Posted by: davidlarkin | July 24, 2011

Can We Give Freely without Selfish Interest?

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Matthew 6:2-4 (New International Version 1984)

In this passage, Jesus instructs us to have a pure unselfish motive when we give to the poor. We are not to give charity publicly in order to receive the praise of men, and satisfy our pride. Instead, we are to give freely and secretly, and so freely and so unconsciously, that even our left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It seems that Jesus is purposely warning us that our own consciousness of our charity is corrupting and stains our good work. He tells us that God, who sees the good work and the motives of the heart, will reward us. However, Jesus does not want us to act out of selfish desire for a reward. Otherwise, the admonition to keep the act secret, even from our conscious self, were it possible, such that the cells in our body outside the right hand that gives the alms are not aware of the charitable gift, would be empty. It is difficult to imagine giving without some selfish thought entering our mind and motivation.

In the beginning of Thomas Hobbes‘ 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil, [as it says on the back of the Cambridge edition, arguably the greatest piece of political philosophy written in the English language], Hobbes works through his theory of the psychology and actions of the individual, a theoretical precursor to a theory of moral legitimacy of the political state which he calls the Leviathan. In discussing the relations of man and his relationship to people and things, and specifically the transfer of the right to possession of things, property (or money), he defines the free gift as follows:

Free-gift When the transferring of Right, is not mutuall; but one of the parties transferreth, in hope to gain thereby friendship, or service from another, or from his friends; or in hope to gain the reputation of Charity, or Magnanimity; or to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion; or in hope of reward in heaven; This is not Contract, but GIFT, FREEGIFT, GRACE: which words signifie one and the same thing.

As Hobbes defines the free gift, there is no mutual exchange — the transfer of right to property or money appears gratuitous, the giver giving without receiving anything material in return. He lists reasons why the giver gives, assuming that we necessarily act with a reason, though our reasons may be various. In each of his reasons, however, there is the hope of personal gain from the gift at root, i.e., gain in the friendship or service of others, gain in reputation as a charitable person, avoidance of the pain of compassion for suffering, and lastly, personal gain in the promised reward from God.

These reasons or motives that Hobbes attributes to a free gift reveal Hobbes’ belief that we always act out of selfish desire, even when we give alms. Even if we are not getting something that gives us pleasure in this life, like friendship, good reputation, or freedom from suffering guilt, at a minimum we act in exchange for the hope of a future reward from God in the afterlife.

However, even though Hobbes was writing as a professed Christian in a 17th century Christian Europe, it seems un-Christian to give in order to get, even if it is a heavenly reward. Jesus would not have warned us not to let the left hand know that the right hand just gave a beggar a twenty dollar bill. He would have said to give in order to get the heavenly reward. Jesus knew that fallen creatures like us cannot easily do anything without some selfish motive, if it is even possible.

Hobbes was being realistic, then. He could not think of a reason for giving a gift without some selfish motive, so the tag “free” only refers to the lack of material exchange for the right, but not that our act of giving is actually a free gift. We expect something immaterial and emotionally pleasurable in return. Thus, for Hobbes, a “free” gift is free to the recipient, but not freely given by giver, who acts for selfish gain, whether immediate or in the hereafter.

Likely, it is impossible to give with a pure unselfish motive, even anonymously, or with a pure attitude of unconditional love. How can we keep our mind from considering the pleasure, or the reward, even if we believe in God and the world expects us to act in holiness, and not as the hypocrites?

We can have a primary good motive though. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th Century American theologian and preacher, wrote that our will is determined by our strongest motive or desire at the moment, such that our acts are the result of our competing desires.

Hobbes did not consider that we may have competing or complementary desires and motives. He also did not include the desire itself to help another in need as a reason for a free gift. He assumed personal gain as the general reason motivating all voluntary action. Acting out of love is not necessarily pleasurable, as in the case of “tough love” interventions or withdrawals of support for loved ones who are suffering from addiction. But even in that case, there is a hope for the recovery of the loved one, and freedom for a time, whether brief, from despair for their life.

We strive to act from unconditional love, but few of us have the ability to act even out of love without considering the impact of the proposed act on our selves. Can I afford it? Do I have the time? Will he become dependent? Will he get the wrong idea? These thoughts despoil the purity of charitable acts.

In my own life, despite my Christian beliefs, I struggle to give freely. I have often found that whenever a charitable proposal enters my mind, there is a counter-argument for not giving presented to my consciousness. There is nothing I can do about it.

Thus, it seems that the more I can keep myself out of the deliberation and charitable conduct, the more I satisfy the Biblical standard of purity of motive. I believe that the act of charity is the work of the Holy Spirit, whether we believe or not. For a Christian believer, however, in order to allow the Spirit to inspire us to do our good works, we need the grace of God. As Paul the Apostle wrote:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10 (New International Version)

If I act in blind obedience to God’s command to honor the request from the beggar on the street (or the inclination to respond to any charitable request), careful not to think about it or try to discern whether the beggar is deserving, I can approach a purity of motive, even though there is a natural discomfort to obey left in my nature that tries to gain my attention.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Luke 6:30 (New International Version 1984)

Taken literally and without the counsel of requirements of stewardship for what God provides, there would seem to be no limit to giving. To follow such a stringent command, we have to act in obedience and trust that God will only bring those into your path that you have the means to help.

In summary, I believe the best habits to develop are to pray for circumstances and desires that are God’s will for giving to others, and when we give charitably, to act out of obedience first and primarily, with an attitude of love for God and man, and dismiss as best we can, the thoughts of gain and good feelings that we cannot help but endure most of the time. Otherwise, the gift is never freely given, always done with selfish gain in mind, as Thomas Hobbes believed to be the case.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing hereinabove is intended to be or should be construed as a condemnation of quiet humble participation in public and civic charity and philanthropy. No trumpets sound when we write checks to large charities, and certainly no trumpets sound at the IRS if and when our charitable deduction is reviewed or entered into a database. Taking a charitable deduction for tax purposes is good stewardship, and is a legal incentive to help the needy.

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