Friday, March 30, 2012

When It is Wrong to 'Do Good'

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil—no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: what’s real is what is right there in front of us—power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 28-29

Reflection – This passage is, of course, reflecting on the temptations of Christ in the desert. Specifically, it refers to the temptation to ‘bread and power’—to turn stones into bread. In this narrative, Pope Benedict sees the perennial struggle of man with the most insidious of all allurements: the temptation to do good.

This temptation to do good is a powerful one because—well, the good is what we all want to do. When a course of action is presented to us, with compelling logic, as the right, proper, loving, kind, just, and helpful thing to do, it is ‘only human’ for us to immediately go down that road.

So much harm is done that way. Women become pregnant in difficult painful circumstances, so of course ‘the good’ is to help them attain abortions easily. Men and women with same-sex attractions fall in love, so of course ‘the good’ is to allow them to marry. Men and women become unhappy in their marriages, and meet other, more attractive, people. Of course ‘the good’ is to allow divorce as easily as possible. And when man and woman fall in love, of course ‘the good’ is to consummate that love sexually whenever they want to.

So many ‘goods’—and in the political sphere, even more. The great ‘evil regimes’ of recent world history that I hardly need to name all engaged in their atrocities in the name of some good or other—the worker’s paradise or the thousand year Reich or world peace. And on the daily sphere of normal life, so much of the wrong decisions we make are in the name of some good we are aiming at. True wickedness is rare; misguided goodness is common as dirt!

What is the way through such a morass of truths, half-truths, illusions and spurious goods? ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ Jesus replied to Satan. When our focus is the bread, the immediate good we want to achieve, we will inevitably end up doing something evil in its pursuit. When our first concern is to seek and do the will of God, whether or not there is an immediate bread bonanza, then all our goods fall into order. Not without struggle, not without discernment and work, but nonetheless.

When something else matters more than God, his Word, and his Will, then we have already started well down the road to perdition. When our first, last, and ultimately only concern is this Word and Will, then even if we make occasional mistakes in discernment, all shall be well. Personal prayer, personal relationship, and personal fidelity to the moral law and the word of God—that’s what preserves us from the temptation to (shudder…) do good.

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