By Jennifer Wickham
I was in graduate school when I was first introduced to the sociological theory of rational choice. Based in economic theory, it suggests that individuals are essentially motivated to make choices they believe to be in their best interest. To that end, people are always calculating and making decisions they think will somehow benefit them in some way.
Hard-core rational choice theorists will even go so far as to argue that there is no such thing as true altruism because even the most seemingly selfless acts are, at some level, self-motivated. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are selfish, but the theory argues that people do some form of cost-benefit analysis for every decision they make — and they ultimately decide to do the things which provide some benefit to them. Put another way: I wouldn’t do anything truly sacrificial unless there was something in it for me.
The theory has a number of academic critics, but I am personally critical because I don’t know how to reconcile it with the Christian message I’ve worked my whole life to absorb. The message of my faith asks me to take up my own cross daily. It wants me to give up my life for others. It implores me to turn the other cheek and forgive. I am to sit in the servant’s place at the feet of others. Jesus didn’t act in his own self-interest. Jesus is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice, and I want to live in the same way. All my life I have sought (with varying degrees of success) to follow this example fully.
If I am to be honest, I’m also a critic of this theory because it makes me supremely uncomfortable. I don’t want to consider that my desire to imitate Christ may be somehow self-serving. Ouch. What if a fearless moral inventory revealed that I secretly desire credit for my selfless actions? What about the warm, satisfied feeling I get when I do the right thing? Ouch ouch. Gratitude from others makes me feel good. My ego is stroked every time people compliment me for the charitable things I do. Ouch ouch ouch. Who am I beneath the works and words people see? What if I were discovered to be a fraud? These questions are thorns in my side.
I learned about Rational Choice Theory around the same time I became involved in a number of Episcopal projects in Haiti. My first trip there was six weeks after the 2010 earthquake, and it happened to correspond with Holy Week. I didn’t know what I would see. I didn’t know what it really meant to visit a place so frequently (and unfairly) reduced to being called “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” While quantifiably accurate, Haiti is much more than a bunch of statistics about poverty, life-expectancy, political instability and deforestation. I didn’t know how adequately to prepare, so I leaned even harder into my Lenten journey that year and asked God to help me see through the eyes of Jesus. I asked Christ to be my teacher and reveal himself to me in every person, smell, taste, and sight. I asked that I wouldn’t flinch when something made me uncomfortable and that I would truly surrender myself and be present as he would have me be.
But then those troubling questions would creep into my thoughts. Are you REALLY doing this because Christ has called you? Are you secretly seeking some kind of reward in Heaven for leaning so fully into your desire to be of service? Is all of this somehow motivated by an abstract desire for approval? Wouldn’t people be proud of you to see you be such a bold example of Christ’s love in the world? The thorns in my side would poke and puncture me at my most vulnerable moments, and it grieved me to confess during that Holy Week that there might be some element of truth within every single twinge I felt. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I am convinced that the wrestling I did that week changed me more than the experience itself did.
All these years later, I am still actively involved in Episcopal ministries in Haiti, and I continue to travel there frequently. I’m currently employed as a development coordinator for one of the Diocese of Haiti’s many worthwhile ministries. I don’t believe I will ever fully reconcile the Christ-likeness I seek with the humanness I possess, but I am certain that this continued internal wrestling will be one of the great works of my life.
One of Thomas Merton’s most famous prayers says,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”
“I believe the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.” Isn’t that a wonderful thought? God is able to see past my sinfulness and selfishness and see the true desires of my heart. My intent is to be an authentic child of God, and I pray that God sees this desire in spite of all the times I may really be seeking my own gain. The truth is, I sometimes worry about this so much that I get tangled up in my own self-analysis. It could paralyze me if I let it. But I keep moving. The questions — the thorns — keep me honest. They keep me focused and just uncomfortable enough to ensure that my dependence remains upon God and not on anything else. I keep walking the path as it unfolds before me, and I pray that God will increase as I decrease. I seek to reconcile these things within myself because I seek to reconcile myself to God. That is a process that will last a lifetime. I am, as a friend once said, “working out my salvation.” May it ever be thus.
For your own reflection:
Make your own examination of conscience. When you find that your motives for your actions are about you instead of God, confess that and move on.
Thomas Merton’s famous prayer is available in many places, including online. Search for “Thomas Merton prayer,” download it, print it out, and put it where you will see it every day. Here is one link
Jennifer Wickham works for the Diocese of Haiti as Development Coordinator for Saint Vincent’s Centre for Handicapped Children. She attends All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi TX. Reach her at