Business provides good context for thinking biblically about selfishness, self-interest, and greed. Are all business people selfish? Certainly not. But we are all capable of being selfish. There are selfish teachers, physicians, pastors, and firefighters. Selfishness is an equal opportunity employer. The more pressing question concerns self-interest. Is self-interest necessarily selfish?
C. S. Lewis wrote much about the tension between self-interest and selfishness. To Lewis, there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness, and there is a proper place for self-interest. When Lewis first came to faith, he did not think about eternal life, but focused on enjoying God in this life. Lewis later said that the years he spent without focusing on heavenly rewards "always seem to me to have been of great value," because they taught delight in God above any prospect or reward. It would be wrong to desire from God solely what he could give you, without delighting in God himself.
Proper Place for Self-Interest
Lewis never disparaged the place of heavenly rewards, but he saw that the paradox of reward might be a stumbling block for some. On the one hand, the purest faith in God believes in him for "nothing" and is not primarily interested in any benefits to follow. On the other hand, the Bibles teaches us that we are rewarded for what we do. Presumably, this reward should motivate us to do good.
Certainly, a sole focus on rewards might pander to selfishness. Lewis discusses this paradox in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century:
Tyndale, as regards the natural condition of humanity, holds that by nature we can do no good works without respect of some profit either in this world or in the world to come. . . . That the profit should be located in another world means, as Tyndale clearly sees, no difference. Theological hedonism is still hedonism. Whether the man is seeking heaven or a hundred pounds, he can still but seek himself, of freedom in the true sense—of spontaneity or disinterestedness—nature knows nothing. And yet by a terrible paradox, such disinterestedness is precisely what the moral law demands.
We can resolve this tension between believing for nothing and believing for reward by realizing self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. Some maintain that Mark 8:35-36 is Lewis's most frequently quoted passage of Scripture. Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying, "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?" Jesus encourages us to truly "save" our lives and not "lose" our lives or "forfeit" our soul. He appeals to our self-interest.
The Self-Interest of Self-Denial
Unless we have a sufficient reason to sacrifice something we love, the cost will always be too great. Lewis expresses this dilemma in the last paragraph of Mere Christianity:
The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.
It is not in our self-interest to be selfish. Rather, self-denial is in our self-interest.
Lewis argues elsewhere that self-interest does not necessarily make our motives impure. He says in The Problem of Pain:
We are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man's love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by its very nature, seeks to enjoy its object.
When we lose ourselves in wonder, awe, and praise of God, the more joyful we can become, but also the less self-conscious. When we are focused on God, we are not focused on self. Lewis summarizes this un-self-conscious experience: "The happiest moments are when we forget our precious selves . . . but have everything else (God, our fellow humans, the animals, the garden and the sky) instead." In this experience, we are pursuing our joy, but not selfishly.
Our Self-interest Is Too Weak
In Lewis's classic sermon The Weight of Glory, he poses this same dilemma between selfishness and self-interest ("disinterestedness"). In that context, he gives what has become my favorite Lewis quote:
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We might not pursue our own self-interest strongly enough. We often settle for selfish desire and deprive ourselves of "infinite joy." We are all too pleased with the meager pleasures we get and say "NO" to greater, higher, infinite pleasure. The more we pursue our true self-interest, the more we will glorify God. It is in our self-interest to give up lesser pleasures that may satisfy for a while but sooner or later lead to "hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay."
The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in current public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But Lewis clearly believes that self-interest is not necessarily selfish, and that selfishness is not in our self-interest. Lewis may argue that the actions of the godly businessman and the missionary are both of self-interest. Vocational motivation, even when profit is involved, stems from our God-given talents to serve others, not necessarily for selfish reasons.
It's important to remember that God's interest is in our self-interest. It's in our self-interest to deny ourselves. Selfishness is choosing our own lives, but if we pursue our self-interest we choose true life in Christ.