Enjoying Good Works?

I’m still making my way through Chapter 44 of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition.  I was sleepy last night, so I didn’t get as much read as I hoped.

Although Larry Underwood is no longer a celebrity musician, he finds that he still likes to play the guitar because it feels good and eases his mind.  This reminds me of an issue that we discussed last night at my church’s Bible study group, which is going through Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, a book about Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son.  In the workbook, we were asked whether or not we try to manipulate God through our obedience, and what our motivation to obey God should be, since we cannot earn God’s favor and are saved by God’s free grace.

One of the people in the group said that obedience to God can prevent us from having a lot of self-imposed problems.  Another person said that he likes to take pictures for the church, but he does so because he enjoys using his talents for God, not because he feels that he has to do that to get on God’s good side and to receive blessings.  Indeed, there is fulfillment in using one’s talents.

In an undergraduate Christianity class that I took years ago, the professor was trying to illustrate Martin Luther’s views on good works.  She talked about when she was a student and was studying for finals.  Whenever she studied for finals, she made sure that she was also reading a novel for fun.  Her studying was something that she did to receive a good grade, but her reading of the novel was done for her own personal pleasure.  And, according to Luther, we as Christians should do good works, not because we have to do them to earn merit before God, for we cannot earn God’s favor.  Rather, we should do them because we enjoy them.  To come back to the passage from The Stand that I’m discussing today, Larry does not play the guitar in order to gain fame, fortune, or women; rather, he does so because he enjoys it and it eases his mind.

I’m not going to get into a debate over whether Luther’s views were more complicated than this.  Maybe they were, since I have come across thinkers who have denied that Luther was an antinomian, one who held that observance of God’s law is optional rather than mandated (and this may not be the fairest definition of antinomianism).  But I do want to talk some about an evangelical cliche that I’ve heard: that we do good works because we want to, not because we have to.

I can understand that there is a sense of fulfillment that comes from using one’s talents to help somebody else.  But what if one finds that he does not want to do good works—that he’d prefer, say, to stay at home and watch TV or to read rather than to work at the soup kitchen?  Many would come along and say that such a person is not truly saved, but that sort of judgmentalism does not radically make that person into someone who wants to do good works.  He may even find that he still doesn’t want to do them, even after he says the sinner’s prayer, for saying the sinner’s prayer is not a presto-chango formula for everybody.

Moreover, doing good works is not necessarily enjoyable.  Even many who do them can tell you that.  There’s stress that comes from working with others and helping other people.  Maybe there is fulfillment that can come even from that, but, as I look back, I can’t say that I’ve been fulfilled by every piece of service work that I have done.

And yet, service work is necessary because there are people who need help.  Rather than saying that I should do good works because I enjoy them and that I’m not a true Christian if I don’t, I prefer to lean on something a United Methodist pastor once told me: “We’re saved by grace, but, even after we’re saved, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”  The pastor is not saying that we need to do a bunch of good works after we’re saved, but rather that the world is broken and there are a lot of people to help, and it would be nice if we could contribute to helping others in some way.

I think that, overall, that’s a good approach to a lot of issues that relate to obedience.  Rather than saying that we should obey because we enjoy it—which may or may not be the case—why not highlight why we should be doing specific acts?  Why should we pray, or read the Bible, or attend church?  How do they help us?  (In my opinion, though, how or whether we do any of these things is a personal decision, and I myself have done these things either differently over the years, or, sometimes, not at all.  But I think that it may be a good idea to hear why Christians have considered them to be important, and the answer to that could be something to consider as one weighs whether or not she wants to do them, or even deems them necessary to meet certain spiritual goals.)

At the same time, it is nice when one can actually enjoy doing something good.  It makes things easier.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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