The Benefits of Belief

Many people assume “true” Christianity is wholly and utterly altruistic and sentimental. Often, to illustrate this, Jesus’ command to the rich young man (“Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me”) is trotted out to support the notion that the gospel is a sort of dreary altruism. It appears that Christianity is, in Ted Turner’s phrase, “a religion for losers.”

Worse still is the contrast between this supposed goal of pure altruism and the stark fact that pure altruism is rare among Christians. Not only does Christianity apparently have an ideal of depressing and weary rejection of personal happiness, it also has a near zero batting average in achieving the supposed ideal. Christians, according to this reckoning, try to be losers but merely succeed at being hypocrites.

In reality, however, Jesus does not call us to altruism, but to seek our own good. Those who point to the story of the rich young man as proof of the Gospel of Pure Altruism should note that, a few verses later, there is a passage which destroys that idea completely. For immediately after the episode with the rich young man, the following exchange takes place:

Then Peter said in reply, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:27-29)

Peter does not repudiate the demand for self-denial. Indeed, he affirms he has obeyed it (“We have left everything and followed you”). Yet he still has one very non-altruistic thing he wants to know: “What then shall we have?”

What is striking here is that Jesus, who does indeed command self-denial, does not rebuke the question as “selfish”. He answers it. And what an answer! The promises are really quite staggering and have very little to do with “wanting nothing for yourself”. We’re talking glorious rewards here. Spectacular stuff. And not a hint that Peter was out of line to desire it.

How can Jesus reconcile his demand for self-denial with his frank promises of reward? Is Jesus recommending Heaven to us as a bribe for being good?

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, answers this way:

We are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing the mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall seek God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.

In other words, there are proper and improper rewards for things and it is only wrong to desire improper ones. The modern suspicion is that people who want Heaven are like people who marry for money. But Jesus, in the passage above, essentially says the people who want Heaven are like people who marry for love. It is not wrong or cynical for them to do so. For self-denial is not the goal; rather, it is the means to the goal.

And so desire for our reward is right, as long as we are desiring what is the proper end of our self-denial: union with the life of God. Indeed, for us to “want nothing” and try to “be nothing” is actually contrary to what God wills. For the essence of Christianity is that it is a relationship and relationship requires that we give ourselves to another and receive the other’s gift of self. Thus, the blunder of saying, “Oh, I’m nothing. I don’t want anything for myself” is twofold.

First, in calling yourself “nothing” you are saying “I offer nothing to God” when God has asked that you offer “your very self”–not nothing–to him (Romans 12:1). The self is insignificant in altruism. In Christian thought, the self is a gift God gives us and that we give him. It is something, not nothing.

Second, if we “want nothing for ourselves” we refuse to receive what God wishes to give us: himself. Here again, we come back to the reality that Christianity is fundamentally about relationship, not about making ourselves vanish or pretend that we don’t desire our own good. For relationship is good and God himself desires it for us.

And that brings us back to folks who think that Christianity is a sort of drab combination of hypocrisy and sentimentality for losers. In reality, it is the startling news that God is challenging us to bring ourselves to him (and to those around us) and enter into life. So far from being sentimental, the Faith is hard-headed reality for people with guts (while television-induced Sunday morning self-composting is precisely what keeps us from facing life, buries us in sentimentality, and trains us to be couch potatoes.)

So, a word to the wise: Anybody can watch TV and be bored and lonely. It is much more exciting and challenging to take up the dare of Jesus and meet him at Mass with my family so that along with them, I too might “receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” Take the challenge and try it. You won’t be sorry.


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