I confess, that title may be slightly misleading.
But only slightly.
All or Nothing
There is a common belief that anything less than absolute altruism somehow clashes with pure religion. While I understand the sentiment, how is anyone less than Mother Teresa expected to take even a step forward if this is true?
I believe the answer lies in “Christian hedonism“, a provocative phrase coined by John Piper in his 1986 book “Desiring God”.
If one can get past the shock of binding the terms “Christian” and “hedonism”, a wonderfully disorienting teaching awaits.
In one sentence, Piper lays it out like this: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century Anglican cleric once said that “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” The concept has also been linked to Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards, among others.
Tuck away the historical figures that you may or may not care about. This post’s title suggested that Jesus himself promotes such a teaching. Is that true?
Luke 14 depicts Jesus giving seating advice after observing wedding guests eagerly jockeying for the seats of honour. A surface reading would suggest that Jesus was teaching them how to be more effective in their selfish pursuits, as if to say, “If you really want to sit at the head table, let me show you a trick that you may have missed with your small-scoped view.”
This is where the “purity police” show up. If the driving motive behind an act is a desire to receive reward or get ahead, doesn’t that undercut the act’s honour from the get-go?
I think Jesus would say, “No.”
And here’s why.
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:13-14)
Our Maker knows how we tick.
He is not shocked to learn that we are hardly altruistic. In fact, I will be hard-pressed to have one such moment this week, maybe even today. Most would agree that a will to survive or succeed appears to be our first nature.
Even more certain is this fact: God wants to lead me. He wants to direct my life and form me into a man more centered upon Him than upon myself. How to do this?
Harnessing our Selfishness
I believe God taps our self-centeredness as a tool toward redemption. It would not be the first time that God has used something lesser for something greater.
If this rubs you wrong, the key truth to remember here is that this hardly makes obedience any easier. It is not as if God lowers the bar by allowing us to “function selfishly”.
In treating my self-seeking nature as His classroom, God requires a leap of faith so great that most will never draw near to its edge.
Invisible > Visible
I can only pursue unseen treasure if I am willing to release what appears to be already in my grasp. The promise of rewards for goodness–either in an afterlife or in due time–has no power to motivate those who prefer “living for today”. This is delayed gratification to its max. Putting money away for retirement, saving sex until marriage, reading books rather than watching movies–these, and a thousand other examples, highlight the intense struggle humanity has with delayed gratification. To imagine faith as an ignoble pursuit because it contains offers of unseen and untouched reward–this is out of touch with the challenge of the spiritual life. Such a critic has never tried to live by faith.
Following Christ’s call requires unbelievable guts. Most cannot muster them. It demands a constant loosening of one’s grip and a willingness to settle on rewards that often uncertain and counter-intuitive.
That is the life of faith: Crushingly costly and richly rewarding all at once.