Utilitarianism tempts us to sit in the judgment seat over God. Could it be that as we pursue sophisticated efficiency and numbers (the two pillars of utilitarianism) we miss to discover the heart of God?
Today’s Christian thinking is deeply saturated with and trapped by utilitarianism. We’ve adopted our society’s moral normative of maximizing happiness and good (money, time, resources, opportunities) for the greatest number of people. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s moral code completely saturated our thinking and our decision-making process. Today churches, mission organizations and donors widely operate based on utilitarian principles as they seek how to maximize every invested dollar with other resources and turn them into the most number of saved souls. Utilitarianism created a deformed version of Christianity where EFFICIENCY and NUMBERS are the two idols by which the will of God is decided and by which stewardship is measured. Most times – out of good intention – decision-making processes in the churches and missions are only considering utilitarian aspects: where can we get the greatest return for our investment and resources? (Efficiency to maximize results is the mantra of our whole society.) And at many cases that could be the wise and good thing to pursue.
The Word of God encourages us to maximize our God-given resources as good stewards (see Mt 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents). However, this “maximizing” doesn’t always carry the utilitarian meaning of the word – which is maximizing the resources to benefit the greatest number of people. As we’ll see below, simply following utilitarian aspects in our decision-making processes might lead us far away from the heart of God.
In the following two stories from the life of Jesus we can observe how he addresses that spending money and time (two very valuable assets) should NOT only be decided by simple utilitarian aspects.
“Wasting” money – Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8
These stories in the Gospels are recording the anointing of Jesus. Mary poured a very expensive ointment on Jesus. The cost of that in today’s money is app. $40,000. The disciples – being (seemingly) so concerned for the well-being of the poor – immediately outraged and scolded Mary. They’ve used a utilitarian argument: “this resource could have been used much better to benefit the many most needy”. With this argument they’ve placed themselves to a morally superior position and subtly they’ve judged Jesus who allowed and supported such waste of a potentially valuable resource. (See how pure utilitarianism can place us in the judgment seat even over God.) They have a strong moral argument: a lot of people for a long time could be fed from this money that was just wasted.
Mary was isolated, bullied, judged, misunderstood and misrepresented for her costly, loving sacrifice just because it didn’t fit in the disciples’ utilitarian thinking. There are times when our obedience and sacrifice doesn’t make sense and it comes with a cost.
The disciples were very much like us: they knew how someone else should spend her money. They made moral judgement on her sacrifice. It was not their money, they didn’t work for it, it was not given to them to make a decision about it, yet they were bold enough to place themselves in the judgment seat just because it didn’t fit into their utilitarian “superior morality”.
Jesus not only rebukes them and corrects their false thinking, but makes a promise to Mary as well: “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her”.
She was the only person who has captured the moment and understood what will happen to Jesus. She was the only person who were so intimate and close to the heart of Jesus that she understood what she needs to prepare Jesus for. It’s ultimately more important to prepare Jesus for his saving death than to feed the poor.
But simple utilitarianism failed to understand the heart of God and to reveal such secret. Simply listing pros and cons and prioritizing needs do not always lead us to the heart of God. God’s heart can be only discovered in the intimate solitude by someone whose heart is silenced and is deeply connected to Jesus.
The number one question is not what benefits the most, but what glorifies God.
What is the will of God and how can I express my love for him the best way? – are more important questions and motivations than any utilitarian aspect.
We constantly fall back to rely on our default utilitarian decision-making process. Because to discover the will of God requires more than a simple list of pros and cons. It requires solitude, silence, humility and obedience at all cost. All these demands – as Henri Nouwen writes – “daring to stand in the presence of God”. We are afraid to do that, because probably it would demand too much to change in our life, in our churches and in our mission.
“Wasting” time – Luke 10:38-42
In this passage above we find Mary again now wasting her time at the feet of Jesus INSTEAD of doing something that benefits everybody in the community: helping Martha to serve the food. What Martha did benefited the maximum number of people: she fed the whole group. What Mary did – listening to Jesus – benefited only one person: herself.
Martha complained that Mary has not maximized her time for the benefit of others. She was not serving, not producing, was not creating tangible, measurable results for the community (at this case, food). We are also much like Martha, we are good in knowing how others should spend their time, right?
Jesus is rebuking Martha saying that sometime there are better ways to spend time than only meeting the needs of others and chasing tangible, measurable results. The “good portion” that Mary has chosen is solitude, is listening to Jesus, “which will not be taken away from her”. Our ministry, our services and our activities can be taken away. What Jesus did for the one, Mary, was better, then what Martha did for the whole group.
When we have moved to the U.S. many people told us that we are wasting our talents, our opportunities, our resources, we are putting unnecessary burdens on our kids and family, and that we could have been much better used, if we would have stayed where we were. We had the relational network, we had the language, we had the experience, we had the reputation, we had an established ministry, we had access, we had the knowledge and the know-how. Many people knew better how we should spend our time, life and resources.
Our decision was born from spending years in solitude and silence before the Lord. We knew we had to do the seemingly irrational, non-utilitarian sacrifice to leave our homeland. As Mary was willing to “waste” what she owned, we knew God wanted us to do the same and bare the misunderstanding, the misrepresentation, the disappointment and the anger of many.
If we don’t want to fall into the trap of utilitarianism, than we need to dare to stand in the presence of God and bare the consequences of it.