Selfishness and Self-Interest

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“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16 11)

Growing Dominion, Part 41

No one needs to teach us the arts of selfishness, and the related arts of rationalization. No one has to have special classes for the toddlers in the nursery in order to teach them how to grab for toys, or how to push and shove to be first, or how to quarrel. We are all sons and daughters of Adam.

When we grow older and are confronted with the fact that overt selfishness is socially unacceptable in Christian circles, we are faced with two choices. In the first, we can live in accordance with our baptism, repenting of selfishness whenever we see it, and trusting in Christ to cleanse us of this sin. The other option is to bury the selfishness, send it underground, and when it manifests itself (as it always will) to cloak it in the garb of biblical vocabulary. “It is not the money. It is the principle of the thing.” Meaning, of course, that it is the money.

It is most necessary for Christian businessmen to master the distinction between these two approaches, one true and one false, because working at a business and providing for a family requires self-interest. A man should not get to payday, cash the check, and drive home throwing money out the window. But neither should he clutch it to his chest, drive home furtively, laughing as misers do. Selfishness is one thing and self-interest another. God teaches us to use self-interest as the measuring stick for how we treat others. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Self-interest is not only a given, it is, if we may put it this way, a God-given. We are never told to stop loving ourselves, and love our neighbor instead. And neither are we commanded to work on loving ourselves, as popular therapy-speak today would have it. It is simply assumed that we do — after all, St. Paul says, no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it. We don’t have to cultivate self-interest, and we don’t have to abandon it. We do have to understand it, and we have to know the difference between it and selfishness. It may seem like a trifle but the distance between them is the distance between heaven and hell.

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