Playing the System

There are some days that you come across a random quote on the internet and the next thing you know, you’re down a theo-philosophical rabbit hole. That day was Thursday.

“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bull———— myself, morally speaking?” – David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005) 

That, my friends, is a question that heretofore I did not have words for, yet rattles around in my head quite a bit. I ask it about myself, other people, society as a whole. Like I said, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole.

Where this question really starts to wrinkle my brain is in the context of our faith communities. Christians often talk about humility, giving glory to God, etc. and we laud those as great qualities. But is it possible that we are either consciously or unconsciously playing the system? Is it possible that these supposedly sacrificial actions actually yield us a great return?

What I’m saying is that Christians have set up a society where certain acts are virtuous and praiseworthy, which could color our motives for doing such things. For example, if we have set up a world in which you are admired for deflecting credit for something and giving glory to God then is that very act a moot point since by deflecting credit, you are in fact gaining credit as a “good Christian”? Are we deflecting credit because we believe that God deserves it (as some certainly do) or is it because we are seen as a good person for doing it? And do we do it sometimes without even realizing it?

It is quite possible that there are many times we do the right things for less-than selfless reasons. I know I have; a few times intentionally, but more often than not unintentionally. I think we all have. We have been conditioned into a culture that celebrates what we have deemed Christian behavior. Perhaps that’s why church folk are so thrown off when the wider world doesn’t throw them a parade for displaying their faith.

This is nothing new. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the people that treat prayer and giving to those in need as public acts. Everyone looks at those acts and comment on what a wonderful, spiritual person they are. Jesus then tells us that they have received their reward in full. I wonder how many times our good deeds for God are actions for which we have already received our rewards.

This is not to cast suspicion on anyone. We should not play the motive game with people when they do something good. And this is not to say that people do not act in a manner that pleases God without ulterior motives. But I suspect if all of us were honest with ourselves, we would find that there are times that we play the system. We should be careful to examine our hearts. I think we should do a better job of acknowledging what we have, which is a system that has unintentionally transformed selfless acts into potentially selfish ones.

And for those times when we may be playing the system without realizing it, when we are fooling even ourselves? I guess it’s a good thing that God has given something to us called grace.

N.T. Wright, WALL•E, & Rethinking Heaven

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