A friend writes to ask whether God “needs” us in any way, or if he remains loftily remote from us, or something in between.
Another friend writes to ask about altruism, and whether we are somehow supposed to lay aside all concern for ourselves to care for someone else.
Fundamental to the Christian ethos is what I call the principle of “Win—Win—Win.” Shalom is an all-embracing life of mutual contribution and benefit. Therefore, individuals and groups are never finally in a situation of choosing whether to benefit themselves or others, never finally in a situation of choosing to honor God over their own well-being. Much Christian piety and preaching, I daresay, has been importantly misguided and misleading on this account, so let’s expand on this theme.
Frequently in Christian ethics, a doctrine of “unselfishness” has been commended. Often this rather negative virtue is connected with the positive virtue of agape as the highest and best form of love and defined as utterly other-focused self-giving. (Eros is desiring the other, an obviously pretty selfish agenda [!], and phileo is still the enjoyment of one’s friend. Agape is all about the other, with no concern for oneself–or so it is often said.)
A related theme, particularly in Lutheran and Calvinist circles, has been “the glory of God” as one’s supreme and properly exclusive motivation, as if the pinnacle of heroic piety would be to seek God’s glory at the expense of one’s own utter loss.
The amazing paradox of Christian teaching, however, is that losing one’s life is the way to save it (Mt. 16:24–27). Spending one’s goods on others is the way to pile up treasures of much greater value that will last forever (Mt. 19:21). Altruism is in one’s own interest—including God’s own interest–because what happens to the other affects me, since we’re all in relationship and we care about each other.
I need to say this carefully, so I will hew closely to the words of Scripture: Jesus suffered and sacrificed himself on the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2), not in a zero-sum game in which he simply had to lose so that we would gain. Yes, of course that is partly true: “by his poverty you have become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). But it was a temporary sacrifice, a temporary poverty, in order to gain what could not be gained any other way. It was an expenditure that was truly costly—may I not be misunderstood as denigrating the grace of God in Christ!—but it was spent so as to bring joy to God, as well as to bring salvation to us. It is never one or the other.
For that is the nature of love: God’s joy is bound up in our well-being, and our joy is bound up in his. As Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is a man fully alive!” and the Westminster Shorter Catechism responds, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Our joy, when we are properly oriented to the world, is dependent upon the well-being of everything and everyone else. The shepherd exerts himself to find the lost sheep because he cares about the sheep, yes, and his worry about the sheep makes him upset and sad. So both the sheep and the shepherd return to the fold with joy (Mt. 18:12–14). It is ridiculous to try to pull apart what is, in the nature of the case, a seamless unit: The lover’s wellbeing depends upon the wellbeing of the beloved.
Therefore it is bad ethics–both wrong and counterproductive–to urge people to care for others or to honour God at their own expense in any ultimate sense. No, the Christian view of love is shalom: when you win, I win, and God wins. When God wins, you win, and I win. And so on, endlessly around the circle of love.
The Christian gospel does not ask the impossible and the irresponsible: “Give up your own self-interest for others”–as if we could. As the great theologian Jonathan Edwards reminds us, our self-interest is precisely that to which the gospel properly appeals: Here is how to be saved! Here is how to have life, and have it abundantly! Here is how to prepare for the everlasting joy to come!
We are all in this together. Thus we work hard, truly self-sacrificially and even to the death, for everyone’s benefit: God’s, the world’s, and our own. No “zero-sum” in God’s generous economy, but “abundant life” for all.