After my message to the Liberty University student body last week, a perceptive student asked this clarifying question: So you don’t believe that altruistic acts are possible or desirable?
I asked for his definition of altruism so that I could answer what he was really asking. He said, “Doing a good deed for others with no view to any reward.” I answered: that’s right, whether or not it’s possible, I don’t think it’s desirable, because it’s not what the Bible teaches us to do; and it’s not what people experience as genuine love. Because it isn’t genuine love.
When God Is Glorified
I had said in the convocation message: Doing right for right’s sake is atheistic. Christians should do what’s right for God’s sake; because the Bible teaches us to do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). But God is not glorified if we leave him out of account, and say that doing a right deed is its own justification. Nothing is its own justification, if God is left out.
Christians should do what God says is right because in doing it we enjoy more of God. Jesus was motivating us to be generous to others when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). I’m simply saying that this motivating, promised “blessedness” is not mainly more money, but more God. God delights to reveal more of himself to the generous than to the stingy (John 14:23).
This motive glorifies God. God is glorified when he is desired as a treasure. If we want a deeper fellowship with him because he makes us happier than anyone else, we glorify him. So to be motivated to do right by the desire for more of God glorifies God.
How Jesus Motivates
Jesus said that when we are slandered as Christians we should rejoice (Matthew 5:12) and love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) “for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12), and “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). The motivation he appeals to is that the path of sacrificial love leads to an increase of joy in our relationship to God as Father.
Jesus motivated us to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to our feast “because they cannot repay [us].” Then he added: “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13–14). In other words: Be generous; make sacrifices in this world; because great is your reward in heaven.
This reward, of course, includes everything in God’s inheritance. You will be an “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). “All things are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21). The meek “shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Yes, the reward includes earthy things. But in that day there will be no danger of idolatry. The earth and the heavens and all things will declare the glory of God, and the essence of our joy in them will be joy in him. What makes our reward truly great is the greater fullness of our fellowship with God: “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
This “fullness” and this “forever” are behind the motivation of the early Christians when they did what was right and suffered for it. They visited fellow Christians in prison because they saw this reward: “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34). They rejoiced in persecution because their reward was great in heaven. That’s where they got the courage to risk their lives: It “had great reward” (Hebrews 10:35).
So I answer again: “Doing a good deed for others with no view to any reward” is unbiblical and atheistic. It dishonors God. He offers more joy in his fellowship to those who do right “for his sake” than “for right’s sake.” If we don’t embrace the offer of this reward in doing good, we belittle him. But if do embrace the offer, we show him as our supremely desired treasure — above all the rewards of doing wrong.
Our Joy in Loving Others
Finally, I said to the student’s good question: Not only does trying to do right for right’s sake dishonor God, it doesn’t show love to others. People don’t experience it as love. But why would they experience the good we do for them as love, if we are seeking our greater joy in God? Aren’t they just being used?
No. It’s because part of the greater joy we seek in God, by doing them good, is the inclusion of them in our joy. Our joy in God would be expanded by their joy in God. We are not using them for our greater joy. We are wooing them into our greater joy, and desiring that they become part of it.
But doing right for right’s sake does not have this effect. Suppose I go to visit Ethel in the hospital, an older lady who just had a heart attack. I lay my hand on her tiny arm and she opens her eyes and says, “O pastor, you didn’t need to come.” Suppose I respond, “I know, but it was my duty to come. It was the right thing to do for its own sake. So I came.” That answer does not make Ethel feel loved.
But suppose I say, “I know, but it always makes me happier in God, Ethel, to bring some encouragement to you, and lift you up into what the Lord has promised.” Ethel would never say, “You are so selfish. All you ever think about is what makes you happy.” She wouldn’t feel this, even though I did say, “It always makes me happier. . .” And the reason she wouldn’t is that my pursuit of more joy in God by doing good to her, and wanting her to be part of it, is what genuine love is.
May God protect us from the atheistic notion of doing right for right’s sake. And may he make us into the kind of strange and wonderful lovers who deny ourselves the “fleeting pleasures of sin,” and “choose to be mistreated with the people of God,” because we “look to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26).