It’s nice when action and intention lineup. When big brother is nice to little sister because he cares for her. When a wife does something for her husband because she wants to. When someone does something nice to a total stranger simply to make their life better.
But the deed is not always indicative of the intention. Big brother may be nice because he doesn’t want to spend time in the corner. The wife may do it because she has her own favor to ask. The stranger may do it because everyone is watching.
The problem is, to the people looking on it all looks the same. Look at that considerate child, loving wife, good citizen.
In a letter dated February 20, 1955, C. S. Lewis explains the tension between duty and motive and the risk one takes when duty becomes the more important,
“One mustn’t make the Christian life into a punctilious system of law, like the Jewish. Two reasons (1.) It raises scruples when we don’t keep the routine (2.) It raises presumption when we do. Nothing gives one a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total absence of all real charity & faith. And people who stay away from Mass with the approval of their director & at the bidding of their doctor are just as obedient as those who go. Check all these points with your confessor: I bet he’ll say just the same.”1
To the legalists, keeping rules is a win-win. He’s right, you’re wrong. It’s that simple. But to God it’s a lose-lose. You’re wrong, you’re wrong.
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:13.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, Vol. III (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 567. Italics in original.