The “Enlightened Self-Interest” of Christianity

If we’re friends, then at some point, I’ve probably begun a sentence with the phrase: “I heard on NPR  . . . ”

Anyways, I was listening to NPR earlier this month when they ran an interview with “Retiring U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried.”

At one point, NPR’s Steve Inskeep prompted Fried with: “I read the speech that you gave on your way out of the State Department. And your description of America’s role in the world reminded me of a phrase that I learned in school, enlightened self-interest. What’s it mean?”

I have to be honest and say that “enlightened self-interest” is a phrase that I had heard before but never really thought about or investigated. Fried’s answer had me thinking all day:

It means that as we think of America first, as we should, we should understand that our interests are best served when other countries also prosper. We realized long ago that our prosperity and our security at home was advanced when other nations felt secure and were more prosperous.

Aside from the gross nationalism and ultimately selfish motives (we help so that we can get ahead) which I cannot support, my interest was particularly piqued by Fried saying: “our interests are best served when other countries also prosper.” This was something that resonated. It carried weight. So I looked up the phrase “enlightened self-interest” on Wikipedia (so you know it’s true), and this is what I found:

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.

What strikes me about this concept is that it seems to transcend selfishness. Of course you could seek to simply pursue your own self-interest. Many people do. But to understand that your true self-interest is found when others benefit seems counter-intuitive. It means will probably face choices in which you must sacrifice your own immediate needs or wants for the sake of others. It means that you can’t view others as obstacles to your own goals because we’re all weaved in this thing together. It means our interests can’t be separated.

To understand that my self-interest may be met by serving others is not the same thing as seeking my own self-interest by using others for that end; even if it means serving them. The heart of the idea of “enlightened self-interest” (if I am understanding it correctly) is that I benefit when we all benefit. And for me to truly benefit, we must all benefit.

I couldn’t help but think of Jeremiah 29. God’s people had been removed from their homeland and cast into Babylonian exile because of their faithlessness. But God continued to talk to them. To teach them and guide them. Sometimes he did it through mouthpiece-people called prophets. Consider Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: [5] Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. [6] Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. [7] But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

My friend Tyler Johnson (of Redemption Church, the Surge NetworkMissional Training Center, etc.) once summarized the heart behind James Davison Hunter’s wonderful book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World using sports metaphors. I’m not a sports-fan but I remember the gist: the “most valuable player” is oftentimes not the one who scores the most himself but the one who helps the team score the most points. The MVP wins when the team wins.

This seems to me to be a great summation of the heart of Christianity. Christianity certainly includes the idea of “personal salvation” but it has always been more than that. From the beginning, God told Abraham that his descendants (people of faith in God through Jesus) would be blessed so that they would be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:1-3):

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God’s people have always been charged with showing the world who God is and what He is like. They have always had “blessing” at the heart of their identity. We all know the story too well to pretend that they (or we) always lived up to this ideal. But it has been there nonetheless. Consider, for example, Leviticus 19:18:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (repeated in Matthew 22:39, etc.)

Though often known as simply a list of do’s and don’ts, right there, in the heart of Leviticus is the command to think of others as much as you think of yourself (which for most of us is quite a lot). Far from reversing this trend, the New Testament brings clarity and force. Paul audaciously tells us to be like Jesus which means to consider others not just as much as we think of ourselves but as more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2). Jesus, takes it a step further and says that it’s not just “others” that we should seek to benefit but even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

In other words, if ever there were a people who should practice the idea of “enlightened self-interest”, it is Christians. But not because we might find our self-interest benefited in helping others but because we have already received all of the love, peace, and acceptance we could ever hope for. Remember that scene when Jesus went out to his crazy cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17)? As Jesus came up from the water, the Father, as the voice from Heaven said: This is my child in whom I am well-pleased.

If you trust in Jesus, He says the same of you. There is nothing you can do to earn it or lose it. He is pleased with you. He will not just be pleased when you obey or get your act together. He is pleased with you. What might change in your life if you believed that your approach to others wasn’t governed by needing their acceptance (because you have already been accepted by God through Jesus) but how you might help them flourish?

Because of our blessings from God, our very identity is tied to pursuing the betterment of our communities near and far. We have been blessed to be a blessing to others.

I confess that I have too often thought of Christianity in terms of my own soul getting to heaven when I die rather than in terms of how I am called, equipped and sent to bless others in the hear and now.

What good shall we do today?

What injustice shall we fight?

What peace shall we make?

Who should we bless?

What reconciliation shall we bridge?

Which enemy shall we love?

We have been blessed. How shall we be a blessing?