We know that selfishness is a major problem in our lives. But what about our self-interest? Dr. Anne Bradley says there’s an important distinction between self-interest and selfishness.

“I think this makes people squeamish at first, because we feel like we’re not supposed to be self-interested but other-interested. I make a pretty bold claim here, which is that self-interest is how God designed us.”

“Let’s take a very simple example: you wake up in the morning…you probably eat breakfast or drink some coffee. It is in your self-interest based on your God-given creation and design that you need to eat; eating perpetuates your life, which is in your self-interest. That’s the way we need to think about self-interest: it is the mechanism by which we choose things.”

In contrast, Bradley says greed and selfishness is a very different concept.

“If I’m greedy, that’s an unmitigated desire, that self-interest turned a corner, and I’m going to do anything that I want to get what I want. For example breaking into your house in the middle of the night and taking your wallet. I might make myself a little bit richer in that moment, but the fabric of society is destroyed and property rights are not respected. So there’s this huge ripple effect that’s negative. Greed is very destructive for a person’s soul, in terms of respecting what God has created and how we’re supposed to act; it has these bigger consequences for a society.”

“Humans are self-interested, they have a self love; this is true…but that can be virtuous It can actually make contributions to the public good if we have the right incentives. It’s the difference between Bernie Madoff running a Ponzi scheme and stealing from people, and Bill Gates who says I want to make money, but to make money I’m going to start a company, I’m going to serve people, and give them products they need and want. There’s a big difference between those two sets of behavior.”

We can use our self-interests, our skills, talents, and needs, to help and serve others. Bradley says the key to understanding prosperity is found in Scripture.

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:7

“Prosperity is mutual. Prosperity isn’t I win because I’ve taken from you.  If I steal your wallet, I’m a little bit better off because of what I’ve taken from you; I’ve rearranged resources. Prosperity isn’t about rearranging resources. It’s about creating more than what there was before. This idea of flourishing, increasing the well-being of myself, is predicated on increasing the well-being of others.”

Anne Bradley is the Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, where she develops and commissions research toward a systematic biblical theology of economic freedom.

Can self-interest please God?