When I tell people that my job involves helping widows and refugees and the poor, some of them respond, “Oh, that must be very rewarding!” I think this reveals a misunderstanding about the motivation for merciful deeds. Their response carries an implicit assumption that I must be in ministry because of the ways I benefit from it. Why else would I do something so challenging that pays so little? (I do, of course, like my work and it is frequently rewarding. But my income was the same eighteen years ago when I was a newspaper editor, and I work much harder now.)
If we do ministry only for personal reward, we are going to burn out when it gets hard. Altruism is a different motivation for service—an “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” When believers live truly selfless lives we display an altruism that many in the secular world will find attractive, yet foreign. When we care for hurting people, let’s be careful not to let them praise us for our altruism; instead, let’s help them see that we possess an alien altruism.
Selfless deeds are a part of the apologetic of mercy because they reflect the ethics of another world—the kingdom of God. Princeton University professor Robert George, author of Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, argues that without God there is no credible reason to love your neighbor:
Why … on a secularist understanding, should people restrain themselves—and even bear the sometimes-heavy burden of moral duties—out of regard for the rights of others? On purely atheistic and materialistic premises, how can it be rational for someone to bear heavy burdens and suffer great cost—perhaps even death—to honor other people’s rights? No satisfactory answer is forthcoming. None, I submit, is possible.
On the other side of the spectrum we find atheists Richard Dawkins and Ayn Rand. Dawkins believes altruism is a defect, not a virtue. Survival depends on putting individual needs first. This “me-first gospel” could claim author and philosopher Ayn Rand as its chief prophet. She wrote,
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
Dawkins and Rand have argued that survival of the fittest and natural selection are the fundamental laws that guide human behavior. As such, it was hard for them to give a rational answer to the question, “Why is it good to care for the weak?” After all, if the weak are coddled instead of culled, they will slow and weaken the herd, right?
When we abandon God as the source of altruism and ultimate goodness, selfishness is what we have left. We can cover it up with good deeds so we appear less selfish, but our motivation is still selfishness!
Perhaps you don’t like the word selfish. Instead, one could say that atheism leads people toward autonomy while Christ leads them toward community. Regardless, when “survival of the fittest” is the rule we follow, the only moral law is “every man for himself.” Most people live according to that law, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Believers offer the world a radical alternative. Altruism is a powerful apologetic argument because it is so rare and unexpected. God’s people serve others selflessly, not because we are inherently good, but because we resemble the selfless One who made us, saved us, and sent us to show His love to the world. He loved us, so we love the people He has made. Instead of Ayn Rand’s “me-first gospel,” Christians are motivated by Christ’s “others-first” gospel:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)
(This post is an excerpt from Tangible, chapter 4.)