“Self-Interest: A Necessary Christian Virtue”

We know that the Bible commends self-denial. We often see it as one of the highest Christian virtues. When it comes to self-interest we almost immediately, even reflexively place it into the category of vice. But are we aware that self-interest is perhaps an even greater Christian virtue than self-denial? Are we aware that Scripture itself just as clearly commends self-interest? We also know that God cannot contradict Himself. How is it, then, that He commends two seemingly contradictory pursuits?

When we dig even a little beneath the surface we quickly discover that self-interest and self-denial are not contradictory but exist in vital union with one another. We find that God Himself has joined them together. When we go to Scripture, we see it commending one as the means to the other. In fact, we cannot understand one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life if we fail to embrace self-interest as a necessary Christian virtue. Let’s consider then, the relation between self-interest and self-denial in this way:

Self-interest is the key to self-denial, and self-denial is the means by which we fulfill Christ-exalting self-interest.

For the purposes of this article, I want to consider just two examples from the Bible to justify my claim that self-interest is a necessary Christian virtue. First, think about Christ’s call to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24–27):

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”

Don’t miss this from Jesus’ words: there’s a type of self-denial that is good, and there is a type of self-denial that is bad. It is good to deny yourself the world out of preference for Jesus. It is bad to deny yourself Jesus out of preference for this world. Shockingly, we hear Jesus teaching us that there is also a type of self-interest that is good, as well as a type of self-interest that is bad. It is good to seek your own personal interest in preferring Jesus over the world. It is bad to seek your own personal interest in preferring this world over Jesus.

In calling us to not save our lives in relation to this world (good self-denial), Christ is also commending our seeking true and lasting life in Himself (good self-interest). He is appealing to our desires for enduring happiness and joy, our “self-interest,” when He calls us to lose our lives for His sake. It is a form of rightly-focused, grace-fueled, Christ-exalting self-interest that leads us to hope for the reward of preferring Him over this world. It is in our highest self-interest (and therefore necessary!) to deny ourselves this world so that we can have Christ forever. Let’s remember our earlier claim:

Self-interest is the key to self-denial, and self-denial is the means by which we fulfill Christ-exalting self-interest.

Secondly, I think this sheds even greater light on 1 Corinthians 13:5, where Paul tells us that love “does not insist on its own way (or, does not seek it’s own).” It would seem that Paul’s words forcefully contradict what we’re seeking to establish. We often think of self-interest as being incompatible with love. But a closer look shows us there is no contradiction. It also shows us that a properly focused self-interest is not only compatible with but necessary to loving others. If we pursue Christ-exalting self-interest through self-denial, then we are pursuing for ourselves the greatest, longest-lasting, and most soul-satisfying benefits possible. We can only truly demonstrate love when we relentlessly seek for others the lasting benefits we have pursued for ourselves.

We know that our own joy will be increased when others join with us in preferring everlasting life in Christ over life in this world. Therefore, it is out of a rightly-focused, grace-fueled self-interest that we pursue showing love. Our pursuit of greater joy (self-interest) in the maximum good of others only serves to magnify the worth of Christ as well as the worth of those whose good we are pursuing. We do not feel dishonored or loved less by someone who tells us it makes him or her happy to do us good. In fact, we feel even more esteemed and valued when given such a reason. If self-interest is not fueling our love to others, then the best love we have to offer will be woefully deficient. Self-interest is the key to genuinely loving others.

Why do we know Paul is not saying that self-interest is incompatible with love? Because Paul is showing them the “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). The Corinthians were not pursuing good self-interest because they were not seeking the maximum good of their fellow church members. They were seeking their own benefit to the exclusion of others. This is the opposite of self-interest rightly understood and pursued.

In sum, self-interest is the key to self-denial. Self-interest is a necessary Christian virtue to be pursued by means of self-denial when what we pursue as best for ourselves is none other than the reward of Christ Himself forever. Christ is supremely exalted when He Himself is the fulfillment of our self-interest. It is only out of this Christ-exalting self-interest that we can truly love others. For us to love others we must seek to increase our own joy through seeking for them the lasting benefits of preferring Christ over the world.

Is this not just another way of saying what Jesus said about the greatest commandments?

“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).