Whenever a murder, an act of terror, or some other heinous crime is committed, we hear law enforcement authorities are investigating to determine the motives for the act. If people do bad things, we want to know why. But when was the last time (if at all) you heard of an act of extravagant kindness, and someone in authority said, “We’re conducting an investigation seeking to ascertain their motives”?
It seems when evil is committed, there must be some nefarious cause, and we itch to learn what it was. But when good things are done, we typically assume they’re performed magnanimously, with hearts of purest gold. Why is that?
Maybe it’s a belief that when we do good, that’s “normal.” Whether helping an elderly person across the street, volunteering to assist children, the sick or other people with specific needs, serving the homeless, or making a charitable donation, we presume such things is intrinsic to human nature.
Why should we question underlying motivations, asking, “Why did he (or she) do that?”
However, even the most generous gestures might be birthed out of ulterior motives. We see this in politics, of course, where people make large campaign donations with expectations they will receive favors or special considerations in the future. The old “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” scenario. Employees sometimes go beyond the call of duty, “smoozing” the boss, thinking that will help them gain a promotion or pay raise – or both.
Academic institutions are littered with educational buildings and dormitories proudly bearing the names of mega-donors. Salespeople bring special gifts to customers, technically not “bribery,” intended to enhance business relationships.
We see it in families, where a relative responds to a pressing need and then proceeds to make that person feeling obligated – “beholdin’” – for a long time afterward. It occurs in churches, where affluent members contribute to major fund campaigns, then “humbly” bask in the adulation for their largesse. Even children quickly learn that one way to gain friends is to do something special so they will like them.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t seek out situations where we can do good to others. After all, as followers of Jesus we’re instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Also, to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). We’re commanded to love even our enemies and be willing to do good to them.
The problem surrounds not what we do, but why. What are our motives for doing good? The Scriptures tell us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?“ (Jeremiah 17:9). In Romans 3:10 we’re told, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
We’re also told God, the only true judge of the heart and its motives, is very attentive not just to what good we do, but also to why. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 16:3). Similarly, Proverbs 17:3 tells us, “The crucible for silver and the crucible for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.”
The book of Proverbs seems especially concerned with our hearts, our motives, being in the right place. It offers this denouncement: “A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart” (Proverbs 26:24-25).
What’s the solution? Should we simply resign ourselves to the conclusion of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined (undone)! For I am a man of unclean lips’” (Isaiah 6:5)?
No, the book of Proverbs offers a better alternative: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We can also pray as did the psalmist, who wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Proverbs 51:10).
The Word of God tells us we all are afflicted with a heart problem, although for many it doesn’t involve the physical muscle in the chest that beats 100,000 times a day.
Without question, the Lord is calling for us to do good. As much good as possible, as often as possible. That should be part of a believer’s spiritual DNA. But as we’re doing it, we should be diligent to “guard our hearts.” If we suspect our motives are less than noble, we should ask the Lord to create in each of us a pure heart.
Then, if someone were to ask, after we’ve done good to others, “Why did you do that?” we can know we did it out of love for God – the greatest commandment – and love for our neighbor, the second greatest commandment.
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly re-published, “Business At Its Best,” “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also writes two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.