Orthodoxy Today
The Spiritual Roots of Altruism: The Good Samaritan

Psychologists typically define altruism as a selfless interest for the good and welfare of others, that leads to such prosocial behaviors as cooperation, helping and sharing. Those who display courage and generosity especially in the face of barriers are considered heroically altruistic. Psychological explanations for altruism include those drawn from the relatively new sub-specialty of psychology called evolutionary psychology. This sub-specialty has an affinity with, and draws from anthropology, archeology, artificial intelligence, behavioral ecology, cognitive psychology, ethology, evolutionary biology, genetics and zoology. Such psychological explanations provide evidence that altruistic behavior helps to perpetuate the gene pool as more people survive when mutually aiding one another (Buss, 1995); that reciprocal benefit works to the welfare of all Trivers, 1971); that people inherit altruistic genes (Rushton, Fulker, Neale, Nias & Eysenck, 1986), and that modeling occurs as individuals tend to imitate those who are rewarded for prosocial, in this case altruistic behavior (Eisenberg, 1992, Morelli, 2005).

Christ's Counsel

It is possible that God may have used cooperative behavior as part of a process of natural selection since cooperation ensures the stability and longevity of the human race. For Orthodox Christians however, such explanations are at best partial and incomplete. Orthodox Christian anthropology sees the possibility of synergy, that is, a cooperation between the grace of God and human nature. St. Maximus the Confessor reminded us that "grace builds upon nature" (Morelli, 2006). Human nature is such that when man cooperates with God, altruism can rise to high levels (heroic altruism) that exceed the mundane levels of social cooperation. The overriding motive for true committed Christians is the love of God and all mankind that reaches from the depths of our hearts with the same love that God loves us. The Holy Evangelist Luke reports the condition of this love: "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return" (Luke 6:35, emphasis added).

Jesus teaches us about divine altruism in the gospel incident of the lawyer putting Jesus "to the test." St. Luke recorded: And behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him (Jesus) to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And He said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live (Luke 10: 25-28)."

The Holy Evangelist Luke then gave his hearers the "Parable of the Good Samaritan," as told by Jesus. The Samaritan, an outcast and scorned by the Jews, helped a man beaten by robbers and left for dead. Before the Samaritan arrived the almost dead man was overlooked by both a Levite and priest. Following this Jesus asked: "'Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man...?' He said, 'The one who showed mercy on him.' And Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise'" (Luke 10:29--37).

Divine altruism

St. Gregory the Dialogist commenting on this parable said, "Godly love cannot be perfect unless a man love his neighbor also. Under which name must be included not only those who are connected with us by friendship or neighborhood, but absolutely all men with whom we have a common nature, whether they be foes or allies, slaves or free" (http://www.bulletin.goarch.org/quotes/index.asp).

An example off this ubounded Godly live is the contemporary saintly priest Fr. Arseny. Fr. Arseny was incarcerated in a Soviet gulag for most of his priestly life. His beatings were to death. One time a gulag supervisor named Odiznov called on Fr. Arseny to betray a conspiracy. The saintly monk refused. "Oh, my dear you have no idea what awaits you right now!" said the guard. "Lord help me" Fr. Arseny cried as a strong blow hit him in his face and he fell to the floor unconcious. He thought his life was over. Odinzov was going to beat him to death. During some momentary bursts of consciousness Fr. Arseny felt blows, kicks in the face by boots, and the beating of a metal beltbuckle. In those short moments he awoke he prayed to the mother of God" ( Alexander, 1998).

Compare Fr. Arseny to the man almost beaten to death by the robbers. This holy man is both the victim and the Good Samaritan at the same time. Fr. Arseny's teachings and practice even to those who beat him were, "Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: 'Bear each other's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.' Only by goodness can you win over evil."

Who did Fr. Arseny help? Everyone. In the typical barracks were political prisoners, sociopaths, and sadistic criminals. The latter would steal, rob and beat others especially the new, young arrivals. Fr. Arseny would stand in between one and the other almost got beaten to death himself on numerous ocassions. If a criminal was hurt he would tend to him. He also was kind and gentle to the prison guards and supervisors. Fr. Arseny engaged in constant prayer for the worst of the worst. He said:

I was granted great mercy by the Lord and by the Mother of God, who showed me the most sacred and magnificent treasure -- that of the human soul, filled with faith, love and kindness. They showed me that faith will never die on earth. Many people carry it within them -- some with ardor, others with a trembling respect, others again just carry a spark and it is essential for them that a good priest help them as a pastor to turn this spark into an unquenchable flame of faith. The Lord showed me that the people who carry the faith, and especially the shepherds of human souls, must help fight for each person to the end of their own strength, until their last breath. The basis of the fight for a soul is love, kindness and helping your neighbor, help given not for one's own sake, but for the sake of one's brother. People judge faith, and judge even Jesus Christ Himself, based on the behavior of others. It is also written, "By your own words you will be saved, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:17) and, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

Let us put ourselves in Fr. Arseny's place. What would we do if we were in such a setting? Could we be Good Samaritans to the very people who are beating us even to the point of death? St. Gregory interprets that we even have to be a Good Samaritan to "foes." Who are the foes in our lives and how do we help them? Humanly this appears impossible, "but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26). One communist party high ranking officer, also a prisoner then released and reinstated said: "... yes the very fact that he was bearing the burdens of others allowed him to bear his own suffering. It attracted people to him and gave him strength of spirit, which compelled others to do what he had ordered in the name of God."

This is true spiritual motivation. The Good Samaritan shows us the spiritual way of "Divine Altruism." Altruism can only be "Divine" if it "fulfills the law of Christ," enlivened by Divine Love of God and neighbor, with nothing expected in return.

There is such a spiritual hunger in the world today. The multiplication of evil is everywhere and even what appears good and altruistic is often bereft of value, because it is self-serving. Only by emptying ourselves and serving in kenotic, self-emptying, love, can we satisfy the spiritual hunger and vacuum that exists around us. Paradoxically we will get something in return: the light of Christ indwelling in the center of our hearts, achieving theosis, or God-likeness and earning eternal salvation.


Alexander, Servant of God. (1998). Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Crestwood , NY : St. Vladimir 's Seminary Press.

Buss, D.M. (1995). Evolutionary Psychology: A New Paradigm for Psychological Science. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 1-30.

Eisenberg, N. (1992). The Caring Child. Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.php.

Morelli, G. (2006, December 05). Understanding Clergy Stress: A Psychospiritual Response. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliClergyStress.php

Rushton, J.P. , Fulker, D.W. , Neale, M.C. , Nias, D.K.B., & Eysenck, H.J. (1986). Altruism and Aggression: The Inheritability of Individual Differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 1192-1198.

Trivers, R. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: February 4, 2007

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