If Jesus will forgive me, why should I bother do to the right thing?
That was one of the questions we spoke about this morning at the Catholic Ethics class that my apprentice cell leader Holly teaches at Neumann College. They were wondering about what it means to be moral and if salvation was “free.” What does it mean to follow the “law” if all I need to do is go to confession? Furthermore, what gives about people being forgiven who have committed atrocities? Why is their “reward” the same as those of us who haven’t? What prevents me from just doing what I want?
I thought the discussion was full and good. Undergraduates are such a great group from which to learn. I’m thankful Holly gave me the chance.
The big dilemma with Christian ethics, apparently, is that we really believe that forgiveness is at the heart of our faith, and not performance. We all underperform and no one is perfect. God remedied that when he sent his perfect example who conquered all of our underperformance, including the greatest enemy of all: death. We live freely and eternally because Jesus saved us.
Why do I have to do the right thing then when salvation has already assured us of our safety? That is a good American question, since we are always looking for the money-back guarantee, the lifetime warranty, the kind of thing that lets us damage our products recklessly. We want to get off-the-hook in case trouble finds us. It’s nice to have some insurance, I know, and to resist following the manufacturers’ instructions. But what’s the cost of just going for the afterlife and ignoring how we conduct ourselves in this world?
I came up with four reasons for why you need to care about how you act here on earth instead of just holding on to the promise of salvation.
- Jesus wants us to bring heaven to earth. Everything we imagine heaven to be should be something we are trying to replicate on earth. Why? Because as people see a glimpse of heaven in us and in our community, perhaps they will long for the same promise. Plus, making the world better is a good thing to do for future generations.
- No one lives on an island. There is no such thing as a victimless crime. Our actions affect other people and can often hurt them. They can also hurt us. Jesus takes captive our minds in the Sermon on the Mount, knowing that even our private thoughts can have external (and internal) consequences.
- Paul calls the law our “guardian,” Jesus redeems us through faith now. Following the law, though, is a great way to know Jesus for one, but also to become more like him. Our transformation is incumbent upon our actions, and the more we are like Jesus, the better the world is and that kind of change helps everyone follow Jesus. When they follow you, perhaps they will be following Jesus to.
- The question isn’t why, it’s how. Jesus transforms us. We are no longer conforming ourselves to the patterns of the world. Our minds and bodies are renewed. Doing the right thing, though challenging, is not a drag. It is a joy. He changes our transactional indoctrination—we now do the right thing because it makes the world and us better. It needs people doing the right thing, even if that isn’t, alone, what redeems us.
There is more I could say about this, obviously, but would you like to share your thoughts too?