Selfless good deeds and happiness

(DJ) #1

I have a friend who asks interesting questions. She mentioned to me that all good deeds are actually selfish because people do good deeds to actually feel good. In other words, if I sacrifice myself for my friend, it’s actually a selfish act because it makes me feel more happy to sacrifice myself than not to. The reason why this is relevant to Christianity is because if all of our actions we do for others in the name of love is truly selfish, are we actually being selfless when we are called to love others?



This is a hilarious scene from the show Friends that I always think about when this questions comes up:

(Matthew Mingus) #2

I think thats a very good argument, but it is definetely flawed. It provides no explanation for those who make the ultimate sacrifice for others. How can one make the argument that a good act is selfish if it involves the complete sacrifice of one’s life? If you have no life then feeling good is no longer a concern. It makes little sense.
Also, there is another aspect to this that does not add up. If i want to feel good I can sit down, watch a movie, and eat ice cream. I do not have to go help anyone in order to feel good.
The fulfillment that we get from helping each other is the true thing that we are pursuing I believe. It is not so much about feeling good as achieving a fulfillment from the good that we do as well.
Hopefully that gives you some starting points for a conversation with your friend. Thank you for presenting this question.

(Tim Behan) #3


Hi David,

Thanks for that question. I think I’ve had a similar chat to that one in the past. I think there are probably a couple of assumptions that are incorrect in that statement and I agree with what Matthew has already shared.

Firstly, (as gently as possible) can your friend say with any certainty that the motivation for everyones good deeds are to get their own good feeling? Just because a result is achieved doesn’t mean that the motivation was to get there. Otherwise many of my past decisions were motivated ultimately by misery and pain, because I have made some very very silly decisions in my life that ended very badly. :slight_smile:

I would say we are designed to do good works and therefore any good feelings that we have are a natural consequence of undertaking them.

I understand the reasoning behind the question and there is (unfortunately) at least some truth behind the logic. Sometimes we do good things because it brings us pleasure and there is probably some level of motivation percentage that this becomes unhelpful. But I also don’t think that this necessarily detracts from the goodness of the act.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if ‘selfless’ is a very helpful term (I haven’t fully thought this out yet). But selfless could be taken to mean that we would have to act with no thought to how it affects us personally (or maybe that it has to be detrimental to us in some way?). I would wonder what is wrong working for the good of someone else, also knowing that it brings some form of happiness to me as well. If the act itself is still to their benefit and well-being, or building them up, or whatever other positive effect it has… I don’t see that us feeling good about what we do is a bad thing in and of itself.

Does that help or make any sense at all? :slight_smile:

(Kathleen) #4

@Davidd, that’s Friends reference was spot on! :joy:

I appreciate the threads of thought that @mmingus36 and @tsbehan have opened up. I too have spoken with several folks who would contend that altruism can be reduced to those terms. It may be helpful to ask your friend what she means by ‘selfish’ and if there is a moral quality attached to the term? I know in Christian circles, there is often a negative connotation attached to that word, so we would try to argue against it. But motivations are very often mixed bags. I believe that humans very rarely have a single motivation which drives an action. So, sure, when I choose to do what is ‘right’ in a certain situation, there is a part of me that knows that I will feel worse if I choose to do the opposite (which is usually something that is ‘not quite right’ or quite plainly ‘wrong’). So how I will feel will play a part in the decision I will make, but it’s not the whole story. Reductionism rarely, if ever, tells the whole story!

Was there a specific way in which you yourself responded to her question? :slight_smile:

(Sieglinde) #5

Hi @Davidd, thanks for the question. It’s interesting that you posted this. I saw it yesterday after something I had done and immediately questioned my motives. After pondering it I came to the conclusion that it is both selfish and selfless. What I did, I did for the other person and yes it made me feel good. So should the good deed go undone?
Good deeds or sacrifice brings joy to both or all parties involved.
Good deeds that are witnessed prompts other good deeds.
In this act yesterday, two young men witnessed it, one offered more help and the other thanked me. So the joy was multi faceted, it spreads like a virus.
So if you were to withdraw from doing good to others because you fear your motives are selfish, in my opinion, that would be even more selfish. And ha ha to the friends episode :joy:

(Sieglinde) #6

@mmingus36, @KMac, @tsbehan, @Davidd
I’m trying to think through my own arguments. I have a bad habit of not thinking through long enough. Then after I respond, I think through it more and find that sometimes what I say doesn’t make sense. Any feedback would be welcome :slightly_smiling_face:
I was reading Philippians 2: 3-4 __ 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.__
If the selfishness doesn’t come to play until after the fact then I see now that the act was initially selfless. Selfish ambition would be to do something for reward or gain. When we do for others, if we are pondering “what will this get me?” then that would be selfish ambition. Right?

(Matthew Mingus) #7


That is a very good way of thinking about it. If we premeditate being selfish then we can not call something selfless. But feeling good from doing something for someone is exactly what we should feel. That does not make it selfish to do things for others. Can you imagine what it would be like if doing good things or helping others made us miserable? We should feel good about helping others because we are doing what Jesus told us to do. He said that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Feeling good about doing those things is a natural product of doing those things that God told us to do, and we should not feel as if we are wrong in enjoying them. God bless.

(DJ) #8

Thank you all for your wonderful responses.
I think that Philippians verse is spot on. Thank you for sharing that.
When I initially spoke with my friend I just remember thinking, Yea, I have no idea how to respond to that. Haha.

You have all been great. :slight_smile:


(Claire N Streb) #9

I just want to add one thing about ‘selfless’. I made a video about it awhile back if you want to watch it.

(Kathleen) #10

Hi, @sig! I appreciated your thoughts on this. :slight_smile: I don’t disagree with your statement, but I think I would expand it a bit more. In my mind, I would tweak/expand it to: Selfish ambition would be to do something only for reward or gain. That is, if the goal of (i.e. motivation for) an action is personal reward or gain, then it is most likely ‘selfish ambition’. It has more to do with a will that’s driven to serve oneself above all else, and can drive a person to manipulative, dominating, or capitulating tendencies.

The sad part about this sort of motivation is that it can never deliver fully on its promises. It will always leave you wanting more. The more one pursues reward/gain as a goal or end in itself, the more elusive it becomes. In my mind, true happiness and its rewards can only ever be a by-product of actions that are right and good. I think @mmingus36 said something very similar.

‘What’s in it for me?’ is a very honest question, which reveals our priorities and goals. So I wouldn’t view asking and answering that question as a bad thing necessarily! When I’m trying to make a decision, making a pros-and-cons list is a similar exercise. I do think that asking what we stand to gain or lose by a particular action is a valuable exercise, so I wouldn’t be quick to file it under selfish ambition. :slight_smile:

(Mitzi Witt) #11

Sometimes I wonder about this too. My occasional eye opener has often come from those more simple than me, and I can see better when lessons becomes more simple from the simple.

Ex: my 4 grandchildren. Easter. Little one (he)only found three eggs. Next older(she) found 7 eggs. The older two found many more. Youngest was sad because he tried hard to find them and they were all gone when he still had only three eggs. He was too young to deal with that disappointment and was so so sad. The one child (she)closest to him ( with 7 eggs) saw him sad, and they are looking at their bounty, and she gave him two of her eggs and then they were even and he was happy and she was happy that he wasn’t so sad. They went on their way. She didn’t brag of her generosity, it was merely observed from afar and never mentioned. She thought no more about it, but he was helped and she was happy for him to be happy too.

Simple, selfless.

I think maybe our joy, our happiness in good deeds has to come from knowing someone in need was helped. Someone filled, someone healed, someone comforted. That should be my happiness. Not my own goodness, but another’s burden eased.

Just a simple thought I wanted to add to the conversation.

(Brian Weeks) #12

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.

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(Jennifer Judson) #13

Great discussion thread. Seems like a lot of us have faced these (or similar) questions. Brian, I think your remarks are spot on, as were many others.

As I was reading through the thread my mind went to my parents, and probably many parents. Perhaps Davidd, even your friend’s parents would be great examples of putting their children before themselves, no matter the cost.

Let’s look at little things. Many young couples would love to go out and enjoy themselves, but they stay home because leaving young children alone could be disastrous. So they put their children’s needs before their own. Missing out on their own fun.

Mom’s with flu often get out of their sick bed to be sure their families are taken care of–meals, laundry, chores, homework, etc. No gain that I can see there…it’s actually pretty detrimental to Mom’s health.

Many parents my age are sacrificing their retirement savings to pay for addiction rehabilitation programs for their children…over and over and over…often until they are bankrupt. I know of many such circumstances.

Too many examples to name. All ultimately motivated by love. All with a cost. Few with any real benefit to the parents. Do parents hope to have their love returned? OF COURSE! But there is no guarantee.

How many of us would have been is the pit without loving parents? How many neglected children long for their parents to be selfless with them? Or to have parents at all

God paid the ultimate sacrifice for his children. Does he want our love in return? OF COURSE! But again, there is not guarantee. What a pit we would all be in without this selfless sacrifice.