In a recent post, I argued that even when you do things for others, you’re doing them for you.
I followed up with a post on yesterday entitled None Are Selfless in which I elaborated on the same theme.
Since then, I have been asked to give my thoughts about how this idea relates to Christianity. Doesn’t the Christian Faith teach that one ought to do the right thing for its own sake? Can the faithful Christian serve as a counterexample to the principle of self-interest?
I not only contend that some people act out of self-interest, but that all people do this by their very nature as human beings.
The biblical writers were outspoken advocates of cost-benefit analysis. They constantly encouraged us to look beyond the superficial and temporal rewards of this earthly life and to consider the immeasurable gain of intimacy with God.
According to the Christian Gospel, Jesus gave his life because man needed something. And this need is so important that according to Christianity, one cannot qualify as a true believer until he admits that he needs something (ie. forgiveness, grace, mercy, redemption) from God.
Rather than deny the incentive-driven nature of human behavior, Jesus based his entire message on the superiority of God’s Kingdom in its ability to meet man’s fundamental needs and deepest desires. Jesus made the ultimate use of cost-benefit analysis when he asked “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Jesus was arguing that a materialistic lifestyle centered around wealth and comfort was a bad investment if it comes at the expense of a man’s prospects for eternal life. In other words, according to Jesus, a God-centered life is the most profitable of all options.
When the believer says, “as a Christian I strive to do things for others that don’t particularly help myself, and often inconvenience me, simply because they’re the right thing to do” that basically means that he is a long-term investor who claims to know where true value lies. But he still does what he does in order to get something out of the transaction. It’s just that the “something” he’s getting is not a tangible good. He values spiritual rewards so much that he’ll sacrifice his own convenience just to experience the inner joy of knowing he pleased his Heavenly Father.
The Apostle Paul expressed similar sentiments when he said, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” Only a man of self-interest (which is different from materialism and greed) could make a statement like that.
Christians are not devoid of self-interest when they do the right thing for its own sake. They simply believe that following God’s will is the only way to find the lasting peace and true fulfillment that everybody else is still blindly groping for.
Whenever I hear Christians preach the Good News (good for who? There goes that self-interest again), they spend the majority of their time appealing to people’s self-interest by informing non-believers of all God’s beautiful promises for how they will be TRULY free, TRULY, happy, TRULY rich, and TRULY fulfilled.
Imagine the emptiness of a Gospel that only offered philosophical and theological arguments. That would not only be an empty and irrelevant Gospel, but it would not be the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus appealed to man’s desire to be free from the bondage of sin. He went out of his way to show how relevant the Gospel was by appealing to the subjective self-interest of his listeners. He reminded them that their needs and desires were given to them by God. He simply offered them the correct way to fulfillment along with the permission and power to become followers of that Eternal Way.
The Christian is not an exception to the principle of self-interest. He is arguably the ultimate example.