C. S. Lewis on Selfishness vs. Self-Interest

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, says business is under attack today. Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month, he said, “Humanity has been lifted up by business and yet it has been completely hijacked by its enemies who create a narrative that business is selfish, and greedy, and exploitative.”

Business provides good context for thinking biblically about selfishness, self-interest, and greed. Are all business people selfish? Certainly not. But we are all capable of being selfish. There are selfish teachers, physicians, pastors, and firefighters. Selfishness is an equal opportunity employer. The more pressing question concerns self-interest. Is self-interest necessarily selfish?

C. S. Lewis wrote much about the tension between self-interest and selfishness. To Lewis, there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness, and there is a proper place for self-interest. When Lewis first came to faith, he did not think about eternal life, but focused on enjoying God in this life. Lewis later said that the years he spent without focusing on heavenly rewards “always seem to me to have been of great value,” because they taught delight in God above any prospect or reward. It would be wrong to desire from God solely what he could give you, without delighting in God himself.

Proper Place for Self-Interest

Lewis never disparaged the place of heavenly rewards, but he saw 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 to follow. On the other hand, the Bibles teaches us that we are rewarded for what we do. Presumably, this reward should motivate us to do good.

Certainly, a sole focus on rewards might pander to selfishness. Lewis discusses this paradox in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century:

Tyndale, as regards the natural condition of humanity, holds that by nature we can do no good works without respect of some profit either in this world or in the world to come. . . . That the profit should be located in another world means, as Tyndale clearly sees, no difference. Theological hedonism is still hedonism. Whether the man is seeking heaven or a hundred pounds, he can still but seek himself, of freedom in the true sense—of spontaneity or disinterestedness—nature knows nothing. And yet by a terrible paradox, such disinterestedness is precisely what the moral law demands.

We can resolve this tension between believing for nothing and believing for reward by realizing self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. Some maintain that Mark 8:35-36 is Lewis’s most frequently quoted passage of Scripture. Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Jesus encourages us to truly “save” our lives and not “lose” our lives or “forfeit” our soul. He appeals to our self-interest.

The Self-Interest of Self-Denial

Unless we have a sufficient reason to sacrifice something we love, the cost will always be too great. Lewis expresses this dilemma in the last paragraph of Mere Christianity:

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. 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.

It is not in our self-interest to be selfish. Rather, self-denial is in our self-interest.

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. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by its very nature, seeks to enjoy its object.

When we lose ourselves in wonder, awe, and praise of God, the more joyful we can become, but also the less self-conscious. When we are focused on God, we are not focused on self. Lewis summarizes this un-self-conscious experience: “The happiest moments are when we forget our precious selves . . . but have everything else (God, our fellow humans, the animals, the garden and the sky) instead.” In this experience, we are pursuing our joy, but not selfishly.

Our Self-interest Is Too Weak

In Lewis’s classic sermon The Weight of Glory, he poses this same dilemma between selfishness and self-interest (“disinterestedness”). In that context, he gives what has become my favorite Lewis quote:

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and 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.

We might not pursue our own self-interest strongly enough. We often settle for selfish desire and deprive ourselves of “infinite joy.” We are all too pleased with the meager pleasures we get and say “NO” to greater, higher, infinite pleasure. The more we pursue our true self-interest, the more we will glorify God. It is in our self-interest to give up lesser pleasures that may satisfy for a while but sooner or later lead to “hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.”

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in current public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But Lewis clearly believes that self-interest is not necessarily selfish, and that selfishness is not in our self-interest. Lewis may argue that the actions of the godly businessman and the missionary are both of self-interest. Vocational motivation, even when profit is involved, stems from our God-given talents to serve others, not necessarily for selfish reasons.

It’s important to remember that God’s interest is in our self-interest. It’s in our self-interest to deny ourselves. Selfishness is choosing our own lives, but if we pursue our self-interest we choose true life in Christ.

  • Matt Anderson

    This is a great article. Thanks so much.

  • scott

    There is a tendency to seek to isolate motives in the walk with Christ instead of seeing the many splendored motives for us to follow the Lord. If we look at the Scriptures’ description of the motives of Christ in what He did, we see many including the glory of the Father, His own glory, the love for His people, the love for the world, the joy set before Him, to demonstrate how much he loves the Father, the fellowship with the Father, His desire to please the Father, a crown of Glory, authority over heaven and earth, etc. If we are to be like Christ, our motives would surely seem to line up with Jesus” Self interest crowns, joy, future rewards, fellowhip, love of God, glory to God, hallowing and honoring of His name etc. all would be in line with Christ’s own motives. Resist the tendency to make the picture too small. C S Lewis’ view is relevant only so far as his view of motives line up with Christ’s own motives for what He did and does and any attempt to isolate such motives into just one or two presents an unbalanced view.

  • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

    Great piece. A wonderfully-biblical paradigm that should permeate our Christianity, our evangelism and our lives — like Jesus.

  • http://www.jeffhaanen.com Jeff Haanen

    “It is not in our self-interest to be selfish. Rather, self-denial is in our self-interest.” Amen to that. Tell this to the libertarians. Thanks for a great article.

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  • http://www.revolutioncastlerock.org Nate Johnson

    I’ve always appreciate this piece by Lewis as well:

    We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things….

    The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity
    itself in consummation…An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it….

    The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

    CS Lewis from The Weight of Glory
    Preached as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin
    Oxford, England, June 8, 1941
    Published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941

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