If someone does a morally good action because they fear God, which is a selfish motive, surely this means it is not a morally selfless action.
In the same way, if any morally good action is not spontaneous, is it truly morally good?
Jesus telling people to show god's love and those people then going out and feeding the hungry, means those helpers have an ulterior motive and may have not helped if Jesus had commanded otherwise.
So in conclusion: are all Christian selfless acts of kindness truly selfless or even morally good? Can you be selfish and morally good?

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    If you'll forgive me speaking for Christians, it seems to me that those who worship out of fear are the least faithful of that (or any) faith. Those who are strongest in faith act out of love and joy, because they know that no one has anything to fear. True faith is a wonderful thing. Would that more people in the world had it... Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 0:19
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    I Christianity "morally good" means "according to God's will", not selfless. If the fear of God induces them to do what God wills then that is good, and by implication, so is the fear of God. And generally, "selfless actions have selfish motives" is an old fallacious argument based on confusing terms and equivocation, see Is altruism a contradiction?
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 0:19
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    This problem is well-known in the contemplative tradition of Christianity. There are even prayers that ask for protection from acting only to please God, for just the reasons you mention. .
    – user20253
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 12:59
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    i think the close is too quick.
    – user38026
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 5:00
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    Couldn't agree more @another_name. And what's "community" in the closer-list? This q is strongly within christian context. That one not. To club them together is a gross loss of nuance
    – Rushi
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 5:54

6 Answers 6


If any morally good action is not spontaneous, is it truly morally good?

I give to a certain charity in a regular basis - it's part of my written budget, and I have auto-pay set up with my bank for it. I selected that charity in particular after considering what causes are important to me and researching the charity in question to make sure that they were financially responsible and were having an impact on the cause that I want to support. Does the fact that I'm not doing it spontaneously mean that it's not morally good?

If anything, I'd argue that if it was spontaneous, it would be less good because that would imply that I didn't research the charity, that I did not consider how much I can afford to give, that I haven't considered what causes were important to me, and that I haven't made plans for regular support of the organization. That would mean that I'd be giving less overall and that my giving would be more sporadic (which would mean that that the charity would have a less predictable income) and that my gifts may have less of an impact (if the charity wasn't very good because I didn't do research, for example).

are all Christian selfless acts of kindness truly selfless or even morally good? Can you be selfish and morally good?

The assumption embedded in this is that acting in your self-interest is bad, but acting contrary to (or at least without consideration of) your self-interest is good. That assumption is not clearly true by any means. I suppose that Kant would agree with this, but many others have disputed this, and some philosophers (most notably Ayn Rand) have argued that the exact opposite is true.

If someone does a morally good action because they fear God, which is a selfish motive

This has a false dilemma embedded in it because it assumes that the only reason that a Christian would do a good act is because they they're trying to win God's blessing or avoid punishment. In Christianity, the phrase "fear God" actually has a more subtle meaning than "I'm afraid that He's going to punish me" - it's more like "awe/respect". The entire concept of Christianity is that Christ's work frees us from a quid pro quo relationship with God, so claiming that we should do a good act to win God's favor or avoid His punishment would be terrible theology.

That being said, there are plenty of other possible reasons for Christians to do good works. For example, what if they do some morally good act because they love God, or because they've had their lives changed by their faith and genuinely enjoy doing good works? Indeed, Aristotle and others have long argued that truly virtuous people are intrinsically motivated to be virtuous.


Welcome Arlo Curley

A good, stimulating question though I doubt if it can be answered except against the background of assumptions about the nature and character of God's activity. On which, I might add, there is not likely to be consensus even among Christians. Also I am going to suggest that the question is unanswerable non-circularly.

In other words, whether and in what sense any Christian action - human action for the Christian - can be 'truly good' depends on the the nature and character of God's activity which is its necessary and fundamental context. And the nature and character of God's activity are essentially contestable.

But an answer can be ventured. May I stress that what follows is not the statement of a personal devotional viewpoint - I could be an atheist - but an exploration of the conceptual components, if we can identify them, of what counts as a good Christian action. Anyone, Christian or non-Christian, could assent to or reject these components depending on what they, on careful conceptual reflection, take the logic of Christian belief to be.

The nature and character of God: humans as agents only in a secondary sense

All Christians do not agree on basic beliefs. It is no surprise, therefore, that Christians hold different understandings regarding the nature of human moral activity. One motif many Christians do share regarding the nature of moral action is that, properly speaking, humans are not actors. Rather, moral activity, like all forms of human activity, is at best a response, a second step, to God's historical activity. Only God is an actor in the full sense of the word; humans are responders. (Ismael García, 'A Christian Interpretation of Moral Action', Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 18 (1998), pp. 187-190: 187.)

So a good Christian action is (whatever else it may be) an action of response. To what?

Background 1: God as lawgiver

A response to God as lawgiver. Here we think of an ethics of divine commands:

[Those] Christians who understand God as a lawgiver will emphasize the moral virtues and duties of obedience. Obedience to God's law, given in the Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount, becomes a primary moral obligation. Moral action is identified with obedience to laws or commandments that define duties. And insofar as biblical narratives are central to the moral formation of Christians, moral responsibility is attempting to discern and specify those principles contained therein that provide guidance. Such an ethic would emphasize the good traits intrinsic to the actions God requires from humankind. These laws, rules, and principles are defined as good in themselves because they fit with the nature of creative beings who need to be treated with integrity. In particular, these guidelines respond to a basic need that human dignity be respected and nourished. They also support the creation of those structural requirements that make it possible for people to experience the multiple joys and challenges of living in stable and ordered communities. Both the obligation to respect human dignity and of sustaining structures that allow for life in community are prerequisites for any kind of human flourishing. Moral activity is necessary for us as creatures to meet the basic human need for integrity and continuity. (García: 187.)

On this approach a good Christian action is one that (a) obey's God's laws, and does so not from fear of divine punishment but because those laws are seen (or better: taken on faith) as intrinsically good rules and principles for (c) the correct conduct of life for finite, created beings such as ourselves.

Background 2: God and God-given goals

A good Christian action might be seen from a different angle - as a response to God's purposes:

Other Christians understand God's historical activity as setting and/or pointing to those goals or ends that make life worth living. For them, clarity of vision and the prudential skills of choosing good means that will result in the desired good ends (notice that both means and ends must be good) constitute the core of human moral action. The kingdom or reign of God, the pursuit of Shalom, the realization of peace and justice are identified as goals worth pursuing. Actions that bring one closer to these ends will be identified as obligatory and good. Such consequential mode of moral thinking responds to the awareness that as created finite creatures and incomplete beings, humans long to fulfill those potential talents bestowed by God. Moral activity is more than duty and obedience, it is primordially one's inclination to contribute to the well-being of others, particularly to the realization of their talents. Moral obligations and duties therefore respond not only to our need of stability and integrity but also to our basic need for growth and change. (García: 187.)

In this view morality and sin are not so much disobedience but the pursuit of wrong ends, and carelessness in choosing good means, both of which distort the goals we are called to bring correctly about. Salvation or grace therefore consists of regaining the right vision, correctly identifying goals, and developing the virtue of courage that allows one to remain steadfast in pursuit of God-given goals. (García: 187.)

On this approach a good Christian action is one that (a) pursues God-given goals (not laws) precisely because (b) those goals are (believed or taken on faith to be) part of the correct vision God has for (c) how we ought to stand in relation to God's purposes and to treat one another.

Background 3: God and God's creative purpose

Still other Christians view God as neither a law giver nor a goal setter. Rather, God is a historical actor whose ... acts bring forth new beginnings. Moral activity consists of discerning both what God is doing in the world and what is a proper or fitting response to God's action. There are no particular laws or goals that exhaust what a person ought to do. Rather, people are called to be creative discerners and responders to the new occasion God creates through God's action. As we confront moral dilemmas, and in all that we do, we must act as if we are responding to God's creative purpose. The center of the moral life is to develop the kind of character traits that allow us to see and relate to all things as they are valued by God.(García: 188.)

In this view sin consists of making a particular finite entity the center of our valuing; that is, elevating to the status of God those things that are of lesser value. Sin also manifests itself as our lack of responsibility or our devaluing what God values as part of God's good creation. Salvation and grace consist in learning how to relate to all things as created and valued by God. (García:188.)

This gives the notion of a good Christian action what I'm inclined to call an existentialist turn. In any situation for action no-one and nothing - church, priest or sacred text - is a reliable, let alone an infallible, guide to 'what is a proper or fitting response to God's action'. We must use imagination, inference, and empirical knowledge to try to discern what response to make.

The fatal bite of circularity

All these answers can do is to answer the question, 'Can any Christian action truly be morally good ?', against the background of assumptions about the nature and character of God's activity. Minus those assumptions, no answer can be constructed. But even with those assumptions the questions has a fatal flaw. Only if we have an independent criterion, or set of criteria, for what the moral goodness of an action consists in, can we assess the moral goodness of a Christian action.

A Christian may reject the need for any such criterion, since any account of moral goodness must rely on an understanding of the goodness which is immanent in God. God is morally good, and any account of the moral goodness of an action must be in some way dependent on, derivative from, that.

A Christian will know this, so the question is unnecessary; and for a non-Christian the answer must be given via extra-Christian criteria for morally good action. There is no rational consensus on what such criteria might be.

  • It is a circular argument, you claim circularity is "bad" because circularity is "bad" and then proceed to project this circularity and an interpretation showing a selective bias. All Christian's have a common core of beliefs where Christ is an authority giver, to say they don't is a fallacy. Points one an two are circular as well considering the Christian in pursuing God given goals does so, even altruistically, out of some fear or cause and effect (ie no good is bad), thus altruism necessitates a causal nature where expected benefits are inseperable from the act.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 18:44
  • Welcome. I am not attacking religion, Christianity or the Christian explanation of a morally good action. If you are a Christian, then you presumably are satisfied that you know why an action is morally good. In any case, to say why the action is morally good, you have no materials except those provided by your Christian faith. You cannot break outside this circle of belief. If you are a non-Christian, you need a criterion independent of Christianity to judge whether the action is morally good - independently of Christianity because you (the generic 'you) are not a Christian.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 19:14
  • 'All Christian's have a common core of beliefs where Christ is an authority giver, to say they don't is a fallacy.' My argument, centred on God, explored different but mutually compatible ways in which Christians understand the role of God in relation to the moral life. Christianity admits of such conceptual nuance. And on a minor point, a denial is not and cannot be a fallacy. Fallacy occurs only where there is an argument; there is no argument, only statement in 'All Christian's have a common core of beliefs where Christ is an authority giver'. Btw I said nothing about this core
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 19:40
  • actually much of Christian interpretation is grounded in Pagan and Non Pagan philosophers (particularly Aquinas works as a synthesis) as well as many of the Faith's rituals reaching outside into Judaic and Pagan elements. Even many of the Desert Fathers have heavy Buddhist elements in there writing (which they do not directly point to). As to a second point, as denial can be a fallacy when using a false context to justify that denial. All arguments are statements as all arguments effectively are tautologies of statements.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 20:45
  • As to the statement about the "core", you seem to imply a percievably absense which can only be justified by an outside source to avoid circularity however that outside source must also be justified by an outside source thus leading to circularity or an infinite regress, with the tautological nature of this regress still necessitating circularity. To summarize my stance, the issue is less one of substance but rather form as the form both determines and exists through that substance.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 20:48

Aquinas was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and defined virtue as an ordering toward the good (ST 1-2 Q 57, A1, Reply)

He also defines the fear of God by saying, "in relation to God the evil of fault can come to us, if we are separated from Him: and in this way God can and ought to be feared" (ST 2-2, Q 19, A1 Answer).

The fear of God then is not a fear of "God is going to be angry with me". And, as far as I know, his concept of virtue resists transactional selfishness.

Something else to consider: there is a sense within several medieval Christian mystics (Eckhart, Porete, Mechthild, etc.) that the Christian who focuses on acting virtuous in fact lacks virtue. The true goal of a Christian, for them, is a spiritual union with God where they lose sense of themselves and are so focused on God that the concern for "right" and "wrong" is secondary.

These mystics seem to have a sense of right and wrong that is based on love and charity, and not on a set of rules "Do X because Jesus says Y" or "Do X otherwise God will be angry". There is also no strict legalism here, as far as I can tell.

Based on the above, I suspect that some formulations of Christian ethics may avoid the selfish, transactional, or legalistic frameworks the OP was concerned with. But ultimately, how you evaluate their ethics will largely depend on what ethical system you are coming from.

And also: there do seem to be a number of Christians who have a soteriologically oriented ethics, which does seem inherently selfish. Then there are some, like the "red letter" Christians, whose ethics seems legalistic. But to label all Christians, or all systems of Christian thought, thusly seems to risks the fallacy of a hasty generalization.


If someone does a morally good action because they fear God, which is a selfish motive, surely this means it is not a morally selfless action. In the same way, if any morally good action is not spontaneous, is it truly morally good?

This statement is controversial because according to the New Testament as told by Jesus Christ God is not to be feared because it is a "God of love". Also actions based on fear can be altruistic e.g. "fear not for what may happen to you but fear for what may happen to a loved one."

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" John 13:34

Non-spontaneous good actions can be morally good. Your actions may be based on what you think it's ethical or the right thing to do or compatible with the spiritual teachers you believe in even when you feel bad about taking those actions (envy, rage, resentment etc).

"Vengeance is Mine" Deuteronomy 32:35 New King James Version

Love can be both selfish and selfless. You can give away love because you enjoy it or as a way to fight other attitudes such us intolerance or hatred. This is not only valid in Christianity. e.g. the 1960's slogan "Make love not war"

It's impossible to know what the real motives for each person are. Some will act because they want to improve their "souls" others because they are tired of rage and hatred and want to learn to love, others because they expect to be rewarded in heaven or because they seek salvation. In Christianity people are not meant to judge other people's actions, souls and motives that's only for God to decide. In this religion each individual as a personal and private relationship with God. Ultimately it's up to you to have faith or not...

God is the only lawgiver and judge. He alone can save and destroy. Who do you think you are, to judge someone else? James 4:12


People sacrifice by nature.

You can work 80 hours a week and sacrifice for a paycheck.

Or play video games 80 hours a week and sacrifice for some pleasure.

Or balance it out.

Either way, considering the limited amount of time you have, you are sacrificing your times for a perceivable end.

Any message, in this case Christian, is a means of directing this natural self sacrificial quality.

As to the reason, something beyond oneself or the self becomes vague when the self is perceived as an extension of the environment.

This nature of "directing sacrifice" is not really covered in depth by any major philosophers I am aware of. At best you are looking at the philosophy of Nagarjuna and the instrinsic emptiness of being as close to it.


The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom...

is a well-known proverb from the old testament. Looking it up I find it interesting that there is a second clause

... and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

The first thing to note is fear is the beginning.

And it's evidently a good beginning

And then we move on...

To a unitary knowledge that is (true) understanding

IOW there is a gradation of steps starting at fear

This is spelled out in a different culture and context in the mythological text the Shiva Purana where Parvati is instructed about how to be a chaste wife as she is about to marry Shiva.

The mytholog background is that after terrific penance and austerity for aeons Parvati has attained to the unattainable Shiva.

The metaphysic of this is that Parvati represents the soul who from life to life yearns for God – Shiva. And after interminable time does finally attain.

These are the instructions she is given

A chaste lady sanctifies the worlds, destroys sins and is blessed. None else is so worthy of respect.

O gentle lady, the chaste ladies can be divided into four classes. Even when they are remembered they dispel sins. The divisions comprise of the supreme, middling etc.

They are supreme, middling, inferior and very inferior. I shall explain their characteristics. Listen with attention.

O gentle lady, she whose mind is not aware of any one else and who is conscious of her husband even in her dreams is the noblest of all.

O daughter of the mountain, she who sees another man as her father, brother or son with a clean conscience is the middling among chaste ladies.

O Pārvatī, she who ponders over her duty mentally and desists from going astray is inferior among the chaste. Of course she is pure in conduct.

She who remains chaste for fear of her husband or the family is very inferior among the chaste ladies, so say the ancient poets.

O Pārvatī, these four types of chaste ladies dispel sins. They sanctify all the worlds. They are delighted here and hereafter.

IOW it seems to me that here too one may start inferior and climb the ladder!

What I find strikingly analogous in the Christian and the Hindu versions is

  • Whereas fear is the lower rung
  • The sense of the Unitary is the highest

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