Don’t you just love the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you perform a good work for someone else? We truly are blessed to be able to help others in need. St. Paul alludes to this in his farewell address to the Ephesians, “…we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Acts 20:35 But just as important, when we engage in a charitable act, what is our intention? What should it be?
At certain times of the year, we may be more focused on helping out the less fortunate than others. Almsgiving, the act of providing material assistance to those in need, is not just something we should do during Lent. Rather, we should perform this and other corporal works of mercy throughout the year.
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God. CCC 2447
Intention—Our Motive for Giving
In Patience & Humility: A Handbook for Christians, William Ullathorne, OSB, notes that every exercise of virtue includes a motive. The motive, or intention, is the ultimate end or reason for carrying out the act. He cites three broad categories of motives that we might have in performing charitable acts:
- Self-respect—it is good to help out the less fortunate because it’s becoming of us—it makes us look good in the eyes of others.
- Sympathy—we are driven to help someone from our natural sense of benevolence toward them.
- Love of God—if we give aid to another not merely as an act of kindness, but out of love of God, then we are working from the highest motive, and it is most pleasing to Him.
Giving with an Intention of Enhanced Self-Respect
Another label for this motive might be that of “self-exaltation.” When we do good works, are we anxious to be seen doing them? Do we like to have our names blasted out there, for others to see just how generous we are? Is such giving thus a form of self-exaltation? In Matthew 23, Jesus tells us, “… [the scribes and the Pharisees] preach but they do not practice…All their works are performed to be seen.” To be sure, the recipient of the donation of time, goods or money will benefit from our largesse. However, is that what the Greatest Commandments really are all about?
Charity with an Intention Driven by Sympathy
Having sympathy, or even empathy, for others is a good character trait. Indeed, feeling compassion for others is admirable. We know the Lord has plenty of compassion for each and everyone of us. We ought to imitate Him in that regard. Donation of self or property driven by this intention clearly is on a higher scale than giving in order to make us or others feel good about us. Here, as with the prior example, the recipient is sure to benefit from our generosity. The point that Archbishop Ullathorne makes here is that we can feel natural sympathy for others without even thinking about God. Thus, giving with this motive does not reflect the highest, qualitative level of intention.
Works Done with the Intention of Glorifying God
If our assistance to others comes not only from a sense of compassion for their situation, but also and primarily from the love of God, we operate with the highest of intentions or motives. We show that we love God with all our heart, mind and soul by the way we love, in action, our neighbor. We focus on God. In essence we focus on serving Him by serving others. It’s not about us, and not strictly just about them. Do they reap the benefits of our munificence? Indeed, they do, and to boot, we do as well.
Purity of Intention
In The Sinner’s Guide, Ch. 42, Sec. VII, Venerable Louis of Granada, tells us,
This virtue [purity of intention], which is intimately connected with zeal, enables us to forget ourselves in all things, and to seek first the glory of God and the accomplishment of His good pleasure, persuaded that the more we sacrifice our own interests in His service, the greater advantage and blessing we shall reap. For this reason, we must examine the motives of all our actions, that we may labor purely for God, since nothing is more subtle than self-love, which insinuates itself into every work, unless we maintain a constant guard. Many who now seem rich in good works will be found very poor at the day of judgment for lack of this pure intention.
He may have borrowed some of this thinking from The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, 15, wherein the author tells us, “Now, that which seems to be charity is oftentimes really sensuality, for man’s own inclination, his own will, his hope of reward, and his self-interest, are motives seldom absent. On the contrary, he who has true and perfect charity seeks self in nothing, but searches all things for the glory of God.”
Going back even further in time, St. Gregory the Great concludes his Morals On The Book Of Job noting that he needs to examine his conscience regarding his motive in his writing: “…for a right thing is then rightly spoken, when he who says it, seeks by what he says to please Him alone from Whom he has received it…”
Examining Our Intentions
This might seem a bit daunting. Simply doing good works to help people may not be quite enough, so to speak. Doing them intentionally to glorify God, while helping our brothers and sisters, should be our ultimate goal. Not only that, but we need to avoid falling into the root sin of vanity when we do perform good works or give alms. What a minefield we face in spiritual combat!
That being said, we can wind our way through the landmines of vanity with, again, some intentional effort, and some forethought. In Navigating the Interior Life, Dan Burke describes vanity as having an excessive concern for how we’re perceived by others. Some manifestations he provides for examination include:
- Looking for praise from others
- Trying to get others to think we’re “the best”
- Being overly concerned about our popularity
- A desire to be at the center of attention
Time for a reality check: When I perform this volunteer work, or make this donation, is it all for God’s greater glory? On the other hand, might it be due to some version of one of the foregoing manifestations? Okay—so we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re doing it for God’s glory. Is there still an element, even a tiny one, of vanity floating around that we need to vanquish?
Purifying Our Intentions
Depending on our own particular situation and proclivity to particular sins, some of us may need to fight more vigorously than others. If, like me, you really look forward to someone’s “atta boy” or “bravo,” some prayerful consideration may be in order. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating recognition. However, can’t we just forget about us, and focus on God, and on God in others? In our morning offering and evening examen, we might ask God for the grace to purify our soul and our intentions, to help us focus on His will and on Him.
I’ve found that praying the Litany of Humility can be a big help in this area as well. It can be a real spiritual eye-opener. Working at acquiring the virtue of humility, and overcoming prideful and vain habits can help us focus on God, rather than on us. Ultimately, the more we focus on God and glorifying Him, the closer we can grow to Him. Isn’t that what it’s all about?