Hi David, I like this question you’ve brought up here because I think your friend has identified something related to a number of profound truths about the human will. Your friend said that she saw even good deeds as selfish because we do them to feel good. And in saying this, she’s making a moral claim. So, we first have to ask, on what ground is it wrong to seek one’s own good when doing good deeds?
The Bible doesn’t seem to support this. In fact, God not only assumes that we’ll seek our own good even in our good deeds, he commands it. He commands that we seek our own good in him to his glory in everything we do (Psalm 105:4, 1 Chronicles 22:19, 1 Corinthians 10:31).
We cannot reduce the Christian life down to duty apart from affection because, when God commands duty, he commands joyful duty. Consider Psalm 100:2. “Serve the Lord with gladness.”
And Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
And Deuteronomy 28:47-48: "Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.
So it seems that affectionless duty is not a virtue, but a sin; that affectionless duty doesn’t make is less guilty, but more guilty.
The texts above suggest that God takes our seeking joy in him, even in our good deeds, very seriously. So, regarding your friend’s claim, I’d suggest that the idea that good deeds must exclude our pursuit of joy is unbiblical and, therefore, erroneous.
Philosophically speaking, all of our choices are made by us. And all of our choices are, unavoidably, what we want. As Jonathan Edwards brilliantly expounds in his book Freedom of the Will, human beings always choose according to their strongest desire. In other words, we always choose what we want. We cannot not choose what we want. Even when we examine our motives for good deeds, according to Edwards, it is impossible for us to not choose what we want.
And as we consider the rightness or wrongness of seeking our own good, I find it illumining that not only is the gospel a command, it’s good news. God not only commands all men everywhere to repent and believe on Christ (Acts 17:30, 1 John 3:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:8), he communicates his imperative along with the reward of forgiveness of sin, salvation from his judgment, and, the greatest good of all, everlasting joy in him (Romans 5:11, 1 Peter 3:18). In other words, in commanding us, God appeals to our desire for our own good (Luke 2:10).
On this subject of desiring our own good, it may be helpful to consider a few more texts:
- 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 and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:34-36)
Here, Jesus appeals to our desire to save our lives and to profit. He doesn’t appeal to duty alone, he appeals to our desire for our own good. All of God’s good promises appeal to our desire for our own good.
- You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
On loving others and doing good deeds toward others, Jesus doesn’t ask us to utterly deny our desire for our own good. Instead, he commands us to love our neighbors as we already love ourselves. Put another way, Jesus commands us to seek after our neighbor’s happiness and satisfaction with the same zeal and commitment we already seek after our own happiness and satisfaction.
- Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)
Like Jesus, Paul doesn’t ask us to give up our desire for our own good.
- If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Paul appeals to our desire to gain when he explains what love is.
- In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church (Ephesians 5:28-29)
As the ground to exhort husbands to love their wives, Paul uses the truth that we all love ourselves and seek after that which we believe is best for ourselves.
- And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
It’s impossible to please God if we don’t come to him for reward - the greatest of which is himself.
But, I think the most convincing text for me with regard to this discussion is Hebrews 12:2.
- looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2)
The greatest sacrifice ever, as part of the greatest act of love ever, was motivated and sustained by joy. Jesus endured the cross for his joy. In light of this, I find it impossible to claim that good deeds that are motivated by duty alone, and that exclude my pursuit of joy, are more virtuous than this greatest of good deeds by Jesus.
So, not only is seeking what we want in our good deeds unavoidable, God commands us to seek our joy in him in our good deeds. So the question then becomes, What makes some motives selfish and sinful and others right and good?
I think it has to do with what we’re seeking our joy in. If our ultimate pursuit in our good deeds in joy in anything other than God, I’d say your friend is right and that motive is sinful. It’s what theologians call “bad good” - a social good that’s not done for the glory of God. It’s horizontally good, but vertically deficient.
But, if our ultimate pursuit in our good deeds in joy in God, then we glorifying God because he’s seen as our highest desire, our greatest treasure. When he’s what we want more than anything else, he’s seen as supremely valuable.
We as Christians are not called to detachment from desire, like in some Eastern worldviews. Aside from the truth that detachment from desire is humanly impossible, we’re called to desire God above all things in all that we do, including our good deeds. Desire is a God-given gift that he wills for our joy in him and his glory.