by Pastor W.
Reassessing Good Deeds and Merits
“Good deeds” are nice and pleasant commodities. Their value is shared by many religions and should be encouraged for the sake of society.
In a society full of tumults and uncertainties, such as that of Taiwan, there still are some who keep caring for those who are lost in the dark corners or abandoned on the edge of society. News of anonymous good deeds always touches the heart. Genuine love with no condition attached is the drive behind a society of harmony, peace and blessing.
We believe there are a many good people who help sincerely, not expecting for return. I personally highly regard Master Cheng Yen of Tzuchi. For a woman committed to reside in a Buddhist monastery, it is amazing that she is able to drive so many people to charitable works and also to bring forth her massive philanthropic organization.
Biblical View on Good Deeds
Jesus upholds firmly those anonymous good deeds. The Scripture teaches people to “love neighbors as self.” (Luke 10:27) Then, someone asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, ‘Look after him, ‘ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” He replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)
Another time Jesus told his students who will receive God’s blessings. He said, “ ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Those anonymous Samaritans actually are the ones whom Jesus praises and blesses. We not only assert the merit of good deeds, but also believe good deeds will produce good fruit. The Scripture says, “ … A man reaps what he sows. … Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7 and 6:9); “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.” (Prov. 19:17).
“Good deeds” is a universal value, a general concept and a common goal for many religions. However, unfortunately we find the motivations for “good deeds” in society today have been tainted. Rather than genuine love, unselfishness, and compassion, now it has become a function of utility in personal gain. This aroma of this corruption can apparently be detected in the perception of “accumulating merits through good deeds”. What attributes of this perception are to be examined closely?
I. What is Called for in Doing Good: Theory or Strength?
First of all, let’s think hard on the issue of what exactly we need, the theory for good deeds or the strength to pursue them? Most religions are meant to exhort one to do good. But must we have a religion to justify this cause?
HunYui, the literature sage of the Tang dynasty, once said, “A three year old lad may understand why to be good; however, a man of age might fail it.” It is not that we have no understanding of doing good. In childhood, we have learned the theory of kindness from parents, elders, teachers, and Confucius’ teaching of Four Books and Five Classics. Ethics and morality in society also confer the idea of good deeds. We don’t need a religion if it merely provides some concepts of kindness.
For us, the issue lies, not in failing to understand the theory, but in lacking the strength to act on them. This feeling of helplessness by the measures of his religion would grieve a person of conscience and ethics. Therefore it brings forth depression and dismay when a religion merely provides teaching, yet has not the strength to result in good deeds.
Paul, a paramount figure in the Bible, is a well-known religious master of his time. He was well-educated and proficient in law and statutes. In his pure Jewish blood, he was zealous for his forefathers’ tradition of belief. He walked firmly in the laws and statutes and strictly kept all the decrees of his religion. However, he found a sinful force inhibiting him from producing good fruits when he gained more and more knowledge of justice and desired to reach it. He was a pious and conscientious man. He did not disguise his struggle deep inside. He cried out, ”What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?“ (Romans 7:24)
While being torn between the two forces “goodness and sin”, Paul spelled out his struggle, frustration and agony, as,
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:18-25)
Are you also suffering as Paul does – “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” ? Do you expect a religion to provide only the theory of being good(telling you what to do) or the strength to act (giving you strength when you are discouraged) ? Paul overcomes and defeats the dismay of his inability of doing good through the mighty power of Jesus Christ.
I believe Jesus Christ will also provide you the same strength.
II. Doing Good: For the Sake of Yourself or Others?
The goal of doing good obviously is to help others for their benevolence, which I believe should be the essential teaching of religion. Nevertheless, when religious teachers attach the supposedly “purely doing good” with incentives and make it appealing, that is, when they convert the purpose to “accumulating merits”, doing good becomes a typical selfish behavior, knowing that “accumulating merits” is an instrument to cleanse one’s own sins for one’s own salvation.
Let’s use a real case as an example. A man just died of a car accident. At the time this unfortunate incident occurred, family and friends came to offer comfort and support. Some delivered meals and helped to look after children. One neighbor who barely greeted them before this incident happened came to give her condolences. This family appreciated her offer to help. But as there was already plenty, they politely turned down her good will.
However, this neighbor still kept coming every day to ask how she could help. After she was turned down the third time, she angrily announced to the unfortunate wife, “You are such a mean person, not even willing to let me accumulate my merits!” Her real intention was to exploit other’s adversity for her own merits. Such an attitude is not only self oriented, but also is hurting others.
In fact, if the intention of doing good is self-interest, then there is no merit at all. On the other hand, if there is something to be gained for doing good, that should belong to the person being helped, not the helper. The need of the person being helped creates an opportunity of good deed for the person who helps.
People like to brag and long for affirmation and praise from others. Thus it is natural for people to make it known what good they have done. When people have a press conference every time they do something, the intention is to announce it to the world and to build their own reputation. Such a practice is totally for one’s own service, so what merit is there?
During the 9/21 earthquake in Taiwan, there was such case in the disastrous area. One charitable organization brought relief funds to a victim family. As this family thought others might need help more than they did, they declined and suggested the money be given to others. Surprisingly, this charitable organization told him, “It is fine that you don’t accept it. But, please allow us to take a photograph of the presentation.” Apparently, the purpose of their act is to publicize their deeds, not to help others.
I once served in the fishing village of Penghu. There was an American missionary named Ms. Pearl White, whom the natives called, “Ms. White”. Then she was called “Aunt White”. Now she is called “Grandma White”. Some people even regard her as the “Pearl of Penghu.”
Ms. White was called by God in 1946 to join a church medical team to serve in China after she graduated from college and was licensed as a nurse. After China fell to the communists in 1952, at the age of 33, young and beautiful, she came to a healing center at Hsinchung in Taiwan to care for the leprosy patients who were blocked off from society. In 1955, she learned from a patient that there was an island outside of Taiwan called Penghu, where patients need even more care. So she moved to Penghu alone to battle against leprosy and to serve people in poverty. Now, after staying there more than half a century, she is eighty-eight years old, feeble and in a wheelchair all the time. She is still living in Penghu.
In 2002 she got the permanent residence permit issued by the ministry of interior. The Liberty Times reported, “Ms. Pearl White is the light house for the leprosy patients in Penghu. Not only did she care for the leprosy patients diligently, but also helped families and friends of the patients have a correct understanding of this dreadful disease. That was the time when Penghu was not yet developed and the bay bridge not constructed. She often embraced the cold and chilly air from the sea and delivered medicine to the patient houses door by door. Sometimes she went by navy ships, another time by fishing boats. In this way she touched all the surrounding islets of Penghu. She did this not for sightseeing, but for her perseverance in caring for the leprosy patients. It is through her teaching that people’s attitude about leprosy changed from ignorance to understanding.” (Liberty Times, July 8th , 2001)
There are many life stories about Ms. White. However, when reporters asked her for interview, she always declined on the ground of protecting the patients’ privacy. She did not want her patients’ self-esteem being hurt. She said, “To tell my story, I might inevitably mention my patients’ conditions, which will hurt them. For this reason, I will not accept the interview. I’m very thankful that they gave me the opportunities to serve. I love them and I have the obligation to protect them. Please excuse me.”
A reporter, after being declined, was very impressed and touched. He made a very earnest appeal in the paper, “How I hope that we can learn sincerity, humility, and kindness and try to be considerate for the suffering victims and not to manipulate kindness as an instrument which hurts the recipients.” (United Daily News , March 26, 1998)
This point reminds me of a very striking story in America: A father took his boy to a circus show in the city. In the mean time, another father also took his wife and eight children to the show. The family of ten happened to be in the front of the family of the junior in the ticket line. When it was their turn to buy, the ticket lady asked the father how many tickets he needed. He answered proudly, “Give me two for adults and eight for children; I have brought my whole family here.”
However, when the lady told the father the total cost, his face turned pale. Bowing his head, silentl his lips trembled. Lowering his voice, he whispered, “How much did you just say?” The ticket lady told him again. Apparently this man did not have enough money for the tickets. But how could he turn around and tell his jubilant children that their father could not afford the circus show? At that time, the junior’s father behind them slowly took out a twenty dollar bill from pocket and dropped to the ground. Then, he patted that man’s shoulder and said, “Sir, you dropped a bill!” This man surely knew it was not his money. It was the man behind him who quietly helped him.
The father of eight children grasped tightly both hands of the junior’s father and the twenty dollar’s bill. With tears, he thanked him, “Sir, thank you, this means so much to me and my family.” That evening the junior and his father did not get to see the circus show because they gave their only twenty dollars to another family. Yet, this junior said, “We did not come to no avail. My father’s respect for others’ dignity had great impact on me.” All the values of good deeds would be lost if they are meant for one’s own standing of merit or to advance in one’s own glory. Jesus clearly knew that the sinful nature of humanity would pervert the purpose of good deeds and he did not want us lose the heavenly rewards when he taught us,
“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
The true purpose of good deeds clearly is not to seek a return, not to brag, nor to gain merit. Nothing but humbly doing good for others is praiseworthy and deserves support.
III. Merit-Oriented Good Deeds: An Indulgence?
Does an act of kindness really solve the problem of guilt? In fact, being kind merely alleviates anxiety and has no impact on the bearing of guilt. Misdeed and good deed are two opposite extremes. For example, one financial felon smuggled out all his assets from Taiwan to China to avoid legal responsibility. There he did a lot of charities – restoring poor villages, building classrooms for schools, and contributing to orphanages. Could he be excused from his legal obligation by his practice of philanthropy? Surely not! Assume for a moment that you killed a person without being discovered. Yet, you are troubled by the feeling of guilt and decide to help the family of your victim financially. Will you be let off the hook of legal responsibility because of your kind acts? Impossible!
All crimes must go through the legal system. If a defendant is found guilty for the crime he committed he will have to pay the price, such as serving the sentence, detention, or paying a fine, etc. Even negotiation for a misdemeanor crime with a charitable contribution must also be approved by the court. No criminal case would be exempt from legal process by charitable philanthropy.
Furthermore, if good deeds and merits erased a person’s guilt and, thus, relieved him from legal responsibilities, doesn’t it mean bribery is permissible in dealing with crime? A Taiwanese saying goes, “Money makes the devil do anything.” If charitable acts are permitted to abate guilt, the consequences would be terrible as it would bring negative impacts on society.
For example, an officer of the government, corrupted with greed, abused his authority and coveted one billion dollars. Later he regretted what he had done. He decided to donate the stolen money to orphanages, social services and religious organizations. After giving ten million dollars, he was still not eased. So again, twenty million, thirty million… till he donated ninety million. By giving out such a big amount of money, he thought he had done a good deed and raised his merit standing which should exempt him from punishment for his crime. It might even win him special honors for his good deeds. In this way, it would also allow him to keep the rest of his plunder. But that’s not right? Why not?
Is it right to pay for one’s crimes with voluntary gifts out of the proceeds from one’s crime? Should a society conform to such a practice? Truly, many people in our society keep this kind of mentality when making charitable donations. We see in the headlines that in the houses of many notorious criminals there is boasting of their ‘good deeds’. Where did this honor come from? Wasn’t it from their donations to the public? Why did they become generous? Weren’t they attempting to cover up their guilt? Along this line, ‘doing good for merits’ has a counterproductive consequence – smoothing over crooked minds with kind deeds. If this kind of exploitive behavior is permissible, won’t it render the idea of indulgence acceptable and, thus, offer an easy way out for the criminal? In fact, even giving out more than the whole amount of spoil to charities would not nullify the fact of crime.
The original intention of doing good for merits is to stimulate people’s motivation in good will. However, it comes with a hidden risk – it could be misinterpreted and misapplied. When that happens, this enticement could neither tidy one’s mind nor enhance the society’s values as a whole. Worse, it might even make people deceptive and undermine society’s foundation. With so many religious groups highly promoting this notion and so many people volunteering charitable works, our society should have been in unity and peace by now, open-minded and courteous. But, that is not the case.
The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It also declares, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Bible clearly tells us that man is deceitful above all things. Constant good deeds do not generate a man free of sins. In the context of legal systems, it is obvious that accountability of crimes will not be abolished by goodwill in private. In the religious field, the concept of merit-related goodness could be misused as the indulgence for the evil-doers. So how could the teaching of good deed for merit answer the issue of sin?
Though every religion has its own definition of salvation, one shared concern is the problem of evil or sin in man. Since an act of courtesy with gaining merit in mind is unfit to solve this problem, how does it confer salvation to man?
IV. Salvation: By Inner Transformation or Acts of Kindness?
We applaud religious clergy in their efforts to lead people to righteousness, away from evil. Sadly, the way they do this often seems confusing and going the wrong direction. The transformation of a person is not by their outward behavior, but through their inner being. Without changing the inside, the outward behaviors of good deeds are not sustainable. Attempting to maintain the unsustainable inevitably results in anxiety and difficulty.
As an example, you know the fact that you could not expect apples from a lemon tree. And, if you try to decorate the lemon tree with apples, they will rot eventually, but the tree will never produce anything but lemons, and it will never so much as produce an apple blossom.
The same principle applies to the practice of urging people to do good. No matter what kind of person you are (even if a criminal), your good deed are still a credential in the fact that you indeed are helping people. As apples hung on any kind of tree, they are indeed real and edible. However, transforming the inner being by external good deeds is like hanging apples on lemon tree and expecting the lemon tree to become an apple tree. If good deeds were done under pressure, not from the depth of the heart, the consequence is like maintaining apples on lemon tree. How impossibly hard that would be!
So how do we make a tree produce apples? The only way is to give the tree the genes of the apple through genetic modification. With the life-substrate of an apple tree, it naturally grows apples. One example is the well known genetic improvement in Taiwan’s agriculture. Its expertise has improved many poor fruit species, making them produce big and sweet fruits.
From the example of the apple tree, we know that it is not good deeds that make a man good. The inner self must be transformed first, and the deeds will follow naturally. Therefore, the Bible says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23). How do we make a man do good naturally? The inner being must be transformed first.
How to transform one’s life? First, one must readily confess his own sin. This sin does not necessarily mean the specific crime of murder or arson, nor the crime of any law breaking. In fact, the most serious sins are hidden in a man’s heart, such as hatred, lust, greed, cunning, jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, etc., which are prone to beget crimes. Also, sinful thoughts could not be concealed or cleansed by doing good. To become cleansed from sin requires us first to acknowledge our weakness, confessing and repenting of our sins, and resolving to resist sin. Then, when we acknowledge Jesus Christ as savior, God will forgive us and our sins are cleansed. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”(1 John 1:9).
Moreover, God also promises us, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”(Ezekiel 36:26-27). God give us new heart, change our lives, and make us new creatures when we confess and repent to him. Only then will we be able to follow God’s commands and produce good fruits of life.
Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
The Bible clearly tells us that salvation does not come from man’s deeds, lest anyone boast. People tend to brag and feel proud, thereby actually adding to their sin. God does not want us stuck in the cycle of goodness leading to sin, which, in turn, leads to goodness, which leads to sin, etc.. To Him, observable deeds are not the basis for salvation, yet heartfelt repentance is the measure of judgment. Seeing us truly repent, God will forgive our sins, granting us an opportunity to restart our lives. This is grace.
However, this does not mean Christianity teaches not to bother with being good. The Bible clearly says, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”(James 4:17). A Christian believes that once one he confesses his sins and repents, he surely will be good and produce good fruit. Those good deeds are not meant for merits to cover up wrongs, but rather are the results of a changed life inside.
Observation discloses to us a huge difference between Bible-based Christianity and general local beliefs. Most people consider goodness as a requirement for salvation. True Christians believe doing good is an after-effect of having already obtained salvation. The goal of Christianity, does not lie in being good, but in encouraging people to confront their own sins, to repent, to be saved, and to transform and start a new life. Then, good deeds will follow. In this context, Christianity considers doing good a duty and to refrain from doing good a sin.
Jesus preached the Gospel of the kingdom of God and said, “Repent and believe the good news.”(Mark 1:15). Again He promised us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). Only when a person confesses, repents to be forgiven and to be saved, can he experience a new life from God and have the power to do good.
Jesus said, “I’m the true vine, and my father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”(John 15:1-5). When our life is connected to the source of life, we receive provision and strength of life. Then we have the fruit of life and are able to do good.