Here is a theme you are probably thinking about, but one I haven’t covered. It has to do with the levels of motivation. Are there some motives that are higher and more noble than others? Sure. Here is a quick overview of how most moral thinkers approach this.
1|| The lowest level of motivation is always that of SELF-INTEREST.
Now, please notice that does not mean it is a bad motive, just that it is the lowest. And also the most inescapable. We rarely initiate doing something that is not in our self-interest.
I became a Christian out of self-interest. I was lost and I wanted to be found. I didn’t have a God worth following and I wanted a Good God (named Jesus). My life was a mess and had the looming potential to get a whole lot worse. I wanted a better life. In the big picture, I wanted to go to heaven and I was pretty sure that before Jesus I was headed in the other direction.
For these reasons, and many others, I became a Christian. I wanted the benefits of Christianity. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Jesus tells us what the benefits are: “I came so you might have life…” Now, to be fair, Jesus also says there is a cost. But when I compared the cost of following Jesus with the benefits, it was a no-brainer choice.
You will often do things that are in your own self-interest. This is not bad. It is a starting point. And sometimes you will have to do better that that.
2|| The second level of motivation is usually framed as DUTY or OBLIGATION to what is right.
There are right things to do. Sometimes, those right things will interfere with your preferred best interests, but you go ahead and do them anyway because it is the right thing to do AND you have a senses of duty about what is the right thing.
Please know this. Duty is a good thing. Obligation is a good thing. Responsibility and commitment are good things. It is how life works. It is the nature of reality. There are times when I must do something as a pastor that maybe isn’t required, but it is kind of expected. And it is definitely good. Those optional duties may interfere with something else I wanted to do, but they are good and right things, and so I do them and later figure out my backup plan.
Here is what happens. For most of us, when we do opt to do our duty and fulfill our obligations, we actually do get some benefit from it. We get the benefit of satisfaction at having done what is good. We get the benefit, even if we don’t see it, of having our character formed in us.
3|| The third level of motivation is ALTRUISM.
Altruism is doing what needs to be done for the sake of others. It is not so much duty, but a sense of humanity and the humane, the good and the beautiful, and for the love of another.
Altruism does what it does out of love and compassion. A lot of generosity soars to this level. Those extra steps of kindness, those times when you go out of your way to meet the need of another— you do so because love motivates you. Now you are living and breathing in the best forms of motive. You are far removed from guilt, shame, fear, regret, pride, or any other motive. Love is at the core.
4|| Many Christian ethicists add one more deep motive called AGAPE.
I see AGAPE as altruism on steroids. This is altruism supercharged. This is altruism that is ready to go to extraordinary lengths and make exceptional sacrifices. There are no conditions and no expectations of reciprocity.
There are many times when I am altruistic in my motives. There are a few times when I skirt close to the realm of AGAPE.
Oh, and by the way, AGAPE is the air God breathes and AGAPE is always the motivation for God. AGAPE is how and why God turned enemies into children, strangers into friends, sinners into saints.
Why this matters is simple. God is remaking us so we are like God in our inner world of virtue and character. That means God is taking us to the place where we live and move out of AGAPE. It’s a very good place.
Headed, by grace, with you toward that very good place of AGAPE,