/moral ground: only a cultural label. I personally self identify as a abject sinner too! The unique problem with homosexuality is that many people try to justify the acts as not actually sin. –  Caleb Nov 12 '11 at 16:24
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I believe there can be sins that are not inherently selfish, but are born of a selfish nature.

An example would be a sin that is committed in an attempt to not sin. I think a common example would be when people neglect to care for their family because they are too busy with church. While some people may be truly and overtly selfish by spending time in church ministry instead of caring for their family, I'm sure most people who neglect their families in these cases are not doing it out of a selfish motive.

The fact that a person neglects their family while trying to do good, however, does come out of a selfish and imperfect nature. A perfectly selfless person would be more aware of their family situation and be able to balance their time better.

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There are a great many ways to classify sin, and explain its nature and causes. One classification, used by Dante in the Purgatorio (explained in Canto 17, lines 91-139), describes all sin in terms of love gone wrong. Such "disordered love" (amor inordinatus) goes against the pattern of love that we should follow (love God, love our neighbour); this doctrine is based on the idea (going back at least to Augustine) that evil cannot create anything, but only pervert things already created. Dante's scheme draws from that of William Perault's Summa de vitiis et virtutibus 1.

There are three possibilities:

  1. Loving something that you shouldn't (pride, envy, wrath)
  2. Not loving enough (sloth)
  3. Loving something good, but to excess (avarice, gluttony, lust)

The point of the final category is that it's fine to enjoy food, say, but you shouldn't love it more than God and your neighbours. On the other hand, loving the infliction of harm on others is under the first heading, because that's always wrong.

Under this point of view, some sins involve selfishness (love of self) explicitly; others may be helped along by selfishness (sloth, perhaps). But selfishness is not necessarily the root cause of the problem, in all cases.

Your diagnosis that sin comes from putting something else before God would cover point 3, at least. But the thing that you love too much doesn't have to be yourself.

That said, this is only one of many possible schemes for understanding sin, and has no claim to being definitive.

1 According to The Dante encyclopedia, ed. Richard Lansing (2010), p870

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I think the fourth commandment (keeping the Sabbath day holy by not working) can offer us a clue to a counterexample.

A particular action performed on a Thursday may be counted sinful if performed on a Sabbath - even if the actor's motivations are exactly the same and in themselves pure and honest.

Is, then, a man selfish if he sins by breaking the fourth commandment when he has merely lost track of what day of the week it is? (Perhaps he has been unconscious and unaware of the passage of time.)

Similar could be said for the first commandment; if one has never heard of Jesus Christ, it is not selfishness that causes his failure to worship, but ignorance. (Perhaps he lives in pre-Columbian America. Whether ignorance in this or any case is excusable is a separate matter.)

So we see that a man may also sin from ignorance, not merely from selfishness. Indeed, some of the Greek philosophers believed, not that all sin was selfishness, but that all sin was ignorance. Socrates, for example, is quoted as saying "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance." This is in fact more plausible than the selfishness hypothesis: if sin really is worse for you than obedience, who would sin if they really knew and understood all the consequences of it? If obedience is truly preferable to sin, then even a selfish person who knew this would choose obedience because of the greater benefits he would receive from obedience than from sinfulness.

Pure selfishness would seek the greater gain for itself, not the lesser, or it would not be pure selfishness -- it would be mixed with some other failure of judgment that causes it to think the lesser good to be better than the good that truly is greater, and in that case it would be the ignorance representing this failure of judgment that causes the sin, not the selfishness itself.

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By loosing track of the sabbath, he makes trivial the sabbath and is therefore selfish. If they understood the consequences then they wouldn't have faith (without which it is impossible to please god), and if they didn't have faith then they wouldn't obey (because obedience requires faith). I see your point and it's worth considering. –  user983 Nov 13 '11 at 14:49
@kurtnelle I'm going to have to agree with Marc Gravell's comment to you that you seem to be using an unusual definition of 'selfish' here which might make answering you a bit difficult (as opposed to answering the plain language of your question). Can you clarify, maybe quoting a dictionary that agrees with your sense of the word? Or if (as it appears from some idioms you use) English is not your native language, can you give whatever original word you're translating to us as 'selfish'/'selfishness' here and what language it is so we might better understand? –  Muke Tever Nov 13 '11 at 15:15
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I will attempt to give you an argument from counterexample.

In some traditions, there are sins of commission and sins of omission. While many of the sins of commission might be characterized as selfish, some of the sins of omission might not. For example, not taking proper care of your body (say, lack of exercise or not eating enough fruits and vegetables) could be considered a sin of omission. However, not exercising or not eating enough veggies are not often considered "selfish."

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The reasons I don't eat enough fruits and vegetables are generally selfish--I'm too lazy to not buy my food at the drive through. Eating chocolate is more fun than eating carrots, etc. –  Flimzy Nov 11 '11 at 4:55
This answer raises the question of "who" is sinning: The body, the soul or the spirit? if the soul is selfish to the body's determent then that may also be a sin. –  user983 Nov 11 '11 at 14:06
@Flimzy, I'll grant that you are being too lazy to not buy the right foods. But the meaning of selfish is to be preoccupied with self, is it not? And if you are not preoccupied with self by caring for yourself by buying yourself healthy foods, then you are by definition, not being selfish. Or consider: if you don't exercise, are you being selfish? You are neglecting your body, which may be a sin (I Cor 6:19), but it is not selfish, since you are not caring for your self. –  rajah9 Nov 11 '11 at 15:01
Caring for yourself can be entirely selfish. Many people who diet, work out, etc, do so to glorify themselves. And most people who don't care for their bodies (or emotional health, etc), do so for selfish reasons--because they're more concerned with pleasure, or other selfish motives, short-term motives than in taking care of themselves in the long run. –  Flimzy Nov 11 '11 at 15:15
I think you may be onto something here with the distinction between sins of omission and commission... but I don't think your exercise/diet example is a good one. –  Flimzy Nov 11 '11 at 15:38
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This may just be a comment mainly because it's not long, but there's one topic other answers haven't covered.

If all sin could be categorized as selfishness then the phrase, 'the ends do not justify the means' would not hold true. There are plenty of things man can do which is selfless, directed towards good ends, but inherently evil.

If that wasn't true, then everything you do would be selfish. Since it is true, not all sins are borne out of selfishness. Pride maybe, but not selfishness.

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So we're talking about good intentions that go bad. I.e. starting out as non selfish, but the end result seems selfish. Therefore selfishness is something that evolves from your deeds? –  user983 Nov 14 '11 at 21:09
Close, this is a case where Intentions = Good, End Result = Good, Means to attain the end result = Bad. Do you want an example, I'd give you one right now, but you'd probably find some selfishness in it and I'd lose my main point. –  Peter Turner Nov 14 '11 at 21:34
try me, you'll never know. –  user983 Nov 15 '11 at 3:02
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In my view, the premise of the question is itself incorrect. Let us look first at the meaning of selfishness

  1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
  2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.


The supposition of the question, and the explicit statement from the comments, is that anything that does not relate to God is therefore selfish. However, this does not fit the definition.

To take Just a few limited examples. Is a Bhikkhu being selfish? I submit: not. They fail the first commandment, and undeniably this is considered sinful by Christianity, but this is not something born of selfishness. Simply: they have a different view, and are acting accordingly. Disagreeing with Christianity may be classified as sinful, but it cannot be labelled as selfishness. Is a non-Christian aid worker, risking life and injury, a selfish person simply for not following commandment 1?

I accept that many misdeeds are the result of selfishness and/or greed, but the question singles out the first commandment. This, perhaps, is the easiest of the commandments to knock down as being unrelated to selfishness. Let's assume an individual has a working knowledge of Christianity, but was raised in another religion or chooses no religion - this has nothing to do with selfishness as per the word's definition. It is not sufficient to say simply (comments):

One is not saved unless they accept that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for their sins. Not accepting that is also a act of selfishness.

without explaining how non-acceptance is "selfish". I therefore submit that yes: there are things considered sinful that are not selfish in nature. And the question itself provides a prime example.

If we really must add another example - again from the commandments; if I give up a weekend working for someone else's good, without expectation of reward (earthly or divine) - I have violated the sabbath. But no selfish act has been committed.

The commandments around theft, murder, lust, etc do indeed seem likely to have selfish motivation, and so are likely to relate to selfishness. But that then becomes a more circular argument "are selfish actions caused by selfishness?" - to which the answer is : probably! But this does not mean that by extension all sins are selfish. It might be more interesting to ask:

Are all selfish deeds sinful?

I suspect the answer is yes, but I have not considered it comprehensively. But that reversed question is not the same.

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One is not saved unless they accept that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for their sins. Not accepting that is also a act of selfishness. –  user983 Nov 12 '11 at 23:09
@kurtnelle I disagree in the strongest terms, but rather than squabble in comments I have revised my answer to clarify. –  Marc Gravell Nov 13 '11 at 9:00
I understand your point (which is valid), however it makes a comparison between points of view. The question is really based on a single point of view (which is a different poison) –  user983 Nov 13 '11 at 15:06
@kurtnelle I don't agree. The definition of selfishness is relating to the motivation. The motivation of an act does not change depending on how your beliefs align with the observer's. Either an act is self-motivated, or it isn't. Either an act is defined (by Christianity) as sinful, or it isn't. I feel this answer illustrates an example that is both sinful and selfless, thus refuting the proposition in the question. –  Marc Gravell Nov 13 '11 at 18:28
It is quite possible to engage in "selfless" acts for selfish reasons: Peer recognition, improving self-image, an attempt to earn favor with God/gods/the universe/etc. –  Flimzy Nov 15 '11 at 15:22
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