Following worship on Sunday Hwa raised a good point as a followup to my sermon on compassion. What about good acts that are done when you don’t especially “feel” like performing the act, but you do so because you know that it is your duty?
It is said that every sermon taken alone commits heresy, in so far as the nature of religious truth is that it is always paradoxical, and sermons focus on one side of a paradox, neglecting the other. (Another reason to church consistently, not just once in a while.)
The world would be a sorry place if we only did good deeds when we were conscious of an empathetic connection motivating our actions. The whole concept of “civility” is based in large part on the notion of learning a prescribed set of behaviors that we perform for the sake of the larger community.
It is also the case that our motivations are rarely, if ever, what we might call “pure”. Why do I stop for the person at the side of the road? Perhaps partly because I genuinely can empathize with the person’s plight, but perhaps I also want to pat myself on the shoulder for being the sort of person who will stop to help. If I wait around until I am certain that my act is truly compassionate, I might well never stop to lend a hand, and there would be a lot of people who go unattended to in their distress. Every Sunday in worship people come forward to place dollar bills in a box that goes to Heifer International in their work to help the poor. Each year we raise $2000 or more this way which I am certain is saving peoples’ lives in distant countries. On a certain level, does it matter why we do it, as long as we do do it?
This is the other side of the paradox which I did not address in my sermon. If, however, I were to focus only on this side, which can be summed up in the words “doing my duty”, I would eventually lose my soul.