There’s a story about a little boy who was misbehaving in church one day during Holy Mass. His mother corrected him several times, growing more frustrated with each correction. He continued to misbehave. Finally, the little boy said to his mom: “I’ll be good if you give me ten dollars.” To which his mom replied, “Why should I give you ten dollars to be good? Your father is good for nothing.”
The story may or may not be true, but it does raise a valid question. What is it that motivates us to “behave,” to do the right thing? Or, more simply, why are we good?
Our motivation to be good can have several sources. Perhaps it’s for altruistic reasons. Or perhaps for practical reasons. Or perhaps to avoid the punishment that comes from not being good, from being bad and getting caught.
I’ve used this example before. When you’re driving, why do you obey the speed limit? Is it because you respect civil authority and believe in the importance of keeping the law? Or because driving safely might prevent you from having a serious accident? Or because around the corner there’s a cop sitting in the cruiser with radar? Altruism, practicality, or fear?
Other examples. Why do you go to work each day? Why do you pay your taxes? Why do you get vaccinated? What prompts all of these actions: altruism, practicality, or fear?
These questions apply to our religious practices as well. Why do we go to Mass on Sundays, or have our children baptized, or give to charity, or keep the laws of fast and abstinence during Lent? Our motivations are important and worthy of examination.
We’ve traditionally used such distinctions in speaking about the Sacrament of Penance, i.e., Confession. Here we refer to a “perfect Act of Contrition” and an “imperfect Act of Contrition.” In a perfect Act of Contrition, we’re sorry for our sins because we’ve offended God “who is all good and deserving of all of our love.” In an imperfect Act of Contrition, we repent because we “dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.”
One of the challenges of our journey of faith is to do the right thing for the right reasons. And so we strive to grow in the purity of our motivations, step by step: from fear of punishment, to positive, practical reasons, to the pure and glorious love of God.
Something to think about: C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
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