A Good Act and A Bad Motive
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
I am fully capable of turning a “would-be righteous act” into a perverse exhibition of my own self-centeredness. Case in point….
A number of years ago, a friend of mine was given a car by her parents as a graduation present from college. It was used and older, but it was an extravagant gift to her and a real sacrifice for her mom and dad. She was so excited. When she first showed it to me, she asked me to drive it and tell her what I thought. As I was driving it around the neighborhood, I noticed that the gas tank was almost empty. I thought about all the expenses in buying a new car: the sales price, insurance, taxes and title. So, I decided that I would bless them a little, and I took the car and filled it up with gas. When I returned the car, I did not say a thing about filling up the tank.
This is where it gets convoluted. I initially believed of myself that I was giving this gift out of pure motives, with no hope or expectation of thanks, accolades, or even gratitude. “This is pure agape”, I thought. After all I didn’t even tell her that I did it. When she got into her car and drove away I was warmed by thought of her looking down at the fuel gauge and thinking “thank you God for another blessing”. But that didn’t last very long. It was only a few days later when I saw her next and I was prepared for her to gush over how generous and thoughtful I had been. I had even thought of what I would say: “It was a small gesture…just wanted to make a small investment in you…just being obedient…love you and your folks…etc, etc, etc.” However, she did not mention it. AT ALL! I walked on by thinking, “did she not notice…did she just forget…did she think someone else did it?” I then began to plot that the next time I saw her, I would slyly mention her new car or ask her how good it’s gas mileage was. It was at that moment I realized…quite abruptly…that I had done a good thing for a selfish reason. I did not just fill her tank to bless her, I wanted to be acknowledged. The $20 that I used to buy gas was the price I thought I was paying to be bragged on by a friend.
That is my story, but doubtless others have discovered similar disconnects between their actions and motives. This is what Jesus was addressing in the Sermon on the Mount when He said that we should avoid doing things “in order to be seen”. This intention can distill the heavenly reward from even the most extravagant acts of service. It isn’t that every good work should be done in secret…that is both impossible and possibly even counter-productive. Rather, we should be motivated by the love of God and desire to glorify Him with our actions…not the hope that other will applaud. To be clear, if you wait for a completely pure motive to do good works, you will likely never do good works. But it is important to be sensitive to the battle that we have with our flesh, and fight to be ever growing in our likeness to Christ. It is for sure that we will all be rewarded for our good works. We simply need to choose whether we want that reward to come from men or from our Father in heaven.