Checking our Motivation

I’ve been thinking about a comment someone made at our Weekly Manna gathering at UST Law School last week. Our Dean of Students, who offered the reflection for the day, spoke about our motivation for doing the “good” things we do. He asked people to consider whether they were doing the “right” thing out of a conviction that it was right or so that they would be praised by others. Part of his thrust was that if we are doing the right thing out of a desire to be praised, we will often be disappointed and resentful when praise and recognition do not come.

During the conversation that followed, one student offered the view that perhaps our motivation is not so important. So long as the right thing is getting done, he suggested, what does it matter if the motivation was wrong. Thus, he said, maybe we don’t always be needing to check our motivation.

At one level, this strikes me as wrong. That is, our ultimate goal is a conversion of our hearts and minds – conforming our will more and more to God’s will. That means that our mindset, not just our actions, are important. Motivations are not irrelevent.

On the other hand, at the early stages of our development, developing the habit of doing the right thing is helpful – and aids the process of conversion of our heart. So if the point is that doing the right thing regardless of initial motivation helps to create the habit of doing the right thing – as an initial step in our process of conversion, then I think there is some validity to the point.

My friend Beth talked about something in a recent blog post that illustrates this. She wrote:

Funny thing about this idea of praying for those who persecute you: Both of us reflected that we started slowly and begrudgingly to walk through the motions of praying for those we were angry with and had been deeply hurt by. We just said the words because it was the right thing to do. Slowly, it changed. Slowly, the process moved from saying prayers for them to praying for them. Then, to really praying for them. And one day you look up and realize that you are really praying for them, and Anger has given up trying to hold you in that place where you eat the rat poison and hope the rat dies.

One of the values of engaging in a daily examen, a prayer practice about which I’ve written before, is that it gives us an opportunity to check back over our actions to see what was our true motivation.