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In his book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks tells the story of a well-meaning, charitable woman who desperately wanted to help humankind. Although she was not famous like Mother Teresa, she spent much of her life working with the homeless and destitute. But as time went on, she became more and more fixated on the outcome of what she was doing. When she couldn’t permanently change the conditions that were causing such misery, she became increasingly angry and frustrated. Without realizing it, she had become focused on personal power. This attitude eventually destroyed both her physical and emotional health.
Why are some people able to accomplish so much good and elevate their souls to great heights, while others become bitter and disillusioned? The difference is in their motivation. To God, only the heart’s true intention is important. Heroic deeds, showy displays of pious devotion, and eloquent words, do not mean as much to God as one small gesture made out of genuine love.
Personal gratification is its own reward, and sometimes God allows it in order to encourage us. It’s natural to be happy when we receive gratitude for our service to others; it is human nature to want love and approval from other people. It’s also true that the very act of helping others brings with it a feeling of deep satisfaction and often lifts our own mood when we are feeling depressed or troubled. To enjoy these positive feelings does not mean that we are selfishly motivated.
But this alone is not the criteria by which we should judge which deeds are of the most value. We might envision ourselves accomplishing wonderful things that show us in the best possible light, but our most worthwhile achievements will not always be the ones that satisfy our ego or have an immediately apparent outcome. Rather, they might consist of things we consider insignificant.
When an actor is working on a scene, the director or drama coach will challenge the actor by asking, “What’s your motivation?” By analyzing what drives the character, the actor will understand the character’s motives and be able to portray him more believably. It might benefit us to take a cue from the actor and ask ourselves, “What’s my motivation?” before we embark on any undertaking. For me as a Christian, I must ask myself not only “What would Jesus do?” but “Why would Jesus do it?”
Here’s a checklist for determining your motivation (you have to be totally honest for it to work!):
- Am I doing good works or helping someone so I can feel important and/or show everyone how virtuous I am? For some of us, this is often the true, secret motivation lurking behind the outward altruism. When our efforts become unrewarding and tedious, when it feels like work, when the gratitude and accolades stop coming (or never come at all), will we then simply move on to something more personally gratifying? If so, our only motivation was to please ourselves, not help others or honor God.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: “We must not drift away from the humble works, because these are the works nobody will do. They are never too small. We are so small we look at things in a small way. Even if we do a small thing for somebody, God, being almighty, sees everything as great. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who will do the small things.”
- Am I trying to force someone to be more like me? I heard Joel Osteen confess in one of his inspiring talks that he used to criticize his wife’s habits, until one day he realized he was trying to make her over to be more like himself, even though they had distinctly different ways of doing things. This got me to thinking that all of us probably are guilty of this at one time or another. We think that just because someone doesn’t do something “our way,” he/she must be defective and needs to be made over into a “mini-me.” God has purposely created people with different personalities and ways of doing things, for a good reason! If everyone were the same, the world would be totally unbalanced. And I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest about it, the thought of everyone being like me is more than a little scary!
- Am I making someone dependent on me? A common source of confusion is the concept of helping people versus taking over their responsibility, making them rely too much on us, or enabling them to continue on a destructive course. Many people subconsciously derive satisfaction from controlling others and making them feel indebted or dependent in an unhealthy way. Parents often do this with their children, but this co-dependent situation can exist in any relationship. Our role is not to make people dependent on us, but to help them achieve the self-respect and personal growth that come only out of effort and hardship. We also need to remember that God might have a different path in mind for this person than what we think is the “right way.”
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- Do I want to “save” someone? It’s important to realize that of our own power we cannot truly save anyone. Only God has the power to save a person, and although He might sometimes use us as instruments to accomplish this, God will not force Himself or His will on anyone. A person must want to be saved, must decide they sincerely want to overcome whatever is holding them back from spiritual development or a better, more productive life. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” [Rev. 3:20]. God will not break down a locked door, and only the person needing help can turn that key, not us! We cannot take away anyone’s suffering or figure out the reasons for it. We cannot “save” anyone. We can only offer ourselves as channels of God’s healing and love, realizing that the person we are trying to help must do their own part to open to it.
- Do I fulfill my religious obligations only when I’m in the mood or only because I fear God’s punishment? True, it might be better to do it for those reasons than not at all, and we all have times when we’re less than enthusiastic about our prayer time or attending religious services as we know we should. However, it would benefit us spiritually much more if we recognized these things as opportunities to show love and gratitude to God and enrich our souls. Fulfilling our spiritual obligations when we’re not in the mood is probably even more pleasing to God, because it shows Him that we are putting Him before our own feelings.
People often say, “I don’t get anything out of going to church/synagogue.” This is true for everyone at one time or another. There are times you might just sit there and not feel attentive or uplifted at all. However, you might also find, as I often have, that once you are in a place of worship, the peace and quiet and sense of God’s presence will soothe you and lift your spirits more than you expected it would. But even if this doesn’t always happen, the point is not for us to get anything out of it but to give something to God. Remember that God is never outdone in generosity – if you give Him this little bit of time out of your busy week, He will repay you in blessings a hundredfold! Of course, if you are avoiding in-person religious services due to health or other valid reasons, this is a different matter. But we can still spend some “quality time” with God in other ways. The important thing is to honor God by setting aside some time out of our lives that is strictly for God alone.
- Do I try to “bargain” with God? Sometimes we might promise God all sorts of things, and make the effort to do good works, in order to barter with God for favors (“I’ll do this for You if You give me what I want”). Then when we conclude that God did not keep “His end of the bargain,” we become bitter and disillusioned. Even if things do work out as we hoped, we often forget to keep our promises to God, or we drop our good works because we have gotten what we wanted. God does not bargain with us. He already knows what we really need (not just what we think we want) and the best possible outcome for any situation, not only for us but for others who might be involved.
God gives us blessings out of His infinite love for us, not because He is swayed by our impressive bargaining power! If God grants you a blessing and you want to do something for Him to show your gratitude, this is wonderful. But don’t dangle a carrot in front of God. He doesn’t need our carrots. Give from your heart; don’t give with strings attached.
- Am I too focused on the outcome of my efforts? This is a tough one! We all want to know that our efforts meant something, that they had a positive effect. But not seeing results doesn’t mean our efforts were in vain or that God is displeased with our work. It simply means that the time is not yet right, or our efforts were thwarted by another person’s attitude or lack of openness. Sometimes, God has plans for our work or for another soul that do not conform to our own ideas. Having the right motives means that if God wills a different outcome, or if he doesn’t let us see successful results from our efforts, we will trust His better judgment and infinite wisdom. The only thing that matters to God is the effort we made and our intentions when we did it.
Our true worth is not measured by talent, intelligence, or worldly success, but by how much we love and how open we are to others. When we strive to be of service to God or to our fellow humans for God’s sake, rather than our own ulterior motives, our smallest actions take on a Divine magnificence, which shines through our words and actions as an inspiration to others. We all will leave this earth one day, and our deeds might be forgotten. But if our motives were pure, our actions will be glorified in eternity and our souls will be radiant reflections of God’s all-encompassing love. Our reward will far surpass our greatest efforts or any earthly satisfaction. This should be our primary motivation.
Again, quoting St. Teresa of Calcutta: