This article explains holy self-interest as the correct motivation for being a worshiper of God.
While many agree that there is such thing as holy self-interest, most Christians do not accept holy self-interest as the Christian’s main motivation. The first and most important step in my own life project is to show that it is.
John Piper has shown that God’s glory and man’s pleasure are compatible. There is self-interest in being holy. But should self-interest be our main motivation? How could it be, since God’s main purpose is His own glory, not our pleasure? If we were to make self-interest (even holy self-interest) our main motivation, would that not compete with God’s own stated priorities for us?
This question will take some unraveling. As a start, let me affirm that in all He does God is working to show His glory. At least as pertains to his relationship with mankind, God’s glory seems to be His own main motivation or purpose. It is for His own glory that God created man and chose to deal with him.
Let us take a closer look at what this observation means:
God has purposed to receive glory by means of man. This principle is found in the first item of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC), which states that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Whenever we speak of values or purposes, it is important to note that we are speaking of “values to someone, for that individual’s purpose.” There are no values outside of the context of individuals. If there is an “in order to,” then there is an individual person with a purpose. Thus, we understand that purposes only pertain to individual persons.
God the Father is a person with a purpose and a means. The purpose is His glory and the means is mankind: mankind glorifying Him and enjoying Him forever. The WSC could be more clearly formulated: “God’s purpose in creating man was that man would glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.”
The phrase “the chief end of man” is insufficiently clear about whose purpose it is describing. It ought to be speaking of God’s purpose in creating man. What the WSC does not clarify is that purposes always pertain to choices, which are always made by individuals; therefore a purpose must always belong to the one making the choice.
The WSC does not say anything about man’s purposes in his relationship to God. God’s own glory is God’s fundamental purpose. But a man’s fundamental purpose is his own joy in celebrating God’s glory.
I suggest a new correction to the WSC, as well as to Piper’s version:
“In regard to his relationship to man, God’s chief end is that man glorify God by enjoying Him forever. At the same time, man’s chief end is that he enjoy God by glorifying Him forever.”
The second part does not need the same qualification as the first (“in regard to the relationship”) because, while God may properly have many other purposes unrelated to man, all the purposes of man the creature are properly oriented around God.
The shortest form of my corrected proposition is:
“For man, the chief end is to enjoy God by glorifying Him forever.”
This simple change of order is not a “man-centered” view (whatever that may be thought to mean). This is a view of God’s and man’s relationship which accurately accounts both for man’s reason for needing values (his self-interest), and his means of attaining them (a holy orientation to God’s glory).
Is holy self-interest a correct principle for man’s motivation?
Christians will grant the “holy,” but what about the “self-interest”? Self-interest seems suspicious to us. But what does Scripture itself say about self-interest?
God the Father is self-interested:
He does all that he pleases (Ps 115:3).
For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another (Is 48:9-11).
Jesus is self-interested:
Keep your eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards; and now he sits in the place of honor by the throne of God (Heb 12:2).
The Old Testament calls people to obey God because of self-interest:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen 2:17).
For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (Deut 32:47).
The New Testament calls people to obey God because of self-interest:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20).
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul (Mark 8:36)?
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10b).
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it (1 Cor 9:24).
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).
For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 6:8).
The whole Bible calls people to attain their own needs by following God.
In this process, God is seeking that we would take joy in Him because that will give Him glory. And man is learning to give God glory because it is his only means of lasting joy.
If this is an unfamiliar mode of thinking, it would be reasonable at this point to ask, “But aren’t you taking these verses out of perspective? Doesn’t the Bible call people to obey God even apart from any promised reward?
Scripture says much about this question.
While many passages do warn against doing good deeds with an eye only toward immediate gain, our account of proper motivation in Scripture must also be able to integrate with the following points:
Why should a man do good deeds in private? So his Father who sees in secret will reward him (Matt 6:4).
Isn’t it better to give than to receive? Actually, as I’ve noted, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
The reasonable and critical person will naturally ask, “But how can you be sure you are not merely looking at the whole Bible selectively, from the lens of your preconceived values? How can you be sure your view is the Bible’s?”
I grant that it is a fair question.
As such, it is also fair to turn the question around.
The ones who would deny holy self-interest as man’s main motivation should ask how they know their own resistance is not the result of preconceived ideas.
Can such questions be answered? Yes. We have two important tools: our minds, and the Word of God. We ought to apply the first to the second, and not stop until we have answered every doubt.
As we read through Scripture we should look for every place it could possibly bear upon the issue. That is how to discover what Scripture says about holy self-interest.
This article has argued for the truth of the principle of holy self-interest.
Even if it be granted as true, how important is the principle? The principle is at the heart of ethics, the branch of knowledge dealing with moral principles. Once understood, holy self-interest remedies many errors in human relationships and in our conception of what it is to be a Christian. My own life project will be to show how holy self-interest helps us gain a better understanding of all areas of human existence. I hope you will join me in this venture.