Standing before graduates and cast in the role of "some old fart, his best years behind him," American writer George Saunders looked to redefine traditional notions of success and failure.

Saunders delivered a poignant convocation address at Sycracuse University, which was published this week at The New York Times and has ricocheted through social media. Random House has even said it will even publish an expanded form of the speech in a book entitled Congratulations, By the Way in the spring of 2014.

The best life, Saunders argued, wasn't the most ambitious, the most prosperous, or the most notable. Rather, it was the most benevolent: "You could do worse than: Try to be kinder."

"What I regret most in life are failures of kindness," admitted Saunders to the eager-faced Syracuse graduates. "Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."

For being so "facile," his words on kindness are arresting. The vista of Saunders's moral vision opens to us with expansive beauty. Yet, if we were to be honest, we know that we betray our own desires for it. We love virtue and are beholden to vice.

Why do we fail to be kind when we know kindness to be so intrinsically right? And why does Saunders's advice feel, well—so impossible?

Saunders suggests we cure selfishness to attain to the measure of kindness. We medicate ourselves with art, education, prayer, meditation, and friendship. We abandon the notion that "we are central to the universe." We fight our Darwinian "built-in confusions," which "cause us to preference our own needs over the needs of others." When selfishness is strangled, kindness will flourish.

There is some inherent biblical wisdom in these words. Despite our reflexive megalomania, we are not central to the universe: "In the beginning, God," Scripture begins—as if anticipating the reminder we would need. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul describes well our "built-in confusions" in Romans 7:15: "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." And finally, Jesus Christ serves as the example that each of us must look "not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others," (Phil. 2:4).

We Christians hold this much in common with Saunders. However, we could not agree with him that our greatest virtue is kindness and our greatest vice selfishness—at least not as he defines them.

Article continues below

To make kindness into an ultimate virtue is to insist that our most important moral obligations are those we owe are to our fellow human beings. Under Saunders's assumptions, the only plane of human behavior with moral import is the horizontal one: neighbor to neighbor. Sin is exclusively defined as the harm we do to one another.

But Scriptures does not support this view. Instead, it describes sin primarily as offense against God. As an example, David, guilty of adultery and murder, cried out in confession to God, "Against you, you only, have I sinned!" (Ps. 51:2). Sin, in biblical terms, amounts to more than crimes against humanity.

In fact, many theologians have agreed that the first of the Ten Commandments serves as a kind of linchpin for the entire list of rules. Obey the first command—You shall have no other gods before me—and one will naturally obey the prohibitions against murder and adultery. Vice and virtue have an intractable Godward orientation.

Were we to describe, for example, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as primarily kind, we would get something terribly wrong. Jesus' obedient death—and its necessity—is best understood theologically. The biblical word is propitiation: Jesus' sacrifice, blameless and innocent, satisfied God's wrath against guilty men and women. He paid the debt we sinners incur—against God—for every one of our moral failures, even every failure to be kind.

Practically speaking, there is another unfortunate implication of Saunders's ideal of the "kind" world. When he fleshes out his vision of human kindness, he seizes on an example from the parent-child relationship: "If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won't care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit... YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE." We are selfish, Saunders says, to want for ourselves. We should abandon desire in favor of love.

This is a fond and familiar heresy: that desire is to be blamed for all moral ills. In his book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton compares the Buddhist and Christian solutions to the treachery of desire. Buddha proposed we get rid of desire altogether. He considered it a contagion. But Chesterton defended desire, arguing that the gospel did not obligate us to give up on our desires, but rather, to judge their nature: "I do not see, for instance, why the disappointment of desire should not apply as much to the most benevolent desires as to the most selfish ones."

Article continues below

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis takes issue with the idea of unselfishness, in The Weight of Glory:

I submit that this notion [of unselfishness] has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is not part of the Christian faith . . . The negative ideal of unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.

For the greater part of my Christian life, I have failed to understand what Chesterton and Lewis are saying and what the Bible so clearly defends: desire is not evil. A thousand times and more I have hung myself on the accusation of selfishness, living with the burden of be kind, advice that would subtly seek to obligate me to the whole of humanity and will to find me guilty whenever I cannot appease their demands.

But never in the New Testament is Jesus hailed as the paragon of unselfishness. As we see throughout the gospels, Jesus did not heal every person. Nor did he grant every request. In fact, our Lord routinely escaped the clamoring crowds to pray, to sleep, and to spend intimate time with his disciples. When an oppressed people cried out for him to become their political deliverer, he resisted their please.

This could have been perceived as selfish. Some may have even considered it cruel. But Jesus remained fixed on pleasing his Father. "I have come to do your will, O God," (Heb. 10:7).

We are better off, not with George Saunders's advice, but with the wisdom of King Solomon, who, at the end of his life of study, concluded this about living life well: "Fear God and keep his commandments." Honor your Creator first—and kindness to his creatures will follow.