Thursday, June 7, 2012

Little Teaching: We serve the good, not effect the good

[I have not left my Grammar Nazi card at the door. Please see footnote for my shocking use of "effect" rather than "affect".]

People are complex, emotions are complex, and situations are complex.

But principles based in Truth are simple.

There is a bedrock Christian principle that has burned itself into my mind and heart since the first time I read this pithy phrase, 17 years ago:

We serve the good, not effect* the good.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Bells went off. This was the formula for living the Christian moral life, and it streamlined everything for me.

Let's go through it:

We serve the good always. To be a servant of the good means that at every step, in every thought, and with every action, we choose virtue over sin. In fact, we are never, ever permitted to sin. We do sin, of course, but not because it's allowed! Nope, sorry, God never gives us permission to do evil, whether big or little (mortal or venial). As children of God, we are to choose only the good.**

We don't effect [i.e., bring about] the good. That means we don't look to force or manipulate a good outcome in a given situation. In fact, to be concerned primarily with outcome puts us in dangerous moral and spiritual territory, namely falling into an "ends justify the means" mentality. That's the mentality that leads a well-meaning politician to lie in order to win an election. It leads a good student to cheat on an important exam to assure her acceptance into a top university. It leads an employee to steal from his boss so that he can take his wife out for a lovely anniversary dinner. And it leads to the belief that one may directly kill an innocent person in order to save the lives of hundreds.

In each of those examples (and a million more), the person has ceased to 'serve the good' and decided to 'effect the good'. But when we are willing to do wrong, even in the hopes of a good result, we transgress the moral law and offend God, who is Goodness.

Serving the good requires humility and trust, as it obligates us to mind our own actions only, while entrusting outcomes, good or bad, to God.

That's kind of a relief, isn't it? None of us is needed to be the Savior of the world, and we are not required to set all things right at any cost. We are only required to serve the good -- which means serving God -- in each moment.

*The use of "effect" here, though seemingly wrong (most would think it should be "affect" since it's a verb), is correct. In this case, to effect = to bring about or complete. "Effect" and "affect" can both be used either as a noun or a verb. "Effect" is usually the one used as a noun, but not in this rare case. As verbs, "to affect" means to produce a change in, and "to effect" means to bring about or make happen.

**For the scrupulous among us, you'll want to go here, next!



  1. I never thought about that in this way, but you're right! I had to re-read the paragraph that said "we are not allowed to sin" a few times over. I was getting confused with the fact that we do sin anyway.

    It's just like I know that my children may break my rules when i trust them to keep them when I have my back turned and can't watch them every moment. I know that rules may be broken, but not once will I ever allow it or give consent because I know it will happen anyway. What mother says to her kids, "Go ahead and ruin your clothes in that massive mud puddle over there, even though I've been telling you not to,because we both know you're going to do it anyway!"

    And yes, this is a relief to know that we are here to serve the good not effect the good. We're only called to be faithful, and being faithful means to have a spirit of trust and to try your best, always.

  2. Thanks for this great reminder. I know this is true, but sometimes I get caught up worrying about whether something is going to happen, whether someone is going to come to God. Then I'm focused on worrying instead of praying and being confident in the Holy Spirit and confident that God loves people even more than I do!

  3. Thanks for the link about scruples. My 9 year old often repeats his penance because he's worried he didn't get it right. This term he's been learning about The Four Last Things in R.E at school and now he's struggling to pray because he keeps getting bad thoughts come into his head. I've printed off the 10 commandments for the scrupulous and edited it a bit for him.

    I've always thought that the idea of killing one to save many isn't right somehow but I hadn't looked at the teaching behind it. It's very simple when you put it like that! Some people even argue that killing many to protect one is Ok e.g. a highly trained fighter pilot, or someone of our own nationality.

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks for a good explanation. I like the way you expressed "it obligates us to mind our own actions only, while entrusting outcomes, good or bad, to God." Sometimes we can be further tempted to believe that because something "can" work, or because we "make" something work, then it "must be God's will." In fact, we do not know the will of God, and must trust that when we choose the good, and serve the good, we are doing our best to cooperate with God, but we won't really know what He wills til we meet Him face to face.

  5. I needed this today. It's like a breath of fresh air! Thanks :)

  6. got this from a friend just now, via email! I worried about this, ha ha!!!! But read my asterisk. Both "affect" and "effect" can be used as nouns or verbs, although "effect" is usually used as a noun. However, not in this case. :)

    Here's what she wrote (and I love her for it, but she's wrong, ha ha!):

    From one anal Melancholic to another, thought I'd email you before too many people read it...

    I believe the word you want to use is "affect" (the verb) and not "effect" (the noun).

    I could be wrong. But being the Choleric I am... I seriously doubt it ;P


    So, just to be clear: To affect something is to change it. To effect something is to bring it about.

    Grammar Nazi retreats now….

  7. Liela, I almost didn't read this post thinking I know the faith pretty well. Silly me! So glad I read this one! This expresses something so well a thought that I have in the back of my mind when I'm reading Bubble discussions. The liberals who respond to you go off on tangent after tangent, making my head spin, and sometimes making it impossible to keep up with the conversation! They are doing exactly what you are saying. They reject moral concepts and in doing so, they make things more and more complicated. It seems to me that they truly think that they are arguing for another person's good, but they are rarely able to see that the results of violating the moral law are NOT good. Personally, I don't see how someone can be alive in the 21st century and not see the evil rising around us on a daily basis, but in a way, they have to deny the presence of that evil or it takes away from their argument.

    We have such a beautiful gift in our faith. We can believe on pure, childlike faith what the Church teaches and we will never go wrong if we follow it. Or, we can study and delve deeply into Her teachings and be amazed at the wisdom that guides Her. No surprise there, since, as Jesus said, "who hears you hears Me." That is so awesome! We have a direct line to heaven, to God who loves us more than we can imagine and wants only good for us, and we can know just how to receive the good He wants to send. It is all just too awesome to handle!

    1. Sorry, meant to take out the word "something"!

  8. This is a very liberating distinction. Thanks for the post!

  9. Thanks for the comments, guys! When it's one in the morning and I hit "publish", sometimes I am not sure if anything I wrote makes sense. :) So, I'm glad it was worth a read!

  10. Needed to hear this! Also, I love your scrupulosity post! Not sure how I missed that!

  11. if youre serving goodness, by doing all those things, aren't you basically effecting the goodness?

  12. and we should judge by the fruit we bear, right?

  13. in turn affecting goodness

  14. may be, there are many situations where we can force a good outcome by doing something evil (that is the theological term for sin, or doing wrong). For example, the four scenarios I wrote about in the original post (kill one person to save hundreds, cheat to get into a good school and have a successful life, lie to become the mayor, and then do good things for the town, steal a bit of money that no one will miss, and have a lovely dinner with the wife). But, all those actions, all those attempts to bring about the good (the good end) by doing something sinful… it's not permitted. Even if the good outcome happens, the original sin was an offense against God.

    The politician cannot lie, even for a good end.
    The employee cannot steal, even for a good end.
    The student cannot cheat, even for a good end.
    The person cannot kill one innocent, even for a good end for the rest.

    The fruit that comes will be judged by God. The fruit of the saints' lives, for example, was that grace and truth abounded by their example of personal holiness, and personal purity of thought, word and deed. They saints would never think to perform an evil act in order to force an good outcome. It was St. Joan of Arc who said:

    I would rather die than do a thing which I know to be a sin.

    She served the good, and didn't worry about effecting (bringing about) the good.

    Sometimes, by doing the right thing, a bad outcome will occur. For example, if I refuse to murder an innocent, a terrorist might indeed kill the rest of the hostages. But God will work that out and punish the terrorist/murderers. We don't become murderers ourselves out of a sense that we need to effect a good outcome.

    We are never allowed to sin.

    Does that help?

  15. May be, another reader just emailed me with a quote from Mother Teresa which we all know and which actually sums it up very well:

    "We are not called to be successful, only faithful."

    Same principle! :)

    1. sorry, should be "may b". Sorry I keep messing up your screen name!

  16. This was a great post! I've never really had this idea be presented to me so clearly. I also really needed to hear this today.

    Serve the good and trust. I think I can do that if I can just convince myself to get out of my own way. :-)

  17. I loved this post so much. I instantly recognized some of my sinful behavior. The message is liberating. Sometimes ( being a mom of a gay child ) this blog makes me crazy, but today the simplicity of this powerful teaching is wonderful. How do the men and women in the armed forces fall into this teaching? Just wondering.

  18. I am glad you liked the post! I am not sure I understand the question about the soldiers? It seems you are assuming that what they are doing as soldiers is sinful? Flesh that out a little bit for me, so that I understand what you are asking a bit more.

    In the meantime, I will say that soldiers also are not allowed to sin. There are things that are morally allowable in a just war, including fighting and killing an armed combatant. So, that would not be transgressing the moral law. Targeting civilians? That would be a grave sin! Indiscriminately bombing entire cities or vast areas with civilians? That would be a grave sin, too.

    Hope that helps!

  19. I think there are some important exceptions to the rule, but I cannot remember the exact justification. For example, when during WW II the Gestapo would show up at people's houses to ask if they hid Jews, and the people lied by saying no, thus saving lives, I am quite sure that the Church approved of that.

    Isn't the devil here forcing us to either effect evil by answering truthfully (and condemning the sheltered Jews to certain death) or do evil by lying? Leila, I'm sure you know this answer to this one! Waiting for the Church's beautiful answer through Leila or other commenters!

  20. Sebastian, I will give the whole answer later, but the quick answer (I am out the door) is that one does not have to reveal things to people who have no right to know. The Nazis had absolutely no right to know if Jews were in the house.

    Imagine someone coming up to you and asking for your credit card PIN number. Would anyone in the world think he had a moral right to do that, or that you had a moral obligation to answer? Of course not. But, more on what is and is not "lying" in a bit… :)

  21. Sebastian, here is some more, from the Catechism:


    2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

    2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.283

  22. There's a marvelous example of this principle over at Jill Stanek's website, under her Quote of the Day. They're discussing Project Protection, the offer of $300 to drug addicts who will voluntarily submit to sterilization or long-term contraception. Thing of the good they are DOING, preventing babies being born addicted to crack. Crack addicted babies are so, so sad. And these mothers keep having them! They are powerless to kick the drug habit, maybe they are acting as prostitutes to get money to buy drugs. Come on--let's at least stop the buck right there and prevent addicted and severely impaired or deformed babies, right? No. Something is desperately wrong with that logic. And you've laid it all out beautifully here.

    1. Oh, in case you don't know Jill Stanek, read her remarkable story too.

  23. One more example, and I know it's a hard one for a lot of Christians to hear, but it's never moral to look at porn and masturbate in order for a husband to provide sperm for an in vitro fertilization. I once saw a link to a "sample" collecting room and it was full of porn magazines and videos, and the women commenting (Christians, whose husbands had done this) were laughing and joking about it. Pornography, using it, and making light of it is never okay, no matter what good end one is trying to achieve. Completely against the virtue of purity and against God's law.

  24. And of course, IVF itself is an immoral means to a good end, so it's never allowed. More on that elsewhere on this blog (search "IVF"). Then entire process of IVF, not just the porn and masturbation, is immoral.


PLEASE, when commenting, do not hit "reply" (which is the thread option). Instead, please put your comment at the bottom of the others.

To ensure that you don't miss any comments, click the "subscribe by email" link, above. If you do not subscribe and a post exceeds 200 comments, you must hit "load more" to get to the rest. We often have meaty and long discussions -- trust me, they're worth following!