My friend and I were just a couple miles away, but our lives were headed in startlingly opposite directions.
My family had just moved from a cozy but cramped apartment into a beautiful new home. My friend’s family had found themselves somehow homeless. All five of them had crammed into a single hotel room.
“Things are fine,” he told me. “We still have a roof over our heads. I haven’t been sleeping well, though.”
“How come?” I had expected him to say something about worrying for the future, but his sobering response was purely practical in nature.
“There are only two beds,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping on the floor.”
I knew I could help. I offered to bring over an air mattress and was there within a few minutes. After we talked for a while, my friend thanked me and I headed home.
During the short drive back, I remember feeling proud. I had just done a small but good deed for a worthy friend. I knew that’s what God wanted me to do. Plus, in the next life I might be rewarded for good deeds, even tiny ones. I also remember thinking, as unpleasant (and theologically flawed) as the idea may be, that if I had refused to help, I could end up in hell.
Wait a minute, I thought. Did I just do a good deed because I desired a pat on the back from God? Had I done it because, in the back of my mind, I was afraid of reprimand? I had helped mainly out of compassion, but incentive and fear had played their roles, too.
I immediately thought of an oft-quoted Albert Einstein line: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
That quote has stayed with me ever since. While I certainly cared about the well being of my friend and genuinely wanted to help, I realized that a secondary motive had been to avoid God’s retribution and gain his favor.
Even my cat is motivated by fear and reward. When he lets me put on his flea medicine, he gets treats. When he gets on the table, he gets the squirt bottle. Had my own morality not evolved much farther than that of a house cat?
Since then I have reminded myself that it’s not about whether I get Whisker Lickin’s or sprayed with water. The intention of a good deed should be to aid someone out of the goodness of our hearts, abandoning selfish motives as much as is realistically possible.
No matter what one believes or does not believe, good deeds shine their brightest when done out of sheer kindness. With practice, we can all love our neighbors as ourselves — no strings attached.
Brandon Bender is one of The Star’s 12 Faith Walk writers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.