2 Corinthians 1:1-7
Recently, an atheist challenged me with his belief that there is no purely selfless giving or true altruism. He declared that no matter how great or heroic the deed, the satisfaction gained from feeling altruistic and believing we have benefitted another person is its own motivating reward. He pointed out, for instance, that I facilitate a support group for widowed people and I receive no pay for the hundreds of hours I devote to the group each year. Yet he hears me say, "I receive so much more than I could ever give." Even the Beatitudes are set up that way, promising that the merciful will be shown mercy and the peacemakers will be called children of God. He says that we give because of what we get, whether or not the payback is tangible.
I am still pondering this concept of persistent self-interest. So far, a couple of thoughts occur to me. First, there seems to be a difference in both degree and kind when comparing tangible vs. intangible rewards. Giving a large donation to charity when I know they will prominently display my name on a plaque is less selfless than making the donation in secret. If I work long hours on the project of someone who will cover for me the next week, it is different than if a co-worker is going through a family crisis so I voluntarily do that person’s work on my own time for no pay. In my experience, in fact, there is greater personal satisfaction when there are not external rewards.
Yet, is this satisfaction the only (or even a sufficient) reward for great sacrifice, or is there something deeper? There are many examples of God’s overflowing and joyous generosity throughout scripture that lead me to wonder whether the satisfaction derived from selfless giving is a characteristic of Godself, built into us because we are created in the image of God. In other words, there may be something in our nature as God’s children that delights in giving. Perhaps, in fact, we cannot be fully human or live a meaningful life in any other way.
I notice in my work how important it is for those approaching death to believe they made a difference somehow. We seem to have an inborn sense that life is not just about ourselves, that making a positive impact on others and the world is critical. It may even be possible that God imbued such situations with intangible benefits precisely so we would be attracted to giving for another’s sake and thereby discover the deeper meaning it brings. We give partly because, yes, it does feel good to give. Yet if I give only because it feels good to me, it remains superficial and I am liable to burn out.
Perhaps, then, the definition of altruism is not that we give with no reward whatsoever. Rather, we give because it is our God-given nature to give, even when we know our only reward will be the satisfaction of helping another person or doing the right thing. It fulfills who we are as human people. We don’t give because it will bring satisfaction, even though we discover that it does indeed feel good.
Of course, all of this is speculation. My atheist friend may be right and I am fooling myself with smoke and mirrors. However, I see too many examples of selfless giving, risking of one’s life for another, and overflowing generosity of spirit to believe it is all done for self-interested rewards. Instead, I choose to freely give of myself regardless of tangible payback, to live the demands of the Beatitudes, to comfort others with the comfort I myself have been given and to join with Christ’s suffering in order to help those who suffer, knowing that doing so helps me become who God created me to be. That is reward enough.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.