Question: "What does the Bible say about altruism?"
Answer: Altruism is an unselfish concern for the welfare of others. An altruistic person gives generously of time and resources for no personal gain, and often at personal risk. A major theme of the Bible is godly altruism. As far back as the Mosaic Law, the Bible records God’s desire that His people care for the widows, the orphans, and the poor in their communities (Deuteronomy 26:12; Psalm 68:5; Zechariah 27:10). In the New Testament, James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Altruism is taught throughout Scriptures in a variety of ways. First, God commanded that His people “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 34; Galatians 5:14). Then Jesus modeled altruism during His years on earth (Matthew 7:12; Mark 10:42–45; John 13:3–5). And the New Testament writers echoed that theme by urging Christians to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4). Paul explained that Christians must “learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives” (Titus 3:14).
Tabitha (also called Dorcas) is an example of an altruistic person (Acts 9:36–39). This early Christian in Joppa spent her days helping the needy, and upon her death many people came forward to speak of all she’d done. They so grieved her untimely death that they called for Peter, who raised her from the dead (Acts 9:40–41). Jesus’ parable about the good Samaritan tells the story of altruism in action (Luke 10:25–37). The Samaritan had no personal agenda when he went out of his way to care for the wounded stranger. He received no benefit for his help and, in fact, bore the financial cost of doing good.
In public displays of charity, there is a fine line between true altruism and showmanship. Despite their attempts to give anonymously and privately, altruistic people are known for their good deeds and are usually greatly loved and respected. But that very response is a reward in itself, sometimes attracting emotionally needy people who wear themselves out trying to appear altruistic simply for the admiration it earns. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their open shows of piety when their hearts were filled with pride and greed (Matthew 6:3–5, 16, 18).
Altruism does not seek recognition or repayment. Even to our enemies, we are to give altruistically, “without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). Altruism avoids virtue signaling. It does not post a dozen photos of its good deeds on social media in order to evoke likes and comments. Altruism serves quietly and discreetly whether anyone else ever knows. Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 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” (Matthew 6:1–3). It is good when others see our altruism and are inspired to do the same. But when our motives are selfish, we are not practicing true altruism.
The human heart is incapable of pure altruism because it is self-seeking and prideful by default (Jeremiah 17:9). While we can train ourselves to behave in altruistic ways, our motives are often unknown even to us. However, God sees our hearts and judges our deeds according to what He finds there. We are enabled to live unselfishly when our greatest aim is to please our heavenly Father. When the Holy Spirit controls us, we are drawn to altruistic acts out of love for the Lord (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:10). Even Jesus Himself stated that “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19; cf. 8:28–29). Altruism begins with God and is reflected in us when we mirror His goodness.