Tim Keller has said that a Christian is someone who knows that they need to repent not only for the wrong things they do, but for the reasons they do the right things. That is to say, whatever we do, no matter how seemingly altruistic, almost always has some sort of selfish motivation mixed in – as Joey points out to Phoebe in “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” (or so my wife tells me). Who would’ve thought that Joey Tribbiani would subscribe to what Calvin (following Sts. Augustine and Paul) called “total depravity”?

Further illustrating this point was a recent episode of the Planet Money Podcast, “Why Raising Money for Ebola is so Hard.” Apparently, even though Ebola is on track to kill thousands of people and has been almost obsessively covered by American media, thus far hardly any money has been donated to stop it. Contrast this with the Haiti earthquake ($1.4B raised from American citizens) and the Indian Ocean Tsunami  ($1.6B), and the question arises, why?

According to the experts interviewed by Planet Money, Ebola hasn’t generated any American philanthropy because it doesn’t fit the following criteria:

  1. It doesn’t entail any galvanizing moment, i.e. Ebola is not an event in the way that Haiti or the Tsunami were.
  2. West Africa is far away (or at least much farther than Haiti).
  3. Ebola is complicated. It’s not as easy to understand as a natural disaster.
  4. Donating to Ebola relief won’t involve building anything. It’s not to make things better, just to prevent them from getting worse.
  5. We don’t have the kinds of shocking images that we did of Haiti and the tsunami (and ISIS and Ray Rice, it could be noted.)

Wrap all of these factors up, as well as a few others mentioned by the Planet Money crew, and what becomes obvious is that people don’t really give in order to help others, but in order to make themselves feel good about helping others, and they give in very predictable ways. People may not be rational, but they are consistent.

Jesus made it abundantly clear that God cares just as much (perhaps even more!) about why we do things than about what we actually do(see Romans 14). With a bit of self-reflection, we begin to see that almost everything we do is self-serving, if only to convince ourselves of our own goodness. If God’s standard is perfect acts motivated by perfect love, then all of our supposed righteousness is truly like “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64.6) and we are in dire need of our own great Philanthropist.