Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Different Christian sects differ on the importance of doing good works in the process of salvation, but I believe this is due to a lack of common understanding as to the nature and purpose of good works. Can a person do good and charitable things throughout their life and still not achieve heavenly bliss? Yes. Can a person achieve heavenly bliss without doing good and charitable things? No. Good works are a symptom of faith, so that any person who has faith and virtue will do them, but good works are not in themselves virtue. It is possible, and indeed common, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How can there be a wrong reason for doing a good act? Again, one must recall the nature of heavenly bliss and of faith. To achieve bliss you must have enough faith to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because you expect any kind of reward. If I give hours each day and much of my earnings to charity because I will be fussed over and admired by other people, then I am acting like Contracting Connie. I will not be enjoying the acts themselves, but rather will be suffering through them in order to get an external reward from other people. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who devotes herself to prominent charitable causes while seriously neglecting her own children, is a notable example of this breed. If I give ten percent of my earnings to the church because a minister has told me that unless I do I will be cast into a lake of fire, then I am just trying to avoid punishment rather than receiving enjoyment from the knowledge that I have done a good thing. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it will not lead to the ability to feel heavenly bliss. We must learn to feel enjoyment just because we have done a good thing, even if we receive no gratitude or admiration at all.

Should you encourage your children to do good works even if they don’t (at least at first) want to? Helping someone just to avoid being scolded by your parents is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so a child cannot necessarily be expected to achieve virtue this way. However, being persuaded to do a good act can help the child to achieve real virtue by giving them a chance to experience the good feelings that flow from good actions, so that at some future opportunity they may be more inclined to do the good thing simply because it is good. The task for a parent, then, is to try to help the child to enjoy performing the good action. The child must understand why it is good, and should be helped to see the beneficial effects of the action on the person or animal that they are helping. The act should not be referred to as a “sacrifice”, but should be celebrated as an enjoyable activity (“wasn’t it nice to see how she cheered up when you helped her?”). Such little steps, though they may be initiated by the parent rather than by the child’s own desire to do good, can help to lead a child to the point where she no longer needs the parental prodding. Of course, if the parent performs good works and discusses the good feeling that they produce, the lesson will likely be more convincing than if the parent simply sends the child off to help a neighbor while the parent watches a football game.

Should a grownup force herself to go out and do good works? Perhaps, but just as with a child it should be done with a view to learning to do the right thing for the right reason. If you think back over the past year and discover that you have made very little effort to help others, then you should use your prayer time to examine your priorities and to seek the degree of faith that will enable you to want to spend time helping others. Then, forcing yourself to overcome your inertia by simply making up your mind that you are going to go and do some good deed will help you to put that faith into action. In this way, you will be doing the right thing for something pretty close to the right reason, and you will likely find that you rapidly begin to take real pleasure in doing good deeds. On the other hand, if you simply feel embarrassed because you feel that people expect you to be doing some good deeds, and so you look around for some easy ones to satisfy the obligation, you will be unlikely to progress in virtue. The key is to keep in mind the goal of doing virtuous actions for virtue’s sake, and of learning to draw pleasure from the act of doing good itself.[1]

Should adults be pressured by others to do good works? We need to be very careful here. Consider the effects of the typical American United Way campaign. Most Americans are generous, and unless they are desperately poor (and often even if they are desperately poor) they will seek to donate to worthy causes without prodding. Employers and organizations, though, like to boost their reputation in the community by harnessing the giving of their employees or members into a campaign in the organization’s name. If the company or organization does that the right way, it’s a great thing. They can make it easy for employees to give by payroll deduction, they can increase the power of giving by providing matching gifts, and they can make it easier to spend time on charitable works or provide funds for charitable endeavors. The problem comes when they have “100% participation” campaigns where employees are pressured to give. This taints the charitable impulses. Gifts that were freely and anonymously given just for the pleasure of giving now become an obligation where one’s name is checked off on a list. Similarly, celebrating givers, rather than celebrating gifts, can shift a selfless impulse into a selfish one, replacing simple joy in giving with pleasure in being recognized and admired for giving. Corruption is a subtle thing, and we must be ever-vigilant to keep it from undermining virtue.

[1] It is interesting to see, as I write this, that Word’s grammar check thinks that I am unlikely to mean “doing good”, but does not raise any question on the phrase “doing well”. Apparently we spend much more time discussing our competitive performance than we do discussing doing good works. That should not be true.

Conversations starters in the media – In addition to Bleak House, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called Jennifer and Johnny’s Charity does a nice job on this one. More generally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a great job of illustrating doing the right thing for the right reasons; our heroes get no thanks or respect from their peers and get in trouble with the adults, but do the right thing simply because it needs doing.

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One thought on “Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

  1. Pingback: Loving Your Neighbor – Love Works No Ill to His Neighbor, Therefore Love is the Fulfillment of the Law | matthewnfortunato

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