So, one evening not too long ago, I was driving along the Wampanoag Trail when I noticed the cars ahead of me, rounding a curve, tapping their brakes and slowing down. I soon knew why. There was a disabled vehicle on the side of the road – but the drivers thought it was a police car, a speed trap.
The incident got me thinking. Why do people follow the speed limit: Because they don’t want to get pulled over, or because it’s the safe thing to do, or because in some altruistic way they respect the law? (Although, truth be told, the fact that the drivers slowed down only when they saw the “cop car,” favors the first explanation, doesn’t it?)
But it leads to a good question: In terms of our religious practice, why do we do the things we do?
When you attend Mass on Sunday, is it because you don’t want to commit a mortal sin and risk going to hell, or because your faith prompts you to worship, praise and thank Almighty God and receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist?
Do you give to charity because you get a nice tax break, or because it makes you feel good, or to help your neighbor in need?
If you’re married and are tempted to cheat on your wife, do you decline because you don’t want to get caught and end up paying alimony and child support, or because you know that adultery is a serious sin, or because you love your wife and would never, ever, do anything to hurt her?
You see, every moral act can be prompted by a number of motivations, some of which are higher on the spiritual scale than others, but often conspire together to direct us. Perhaps we keep the speed limit because we don’t want to get pulled over, and because it is the safer thing to do, and because we believe in keeping the law.
Our spiritual life is about doing the right thing, but also about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Purifying our motives is one of the real challenges of the moral life. It’s also a sure sign of holiness. But it’s not easy.
Something to think about: How often would you do the right thing if you knew no one was watching, and that you wouldn’t get caught and have to pay a price?