Ed. Note: This post has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.
We live in a society built on self-interest. But is this bad? Is self-interest the same thing as greed?
C.S. Lewis reflected often on the tension between legitimate self-interest and selfishness.
When Lewis first came to faith, he did not think about eternal life. Instead, he focused on enjoying God in this life.
He paralleled his experience with Old Testament people who lacked a clear understanding of heaven. In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis explains the truth Old Testament believers discovered about God:
He [God] and nothing else is their goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that he has a claim on them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything He can bestow or deny.
Lewis later said that the years he spent without the focus on heavenly rewards were of great value, because they taught delight in God above any prospect of reward. It would certainly be wrong to desire from God solely what he could give you, without delighting in God himself.
However, Lewis never disparaged the place of heavenly rewards. Later, he delighted in them.
He did see, though, that the paradox of reward might be a stumbling block for some. On the one hand, the purest faith in God believes in Him for “nothing” and is not primarily interested in any benefits that follow. On the other hand, the concept that we are rewarded for what we do is taught in numerous Biblical passages. It can be a positive motivation for doing good.
Certainly, a sole focus on rewards might pander to selfishness and greed. One way to solve this paradox is to realize that self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness.
Some maintain that Mark 8:35-36 is the passage of Scripture Lewis quotes most often. Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel shall save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Jesus is encouraging us to truly save our lives, and not lose them or forfeit our souls. His appeal is to our self-interest.
Unless we have a sufficient reason to sacrifice something we love, the cost will always be too great. Jesus gives us sufficient reason to pay the cost.
First, if we try to save our lives by seeking our own selfish pleasures, we will lose both our eternal life and the fullness of life right now. These losses are certainly not in our self-interest.
Second, if we lose our lives – in other words, give them away to Christ and to others – we will not only gain eternal life, but fullness of life in the present. Lewis explains these choices in the last paragraph of Mere Christianity:
The principle runs through life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self…Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day…Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
In other words, if you want to save your life, lose it. Selfishness is NOT in your self-interest. Self-denial is.
Lewis argues elsewhere that self-interest does not necessarily make our motives impure. He says in The Problem of Pain:
We are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives.
Towards the beginning of his classic sermon, The Weight of Glory, Lewis articulates this same dilemma between selfishness and self-interest. In that context, he gives what has become my favorite C.S. Lewis quote:
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
In other words, we don’t pursue our self-interest strongly enough.
We settle for selfish desires, and deprive ourselves. The more we pursue our own true self-interest, the more we will glorify God and give up lesser pleasures.
Perhaps this enough to indicate that for Lewis – and for us – selfishness is not in our self-interest. In fact, if we pursue our own self-interest, we will deny ourselves and choose true life in the present. To condemn selfishness and greed is not to outlaw legitimate self-interest.
Given this redefinition of self-interest, what are its implications for our economic systems? We’ll explore this question tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how a Biblical view of self-interest might impact your life. What changes might you make to truly pursue self-interest? Leave your comments here.