Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sanctified Self-Interest

In response to yesterday's post in which I quoted David Wayne's notes from his first day of class with David Powlison, my friend Tony raised a question in the comments section that I thought I'd answer here. In response to Powlison's claim that in our glorified state we will be persons "with no stain or calculation of self-interest," Tony asked:

Does he mean we will have no self-interest at all? Or does he mean that self-interest will be properly placed beneath our interest and motive to glorify God? Isn't it the case that most Christians think of virtue in the sense that all self-interest is bad? I think that's a mistake. I would argue that self-interest is good and necessary, but needs to be placed beneath interest in God's glory issuing in love to our neighbor. Heaven will be a world of love, as Edwards says. We will have self-interest, but we will not be selfish, correct?
Being the good little Christian hedonist that I am, I too wondered in what sense Powlison was referring to self-interest. Having given it some thought, I'm persuaded that Powlison did not mean that we will be completely void of all self-interest such that we will in no sense be motivated by consideration of what will bring us pleasure. I come to this conclusion not only on the basis of my familiarity with Powlison's other work, but also on the basis of the seven points he makes about what it will be like to experience the fullness of our redemption.

Powlison offers these descriptions to entice and enthrall us with the vision of what awaits us. He paints an eschatological picture of what it will be like to be fearless, healthy, happy, holy. Of our relationship with Jesus he says, "I will obey Him and will love every word out of His mouth - it will be my food and drink, the finest river of life and hope for me." In other words, he is appealing to our interest in our own welfare and satisfaction. This would be an odd strategy indeed for someone who believed that self-interest was absolutely wrong. Therefore, I understand Powlison, when he talks about being free from the stain and calculation of self-interest, as having sinful self-interest (what Tony helpfully identifies as selfishness) in mind. Perhaps we can coax David Wayne into posing the question to Dr. Powlison and letting us know how he answers. How about it, David?

I do think Tony is right about many Christians regarding all forms of self-interest as wrong. Reading John Piper's Desiring God years ago challenged my own thinking about the issue. It was eye-opening to see how frequently God appeals to our desire for satisfaction and delight as a motivation for obedience. Yes, we are to deny ourselves but that because we are convinced that walking in God's ways is far better than temporal sinful pleasures. Yes, we are to give generously and sacrificially but such giving is only pleasing to the Lord when it springs from assurance in his promise that this is the path of superior blessing. Calvin makes this point in the Institutes when describing the nature of Adam's sin he writes:
Never would Adam have dared to show any repugnance to the command of God if he had not been incredulous as to his word. The strongest curb to keep all his affections under due restraint, would have been the belief that nothing was better than to cultivate righteousness by obeying the commands of God, and that the highest felicity was to be loved by him (II. I. 4.).
Tony has more on the relationship between self-interest and ethics in his post, The Positive Side of Egoism.

2 comments:

David said...

I suppose the proper caveat is in order here - those were my transcriptions of what Dr. Powlison said so I can't promise you that I got every word he said down pat. I'll just use that as an out for Dr. Powlison if I got something he said wrong.

I see the point - I've also read a good deal of Piper and have been influenced by his Christian hedonism approach. I think there is a bit of a paradox here - that which is in our best interest is to empty ourselves of self-interest. I think Piper says this in so many words - yes, the desire for happiness is good and godly and we must realize that this godly desire for happiness is only met in being consumed with God's interests.

Jay said...

Though it appears widely regarded as a point of faith, I have been unable to demonstrate the biblical authenticity of the idea that my greatest motivation is the pursuit of my own pleasures. To be certain, Dr. Piper utilizes many verse fragments in his writings, but none of these in whole or in part says, "pursue pleasure young man."

What I do find are overt verses that state, "live for Christ." None says, "live for the pleasure that Christ gives."

A very good and thought-stimulating article is posted on thefaithfulword.org: Living for Christ or Living for the Pleasure Christ Gives?