by Joseph Sunde
Many of us are used to hearing Christians talk about the spiritual bounty available to those who believe. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus asks for our obedience while also promising us some kind of reward. But whether these rewards are immediate or eventual, many Christians often confine them to the spiritual realm.
This is understandable. After all, the most fundamental and all-important reward — relationship with and redemption through Jesus Christ — is indeed spiritual. Thus, in my previous two posts, I have tackled the issue of selfless self-interestedness from a primarily spiritual angle (see here and here).
This is indeed the most important aspect to understand, first, because spiritual transformation is Jesus’ primary focus, and second, because any physical prosperity is meaningless without the proper spiritual foundation. Let us remember: Despite any physical prosperity we may receive from God, moth and rust will eventually get the best of us one day. In the end, our bodies and possessions are tools for His glory, so it is extremely important that any rewards (or “treasures”) are oriented toward heaven.
With this in mind, however, we should also note that Jesus does also show significant concern for our earthly well-being. He cares about our physical condition in the here and now. Whether healing the sick or promising material provision to his disciples, Jesus consistently demonstrated that the self-sacrificial life is not necessarily one of physical loss and despair.
Indeed, if we look at the physical evidence from a purely objective point of view, it appears as though acts of generosity and self-sacrifice are by-and-large likely to lead to plenty of physical rewards. Despite the secondary importance of such rewards, they are still worthy of examination.
First and foremost, they are important to observe because they further illuminate that Jesus was indeed telling the truth. Give and it shall be given unto you.
The last shall be first. Lose your life and you shall find it.
Second, such benefits are further proof that God is good in the here and now. He is not the dictatorial menace painted by Ayn Rand — the lofty bearded wizard who gets pleasure out of striking us with poverty and watching us bleed on an altar of self-flagellation. Rather, he is the Father who shepherds His sheep, the Creator who cares for the birds and the lilies.
This is not new idea. Indeed, as far back as early Israel, King Solomon wrote the following: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.”
As far as the evidence behind Solomon’s claim, perhaps the clearest representation can be found in AEI President Arthur Brooks’ book, Who Really Cares?, in which Brooks uses solid data and well-rounded research to show that generosity is an essential component for promoting economic prosperity, happiness, and overall health.
Beginning with economic prosperity, Brooks argues that prosperity and charity are indeed positively correlated. He begins by noting that those with higher incomes are more likely to give to charity, explaining that “the charitable person will earn, on average, about $1,000 more per year than the uncharitable person.” Initially, this may appear to be basic correlation-causality confusion, but Brooks shows that not only does income lead to increased charity, but charity itself also leads to increased income. As Brooks explains, “Money and giving and prosperity exist in positive feedback to each other — a virtuous cycle, you might say.” One further illustration of this phenomenon can be found in Brooks’ finding that “low-income working people who are exceptionally generous also tend to have high levels of income mobility.”
Brooks continues by offering additional data to support the causality claim, concluding that charity appears to be an “effective investment secret,” not only for individuals, but also for entire economies. Brooks observes average household giving and GDP per capita as they change over time, showing that they move together, once again noting that “economic growth pushes up charitable giving, and charitable giving pushes up economic growth.” As Brooks concludes, “Were it not for charity, America would be a significantly poorer nation than it is today.”
Next, Brooks shows how generosity also positively correlates with happiness and health. Citing several surveys, he explains that givers are far more likely to report happiness and health than nongivers. For example, there is a strong correlation between blood donors and high levels of happiness (vs. nondonors), as well as between volunteers and high life expectancy rates.
But is there any causality behind these correlations? Brooks shows that there is, pointing mostly to findings in psychology. In an experiment at Harvard Medical School, researchers found that givers experience a “dramatic change” in “confidence, self-awareness, and depression” after executing acts of generosity. In a different study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, researchers found that volunteering resulted in “significant improvements to mental health,” particularly among the volunteers themselves.
As Brooks concludes:
Happy, healthy, successful, opportunity-oriented people are most likely to give and to volunteer. At the same time, charitable people are more likely than uncharitable people to be happy, healthy, and financially prosperous. Yes, prosperous people are more likely to give to charity — but charity can also make them prosperous and more likely to make even more charitable contributions.
I am limited in the data I can provide in this post, but if you interested in exploring the additional implications of the data, I highly encourage you to read the book for yourself.
But even after Brooks’ analysis, significant questions still remain. We may be able to observe that giving does indeed lead to various outcomes of earthly prosperity, but how and why? On matters of happiness and health, there appear to be some promising answers in psychology, but what about the economic benefits? Why does our giving tend to result in eventual economic gain? Unfortunately, much of it remains a mystery.
There are plenty of Biblical answers to these questions, which is why a spiritual foundation is still necessary for fully understanding and executing a lifestyle of selfless self-interestedness. It is beneficial to examine the physical evidence of spiritual laws for the same reasons it is important to inform our scientific endeavors with Biblical “hypotheses.”
The fundamental problem with Rand’s version of “rational self-interest” is that it relies on a definition of rationality is vastly limited. It is one that is guided by the limited knowledge of man rather than the omniscience of an all-knowing God. Some of the mysteries of God’s promises may indeed be observable in the physical realm (as Brooks’ research indicates), but there will always be more mysteries to tackle, and even more that will remain untackleable altogether on this earth.
What I am arguing for, therefore, is a form of super-rational self-interest, one that grounds the rationality of our interests in the new order established by Jesus’ sacrificial act on the Cross. Our salvation is found only in him, and only through the following regeneration will any of our earthly pursuits be worthwhile. Whether we are participating in sacrificial acts or profit-seeking ventures, we must remember that a simplistic, humanistic view of self-interest is one that is plagued by illusion and limited in its view of personal profit.
Christians are fond of proclaiming that “His ways are higher than our ways,” but we are often bad at applying it to our physical analysis. It’s about time we got moving, and I propose that the topic of individual self-interest is a great place to start.
For more of the details on Brooks’ findings, see Who Really Cares? and Gross National Happiness.