“What does the gospel of Jesus Christ teach about self?” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 60–61
Timothy B. Smith, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University.
The world, with its emphasis on self-gratification and self-fulfillment, frequently teaches that happiness is found through a focus on self: getting in touch with ourselves, satisfying our needs, boosting our self-esteem. Books and organizations that teach about self-esteem, self-appreciation, self-respect, self-acceptance, and a host of related “self” concepts enjoy great popularity.
Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a fuller understanding of how to build a happy and complete life for one’s self. The Savior, who spent His days lifting others and giving of Himself, taught this heavenly paradox: “He who seeketh to save his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (see JST footnote for Matt. 10:39). Thus the gospel path is one by which we may attain ultimate joy for ourselves when we are prepared to focus our energies and activities on the service of others. But proper preparation is a key to obtaining this joy.
Our first step is to prepare ourselves to live again with our Father in Heaven and His Son. Living the gospel is a deeply personal undertaking, and we must look inside ourselves frequently to be sure we are going about it properly. Then we look to share with others what we have to offer. The Savior said to Peter: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32; emphasis added). It is part of the paradox of finding our lives through losing them for the Savior’s sake that in so doing we gain great, even eternal, blessings and rewards for ourselves.
However, while our progression must begin at the individual level, the many modern terms that overemphasize “self” distort the nature of our existence and the purpose of life on earth. We do not live detached from one another. The scriptures emphasize that we are spiritually related and socially connected (see D&C 76:24; D&C 130:2). Through the gospel, we learn that exaltation is not offered to individuals in isolation from others; rather, exaltation requires the bond of eternal marriage (see D&C 131:1–4). It also requires dedication to those around us as well as to the salvation of our ancestors in that we strive to complete saving vicarious ordinances for them (see D&C 128:15).
The physical and spiritual connection we share as Heavenly Father’s children is the vital ingredient often missing from the worldly emphasis on self. The scriptures, commandments, and prophets continually remind us how to live in connection with others. Without this connected, unifying perspective on life, I always becomes more important than we or thine.
Those who have little connection with others or who have not learned the importance of our relationships to others face the egocentric pull of selfishness. President Ezra Taft Benson called selfishness one of the common faces of pride that leads to “self-conceit, self-pity, worldly self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and self-seeking” (“Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 6).
“The distance between constant self-pleasing and self-worship is shorter than we think,” said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Stubborn selfishness is actually rebellion against God. …
“Selfishness is much more than an ordinary problem because it activates all the cardinal sins!” (“Put Off the Natural Man, and Come Off Conqueror,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 14).
A self-focused perspective prevents us from seeing ourselves accurately and acknowledging our alienation from God and from others. By vigorously trying to find ourselves in a physical world through material possessions, pleasure, and selfishness, we become spiritually lost.
Fortunately, the gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the true nature of our identity as children of a loving Heavenly Father (see Rom. 8:16). Once we have that knowledge, we can magnify ourselves through sacrifice and service to others as the gospel requires.
“Whenever you forget self and strive for the betterment of others, and for something higher and better, you rise to the spiritual plane,” said President David O. McKay. “If … we will lose our self-centered self for the good of the Church of which we are members, for the good of the community, and especially for the progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will be blessed spiritually, and happiness will be our reward” (“Making God the Center of Our Lives,” Improvement Era, June 1967, 109).
Further, “the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls,” President Spencer W. Kimball taught. “We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find” (“The Abundant Life,” Ensign, July 1978, 3).