One of the ten economic principles listed by Gregory Mankiw in his textbook Principles of Economics is “people respond to incentives”. The author of the textbook defines “incentive” as “something that brings about the desire to work.” These incentives can affect people in a positive manner, such as a reward, or a negative manner, such as a punishment.
A real-life example of this principle would be the recent release of the iPhone X. With a retail price of $1,000, this was the most expensive iPhone released to date. Of course, the price point certainly deterred some customers from buying the new iPhone. However, seeing that there were people willing to buy the iPhone X at the $1,000 price point, that same price point undoubtedly caused Apple to produce and plan to sell more of that iPhone. The $1,000 price point of the iPhone X acted as a negative incentive for consumers (higher price means long hours working to buy the phone), while that same $1,000 price point acted as a positive incentive for Apple (higher price means higher profit margins for the company).
The point that this principle hits on, and the point that underlies most economic theory, is that people act in their own self-interest. As Christians, how do we reconcile this economic principle with the biblical command to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit?” This is the question that I will be answering in the following discourse.
SELF-INTEREST VS. SELFISHNESS
To answer the question, we must make an important distinction. There is a difference between biblical self-interest and selfishness. The Scriptures hold a negative sentiment towards selfishness, greed, and the accumulation of wealth to the detriment of others, but, on the other hand, the Scriptures support rational self-interest.
“Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV).
“He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it” (Proverbs 11:26, NASB).
Both Scriptures implicitly and explicitly abhor selfishness and greed especially when it is to the detriment of others. While the following Scriptures imply that rational self-interest is a good thing and even given to us by God.
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, NIV).
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV).
The Philippian Scripture assumes that we will naturally seek out our own self-interest while the Johannian Scripture assumes that humans want to live their lives fully. Both point to a rational betterment of an individual. Self-interest is not bad; in fact, it is biblical. However, our self-interest becomes corrupted when we pursue unrestrained wants and desires, especially to the detriment of others.
Hugh Whelchel, the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, articulates biblical selfishness well: “Greed arises from man’s fallen nature. This fallen nature impels man to satisfy his desires with the least possible expenditure of effort, which often requires his satisfaction at the expense of others”. Selfishness is a result of our fallen nature as humans. It is this same selfishness that compels one to continually benefit off the expenses of others. Scripture paints a picture of the selfish person as someone who has only their interests in mind and is aloof or disinterested in the interests of others.
Hugh Whelchel, in separate article, states that “Self-interest is the willingness to do something of value for other human beings to secure the things that benefit themselves”. Whenever one eats, drinks, or sleeps, they are acting in their own self-interest. This is not to say that this is bad. In fact, just the opposite. These desires are God-given.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25, NIV).
In this verse, Jesus assumes that necessities such as food, drink, and clothing are items that humans will naturally seek out and get. Why? Because they are necessary for their survival, establishment, and flourishment. It is in the human’s best interest to seek out these items. However, when one thoughtlessly pursues these things and believes that the highest goal in life is to accumulate such things, that is when one is acting contrarily to their God-given design.
SELF-INTEREST AND SELFLESSNESS
Art Lindsey (PhD, University of Pittsburgh) states, “It is not in our self-interest to be selfish. Rather, self-denial is in our self-interest… It’s important to remember that God’s interest is in our self-interest. It’s in our self-interest to deny ourselves. Selfishness is choosing our own lives, but if we pursue our self-interest we choose true life in Christ”. Choosing to live by putting my wants and desires first is to live selfishly. This is because my wants and desires are only temporary. Choosing to live Christ-like is in the Christian’s best interest if we look at life from an eternal perspective.