Reflections and Blog

Sanctified Self-Interest

If you listened to the Sunday sermon on companionship, you may have noticed that Solomon’s teaching assumes our self-interest. “If you want to be happy and wise, then don’t go through life alone.” But isn’t this a selfish kind of reasoning (cf. Phil 2:3)? Shouldn’t Christians seek companionship in order to give and not receive (cf. Acts 20:35)? Isn’t doing any righteous act with the thought of what you’ll get out of it the kind of self-righteousness God hates (cf. Lk 6:35a)?

The answer is that there is a difference between sinful selfishness and what we might call “sanctified self-interest.” And there must be a difference because God in the Bible constantly seeks to motivate us with the thought of obtaining benefit from Him and avoiding harm. Such reasoning first appears in the Garden (Gen 2:16-17), continues with the Patriarchs (Gen 12:1-3), and is fundamental in the law of Israel (Dt 11:26-28). In the NT, God says that believing in his rewarding nature is fundamental to knowing him at all (Heb 11:6). Significantly, Jesus’ last words recorded in the Scripture are an invitation and warning regarding his reward and judgment (Rev 22:17-20).

The difference between sinful selfishness and sanctified self-interest is two-fold: right rewards and right priority of rewards. First, though God knows we need the motivation of rewards, he wants us motivated by the right rewards. These are rewards that come from God and not apart from him (Jn 6:27; Mt 6:1-18), are primarily heavenly instead of earthly (Mt 6:19-21), and are primarily future instead of present (2 Tim 4:8). Also, these rewards are not gained at the expense of others but amid others’ benefit (Jam 3:13-18; 1 Cor 10:33).

Second, God’s rewards must also be sought in their proper priority. The chief reward that God would have us seek is God himself (Ps 16:1-11; Jer 9:23-24; John 17:3; Phil 3:7-11). He is to be our greatest treasure. If we elevate any gift or reward from God to be greater than God himself—even something like eternal life in the kingdom of God—then we have still fallen short of the glory of God and into idolatry (Rom 3:23; Isa 42:8)! But when God is our chief treasure and motivation, then the lesser rewards he gives us can be sought in their proper way: namely, as means and encouragements to enjoy God as our greatest treasure. For example, the prospect of eternal life should be motivating to us, not because it is the greatest good in itself, but because it allows us to know the greatest Good in an unending way. As for companionship, God wants us to be motivated by the practical benefits and joy that companionship provides. But companionship itself should not become our ultimate gain, but instead a simple gift that helps us gratefully love and seek God even more. We’ll know that we have God’s gifts in proper perspective when we can accept the removal of those gifts and still love God (e.g. Job 1:21).

Hebrews 10:32-35, But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

Questions to Consider:
1. What is your chief reward and motivation in life? Is it God himself or something else?
2. How does the prosperity gospel misunderstand the difference between sinful selfishness and sanctified self-interest?
3. Do you need lesser motivations to help you follow God? How does their great presence in the Bible indicate God’s answer?