One can find “cosa nostra” with God by looking to the gifts God gave singularly to her and by putting them to use boldly for the sake of God’s glory and the welfare of her fellow man. It is possible, however, to take right actions without the right frame of mind.
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal illustrates going through the right motions with the wrong motive. Both sons love earthly stuff more than serving the father. One broke the rules and one followed the rules. The one who followed the rules generally had an easier go if it. Confronted with the father’s rejoicing upon the prodigal’s return, however, the obedient son’s resentment reveals he was not serving his father out of love and thankfulness for all the father gave. He wanted earthly rewards for his obedience.
The rule followers among us are especially at risk of failing to recognize a misplaced motive. We want credit for going through the right motions and for exercising self-control. Self-control, after all, isn’t easy. It’s a lot harder than following every whim. Why does self-control seem to get less reward in the bible than a major failure mea culpa?
Self-control has its own rewards, of course. Or rather, lack of self-control begets its
own punishment, a la the prodigal. The real invitation, here, is to examine the true motives in our hearts. Are we racking up credits, paying our dues banking on a future reward? Or are we driven by love and desire to share joy with God?
Medieval rabbinic authority Maimonides recognized the dichotomy between actions and motives. He defined degrees of teshuvah. Often translated “repentance,” teshuvah is the process of turning back to God and it requires sinning to stop. To stop sinning due to fear of earthly consequences is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart. To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness. Maimonides establishes that lesser modes of rapprochement are fully adequate. God yearns for love but right actions lead us towards him.
Biographer, novelist, and translator of seventeenth century religious classics H. L. Sindey Lear (1824-1896) suggests the small things are our best training ground for spiritual growth.
“When persons have learnt to look upon the daily course of their ordinary life, with its duties and troubles, however common-place, as their offering to God, and as the safest school for themselves of perfection, they will have made a very important step in the spiritual life. Another step, so simple that it is often despised, is to do everything, however ordinary, as well as it can possibly be done, for God’s sake. A third is to be always pressing forward; when a mistake is made, or a fault committed, to face and admit it freely; but having asked God to supply the deficiency caused by our own infirmity, to go on steadfastly and hopefully.”
Join the conversation. What is your daily offering to God?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.