“It is better to give than to receive.” How often have we heard that? The motto of the altruist, this would-be-proverb exhorts us to act for others at our expense. Among the vast culture of Christendom, altruism has been adopted as a tenant of the faith by many if not most believers. Churchgoers are encouraged to give sacrificially, which generally gets interpreted as giving until it hurts.
Yet careful examination of scripture suggests that altruism has no place in the Christian life. Consider this from pastor and theologian John Piper:
After my message to the Liberty University student body [in September of 2013], a perceptive student asked this clarifying question: So you don’t believe that altruistic acts are possible or desirable?
I asked for his definition of altruism so that I could answer what he was really asking. He said, “Doing a good deed for others with no view to any reward.” I answered: that’s right, whether or not it’s possible, I don’t think it’s desirable, because it’s not what the Bible teaches us to do; and it’s not what people experience as genuine love. Because it isn’t genuine love.
What does Piper mean by that? Consider that the phrase “it is better to give than to receive” does not actually appear in scripture. Instead, Acts 20:35 reads:
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
More blessed for who? The Contemporary English Version translates it this way. “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.” The New Life Version among others translates it another way. “We are more happy when we give than when we receive.” Christ, according to Paul, tells us we are better off helping the weak than being among the weak who require help.
That presents a far more precise application than the vague notion that “it’s better to give than to receive.” From an earthly perspective, giving requires abundance above and beyond our requirements for survival. We must have before we can give, and we must get before we can have. From a heavenly perspective, helping the weak in the name of Christ proves an act of obedient worship which draws us deeper into joyful relationship with Him. There’s nothing altruistic about that. You cannot lose upon securing an infinite value.