Copyright © Larry Johnson May 2020
In a previous essay (The Sunday Dilemma) I broached the concept of intention. In this edition I would like to expand these thoughts a little further. My declaration references Psalm 127 (126). The first verse is as follows:
'Unless the Lord builds the house Those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, The watchman stays awake in vain'. [i]
My assertion deems that the reason for doing any good act is important, and the fact that the action is objectively good does not necessarily imply that the motive is categorically authentic. For want of a better phrase, the intention may be defective. The action may be grounded in other motivations, which may not have as their primary goal the good consequence for the other party. This is not to say that the action should be terminated or not proceeded with if it is in itself good and has a positive effect. But there should be some reflection on the principal inspiration.
Ultimately, as Christians, each of our actions should be carried out to please God. This is the correct intention for every worthy endeavour. Love of neighbour is our aim, but unless the action has as its motivation the love of God the action may be in danger of being directed by a self-serving inspiration. Was the action impelled by pride to ‘feel good about ourselves’? Was it to provide us with some sense of self-satisfaction that we are a ‘good’ person? We felt good about ourselves because we did something virtuous. How many times have I heard ‘I am a good person – I don’t need to pray or attend Church to be so’? But the danger here is that we have now entered upon self-judgement and the presumption that we are good. We have surrendered humility; and I am reminded of something a wise man once said to me, ‘As soon as one proclaims that they have achieved humility, they have just forfeited it’. If you are a Christian, you will be familiar with the following examples from the New Testament:
‘And as He was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” ‘(Our Lord Jesus Christ).[ii]
‘This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of servants that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me (St. Paul).’[iii]
As previously stated, good works should not be delayed because of one not being able to carry them out with perfect intention. My point is however, that when there is recognition that the objective is not entirely for selfless reasons, some reflection and prayer of petition is worthwhile so that the action may become more sincere or be of such nature in the future. The question the reader may pose is that this genuineness of intention cannot be grasped from mid-air and imposed within our heart immediately. And the reader would be correct. The only way our inner determination to do good with purity of intention can be achieved, is through the grace of God. We cannot resolve this situation on our own. If we would try we would never succeed. Hence the idea that, ‘I am a good person – I don’t need to pray or attend Church to be so’ is flawed. If the action is not carried out with the grace of God and primarily to please God, then it will always be, either partially or fully, self-serving.
So it may be said that God commanded us to love thy neighbour; and indeed this is so. The reader may say we love our neighbour by doing these charitable works. However, how often have I heard the comment that ‘we do this or that because we get something out of it’; or ‘it gives me a sense of satisfaction’. But what about charitable works that are not of our choosing. Here, I believe, is the test of intention. What should we do if the next-door neighbour, who we really do not like, leaves his or her car lights on of a night? You notice this and have to decide should I go next door and let them know, or perhaps adopt the attitude of ‘they’ll notice it soon enough – there’s no need to bother’. The next morning you awake to a bru-ha-ha as their car battery is now flat and they can’t get to work, while in the meantime you depart home for your voluntary work, which you love doing. If we were to do good works to please God, we would have, as much as it hurt, took the time to advise the neighbour that their lights were on. I believe to perform a good deed when it doesn’t suit us, or for someone we don’t like, solely because we believe it’s what God wants us to do, is perhaps of more value than that task we enjoy so much and makes us feel like a ‘good’ person. This is why I am not usually in favour of awards and other tributes overly emphasising recognition. They become a distraction at best and at worst a badge of honour.
The notion of making ourselves feel like a good person can in fact, lead to some level of hypocrisy. I am sure that some of the New South Wales State politicians, who carried on with no small amount of chest beating about their goodness when the abortion bill of 2019 was railroaded through, were quite chuffed at the charity they felt they showed to women. Along comes the CoVid-19 pandemic and further pride is shown in the care they expressed for the vulnerable who may catch the virus. Far from their minds was the slaughter of the unborn now permitted. The reality is that if the idea of pleasing God was considered at all, the decision regarding abortion would have been converse to that made, and the compassion portrayed with the CoVid -19 virus would have been more believable. So we are left with this inconsistency and the thought that decisions made on both accounts may have been made for political survival or other self-serving reasons.
Now as stated previously, I am not avowing that honourable works should not be carried out unless the intention is initially completely sincere. What I am suggesting is that there needs to be a realisation that, a) the good work is in fact good i.e. not the murder of unborn children, and b) that we have begun with a purpose that needs to be reflected upon and made more sincere. In both cases our reference point must be God. Works can only be good if they are in good in the sight of God. How do we know this? For me it is 2,000 years of Catholic Church tradition and teaching. In fact, the moral order commonly adopted by society, at least until the last 60 or so years, was based at the very least upon the Ten Commandments; later expanded upon with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Good works must fall within this paradigm. In regard to the purification of our intention in performing the works, we can only rely on the grace of God. Only God can help us in making our intention totally sincere. And we can only receive the required grace if we are in union with Him, His commandments, and His teaching.
An example may assist. One cannot consider the making of a nude calendar a good work, even if the proceeds are used to help the poor. To begin with, the exhibitionism required contravenes the decency and modesty required of humankind. And in any case the participants often treat it is as a lark, a bit of a laugh, an enjoyment. They try to make the endeavour good by proclamation of the outcome. In other words, they attempt to make the end justify the means. However, in the eyes of God an evil has been performed in order to obtain a positive result. In the end the participants consider themselves virtuous in regard to result they have achieved, but any virtuousness has been eroded by the sinfulness.
So what is to be done? I suggest that we should continue to good works, imperfect as the intention may be. But self-reflection with the objective of self-improvement should always accompany the action. Importantly, we should be patient and realise that this will not occur immediately and in fact may take some time; for most of us, including myself, a lifetime. Since we will rely on help from God by means of His grace, we will also need the action to be accompanied by praying humbly. I would not like the reader to think that I am wallowing in self-righteousness. The purity of intention, of which I write, I have by no means achieved. The key to the matter is to open ourselves to the awareness of the existing intention and ask God that it be for Him and not our pride.
[i] Ignatius The Holy Bible RSV, The Catholic Edition of the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha ©1966. Division of Christian Education for the National Council of the Churches in the United States of America. Printed by Thomas Nelson Publishers for Ignatius Press.
[ii] Ibid. The Catholic Edition of the New Testament © 1965. Mark 10, vs 17-18.
[iii] Ibid. 1 Corinthians Ch.4 1-4.