Away from distractions, perhaps whilst out walking the dog, I can chew over life’s questions in my mind. Looking at nature alone, I wonder if there is any act that is truly selfless, and I ask myself “does altruism really exist?” If an act is to be truly altruistic then surely there has to be no benefit to the perpetrator of the act. If everything in life was simply about survival and continuation of a species (beyond an individual’s life span), it would follow that the view of altruism as pure selflessness may not exist. As I think about behaviours that lead to acts of altruism, from an evolutionary biologist’s point of view, most do indeed turn out to benefit us in one way or another.
If we turn to think first about parenting our offspring, in the beginning we may face hardship but the pay back is obvious. Our genes get propagated through countless generations when they are nurtured within a strong family group. So kinship care that supports, encourages, and helps those who have similar genes to us is ultimately selfish. If we were to care for children who cannot for one reason or other be with their biological family then still we are working to the collective benefit of society.
What about behaviours that support and encourage people that are unrelated to us such as friends or those within a similar social group? Again in this example we are likely to suffer say if our friends or social group disappeared, so altruistic behaviours are of benefit to the individual.
If nature is a complex knitting together of communities that are interdependent then it follows that non-relatedness would still lead to cooperation and acts of altruism for survival of more than just one individual.
Non-relatedness in humans is more complex than I have simply supposed above, because whether an act is truly selfless becomes dependent on more than one factor. Are there observers to the act? If the answer is yes, then the person’s aim could be to improve their social status and so it becomes selfish. And if an act such as giving to strangers ‘makes us feel good’ then it is again selfish.
Though a selfless act performed in front of others would be altruistic if it was performed out of love for the suffering of that individual or group of individuals AND without a conscious thought about their own self, or by someone who exercises denial of the self in the process.
In this case we have to examine first what kind of love we are talking about. When we talk about ‘falling in love’ we are talking about the giddy idealistic romantic love of songs, poems and novels that speak of the longing of one for another. But we have evolved this sort of ‘love’ through a complex interplay of chemicals inside our bodies that instigate sexual attraction, arousal and bonding to facilitate the continuation of the species. It serves only to first ensure that offspring are produced and second that the bonding enables nurture in an environment that will be of benefit to the offspring. So when you ‘feel’ that kind of love, you are essentially feeling a chemical designed for a selfish (genetic) purpose.
It is sadly the case that when the highly concentrated and intoxicating effects of these chemicals wear off, it is like a cloud lifting from our eyes and we can realise we didn’t perhaps choose a partner as wisely as we thought! So does that mean that there is no hope? Certainly not! When the chemicals wear off, and /or people grate on us, love becomes a choice we make and not a feeling we feel. So it is this love I am referring to.
No-one wants to think they are selfish and finding out it is inherent within your basic nature is so disappointing. Knowing this truth of ourselves is and has been a bitter pill to swallow. And when we look at closely we can see that self-seeking acts and/or believing ourselves to be autonomous beings is when we are capable of the most evil.
Of course some acts are more selfish than others. Egoism and altruism are opposite ends of a continuum, but the real hope and meaning, beyond self-perpetuation of our species, comes when we find God in our lives.
Becoming independent of man and dependent on God through faith is the only way to become the best version of ourselves. To be a less selfish society would bring hope, love, health, wealth and happiness to more people. What a vision! To do this we have then to practice self-denial to fulfil His will and purpose for our lives. When you believe in and submit to God, you have to abandon the self.
What then if a person commits a crime in God’s name? Committing a crime is not done out of love for others but of the self, and lifting yourself up before God is just as selfish, perhaps more so, as you have made yourself capable of making decisions for your creator! Paul writes “if I surrender my body to be burned or in order that I may glory, but have not love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:3 AMP.
Jesus said ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.’ John 13:34 ESV. This means to love in equal measure which facilitates a beneficial outcome for all. So our purpose now becomes clear; to realise God and make a conscious choice to go beyond nature – to conquer it by denial of the self.
Only God can know what is in a man’s heart. It is not for us to live in judgement of others for this does not fulfil the commandment to love them as ourselves. Acts of judgement could in themselves lead to reducing an individual’s fitness to survive in prosperity, whether this is through diminished mental health, injustice or exclusion from society. That is not God’s way for us.
God’s plan for our lives is better than our own selfish ways. God knows us better than we know ourselves. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV. Amen to that!
Jesus lived every day of His life as an example to us. Jesus said to His disciples “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Matthew 19:30 ESV. On the cross the people around Jesus’ did not see any benefit of the act. But He gave up His life out of love for us; the very people who mocked Him and hated Him. He committed no selfish sinful act and His death was of no benefit to Him; true altruism. Jesus even made a point of showing this as an act of self-denial when He said “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42 NIV.
The benefit was revealed after His resurrection. It comes when we consider that we are just passing through this world on our way to the next. That His discipline and self-denial leads us to an eternal life in heaven.
When we indulge the self we can end up in debt, with broken relationships, addicted or going through the motions of life without joy or peace in our hearts. So when Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” John 14:6 ESV. Wow – He really is!
So when the temptation comes on me to worry, about the daily pursuits and trials of this world moving me away from Jesus, I turn my thoughts to this and God’s word – and my concerns disappear and the joy of the life He died to give us returns!
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of Jesus! We thank you Jesus for the cross that has saved us all. Give us today Lord the discipline and encouragement to live our best lives now, all the time praying that Your will be done, in Your way and in Your time. In Jesus name. Amen.