1. The name of good works is given to such voluntary actions on the part of man as are in conformity with the will of God, are performed for the love of God, and consequently will be rewarded by God.
No action, however excellent, is to be called a good work unless it is voluntary. The compulsory fast of a criminal in prison is not a good work; nor in fact is any action which is not in accordance with the will of God. To spend one’s time in reciting long prayers, instead of accomplishing the duties of one’s station, is not a good work, but a sin. Nor do works which fail in any one particular to correspond to the will of God deserve to be called good works, or to receive a reward. Those actions again, which are not performed for the love of God are not good works. God requires a pure motive on our part. For instance, to give an alms to an importunate beggar merely to get rid of him is not wrong, but it is not a perfect good work. It is an imperfect or natural good work, because it is done from natural motives. But an action performed for God’s sake, because it is the will of God, for love of Christ, in view of an eternal reward or for fear of everlasting punishment, is a perfect, or supernatural good work, and will bear fruit, because it is done in union with Christ (as the branch bears fruit that abides in the vine, John xv. 4), and participates in His merits. A plain woolen cloth has a certain worth, but if it be dyed a rich purple color, its value is greatly enhanced. So the good works we perform are of little worth unless they are done for God’s sake. Then they are crimsoned with the blood of Christ, precious in God’s sight, and deserving of a celestial recompense.
Actions, although good, if performed for merely natural motives, are worthless in God’s sight.
The Pharisees in Christ’s time are a striking instance of this, for they did good works to be seen of men and praised by men. Our Lord blames them for this, and says: “They have received their reward” (Matt. vi. 2). If a man subscribes to some charitable object, in order to get his name into the papers, or to get some office of trust, he does not perform a good work, or one deserving of reward. Such works are like a great, empty package which, when put into the balance at the Judgment Day, will have no weight at all. “Man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart” (1 Kings xvi. 7). It is the intention to which one must look, not the external act; this may appear to be good, but if it is not done in some way in view of our final end, it is worse than useless. He who seeks his own glory in what he does is a thief, for he robs God of what is His due. Some people say we ought to do good for its own sake. They are mistaken, for the act itself is not our highest aim, but a means towards the attainment of that end. We ought to do good for God’s sake.
A good work has all the more value in God’s sight, the less it is done in hope of earthly reward.
He who does good to the poor who cannot requite him, does a work which is great in God’s eyes, however contemptible it may be in the eyes of the world, because it is done for God. Good works which cost us a great sacrifice are more valuable than others. For this reason Abraham’s obedience in promptly offering his only son at God’s command was so highly praised. Therefore what we do in spite of outward contradiction or inward opposition has more worth before God. Thus the value of our works depends entirely upon whether they are or are not done for the love of God. He does not consider the magnitude of the work, but the amount of love wherewith it is performed.
2. The good works most pleasing in God’s sight are these: Prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds.
By these works the centurion Cornelius merited the praise of the angel (Acts x.), and Tobias the approval of Raphael (Tob. xii. 8). In the sermon on the mount Our Lord lays special stress on these works (Matt. vi.). Prayer includes every kind of divine worship, the reception of the sacraments, hearing Mass, attending sermons, etc. Fasting is not merely abstaining from food, or some sort of food, but the repression of sensual desires in general, e.g., restrain ing curiosity, the avoidance of idle conversation, denying one’s self some pleasure. As alms may be reckoned every service rendered to one’s neighbor, pre-eminently the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the principal means of attaining perfection, because they combat the three evil appetites, the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life; and thus the soul is enabled to rise more freely to God.
By prayer the pride of life is suppressed, by fasting the craving for sensual enjoyment, by almsgiving the desire for earthly riches. Thus by prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds, more than by anything else, we shake off the bonds of earth and consequently draw nearer to God.
3. Even the most trifling works are pleasing to God if they are done with the intention of promoting His glory.
St. Paul exhorts us: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. x. 31). This includes work, recreation, sleep, etc. Midas, King of Phrygia, is said to have asked of the gods that whatsoever he touched might be turned to gold. This power is granted to the Christian; for by purity of intention all his good works do in reality become golden, i.e., supernatural, and consequently highly valuable and meritorious. The intention deter mines the worth of every action. Witness the kiss Judas gave Our Lord; a kiss is a token of love and friendship, but his evil intention made it a vile action. The intention is to the action what the root is to the tree. If the root is healthy the tree flourishes and its fruit is good; but if the root is unsound, the sap does not circulate or the fruit mature. The decorations of the streets when a monarch makes his entry into a city, are a matter of no moment to him, except in so far as they display the affection and loyal devotion of his subjects. So it is with the actions we perform for the glory of God. Be care ful therefore to direct your intention every morning, and renew it occasionally throughout the day. An action without a good intention is like a body in which the life is extinct.
4. Good works are necessary to salvation.
Our Lord says: “Every tree that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire” (Matt. iii. 10). At the Last Judgment He will require good works of us. Remember the parable of the barren fig-tree (Luke xiii. 6); of the ten virgins (Matt. xxv.), and of the talents (v. 16). God is not satisfied with mere integrity of life (which consists in not being guilty of murder, or theft, or cheating, or evil practices of any kind) . At the Last Judgment many will be sentenced to everlasting misery, not because they have done what is evil, but because they have not done what is good. St. John Chrysostom says that to do no good is tantamount to doing evil. Heaven is the recompense of labor; he that has done no work can claim no guerdon. If you had a servant who did not indeed steal your goods, but who neglected his work, would you not dismiss him? Look to it, therefore, that you appear not before God with empty hands. Every man has three friends: (1), Money, which is taken from him by death; (2), Relatives, who part from him at the grave; (3), Good works, which alone follow him to the judgment seat of God (Apoc. xiv. 13). By good works we may make sure our calling and election (2 Pet. i. 10). Good works are like bulwarks which protect the city from hostile incursions. On account of our good works God grants us the grace of perseverance, or, if we fall into grievous sin, actual graces to bring us to repentance (2 Par. xix. 3). The prophet Nathan was sent to David after he fell into sin; Our Lord looked with compassion on St. Peter after his fall.
5. Through good works the sinner obtains the actual graces which are necessary for his conversion; the just man obtains an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal felicity, and the remission of the temporal penalty of sin; furthermore his prayers are heard, and sometimes earthly blessings are bestowed on him.
The good works performed by the sinner contribute to his conversion. When our hemisphere is turned towards the sun, we experience light and warmth. So it is with the sinner; when by good works he turns from creatures to the Creator his mind is enlightened, his heart is softened, and he enters upon a new life. The prayer of the sinner, although without merit, earns the grace of pardon; it has power with God, not on account of the merit of the petitioner, but on account of the divine promise: “Every one who asketh receiveth.” The good works of the sinner will not in themselves be rewarded here after, but are only conducive to his conversion. By his good works the just man obtains an increase of sanctifying grace and eternal felicity. Our Lord says: “Every branch in Me that beareth fruit, My Father will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (John xv. 2). “To every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound” (Luke xix. 26). By these words Christ signifies that the sanctifying grace which he already possesses will be increased. He also receives new actual graces. Christ promises as the reward of good works a hundredfold and life eternal. As the good works of the just are rewarded hereafter they are called living works. The more good works he has done in time, the greater will be his felicity to all eternity. Our Lord says: “The Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then will be rendered to every man according to his works” (Matt. xvi. 27). St. Paul declares: “He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly” (2 Cor. ix. 6). The Council of Florence asserts that all the redeemed in heaven enjoy the beatific vision of the triune God, but in a different degree of perfection, according as their merits are greater or less. Good works cancel the penalty due to sin, because on account of original sin it is difficult to man to perform them, and the devil seeks to deter him from them. The monks of a certain convent, having risen early to pray, beheld to their astonishment a number of demons approaching, who said to them: “If you will but betake yourselves to your beds again, we will immediately go away.” Inasmuch as good works are onerous to perform, they make satisfaction for sin, and appease the retributive justice of God; inasmuch as they conduce to the honor of God and the welfare of our fellow-men, they are meritorious, and serve to glorify the remunerative justice of God. They also exalt the loving kindness of God, for they procure for us a gracious answer to our petitions. The temporal reward of good deeds consists generally in the increase of riches, the improvement of health, the prolongation of life, the esteem of men, and above all interior peace and joy, etc.
He who commits a mortal sin, loses the merit of the good works he has done in the past.
“If the just man turn himself away from his justice, and do iniquity, all his justices that he hath done shall not be remembered” (Ezech. xviii. 24). But when the sin has been washed away in the Sacrament of Penance, the good works of the past are revivified, as the leaves come out again in the spring sunshine. It is not so with sins; once forgiven, they are effaced completely. How great is the mercy of our God!
6. We can apply to others, either to the living or to the dead, the merit of our good works.
Thus we can offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, communion, fasts or almsdeeds for others. In this manner the good work, in as much as it be satisfactory or propitiatory, benefits another; the merit of it, however, remains with the doer. Nor is it wholly lost to us as a satisfaction for sin, for in applying it to another we perform a work of mercy, and works of mercy procure for us remission of sin and entitle us to an eternal reward. Hence we see that in applying good works to others they are of twofold value.
7. We ought to let our good works be seen of men, in order to set them a good example.
In the life of St. Pachomius we see how powerful is the effect of good example. When a soldier, he was quartered in a Christian family. Here he was treated with the greatest kindness, and the behavior of all the members of the household was so exemplary, that he was vastly impressed by it, and was led to inquire into and finally embrace the Christian religion. Pachomius was an active promoter of monasticism in Egypt. Our Lord admonishes us to let our light shine before men, so that they may see our good works, and glorify Our Father Who is in heaven (Matt. v. 16). It is His will that our influence should make, itself felt by those around us; that by our light we should illumine the darkness, and become teachers and guides to our brethren. The Christian should not only be a burning but also a shining light, that he may be of use to others. At the same time all works of an extraordinary nature should be hidden, such as praying with one’s arms outspread, rigorous fasting, etc. All singularity is to be avoided, it is a fault whereby piety is made ridiculous and contemptible. But those works which are binding on all, such as the reception of the sacraments, should not be done in secret. If Christ denounced those who give scandal, what a rich blessing must be in store for those who by their edifying and virtuous life lead others into the right way!
8. We ought to make diligent use of our earthly riches, as well as of our life here below, for the performance of good works.
We ought to make friends by means of our wealth, that after our death they may receive us into everlasting dwellings (Luke xvi. 9). On how short a span of this transitory life our whole eternity depends! (St. Jerome.) “We ought to work while it is day; the night cometh when no man can work” (John ix. 4). The period of man’s existence upon earth is his seed-time. The lost in hell would give up all the treasures of the world, for one short moment to spend as they please in which to reconcile themselves with God. How foolish are those who pursue sensual pleasures instead of doing good works! They are like men who, in a gold mine, pick up stones and earth instead of the precious metal. You are sorry if perchance you have spent a small sum of money unwisely, but you consider it no matter for regret to have wasted a whole day in the service of the devil. The hour will come when we shall become alive to the inestimable value of time, but alas, it will come too late!
This article, I. GOOD WORKS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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