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Altruism Has No Place in Christianity

Why is it better to give than to receive?

by
Walter Hudson

Bio

April 6, 2014 - 10:00 am
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Do you regard the gifts you give as loss?

Do you regard the gifts you give as loss?

“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.

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All Comments   (7)
All Comments   (7)
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Altruism has the tendency to be a one and done deal. The recipient often keeps on the receiving end and stays that way. Renewable giving through love continues on, having a life of it's own. Being set apart to do the work of God by way of Jesus, His grace is the closest action we normal can consider altruistic. The world is a mission field all believers in Christ are called to do good for.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree - when I think of altruism, it's strikes me as something more "event" specific and an exception from how one normally acts , not an ongoing manner in which to conduct your daily life. And ongoing giving is only possible through love, as you correctly point out.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
I know that when I want the Christian perspective, the first person I go is to Ayn Rand.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's funny. Rand isn't mentioned. Christ is though.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
To avoid confusion in the future, perhaps you might not link to the "Ayn Rand Lexicon" for support.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
But let's take a closer look. Rand claims that "The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value." I don't know if I fully accept that definition, but let's work with it. Christianity teaches that the basis of sin is to prefer one's own will to that of God's. In essence, man has no right to exist for his own sake; he exists for the sake of glorifying God. Christ in His human aspect provides an example for us all to follow; He subjects himself to utter humiliation and suffering and assumes the role of a servant numerous times in His ministry. He also tells us that we should expect no better in this world than He got, and that we are all to take up our own crosses. Thus self-sacrifice is our highest duty.

So it seems that you're stuck. If you are working from Rand's definition then Christianity is all about altruism. If you are merely saying that altruism is acting without regard for your own desires, well, in a very real way that's completely impossible to begin with (since the very act of deciding demonstrates your personal values), so you are trivially correct.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Whenever I hear the word "altruism," I think of Rand, because of her vigorous rants against it. And I think she made the same mistake you describe here -- seeing giving as a pure loss of something valuable, rather than as an exchange of one value, usually material, for another, a blessing for oneself in addition to a benefit to another. Of course, she probably wasn't able to see the blessing as anything of value for herself and thus for anyone.
25 weeks ago
25 weeks ago Link To Comment
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