John Piper on Altruism

I think Piper may have paid us a backhanded compliment in a recent column at Crossmap:

… Doing right for right’s sake is atheistic. Christian’s should do what’s right for God’s sake; because the Bible teaches us to do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). But God is not glorified if we leave him out of account, and say that doing a right deed is it’s own justification. Nothing is its own justification, if God is left out.

Piper is rejecting altruism. Not because he doesn’t believe it exists but because he doesn’t believe it is right. We should do good works for God’s sake, because that glorifies and brings us closer to Him.

It’s been said that the core of Reformed Christianity is the absolute majesty and honor of God. It makes sense that everything you do should revolve around honoring God. It makes you look like a bit of a toady, but I suspect that Piper would take that as a compliment.

Suppose I go to visit Ethel in the hospital, an older lady who just had a heart attack. I lay my hand on her tiny arm and she opens her eyes and says, “O pastor, you didn’t need to come.” Suppose I respond, “I know, but it was my duty to come. It was the right thing to do for it’s own sake. So I came.” That answer, does not make Ethel feel loved.

But suppose I say, “I know, but it always makes me happier in God, Ethel, to bring some encouragement to you, and lift you up into what the Lord has promised.” Ethel would never say, “You are so selfish. All you ever think about is what makes you happy.” She wouldn’t feel this, even though I did say, “It always makes me happier. . .” And the reason she wouldn’t is that my pursuit of more joy in God by doing good to her, and wanting her to be part of it, is what genuine love is.

Here I’m reminded that Martin Luther was a monk and Calvin was a lawyer. Human relationships weren’t their specialty. Simply telling Ethel that you value her and her happiness would do more for her than giving her a sermon on God’s worthiness. People like to be valued, but I suspect that Piper follows the rigid logic of his tradition and says that only God has value.

May God protect us from the atheistic notion of doing right for right’s sake.

If you want to hang the banner of altruism around our necks, Mr. Piper, we’ll be happy to wear it.

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  • The Other Weirdo

    Suppose I respond, “I know, but it was my duty to come. It was the right thing to do for it’s own sake. So I came.” That answer, does not make Ethel feel loved.

    Who talks like that? I suppose people who think doing right for right’s sake is wrong.

  • Michael

    In both cases he says nothing about the woman he is talking to, Ethel. In both cases he says he came out of duty. How about saying you actually wanted to see her?

    • guest

      I was about to say this. How about visiting Ethel for Ethel’s sake? To me, real love is putting the person you love first.

      If someone came to visit me and said they were doing it for God’s sake
      I’d feel like they were pretending to care about me to boost their own
      ego. I’d also wonder why God never brought me any grapes. Or a ‘get
      well’ card.

  • BobaFuct

    So basically, he’s saying that Christian morality is nicely summed up in the song “Santa Claus is coming to town.”

  • GCBill

    I…don’t get Piper’s thinking at all. Normally, when we call an action morally good, its goodness is sufficient reason for us to perform it. Most Christians understand this, hence why they’ll make God’s will/word the ultimate justification or source of goodness, as opposed to denying the validity of altruistic action. Piper alludes to this school of thought briefly when he says that “Nothing is its own justification, if God is left out.” Notice that if he’s right, it necessarily follows that there is *no such thing* as good for goodness’ sake. So he should have concluded right out of the gate that altruism was impossible. Yet if you read the student’s question, Piper makes a point of circumventing the ontological issue altogether. If he understood the implications of his own claims, he should’ve made the point that what *appears* to be altruistic actually isn’t (because while done for its own sake, it isn’t actually good). Am I asking too much for some logical consistency in the views I find abhorrent?

    • kessy_athena

      Is it too much to ask for logical consistency? In a word, yes. Remember that for people thinking in terms of ideology, logic is simply a means of reinforcing the conclusions they’ve already reached about why they’re so much better then everyone else. When logic (or anything else) fails to serve that purpose, it gets chucked overboard without a second thought.

      • Michael

        It might be worth pointing out that most people don’t throw out logic on purpose, they just don’t realize how hard they’re rationalizing.

        (Some people do in fact throw out logic on purpose, though.)

        • kessy_athena

          That’s certainly true. And ideology has a certain perverse logic all its own. I suppose the real lesson is to never underestimated the human power of rationalization, or our ability to lie to ourselves. Of course using logic to justify a decision after the fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all do it all the time. Most of the time, humans make decisions quickly, intuitively, subconsciously. Our conscious minds then play catch up and provide a rationalization for the decision. I think the problem arises when we put too much credence in our quick decisions because we believe our own rationalizations too much.

  • Mark Joseph

    Ma taught us to tell the truth because otherwise we would be punished and go to Hell. Our father taught us to be honest because truth is good in itself. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Infidel”, p. 45