Is Self-Sacrifice Ultimately Selfish?

If sacrificing my interests for another’s sake makes me feel good about myself, is my so-called “act of kindness” selfish at its core?

Most of us don’t know how to answer. Does tithing just make me feel good inside? Do heroes just die just for their own glory? Since we are sometimes blind to the true reasons behind our actions, how can we ever be sure our own motivations aren’t somewhat selfish?

We’re not alone in our altruistic skepticism. According to Judith Lichtenberg in The New York Times,”[T]he view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.”

The idea that humans are always motivated by selfishness is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoists believe that even if an action seems altruistic, it’s ultimately done for direct or indirect personal gain. The possibility of true self-sacrifice without receiving anything in return is completely ruled out.

Though they may not use the term, many people believe in psychological egoism for two reasons:

  • As economists claim, every rational being behaves in his or her own self-interest.
  • As Christianity teaches, humans are fallen and prone to selfishness.

However, psychological egoism challenges our Christian call to be self-sacrificing like Christ.

Self-interest and Selfishness

Before exploring how psychological egoism and self-sacrifice are at odds, we need to set one thing straight: there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness.

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But this is far from the true definition of self-interest.

Selfishness is a sin, but self-interest is necessary to live out the Christian life. While the Bible clearly condemns selfishness, self-interest is a good thing—it enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community. Self-interest motivates us to get up and go to work in the morning, to make friends, to care for our children, to drive carefully to work, and to go to church. It is even in our self-interest to be altruistic. Self-interest is not mutually exclusive from altruism in the Bible.

But is altruism also selfish if you like the way it makes you feel? No. Feeling good after an act of charity or self-sacrifice is not selfish. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

God loves a cheerful giver. That means God wants us to give freely and enjoy the act of giving. Rather than attributing the benefit of cheer we feel after giving to our selfishness, we should accept this joy as a blessing from God. After all, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Why would God want us to feel bad for doing something good?

God’s Pleasure—and Ours

This brings us to a deeper and more theological question: Is it sinful for a Christian to seek joy and happiness in this life? Aren’t we supposed to seek God, not our pleasure?

To answer questions about our own pleasure, we need to understand a crucial truth about hedonism, or pleasure-seeking. In 1986, John Piper introduced the term “Christian hedonism” in his book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Although the term “Christian hedonism” sounds like an oxymoron, it is not a contradiction at all. We are Christian hedonists because we believe the song of Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness and joy, in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is desiring the vast, ocean-deep pleasures of God more than the mud-puddle pleasures of wealth, power, or lust. Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy. Piper dispels this myth in his essay “What Is Christian Hedonism?

We value most what we delight in most. Pleasure is a gauge that measures how valuable someone or something is to us. Pleasure is the measure of our treasure.

[. . .]

If a friend says to you, “I really enjoy being with you,” you wouldn’t accuse him of being self-centered. Why? Because your friend’s delight in you is the evidence that you have great value in his heart. In fact, you’d be dishonored if he didn’t experience any pleasure in your friendship. The same is true of God.

Even Christ, who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the history of the world, died for joy. Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Knowing this truth should make our own giving and sacrifice all the more joyful.

  • stacy

    I like this article, but I have one question. Towards the middle of the article, he defines “self-interest” and gives several examples. He does not, however, define “selfishness” except to say that it is a sin. What does he mean by “selfishness” and particularly in contrast to “self-interest”? Can someone provide an example? Thanks!

    • stacy

      Please pardon my use of “he” when I should have used “they,” since there are two authors.

    • Elise Amyx

      Stacy, good question. Simply put, selfishness would be defined as gaining for yourself at the expense of someone else whereas self-interest would be gaining for yourself without cost to anyone else.

  • Jason

    I don’t fully agree. While psychological egoism is not fully accepted in the field of psychology (Dan Batson has been holding ground for years), through my reading and research I have come to believe that it should be. I believe there is one exception. Christ is the escape from egoism. This is part of our new creation. Before I was redeemed, egoism is what I lived by. What else would I live by? It’s Christ redeeming me that changes my self-interest into God-interest. At the very core, I don’t wake up in the morning and go to work for self-interest. I do it so that I can be a witness. I do it to proclaim the Kingdom of God. So I do believe that all humans are naturally selfish and that EVERYTHING we do comes back to this, but God changes all that when he redeems.

    • Elise Amyx

      Jason, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you in the sense that we are naturally prone to selfishness, but I do not believe that means we are always automatically selfish all the time. Even unbelievers are capable of selfless acts by common grace.

      Christ is selflessness in entirety and perfection, but because we are all created in the image of God and believers are “becoming little Christs,” I believe any human being is capable of selfless acts by the grace of God. But I am no theologian, and Hugh may have a different perspective.

      Thanks for engaging in this conversation, I appreciate your input!

  • Chris

    Ah yes, the great philosophical debate between Joey and Phoebe…

  • Peter Alexei Kutuzov

    I’m not convinced that Self-interest vs Selfishness is the most helpful distinction to explain the phenomena that were used to raise the existential tension in the article. I think I agree in principle with the authors to a degree, but is, perhaps, the category of purpose a more mentally helpful and biblically faithful set of language to deal with this problem? If I were built to do a certain thing, and that by God, then if I’m working to the maker’s instructions, being who I was designed to be, then I’m being as ‘myself’ as I can possibly be (which, of course, is going to be the best thing for me if the God who created me is good) and at the same time be living for the blessing of others. I’m not convinced that the categories of Christian Hedonism are the first and most helpful ones to address the problem initially raised by the article. I personally find in a more Colossians-3-type ‘be who you are’ perspective to be more pastorally persuasive and practically helpful in the first instance on this issue.

  • Mark B.

    I don’t buy into this whole idea of psychological egoism. It may play out in parts of life but not in every part. I can think of times when that has held true, but I can think of instances where I have given something to someone for no other reason than to help someone. It may bring pleasure to do that, but that does not mean the act was motivated by bringing me pleasure. The pleasure was only the result of the act.

  • rose drake

    Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis deals with this do good; feel good; feel bad for feeling good, spiral by reminding the young tempter that this is a good tactic for invoking sin but that if the temptation keeps going on and on the commonsense of the tempted may assert itself and the tempted will say “forget it i’m going to bed” and start all over again the next day.

  • Leandro Lozada

    The problem is when we feel good about about ourselves as we do charity. To do charity because we love it, because it brings us pleasure, that is biblical. As we help people, we ought to love helping people. We were created to love; when we do what we were meant to do, we feel pleasure.

    To do charity to feel good about ourselves, to boast in it, to seek glory through it, that is sinful. There is the problem. If I give money to somebody to then look at myself and say, “Ah, I am great, and godly” then, the pleasure we are experiencing is a sinful one.
    And, boy, there is pleasure (a very sinful one) when I receive the glory that only God deserves.

  • Matt

    Self-interest and Selfishness: good distinction I think. If the Bible presents us with promises of awesome rewards(over and over again), then clearly we are never meant to rise above in some spiritual way, our own self interest. for instance one of my favs: Romans 2:7 to those who by patience in well-doing SEEK FOR GLORY AND HONOR AND IMMORTALITY, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

    Do I seek glory, honor, and immortality for myself? Yes, yes I do.

  • Matt

    I also believe that 1 Peter 1:7 talks about the glory that God will give to US, at Jesus’ second coming

    Of course it is glory in God’s work ultimately in our lives, but still the Bible does not hesitate to speak that way. do we?

  • RayC

    I tend to agree with Peter Alexei Kutuzov. I’m somewhat uncomfortable about the way that subject matter is presented. Maybe it’s just my understanding but I have a feeling that the scriptural perspective is much deeper.

    Consider Matt 25:37, “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? …”. This verse tells me that the person answering the Lord is almost unaware of the good that he/she has done. Speaking personally, I find this to be a far more attractive and noble a picture, and something that is more worth striving for, than any concern about feeling good and self-interest.

    Consider also Matt 19:27, ‘Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”’. How did Jesus answer Peter? “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” This and the parable that follows seems to me to be, effectively, a warning against an over concern about self-interest – it only leads to disgruntlement in the final analysis.

    Finally, consider Phil 3:7-11, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” I’m glad that the last paragraph of the article in many respect correlates with this, but with the difference that the boast, the joy and the glory is in the righteousness of Christ and far less attention on our own (acts of) righteousness. Yes, I know thay Paul does talk about reward and award (and I’m pretty sure that most of us are aware of reward and award too), e.g. 2 Tim 4:6-8, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Here, you could argue that Paul had been acting out of self-interest all along, or you could argue that Paul is marvelling at the grace and generosity of God that He even awards redeemed sinners who ordinarily would deserve his wrath. The truth is probably both but, if pushed, I’d be tempted to say that it’s probably 5% or the former and 95% of the latter. But, I fully admit, I could be wrong.