The Last Temptation
The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
T.S. Eliot wrote those words to describe how difficult it is to purge our motivation of selfish concerns, to do things for reasons that are not ultimately about ourselves. In Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, his main character is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is martyred for his faith. From every outward appearance, Becket is a saint, unselfish, motivated by faith and love. But as Eliot teases out in Murder in the Cathedral, the outward narrative doesn’t tell the deeper story, doesn’t show what’s more radically at issue. It’s not that Thomas Becket wasn’t a saint or wasn’t honest in his motivation for doing good works; rather there’s still a “last temptation” that he needed to overcome on the road to becoming a full saint. Beneath the surface narrative there’s always a deeper, more-subtle, invisible, moral battle going on, a “last temptation” that must be overcome. What’s that temptation?
It’s a temptation that comes disguised as a grace and tempts us in this way: be unselfish, be faithful, do good things, never compromise the truth, be about others, carry your solitude at a high level, be above the mediocrity of the crowd, be that exceptional moral person, accept martyrdom if it is asked of you. But why? For what reason?
There are many motives for why we want to be good, but the one that disguises itself as a grace and is really a negative temptation is this one: be good because of the respect, admiration, and permanent good name it will win you, for the genuine glory that this brings. This is the temptation faced by a good person. Wanting a good name is not a bad thing, but in the end it’s still about ourselves.
In my more reflective moments, I’m haunted by this and left with self-doubts. Am I really doing what I am doing for Jesus, for others, for the world, or am I doing it for my own good name and how I can then feel good about that? Am I doing it so that others might lead fuller, less fearful, lives or am I doing it for the respect it garners for me? When I’m teaching is my real motivation to make others fall in love with Jesus or to have them admire me for my insights? When I write books and articles, am I really trying to dispense wisdom or am I trying to show how wise I am? It this about God or about me?
Perhaps we can never really answer these questions since our motivation is always mixed and it’s impossible to sort this out exactly. But still, we owe it to others and to ourselves to scrutinize ourselves over this in prayer, in conscience, in spiritual direction, and in discussion with others. How do we overcome that “last temptation”, to do the right things and not make it about ourselves?
The struggle to overcome selfishness and motivate ourselves by a clear, honest altruism can be an impossible battle to win. Classically, the churches have told us there are seven deadly sins (pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth) that are tied to our very nature and with which we will struggle our whole lives. And the problem is that the more we seem to overcome them, the more they manage to simply disguise themselves in more subtle forms in our lives. For example, take Jesus’ counsel to not be proud and take the most prestigious place at table and then be embarrassed by being asked to move to a lower place, but rather humbly taking the lowest seat so as to be invited to move higher. That’s sound practical advice, no doubt, but it can also be a recipe for a pride we can really be proud of. Once we have displayed our humility and been publicly recognized for it, then we can feel a truly superior pride in how humble we’ve been! It’s the same for all of the deadly sins. As we succeed in not giving in to crasser temptations, they re-root themselves in subtler forms within us.
Our faults display themselves publicly and crassly when we’re immature, but the hard fact is that they generally don’t disappear when we are mature. They simply take on more subtle forms. For instance, when I’m immature and wrapped up in my own life and ambitions, I might not give much thought to helping the poor. Then, when I’m older, more mature and more theologically schooled, I will write articles publicly confessing that we all should be doing more for the poor. Well, challenging myself and others to be more attentive to the poor is in fact a good thing … and while that might not help the poor very much, it will certainly help me to feel better about myself.
How do we ever get beyond this, this last temptation, to do the right thing for the wrong reason?