There is an episode from the hit sitcom "Friends" where Joey and Phoebe are engaged in a philosophical debate about good deeds. Joey doesn't believe in any selfless deeds, in other words, when you do something good, then you will feel good for doing it thus making it a "selfish" act. Phoebe disagrees and sets out to do nice things for Joey without being "happy " about it. In the end, Phoebe is proven wrong as she donates money to a charity only to end up feeling good about it.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, asserted that the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive
any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is 'disinterested.' We
should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or
reward corrupts the act.
In other words, if we get any pleasure from doing good deeds or obeying God's commands, then we are selfish and it's not truly a good deed in the highest sense. In Kant's view, there is a higher level of morality in doing things minus enjoyment.
This philosophy does not ring true in the scriptures however as we read "delight in the law of the Lord" and "God loves a cheerful giver". It is amazing how philosophies of long ago can infiltrate our thinking as Christians. Recently, someone came to the church where I work to request benevolence. Since this is a common occurrence, I often hear stories that accompany such requests. Some testimonies are very creative in their content, while others I've heard many times. This particular woman told of health issues and how she needed assistance. My initial feeling was that I didn't need to hear the story this woman would tell because I was going to help her anyway. My job is not to determine if her story makes her worthy of assistance, my "job" is simply to help her.
It would be easy to make Christianity our "job". It would seem natural to make things like church attendance and tithing our Christian "duty". Immanuel Kant would definitely view Christianity that way because to him Christianity was merely an expression of some universal morality. In other words, any religion can serve the purpose of "doing good" in the world thus it doesn't matter what you believe about God as long as morality is achieved. The problem with this view, however, is that the question of being right with God goes unanswered and truth becomes relative.
Thankfully, being a Christian runs deeper and more eternally significant than morality. Submission and obedience to God shouldn't look different than submission and obedience in a marriage. Marriage, for example, is God's parable to show us what Christianity is supposed to be about. When you please your spouse there is also a sense of pleasing yourself in the process. What kind of marriage is built on mere duty? Valentine's Day is coming up and what kind of love is it where a husband buys flowers for his wife because it's his duty? Does he commemorate such days to avoid the misery his spouse will enact upon him in the coming days? Oh sure, a man does these things often to avoid pain, but wouldn't it be better if he simply embraced the joy he feels when he pleases his wife? Should he feel guilty for "feeling good" when he loves his wife? What about sexual intimacy? Should a spouse attempt to satisfy the other devoid of his own satisfaction? How preposterous is that?
And while 1 Corinthians 13 reveals that true love "seeks not it's own", we shouldn't interpret that to mean that we should avoid pleasure of any kind when we love others. There is an old saying that describes love as an action not a feeling. On the surface it seems logical, except that it's not true. In fact, true love always involves feelings. The better saying would be that "love is not just a feeling but rather a feeling that actively expresses itself." As John Piper passionately puts it, "Love is not a bare choice or mere act. It involves the affections. It does not just do the truth. Nor does it just choose the right. It rejoices in the way of truth."
So when Paul says "love does not seek out it's own", he's not saying "don't seek joy in loving others". Rather, he's saying don't seek selfish gain that is a "gain" that is impure. As Piper points out, there must be two kinds of "gain" because earlier in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul provides a list of "deeds" and informs us that without love "he gains nothing" in performing these deeds. So Paul is not against seeking "gain" for ourselves in the performing of loving acts. He is trying to teach us that God honoring deeds are loving acts motivated by feelings of joy!
When the lady I mentioned earlier told me her story of health problems
and great financial need, I was overcome with feelings of compassion.
Yes, feelings! I still don't know if she was telling the truth, yet in
that moment, I knew she needed compassion and I wanted to help her.
Afterward, I felt good that I helped her (with someone else's
resources), and I felt good that I was compassionate. But later, I
felt like Phoebe Buffay did at the end of the show. That somehow, my
deed was worthless because I felt good about myself. After much thought, I realized my deed would have been worthless in the eyes of God if I had performed it out of mere duty. But wait! Kant would say, "it doesn't matter how you felt because the woman was helped when you gave her a food card." In retrospect, and as a rebuttal, I would say that this particular woman didn't need a food card, she needed to experience compassion! She needed someone to "feel" compassionate for her! We all do.
What are the practical implications? First, we need to shed the cloak of guilt for seeking pleasure. Next, we need to seek pleasure in the things God commands us to do and realize that feelings are not only acceptable but God-pleasing. As Paul states "love rejoices in all things and hopes in all things". These are feelings. Love does not perform Christian service out of dutiful feelings. It's not love in that case. If I give money to the church from a sense of duty or superstition, then it really would be better that I don't at all. God will not bless dutiful giving. (now, I'm sure your Pastor would rather you give money to the church whether you want to or not)
Finally, we need to recognize God as the ultimate pleasure we seek! Psalm 16:11 tells us "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
We need to let go of the Kantian philosophy that Christianity and morality are equals. Christianity is more like "base jumping" than morality. True Christianity is for thrill-seekers of all ages because it is a pursuit of God! The joy is robbed when we replace the glory of God with our own righteousness because Christianity that is practiced from mere duty is not Christianity at all.