One of the most honest responses to a request for help is: What’s in it for me?
We have to admit that often what we do is because we want to get something from the action (even something as subtle as recognition). As children, we want Dad or Mom’s favor and praise. As naughty children we do good things because we are afraid of being punished. So that many children will admit frankly that if they don’t get caught cheating, it is ok to do it.
The whole concept of Law runs with this principle that people often do the right thing because they have to. If the IRS did not threaten to audit you, would you even submit your taxes?
Given our weakness in always trying to find the easy way out, law becomes necessary for the proper development of our own personal history as well as the day-to-day workings of society.
When one brings this understanding to the level of our relationship with God, we see our essential selfishness. It unmasks our supposed altruism. Why do some people go to Mass on Sunday? Is it the love of God that impels them, or is it the fear of Hell and the craving for the pleasures of Heaven?
The Church has always understood this operational duality of intention in her distinction between imperfect and perfect contrition in the Sacrament of Confession: “And I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments. But most of all because they offend Thee my God who are all good and deserving of all my love.” It could not be clearer: One level of motivation follows the other.
It is hard to accept our fundamental selfishness which is the result of Original Sin. While Baptism erases Original Sin from our souls, the damage to our souls remains. This is called ‘concupiscence’: a general tendency to sin by taking the easy way out.
St. Gregory the Great in his insightful study of the book of Job in the Old Testament unveils into stark clarity this fact. He says that while it is acceptable to do the will of God for fear of His judgement, we still desire to sin and would do so if the consequence of this departure from God’s will were not punishment of some sort.
I obey Mom not because I love her but because she will punish me by sending me to my room.
This is one of the dangerous sides of our society’s drift toward atheism. Even major atheists of the past have said that if there is no god we would have to invent one. Some of the random acts of violence that we see as well as the abandonment by many people of our traditional sexual mores has left our society open to abuse of all sorts.
As I said in a previous essay, those who do not believe in God see no ultimate judgement of their actions, so ‘inherit’ a free pass for cruelty and malevolence. The rich will not be accountable for their selfish use of wealth, dictators can commit Genocide, the powerful can sexually abuse the weak and when they die it does not matter what they did! Talk about an easy way out. Truly an opium for atheists and non-believers.
When I say non-believers, I do not mean only those who are avowed atheists but also those in our pews on Sunday who are ‘functional atheists’ i.e., they live their lives as if there is no God which is just as bad.
So, as a believer in God, I must seek to do the right thing simply because it is God’s will. It is part of the objective moral order that God has established. It does not matter if I go to heaven or hell. That order is there and I must strive to be obedient to it. Furthermore, as a Christian, I am called to go beyond the moral order to the order of love even to the point of giving my life as Christ gave His.
Paying attention to why we do the right thing is an important element of spiritual growth. We find that a lot of our facile optimism about our goodness evaporates before the relentless objectivity of the truth. We are sinners. Not just in name but in fact. Original Sin has ravaged our original innocence. We need a Savior, desperately.
Seeing things as they are is another way of understanding the importance of self-knowledge. While it is important to not go to the other extreme and join the Calvinists with their view of the human being as basically corrupt, that tendency toward seeing man as totally corrupt is not culturally widespread in the world of “I’m, OK. You’re OK”. We have banished the idea that we are sinners as too negative and too ‘judgmental’. But paradoxically that only leads us to the greatest sin: that of Pride.
Simply put: we should do good because God is good and we seek to do the will of God in our lives. Period.