One of the things that I have been aware of for some time is the concern that one sometimes hears that people will become involved in the Church for the wrong motives. Particularly in a society like ours with its rampant poverty, there is a fear that people will come to Church for what they can get out of it. And this can be more subtle than simply a desire for material gain – as Thomas Scarborough expressed it in a recent post:
if all is working as it should, people may find many privileges they do not find elsewhere: status where they have had none, forgiveness where they have been stained by sin, a voice where they have been ignored — and so on. This applies to people high and low.
Now I do think that there is a point to these concerns. I have heard horror stories of missionary activities that effectively sought to buy people’s conversion. And I agree with Thomas that there needs to be a true discernment of motivations.
However, sometimes when I hear such concerns raised, or when I raise them myself, I become uncomfortable at what seems to be a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong motivation, and, indeed, between “us” and “them” – as if the motivation of those of us expressing these concerns is necessarily one hundred percent pure. The more we grow in self-knowledge, the more we discover that our motivation is all too often mixed. It is relatively easy to spot the tainted motivation of those seeking material gain, or even some forms of affirmation. It is considerably more difficult to discern the many more subtle ways that our egos are built up and our passions are fed by things that can appear most “holy.”
With this in mind, I was pleased to come across this response of Abba Poemen recently which also reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead of worrying too much about how mixed all of our motivations are, we should perhaps rather accept them for what they are and pray and work for their purification.
A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 ) 173.