The Good News About Bad Motives

Last week, my van was a hideous mess.  There was an audible shambling, sliding sound every time I came to a short stop, as the detritus of our endless commute migrated from back to front. Every time someone opened a door, something would tumble out -- sometimes a book or a toy, but sometimes something more squalid:  a muddy sock, an apple core, or even a chicken bone. I was disgusted and ashamed, but I just couldn't find the time to clean it.

Finally, at my wit's end, I took desperate measures:  I volunteered as a driver.  Twice a month, I'm now committed to drive middle school kids from one campus to the other.  And now, time or no time, I have no choice:  I have to clean that van.

Oh, of course I wanted to do my part for the school.  But most of all, I wanted to get that van clean; and I knew that the only way I would find time to do it was if I knew that guests would be seeing the inside of it.  I've pulled this trick on myself before.  Bathroom filthy?  Invite finicky teenage girls for a sleepover.  Yard a wreck?  Plan a backyard cookout.  Now I have to get it done.  Shame is a powerful motivator.

I know, I know, I should be motivated to do these things out of love and concern for my family.  But . . . I'm not.  I do other stuff for them, really nice stuff that they like!  But I've never managed to internalize the idea that it's a sacred, womanly honor to provide a tidy and welcoming haven for my husband and kids.  I hate cleaning.  If I don't trap myself into it, it just doesn't get done.

That's the bad news:  my motives stink.  The good news?  It does get done!

I used to worry a lot about having the right motives for doing good (or just basic decent) works:  after all, St. Paul said, "[I]f I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:3)

We ought to be helping people because we love them, because we love God.  But maybe we look at our lives and realize that we have every other motive besides love:  spiritual vanity, or a desire to annoy people who expected less of us, or because we can't get out of it; or, of course, out of a sense of guilt. As a teenager, I once miserably confessed to an adult, "Every good thing I do, I do out of guilt."

"Well," he said, "It's a start!"

And that there is the key:  it's a start.  It's the first step on the right path.  As long as you recognize that guilt or any other imperfect motivation is not ideal, and as long as you aren't content to stay that way forever, then doing the right thing for the wrong reason is actually not all that bad.

For one thing, it's ten million times better than doing nothing at all.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you're being courageously honest by refusing to behave decently while your heart is indecent.  But that's not courage; that's pride, or maybe just plain old sloth.  It may not profit you to grumble bitterly as you hand over a fiver to the soup kitchen, but it will profit the soup kitchen.  And that's not nothing.

For another thing, doing good works can be transformative, if you're open to being transformed.  Just do the right thing, no matter how bitter and squalid your insides are, and tell God, "Look, we both know what's really going on here.  Can you do something with it anyway?  And can you change me?"  If we're looking for courageous behavior, there's a good example:  it takes some strength and guts to admit, "I'm kind of a crappy person right now.  Help!"

Now, as with any idea, it's possible to take this principle too far.  Once, someone I had quarreled with came over and hugged me to make amends.  When I responded happily, he said flatly, "Oh, it's not about you at all.  I'm just doing this for Christ."  Needless to say, our reconciliation was not the warmest.

But if you are thinking of volunteering, or being helpful or kind to someone, or following some commandment, or even praying, don't wait until your motives are pure.  Do the right thing, and ask God to help your heart catch up with your hands:  "Lord, I am sincere.  Help my insincerity!"  We learn to love God by serving Him.  That's how it works.