“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.
Reflecting upon the second part of Piper’s assertion, that giving without expectation of reward is “not what people experience as genuine love,” we can prove the worthlessness of altruism through our own experience. Imagine how your wife would react if you bought her a tremendous bouquet of her favorite flowers and said, “This cost me $100 that I would have rather spent on myself.” Try it and get back to me.
Most people don’t want to be “a charity case,” which is to say they don’t want to receive from pity or a begrudging sense of obligation. What makes a gift a gift is the love imbued within it. Otherwise, it’s just a handout.
That’s the earthly proof. Piper evokes the scriptural one:
It’s because part of the greater joy we seek in God, by doing [others] good, is the inclusion of them in our joy. Our joy in God would be expanded by their joy in God. We are not using them for our greater joy. We are wooing them into our greater joy, and desiring that they become part of it.
May God protect us from the atheistic notion of doing right for right’s sake. And may he make us into the kind of strange and wonderful lovers who deny ourselves the “fleeting pleasures of sin,” and “choose to be mistreated with the people of God,” because we “look to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26).
Christian giving promotes life and health. Altruism promotes starvation and death. Altruism redistributes. Christian giving transacts. Christ’s own words assure us of greater blessing in giving than receiving. Christian giving leaves us better off, not worse. Altruism therefore proves atheistic, as Piper declares. We will never give more to others than God will give to us.