I was preaching one evening when a mentally ill man walked down the church aisle, slapped me in the face, pushed over the pulpit, and sent the congregation into a panic. In a protective act, a church member named Gary stepped toward the man as he lunged towards Gary and his wife.
I sent an email to Gary the next day, commending his bravery. “I wasn’t trying to protect anyone,” he replied. “I was scared, tried to run away, and accidentally ran into him.” What had looked like courage had, in fact, been cowardice.
Seeming “good” deeds can have bad motives. It’s possible to do the “right” thing for the wrong reason. Jesus warned of it.
The Pharisees were experts at good deeds. They were trying to keep 248 commandments and 365 restrictions within the expanded Jewish law. But their expertise was in outward conformity rather than purity of heart. They didn’t murder, but they did hate (Matthew 5:21-22,43-44). They didn’t commit adultery but they did lust (Matthew 5:27-28). They gave to the poor, but they did so to look good (Matthew 6:1-2). They did the right things for the wrong reasons.
Jesus called His people to a righteousness “better” than this. Deeds matter, but motives matter more. The God who looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7) wants love for Him and others to be our only motive (Matthew 22:37-40).
This calls for some careful reflection, for we can be just as pharisaical today. Instead of freely giving to someone, we can help them in order to get something in return. We can oppose homosexuality out of bigotry rather than true concern for another’s wellbeing. We can donate to charity simply to improve our public image.
The greatest treason is “to do the right thing for the wrong reason,” wrote T. S. Elliot. According to Jesus, love is the remedy.
NLT 365-day reading plan passage for today: Acts 20:13-38
Read Psalm 12:2, Isaiah 29:13-14, Matthew 15:7-9, and Luke 11:39-42 for other examples of “right” things done from wrong motives.
In what area of your life are you most tempted to do the right thing for the wrong reason? How is love the ultimate remedy?