At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

What Is Biblical Self-Interest?

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I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

A recent Los Angeles Times article began with this statement:

The rich really are different from the rest of us, scientists have found — they are more apt to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed. 

The reality is that we are all susceptible to greed, rich and poor alike.

Greed arises from man’s fallen nature. This fallen nature impels man to satisfy his desires with the least possible expenditure of effort, which often requires his satisfaction at the expense of others.

The Meaning of Greed Today

In a previous post I suggested there is an important thread that runs through the biblical definitions of greed, one that is strongly missing from our current meaning of the word. It is the idea that greed fosters the taking of something that is not rightfully ours.

Our culture has redefined greed as having more that you need. This definition has lead to articles like the one above in the LA Times, or the arguments from last year’s Occupy Wall Street protesters, who conclude that anyone who is rich is greedy.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many in our world today are wealthy not because they were driven by greed, but just the opposite: they were motivated by their own self-interest.

Greed vs. Self-Interest

There is a very clear difference between greed and self-interest. Self-interest is the willingness to do something of value for other human beings to secure the things that benefit themselves.

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations that,

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

This is a very biblical concept.

Yet today we associate words “self-interest” with selfishness. Webster’s defines self-interest as, “Regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others.” That second clause is problematic.

“With disregard for others” was not the way Smith understood the term “self-interest,” nor is it true to the biblical understanding of the term. Smith’s position, and the Bible’s, was that you served your self-interest when you served the self-interest of others. The idea of wanton pursuit of unrestrained desires would have been objectionable to Smith, and should be to us as well.

What Does the Bible Say About Self-Interest?

The Bible does not condemn the pursuit of legitimate self-interest. Philippines 2:4 make this very clear when Paul says,

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Scott Rae writes in his book Beyond Integrity,

…there is a place for legitimate self-interest, to which the bible periodically appeals, only it must be balanced by a compassionate concern for the interest of others.

While the Bible cautions that self-interest can devolve into the sin of selfishness and greed, biblical self-interest enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community.

Unfortunately, people today view “loving others” and “loving self” as antithetical values, as a zero-sum game: If others win, then I lose. For me to get a bigger piece of the pie, someone else has to get a smaller piece, or no pie at all. Once again, nothing could be farther from the truth.  This is not the view of scripture.

God does not want us to fight over who gets the largest piece of the pie; instead he wants us to make the pie bigger, so that more people can partake in the blessing of flourishing. This has huge implications for our work.

Wesley Gant, in a piece written for Values & Capitalism, writes,

It is self-interest that motivates us to get up and go to work, tend to our home, care for our children, seek education and follow doctors’ orders. The natural desire and core motive of human action is simply to better one’s condition.  

This was the way God made us, and it is important for us to understand this in the context of our work.

The biblical idea of self-interest, rightly understood, allows us to work creatively, using all of our God-given gifts in a way that serves our own needs while serving the needs of others. 

How would you define greed and self-interest? How does the biblical concept of self-interest impact the way you think about your work? Leave your comments here

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  • Jim Price

    We do need a lot more conversation about the meaning and ramifications of greed and of enlightened self interest as well. The economic system is very complex and many rush into it with little regard to ethics.

  • JWEST

    very interesting topic

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