For just a moment, I’d like to get a little controversial. I want to challenge the notion of selfless acts. A selfless act, by most people’s definition would go something like this:
“An action done on behalf of a person other than one’s self, with no regard to one’s own personal gain or desires.”
My intention is not to challenge the goodness or the validity of what people consider selfless acts, but rather to challenge whether or not any action can be completely devoid of personal gain. Is it possible to do anything without deriving some sort of satisfaction from the act? Let me present a few hypothetical situations.
- A soldier who throws himself on a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers or civilians: there is a split second decision which occurs here. Either the soldier follows his unction to protect and fulfill his sense of duty, or he lives with regret that he didn’t act and possibly allowed other people to suffer or die. The choice to act has an inherent benefit for the soldier, however brief that benefit may be. He will die with a clear conscience and a sense of fulfilled duty.
- A person who serves in a soup kitchen: this person receives satisfaction from helping people who are in need. It cost them time and resources to participate in helping out, but the pay-off that outweighs the cost is the sense of fulfillment received from helping out people who are unable to help themselves.
- A person who shoves a child out of the way of oncoming traffic, only to be struck themselves: similar to the soldier. The choice to not act is more costly emotionally than the choice to act. This person would not be able to live with themselves if they had the ability to do something, but did nothing. The benefit received is the satisfaction of knowing you saved the child.
- It’s true that Jesus went to the cross so you and I did not have to. But being God, he benefited by going to the cross from the glory he has received and will receive in future eternity. And since he desires relationship with us, he benefits by making that relationship possible through the cross.
In each of these scenarios the person performing the supposed selfless act actually does receive personal satisfaction. Everything we do, has personal fulfillment in view. Even believers, who serve the living Christ, serve so that they may benefit from a close relationship to Christ. What is the ultimate personal benefit? Every believer personally benefits from believing in Christ by averting eternal torment in hell. The notion that believers are selfless people is a fallacy. Even Mother Teresa was motivated by the fulfillment she received from helping the poor. If there is no personal gain to be found, an action will not be performed. Personal gain is why we lie and cheat, but it’s also why we do good things as well.
Why is this important? I believe understanding this is immensely important. There’s a lot of needless soul-searching that goes on and there’s a lot of guilt that gets spread around all because we think that our motivation for doing good has to be completely selfless. Here’s a newsflash. If you enjoy serving, don’t bother trying to do it selflessly, you can’t. If you enjoy it, then you benefit yourself by pursuing opportunities to serve. Psalm 100 instructs us to, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Who doesn’t benefit themselves by being glad? There is emotional benefit and physical benefit from being a happy person. Proverbs 17:22 says that a joyful heart is good medicine. Serving is meant to bring refreshment to the one who serves, even more so than the one being served.
Can a person do things out of selfish ambition? Sure they can, and this is what we guard against. Should a person serve because it brings them great joy to serve? Absolutely, and if what you do doesn’t bring you fulfillment and joy, it probably isn’t what God has created you to do. I understand that much care must be taken with this. Selfish ambition pursues personal interests no matter the cost to other people. But serving others because it is your joy and pleasure to do so benefits you and benefits the people whom you serve. Testimony after testimony that I’ve heard from people who follow hard after God indicate that they are satisfied because they have found that thing for which God created them. That “thing” may lead to a life fraught with peril and frustration, but the peace and satisfaction derived from knowing that you are doing what God has told you to do far outweighs any comfort gained by shying away from your calling. It is perfectly fine, yes, even Biblical, to enjoy and reap benefit from your service to others as you serve the Lord.