The role of self-interest


Debt happens when a person, company or nation borrows from its future self on the understanding that we will have in the future what it doesn’t have now. There is, of course, a difference between good debt and bad debt (economically speaking), therefore we are able to recognise that the national debt incurred because of the Coronavirus is not a good debt. People and businesses were already struggling long before Covid-19 came along, in many ways the world is still recovering from the sub-prime disaster which began in 2008 (or thereabout). What I would like to address here is the connection between charitable giving and the biblical role of self-interest and where it can go wrong.

My needs, your needs and the role of self-interest

It would be interesting to run a thought experiment as to what we can expect to happen next, but for now, I would like to highlight those things which we have seen before. After the financial crash of 2008, the banks were among the first to recover, as they were bailed out at the taxpayer’s expense on the premise that they were too big to fail. While this was happening, people were losing their homes, jobs and going hungry. This happened because the recovery plan excluded one very simple and important truth, that my need which I am allowed to fulfil is not independent of your need to do the same.

It is the case that self-interest matters, we are told by Jesus to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. To put this another way, we drink when we are thirsty and we eat when we are hungry. Imagine a man going into the kitchen of his home to find something to eat, he is hungry and he out of self-interest seeks to fulfil that need. As he begins to eat he recognises that there are only four slices of bread and his wife and two children are about to come home from a long trip. He eats one slice out of self-interest but he leaves the other three as he considers the hunger of his wife and children when they return.

As we consider this simple and basic truth of fulfilling self-interest. Fulfilling self-interest is important but it can easily turn into greed when we do not consider the needs of others or we always consider that what we need is more than what we have. Therefore, the shape of things to come (post Covid-19 and left to the world) for many will be designed by self-interest without checks and balances. It is against this background that the church will be able to demonstrate the role of self-interest and the loving your neighbour.

Talents, Risk and Altered Hopes

From a human point of view, we live in a world full of uncertainties, yet we know that not a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from the Father. When Jesus tells the parable about men who are given talents, which they are to use to do business and on the Masters return he will reward those who have worked hard and taken risks. We are not to reduce this parable to a lesson on spiritual gifts and why we must use them in the church. There is no doubt that the parable can be applied to this understanding but it also speaks to how we are to engage in business for the glory of God.

Without giving a full explanation of this well-known parable ( I have done this elsewhere if you looking for a fuller explanation), I will address the importance of taking risks. What looks risky from our point of view is already known by God and if the risks we take are motivated by bringing honour to God and serving Him on earth, then the risks we take are simply a collection of outcomes that we cannot possibly know for sure and that’s all they are. As the parable teaches those who engage in business engage in risk and those who engage in hard work should profit from their labour. Those who start businesses and make a profit are able because of the grace of God, to not only give but provide an income for others through employment and those who are employed are then able to give because they have an income. It’s easy to see how those who engage in business are able to give in more ways than just posting checks to people and organisations, they provide an opportunity for someone to work and earn, who can then give. This is thoroughly spiritual and should not be considered as a worldly endeavour, but too often these types of endeavours are not seen as fulling the will of God on earth. For many in the church have lost or never had a biblical theology of work, that it is teleological and therefore able to produce in people a motivation to work for the glory of God.

It has become increasingly hard in these last few months for people to make plans with the confidence that they can be fulfilled. Hopes decreasing as the reality of the new normal sets in and as what’s possible and no longer possible becomes increasingly apparent. When hopes are altered by the cost of living, so too are the commitments that people make, but these are earthly hopes rather than heavenly ones. Christians, live with Christ in them the hope of glory and therefore their hope does not change. It cannot be altered by what happens or does not happen in the world, it will remain, for Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The blessing of God are not detached from personal obedience

In God, we live and move and have our being and God has a way of working out His purposes that we should be aware of. The desire to receive blessings independent of personal obedience to God is just another way of misinterpreting the role of self-interest. We are not to despise the day of small things as God often sows seeds which die in the ground before they become the fruitful harvest. We just might be living in the time of small things, where seeds are sown and where there is nothing to show on the surface. This is where the role of self-interest gets practical and because self-interest is connected to loving our neighbours the little change we make for ourselves in time can become big enough to help others also, and this is why self-interest cannot stop at self-interest but must follow through to loving our neighbour.

The role that self-interest plays in the life of the follower of Christ is never separated from the responsibility to love neighbours and when it is, this is just another form of selfishness, where a person looks after their own interests and only their interests. There is a clear connection between charitable giving and self-interest biblically understood. The explanation is found in what Jesus taught, that we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.




By Daniel Ralph

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