Does altruism exist? That is, can we do anything with completely pure and selfless motives for another? The question of altruism has long puzzled evolutionists, psychologists, and philosophers alike. On one hand, their naturalistic worldview seems to exclude it. Natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”, makes altruism both impractical and undesirable, at least in the evolutionary scheme. If all we have is this life, then why do anything else other than live for self and use others for our own good? On the other hand, though rare, there seem to be concrete instances of altruism– men running into burning buildings, soldiers dying in place of a comrade, even animals acting for the welfare of their kin at their own personal expense. Faced with conflicting evidence, scientists are left to ponder whether these acts truly selfless, or if there is a selfish motive, some evolutionary phenomena or psychological mechanism, behind them.
As Christian we need not concern ourselves with whether or not altruism exists. It does. The genius of the Gospel, above every other religion or worldview, is that it makes real altruism possible.
Altruism’s greatest obstacle has always been the ‘self’—self-love, self-concern, and self-protection. It’s what the evolutionists and psychologists explain with natural selection, but what Christians say comes from a sinful heart. As Martyn Lloyd Jones puts it, men, because of sin, are constantly “turning in upon themselves, looking at themselves, and concerned about themselves” (103). The problem with the ‘self’ is that it makes everything we do, including our interactions with others, about our own good. Consequently, even when we appear most altruistic– when we are serving, encouraging, and caring for others, we are always doing it for ourselves. This manifests itself in different ways: we may love others because it feeds our spiritual pride, or we may love to feel needed and accepted out of insecurity. We may love out of fear, out of guilt, for our reputation, or so that the person loved might further the fruition of some other goal. However, though motivations may differ, the result is always the same: our actions may appear altruistic, but our hearts are never pure. We love ultimately for our own welfare and happiness.
However, the Gospel destroys the self. It does not concern itself with fixing behavior with moral codes and rules, but instead takes us straight to the heart of the problem: everything we are is completely useless and sinful. Every inclination of our hearts is desperately wicked, every thought, foolish, and every ambition, vain and empty. Even the best deeds our hearts produce are like dirty rags before God. We cannot love God or others, we cannot do good, and we cannot escape enslavement to ‘self’.
Thankfully, the Gospel does not stop there. It presents a moving story of altruism as the solution to our selfishness; one where God displays grace towards undeserving sinners at great personal expense. It tells us of Jesus Christ, who shed his divine privileges and condescended to become a lowly servant. With selfless love, he became a man, walked with the lowly, and healed the weak. And in the greatest act of sacrificial love in all history, he humbled himself to die on the cross for those who hated and despised him. He laid down his own life as a sacrifice, so that, by his act of love, our selfish hearts could be changed to reflect his. Three days later he rose again, showing that he had not only the desire, but also the power to spark altruism in our darkened hearts.
Through the power of this Gospel, we are finally able to lay ourselves aside. We can relinquish any pride in our own righteousness and strength, and cling desperately to the righteousness and strength of Jesus instead. We can abandon our own fleeting goals and desires to take up the eternal ones of our Lord and Savior. For when we see him and begin to understand what he did for us at Calvary, everything we know about ourselves, God, and others changes. In comparison to his beauty, we see a life lived for ‘self’ for what it truly is—a vain and empty sham, that brings no lasting joy. We see that the only life worth living and dying for is one for God. His cause alone is glorious enough to devote ourselves to, his love, deep enough to satisfy our souls, and his eternal plan, sure enough to ease every worry and anxiety. The ‘self’, has always gained its power by telling us: if you are not concerned about yourself, if you do not seek your own interests, protect your happiness, and worry about your future, then who will? But, in this Gospel, we have our answer: Jesus will, and he will bring greater joy than we could ever obtain by ourselves.
As for others, we can now love them selflessly. Christ has freed us from the shackles of self. We no longer have to use our relationships bolster our pride, or to find our worth in. We have laid all that down at the foot of the cross, and entrusted it to God. He will meet the needs that we formerly sought unsuccessfully in others. Now, by faith, we can live in a new ideal of love, one modeled for us by our Savior himself—that is, sacrificial love. Sacrificial love is altruistic love. It does not take into account our rights, but acts for the good of another, even at a personal cost. Sacrificial love forgets self-interest. It expects nothing in return from others because it is satisfied with all it has in Christ already, and trusts that the same God, who did not withhold his Son, will provide for us in the future. It is only in Christ that we are able practice this kind of love. We can love altruistically, because God has shown that same love for us and promised it to us, in Christ Jesus, for all eternity.
So, while the scientists debate the existence of altruism, a more practical question for us to ask ourselves as Christians, is whether real altruism exists in us. We know altruism exists for we have beheld it in its purest form in the Gospel in its purest form– Christ crucified for us, wretched sinners, to reconcile us to God. And further, we know the Spirit enables us to walk in that same kind of love toward others. By his strength, we can practice Christ’s perfect love: that self-sacrificing love which Paul describes so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13; that altruistic love which acts completely for the good of others.We know all this, but the question remains: do we love in this way?
I headed into my first year of college thinking that I did. I knew I was still sinful, but I thought at least I had made solid progress towards loving as Christ loved. Intellectually, I understood how the implications of the Gospel compelled me to love others selflessly, and in my heart, I desired to love others in this way. That, I thought, meant I had achieved a level of maturity. However, looking back over this past year, I see that I am not nearly as mature as I thought I was. Christian love is to be pristine. It requires purity in motive, and a singularity of mind that acts simply for the good of others and the glory of God. Yet, as I examine how I have loved this past year, I see in myself duplicity, a double-mindedness. Certainly, there was a part of me which genuinely wanted and tried to love selflessly. However, another part of me clung on to all the old desires of ‘self”. I lacked faith that Jesus could deliver all that he promised he could, so I held on to the happiness offered by the old ways of ‘self’.
Jesus makes it clear in the Gospels that we can only have one master. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or we will be devoted to one and despise the other. We cannot serve both God and the old desires of self. Yet, so often, we find ourselves trying to do just that—trying to strike an unholy compromise between the selfless love commanded by Christ, and the selfish “love” that we want. Our problem is one of unbelief: We have faith to see the beauty of Christian love, but not enough to completely let go of the joys promised by the ‘self’. This becomes all the more difficult in the high-stakes arena of relationships where acting selfishly offers immediate gratification, while loving selflessly offers no such reward. There is no glamour in sacrificial love unless we esteem Christ highly and trust in his promises. But we, in our unbelief, are afraid of a life lived solely in dependence on the love of Christ, so we slowly begin to slip back in the desires of ‘self’ to supplement the love that the Bible promises is enough to satisfy us.
How tempting it is to stay in this state of flux, of contaminated lukewarm love! How easy it is to be satisfied with this duplicity in our hearts and to desire the best of both worlds: the satisfaction that comes from convincing ourselves that we love selflessly, with the old desires of ‘self’ as a safety net. But we cannot live this way. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that by loving in this way we are practicing true Christian love. We must choose the master whom we will serve.
As for me, I have set my hope in Jesus Christ. I know my love is still in many ways, shallow, superficial, and self-focused, but I trust that as my faith grows in him, he will work in me to make my love like his. May he grow my faith, empty from me every selfish motive, and teach me to love altruistically, with a singularity of mind and one pure and holy passion just as he did!
The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5)
…must learn..to be less long-winded *dies*