journey post 21: Altruism and God
“Altruism” is a word from my high school days. It was something spoken about often in the early 1960s. It was an idea stunningly captured in the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
When I began to notice the word, I thought it had something to do with being “true.” And it does, in a way. Our word comes through French from Latin, alteri huic, “to this other.” Altruism has to do with disinterested impartiality and selfless concern for others. It is to do the right thing for the greater good. So it is about being true—to something outside ourselves.
Why the language lesson? Two reasons. First, it’s a good reminder for me that being selfless is not my first natural tendency. Secondly, it’s the bottom-line message of conscience: you know, that little voice (I can still hear Jiminy Cricket singing about it) that occasionally gets through the noise to tell us how we should be treating others. How we treat others is what the “golden rule” is all about.
When I was a young man reading Mere Christianity, I understood from C.S. Lewis about the “law of human nature” (his name for what conscience tells us) that we all violate it. But back then, I had no clue about the depth of my self-centeredness. While I eventually acknowledged that I was a sinner needing salvation, I remained blind to much of the hard-core of self-will that would become the genesis of my “zigzag journey.” God’s patience with me seems even now more incredible because, in so many ways, I have been like Jesus’ disciples in the years before the crucifixion when they were most blatantly jockeying for privileged self-advancement and position in the Kingdom of God.
I missed a big lesson while reading Lewis in 1970. I was in such a hurry to get Jesus figured out that I didn’t take enough time to ponder many things Lewis had to say. As a result, I missed a good half of what the law of human nature had to tell me about the God who wired conscience into the human psyche. When I put Lewis’ little book down, I still shared the predominant view of God in American culture (even within American Evangelical culture) that God is primarily the fearsome majestic judge upon the throne of heaven, waiting to mete out judgment upon sinners. There is truth in that picture, but it is only part of the truth….
There is another part made known by conscience—and it took me decades to see that part: Conscience tells us that we should be disinterestedly selfless (i.e., altruistic) in our actions toward others, so it must be that God greatly values this quality, and if he values it so highly, it must then reflect something about who he is and what he is like.
God is himself selfless.
Come again? God … selfless? I have never once thought of God in quite that way, nor have I heard other believers say it this way. “Selfless”? It just doesn’t seem to fit in the same sentence with the idea that God jealously guards his glory. Yet the apostle John wrote in one of his letters (1 John) that “God is light” and “God is love.” They are the two themes upon which the letter hangs, the basis on which he writes about Christian behavior. “Light” has to do with understanding, purity, truth, and justice—the essence of disinterested impartiality. Love, as detailed by John in his letter, is all about loving others selflessly and non-hypocritically. Come to think of it, Christians often have trouble putting those two concepts (light and love) together in living out everyday life.
Lest I be accused of trying to ignore that fearsome God of judgment, consider this: I often hear this description expressed in terms of what he’s going to do to people (sinners). Judgment will come; it is an important aspect of Jesus’ teaching that merits our attention. But the picture of a fearsome God waiting to judge also teaches that God is passionate: he is passionate about good and evil. He passionately loves one and hates the other. There is something else that needs to be considered here. That picture often gets interpreted as saying that God is fiercely eager to rain fire and brimstone on hated sinners. There is another possibility here (which I personally understand to be what Scripture tells us): that God is waiting to make all things right. That is a discussion for a later time.
I’ve been reading the first part of a new book by Simon Sinek called Leaders Eat Last, in which Sinek applies to business practice an idea he first noticed in military chow halls: leaders wait until their people are taken care of first—i.e., a good leader sees to their needs above his own. I saw the principle in combat during my final days in Vietnam. On the same day I was wounded, my company commander, Captain David Walsh, died living out that idea. Capt. Walsh’s section of the perimeter was drawing sniper fire. He led a small group of men out to get that sniper. The Captain was the one who went first, found and killed the sniper, then drew out another and killed him. He himself was finally brought down by a third sniper. David Walsh’s undaunted courage and willing sacrifice for us, his men, lives on. He was a “servant-leader.” His legacy of servant-leadership—putting the lives of his men above his own—was made real to me that day.
Captain David Walsh (Middle picture shows him with his wife, Bonnie. Bottom picture shows him with the mortar platoon on our final operation.) *
Jesus once said, “Greater love has no man than this, than that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” Capt. Walsh did that.
I bring this up because it is a memorable example of altruism, and it tells us something about how we were made to be, something about life, something that is not restricted to the field of battle. It finds its greatest fulfillment in the mundane routines of our lives.
If it is true that human beings are created “in the image of God,” as Scripture says, then selflessness, that remarkable quality that we see only on occasion in our fellow creatures—must certainly be a reflection of him in us.
*The two top pictures can be found at: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/dwwalsh.htm, along with a copy of his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross. Bottom photo by Eugene Holland.