In a 2013 article written for the Psychology Today website and entitled “Why Do Human Beings Do Good Things? The Puzzle of Altruism”, Dr. Steve Taylor sought to answer the question to a basic human puzzle. He wrote:
The question of why human beings are sometimes prepared to risk their own lives to save others has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries. From an evolutionary point of view, altruism doesn’t seem to make any sense. According to the modern Neo-Darwinian view, human beings are basically selfish. After all, we are only really ‘carriers’ of thousands of genes, whose only aim is to survive and replicate themselves. We shouldn’t be interested in sacrificing ourselves for others, or even in helping others. It’s true that, in genetic terms, it’s not necessarily self-defeating for us to help people close to us, our relatives or distant cousins—they carry many of the same genes as us, and so helping them may help our genes to survive. But what about when we help people who have no relation to us, or even animals?
To answer the question, Dr. Taylor pointed to theories people have posited to explain why human beings do good things. Specifically, Dr. Taylor wrote of altruism (“unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”). Here are a few relevant selections from the article.
According to some psychologists, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ altruism. When we help strangers (or animals), there must always be some benefit to us, even if we’re not aware of it. Altruism makes us feel good about ourselves, it makes other people respect us more, or it might (so far as we believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven. Or perhaps altruism is an investment strategy – we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favor some day, when we are in need. (This is known as reciprocal altruism.) According to evolutionary psychologists, it could even be a way of demonstrating our resources, showing how wealthy or able we are, so that we become more attractive to the opposite sex, and have enhanced reproductive possibilities.
Finally, evolutionary psychologists have also suggested that altruism towards strangers may be a kind of mistake, a ‘leftover’ trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people we were genetically closely related to…
…[I]s it naive to suggest that ‘pure’ altruism can exist as well? An act of ‘pure’ altruism…may make you feel better about yourself afterwards, and it may increase other people’s respect for you, or increase your chances of being helped in return at a later point. But it’s possible that, at the very moment when the act takes place, your only motivation is an impulsive unselfish desire to alleviate suffering.
Altruism and Connectedness
It’s this fundamental oneness which makes it possible for us to identify with other people, to sense their suffering and respond to it with altruistic acts. We can sense their suffering because, in a sense, we are them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being —just as we would our own…
…In other words, there is no need to make excuses for altruism. Instead, we should celebrate it as a transcendence of seeming separateness. Rather than being unnatural, altruism is an expression of our most fundamental nature—that of connectedness.
All of this is very interesting and, if one grants the philosophical premises of Darwinism (which I do not), there is a kind of logic to it. Of course, we are Christians, so we see another element present in the question of why we should be good, and that element is, we would argue, the most important reality of all: the glory of God.As Christians we believe we should do good, yes, to help our fellow man, to bless our families, to better society, and all of the other virtuous reasons why we should be good. For followers of Jesus, however, the ultimate reason, the reason above all reasons, is so that we can bring glory to God and help others desire to do so as well. This is why we have included the fourth covenant statement under our third canon:
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by,
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory
As followers of Jesus, we do not believe that good works save us, but we do believe we should do good works. In fact, let me challenge us to consider this: we should be more committed to doing good than anybody else in the world. And why should that be so?
Jesus said that the good works of His followers will enable others to give glory to God.
The connection between our good deeds and the Father’s glory is a connection made my Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5 Jesus said:
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so thatthey may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
St. Augustine said that “even though one is seen by others in doing good works, in one’s conscience one ought to have the simple intention of glorifying God. It is only for the sake of God’s glory that we should allow our good works to become known.”This is so. Do good so that God gets the glory!
Here is the remedy to any temptation to do well for one’s own sake. Here is the remedy to the always self-defeating malady of “works righteousness,” thinking that we can earn the favor of God by doing good or that our salvation hinges upon our performance. Do not work because you think it saves you. Work because you have a Savior who is worthy of glory! Do not work because you think that by so doing you will get to heaven. Work because heaven is open to all of the undeserving who have received Christ by grace through faith! Work not to impress but glorify! Work because God’s glory should be celebrated in the world and Jesus said that your works would draw the eyes of those who see them Godward…unless, of course, you insist on drawing their eyes to your own self.
A proper understanding of works as that which brings glory to God helps us understand the New Testament emphasis on the people of God doing good in the world. Thus, we find a qualitative statement about good works in Titus 2:
13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
We are to be “zealousfor good works”! We should have a strong and intense desire to bring glory to God by doing good in the world! Then, in Acts 9, we see a quantitative statement about good works:
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.
We are to be “full of good works and acts of charity”! Brothers and sisters, do not say, “Since my works cannot save me I will not work!” Rather say, “I will work more than anybody else, but I will do so joyfully and for God’s glory because I have been saved!”
Our good works are missionary sermons and apologetic defenses.
Of course, in the fallen world in which we live there can be a loneliness about doing good. The bad makes up most of the news we consume each day. Bad works get more press than good. In his novel The Reivers, William Faulkner wrote:
…all the world…who serves Virtue works alone, unaided, in a chilly vacuum of reserved judgment; where, pledge yourself to Non-virtue and the whole countryside boils with volunteers to help you.
This is true. Even so, the lone Christian in a land of darkness who strives to show the light of the Kingdom of God through his or her good works can take comfort that their good deeds are not, in fact, done “alone, unaided, in a chilly vacuum of reserved judgment.” Instead, whenever we do good we stand with all of the saints throughout the ages, our own and those that came before, in bearing witness to the reality of King Jesus and life in His kingdom. In fact, to do good is to proclaim a missionary sermon and to offer an apologetic defense. Of course, the opposite is also true. To do bad, even, and especially, if one professes Christ, is to proclaim that one does not really know God at all. In Titus 1, Paul writes:
16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
Thus, it is possible to deny God by works, and this despite your words. But if our bad works can tell the watching world that we really do not believe, so our good works can tell the watching world that we do and that what we believe is true. Peter put it powerfully in 1 Peter 2:
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Notice, first, that Peter repeats Jesus’ idea that our good works will cause others to give glory to God. Notice too that Peter sees good works as proclamation. “Honorable conduct” says something, and especially to those who are enemies of the faith. When we do good we are saying, “I do in fact believe what I say and my life is evidence of the truthfulness of the gospel.” This means that good deeds are missionary sermons (i.e., they tell the lost that the gospel is true) and apologetic defenses (i.e., they refute the counter-claims of critics by offering evidence of the power of God to save and change lost humanity). Therefore, the lone Christian living virtuously never really stands alone. His life becomes part of the grand chorus of proclamation on earth and in heaven that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Your deeds preach! Your good works herald! Your righteous deeds proclaim! It is a shame that so many Christians argue about James 2, for James’ point seems clear enough:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
It seems to me that that last statement is key: Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. Our works are evidence of saving faith! Our works preach! Yes, we must verbally proclaim the content of the gospel of Christ. That is a non-negotiable. But the fact that our works stand alongside our words and are themselves proclamation is a great comfort as well as a great burden. It reminds us that our lives can either confirm or nullify our words. Do good deeds so that the watching world will know that the faith we proclaim is true!
We areGod’s good work.
There is another truth, however, that I believe establishes a context in which we can think rightly and profitably about good works, and it is this: according to the scriptures, we are God’s good work! Ironically, it is a passage that speaks about the inability of our works to save us that makes this most clear. Usually when Ephesians 2 is quoted, we stop at verses 8 and 9. But verse 10 is critically important and helps round out a sound biblical theology of works. Listen:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
What do these amazing verses tell us about works? They say the following:
- You did not save yourself through good works.
- Salvation is a gift.
- Therefore, you have nothing to boast about.
- But when you are saved you become God’s good work.
- Thus, a good work is not something that you do, it is something that you are.
In other words, we should speak less of doing the good work and more of being the good work. Paul, in Ephesians 2:8-9, moves works out of the realm of external performance and into the realm of essence, of character, of definition, of ontology. This changes everything! It tells me that I do not have to perform in order to demonstrate how good I am. Instead, I can now work to demonstrate how good God is! We are the work and God is the worker!Our job, then, is to get out of the way so that our lives can become a demonstration of divine power!
We are His workmanship!
Now we understand why Jesus said we should let our light shine so that others can see our good works and give glory to God. It is because our good works are the manifestation of God’s glory and wonder and grandeur. All of the good things we do are hymns of hallelujah to the greatness of God! He gets the glory for the good works! We are His workmanship!
The church then becomes the place where we seek to give God more and more glory by calling one another to do more and more good. In Hebrews 10 we read:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
I love that the writer of Hebrews links our good works to the coming return of Jesus Christ. Christ is coming, therefore we should “stir up one another to love and good works.” Why? Because in so doing we help point the world to a reality greater and beyond than which we see right in front of our own faces. We show the world that there is a Kingdom that is greater than this world and a King who is coming! We show the world that there is a way to do life that is better and greater than the way of the world, and it is situated in the person of Jesus Christ!
Do good, Church!
Do good and glorify God!
Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. New Testament, IA (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.94-954.
William Faulkner. The Reivers. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p.143.