We continue today with Chapter Six, “The Story and the Mission” in John Stackhouses’ Making the Best of It. Yesterday we ended with this observation by Stackhouse:
What he has to say in the following paragraphs is so important. It is of particular importance for thinking about economic ethics. I will say more after this lengthy quote.
The amazing paradox of Christian teaching here, 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. 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 we would gain. Yes, of course that is partly true also: “by his poverty you have become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). But it was a temporary sacrifice, a temporary poverty. 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. 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 bound up in the well-being of everything 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 anxious 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: my well-being depends upon the well-being of the beloved. Therefore it is bad ethics to urge people to care for others 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 Christi gospel, therefore, does not ask the impossible and the irresponsible: “Give up your own self-interest for others.” 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 event to the death, for everyone’s benefit: God’s, the world’s, and mine. No zero-sum, but abundant life forever and for all. (204-205)
“Self-interest” or “Self-love,” in economics, are not a synonyms for selfishness. When I look both ways before crossing the street, or cut sugar out of my diet for health reasons, I am clearly being self-interested, but I am not be selfish. Self-interest is a healthy trait, indeed it is an essential trait for functioning in the world and making appropriate ethical decisions (economic or otherwise.) The human fault is not that we are self-interested, but through sin we routinely fail to correctly perceive what is our self-interest from the vantage point of eternity. To gain the whole world and lose our soul is not in our self-interest. Better to live other-centered lives as we care for ourselves, seeking the shalom of all, and inherit the Kingdom.
One of the single biggest obstacles I have in talking with many sincere Christians about economic issues is self-interest … particularly folks from more pietistic influences. When I highlight passage after passage where Jesus, Paul, or others appeal to self-interest to motivate action, these folks go through mental gymnastics to avoid hearing what is unmistakably there. Since market economics are rooted in the idea of win-win transactions, where parties freely exchange with each for goods they value more than what they give up to get them (based on their perceived self-interest), it is all but impossible for some Christians to give market transactions validity. How could they have validity when they involve self-interest when we are supposed to empty ourselves?
We are fallen human beings and we do not fully perceive what our self-interest is. No market economy will bring perfect shalom. (But, of course, any attempt to regulate and control markets is done by fallen human beings as well.) Far too many Christian thinkers and activists incorrectly assail “self-interest” when wrestling with economic issues. In reality, I think that our powers of perceiving self-interest is what needs to be redeemed by God so the win-win-win shalom Stackhouse writes about can be more fully realized.
The misguided doctrine of “unselfishness” extends to far more than economic matters but it is one place I confront it regularly.
(Related: See my posts Economic Fallacies: "Capitalism Based on Greed" and Self-Interest and Benevolence: Partners, not Antonyms (Part 1).