I was watching Return to Tradition, one of the Catholic youtube channels I’m subscribed to and heard something interesting.
“I do not deny that the gospel of Christ requires us to do charitable works for the poor, even if you yourself are poor. I do not deny that the gospel requires us to aid the migrant, to defend the defenseless, to oppose injustice, but those things are not the gospel message itself. But in the Church of the new advent those things very often are the gospel. The Church is first concerned with going forth to all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The Churches primary mission is bringing Christ to the nations of the world. We see precious little of that these days. No today we see the material side of the faith and little talk of repentance.”
I think this is a good observation. There is no doubt that Christ taught that we must do good works in order to be worthy of Him, but all too often we forget that doing these works must be accompanied by an internal renewal of our soul to open it to the workings of the Holy Spirit. Good works aren’t done purely for their material benefits to the recipient, they’re also done to spiritually benefit us and allow us to better conform ourselves to Christs teachings.
What we can’t forget is that God is not like men. God can peer into your heart and see your motivation and with God intent matters. Doing good things for the wrong reasons is not meritorious in the eyes of God. We all need to look inside ourselves as part of the lifelong process of spiritual renewal that we sometimes call divinization or theosis. Look into our hearts and have the courage to be honest with ourselves. Did I donate to charity for the glory of God and because my love of Christ compelled me to obey Him and do what is right in His eyes? Or did I donate because my concerns were primarily humanitarian, or I wanted virtue points?
The gospel is not a message primarily of earthly social justice. It’s a message of hope for the world to come. We do good works because it’s good for the state of our souls and because it shows obedience to God and the desire to carry out His will. We do good works because Christs message emphasized that the “last will be first and the first will be last”, and we understand there is no point attempting to gain wealth or prestige in a world that will pass away. However we can develop within ourselves the spiritual virtues of humility, charity, faith, chastity, temperance and kindness. Our goal is to develop within ourselves a spirit of love towards our fellow man so deep that it brings us into conformity with God Himself, since of course God is love. By developing in ourselves this deep sense of love, charity and humility we bring ourselves to God by recognizing that the face of God exists in others and how we relate to them. “If you did this for the least of these you also did so for me”. Thus charity isn’t done just for the material benefits it conveys to the poor (though of course this is part of it, the charity would be pointless if it didn’t materially help our brethren) it is done so that we can develop the virtues necessary to be recognized as true disciples of Christ. Again, we might not all make it but remember in the eyes of God intention matters. Struggling with this spiritual development and having the intention of doing what is right by God is meritorious in itself.
It is a rather sad irony that in this day and age a Christian who is so focused on performing these works of charity and social justice can be indicative that their actual faith is dead. James focused on chastising Christians who claimed they had faith yet showed no outward signs of that faith in their actions (something that is hardly uncommon today either). Christians who focus so heavily on trying to make the current world better with no consideration for prayer, spreading the gospel or encouraging sinners to repent and come to God betray their actual lack of faith in God and the true gospel. Performing good and charitable works is self defeating if they’re done without trying to foster that internal spirit of charity and giving that Christ demands that we have. Money gave grudgingly in a manner that evokes a self centered “There, see God? I did something good” feeling is almost worse than not giving at all. The feeling that if you do enough works than God is obligated to allow you into the Kingdom is of course a very dangerous one that is a sin. You can’t buy yourself into the Kingdom through works, we need grace which is why it’s so important to do works in a way that develops ourselves to obtain the virtues Christ wants of us.
Lets get back to basics and remember the instruction of Christ. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, then all these things shall be added to you”. Christ comes first. Lets do charitable works and help the poor and under-trodden in all the ways we can, but lets remember first and foremost why we do these things. For our love of Christ and our obedience to Him. So that we, and the Christian brethren we help through our works can be reunited in the Kingdom to come.
Faith without works is dead, but works without faith are pointless.