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Good Works: Why We Do Them

February 10, AD 2017 0 Comments
St. Elizabeth of Hungary

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

O my God, I am heartily sorry that I have sinned against Thee. I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee my God, Who art all good and deserving of my love.
I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
Amen.

—Act of Contrition

It is the Bountiful and Generous God Who has conferred to us the honor of worshiping His Being and of spreading His religion and its many sciences, so let us endear this service to our hearts.
His Greatness and honor deserves our worship, and true worship resides in sincere devotion to Him alone and in constant remembrance of Him. Indeed, the whole purpose of worship is but to apprehend the reality of the unity of the Divine Principle. So do not act ‘for fear of hell’ or ‘for the sake of heaven.’
Diary of a Turkish soldier, Refik Bey, who fought at Gallipoli, 1916.

Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.
—Matthew 6:1

An agnostic housemate of mine, who regularly donates blood and volunteers at a legal clinic, said to me, “Isn’t it better for someone to do good things because it’s right, than because he wants to gain favor with God?”

Reflecting upon what he said, I thought of two points:

Firstly, there is a false dichotomy in the query. Certainly, it may seem self-serving for a Christian to want to gain favor with God. But God judges our hearts—it is selfless love that truly conforms us to Him. The more you perform good actions, the more habituated to good you become, and thus the more Godlike, since God is All-good. Heaven is the Beatific Vision, being intimately united with Infinite Goodness. Goodness is thus its own reward. We do not hope for extrinsic rewards like praise or pleasures, although limited and metaphorical human language may make it seem that way. Rather, we become more fully human, more fully ourselves, and more fully like God, the more we do good works—and this enables us to live in the Presence of Goodness forever.

Sin is a corruption of, or detraction from, goodness. Hell is the complete lack of goodness, life, and love. It is the annihilation of everything for which we are made. That is why we fear Hell—because it is eternal separation from our fulfillment, the ground of our being.

Secondly, how do we know what is good? By what standard do we measure goodness? Why should we treat each other well, even sacrificing our own blood, time and resources for complete strangers, and how do we know what constitutes right behavior? What are the grounds of intrinsic human dignity? Why is a drowning stranger more important than your drowning pet?

Simple: if every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and God is Love, then we are all made in the image and likeness of Love. To love is to will the good of another (CCC 1766). God is the Divine Eternal Act of Love. A Spanish Dominican priest in Singapore once described God as a fountain, the wellspring of Life, the dynamic Creator Who holds everything in being and attracts all things towards their ultimate end or telos, Himself, Love.

Now you might be wondering what things like rocks, grass, and volcanoes have to do with Love, especially when there are natural disasters like the earthquake that flattened Norcia anew.

Well, Creation has been out of joint since the Fall. Still, we can read of the Love and Goodness of God in the Book of Nature. The delightful delicacy of a teeny-tiny tendril of moss, the magnificent thunder of a waterfall, the graceful arc of a rainbow all testify to the gloriousness of Love, for Love alone is creative. Love alone creates goodness and beauty in everything.

So: we do good works, because it is right to do so, in accordance with true human nature; this is pleasing to God, Who created us for Good. The etymology of “good” traces its origin to a Proto-Germanic word meaning “fit, adequate, belonging together”. When we do good—with prevenient grace from God, Who alone enables us to do any good—we become good; and when we are good, as befits our nature, we belong with God.

The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?
I am the Lord Who search the heart and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.
—Jeremiah 17:9-10

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
—Romans 2:14-15

For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and divinity…
—Romans 1:20

In a pluralistic culture like ours, Christians are often led to ponder John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” How do you interpret it?

William T. Cavanaugh: There is a lot that could be said about this verse. The first thing I think of is a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said I am the way.”’ Catherine talks about Christ as the bridge between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. The bridge between heaven and earth is already heaven, because it is Christ.

I love this quote because it breaks down the dichotomy between means and ends. The Christian life is not a means to heaven. War is not a means to peace, freedom is not a prerequisite for following Christ. The Christian life is about practicing heaven now, on earth, even if it gets you killed. It’s not about making our way to Christ in some far-off eschaton; Christ is the way.

Also see: Kathryn Jean Lopez, “O God, We Love Thee”.

About the Author:

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a 28-year-old law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She blogs at http://signum-crucis.tumblr.com/ and http://allthingscatholic.tumblr.com/.