Strive to be a good person because it's the right thing to do
Welcome to more questions from the theology class at Mercy High School in Middletown, Conn. I invited them to ask me questions and they did! Recently I began to try to provide answers as profound and curious and loving as their questions. This week I chug on.
Q: Hi, I am a junior at Mercy High School in Middletown, Conn. I wanted to say how happy I am to know that there is someone out there willing to answer questions from teenagers. Not a lot of adults do. My theology class enjoys reading your articles and reflecting on them every day. My question is does God punish wrongdoings like people say? Thank you -- From A
A: Thank you, A, for your very kind words. My answer to your question about whether or not God punishes wrongdoing may surprise you. This is my answer: IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER. It doesn't matter whether or not God punishes evil or rewards goodness because on the highest level of human virtue is the understanding that goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment. In the Proverbs 11:17 we read, "Kindness is its own reward, but cruelty is a self-inflicted wound."
This does not mean that God does not care about human virtue or that God does not reward it and punish evil. I believe God does care and does create divine Providence, but I also believe that God wants us to learn to do good not just for the sake of being rewarded but for the joy we take in doing the right thing and the shame we avoid by avoiding the bad thing. I believe that God wants us to do good and avoid sin not because of our belief that we can buy our way into Heaven or protect ourselves from Hell, but because doing the wrong thing, the evil thing, the cruel thing, diminishes our lives right here and right now, and doing the good thing enriches our lives right here and now.
Someday I hope you will read Immanuel Kant's great work of ethics, "Critique of Practical Reasoning," which lays out brilliantly the way goodness is truly its own reward. In the meantime, if it takes the fear of the fires of hell to get you to behave properly, then by all means believe in hell.
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Q: Dear God Squad, I go to Mercy High School along with some other peers that have emailed you. Thank you for answering our questions -- we feel good knowing our voices can be heard, understood and answered. A question that I have is how do you keep faith and stay positive when things get hard? I struggle with staying positive when things get tough, and I know that negativity will only bring me down even more. In what ways do you keep faith in your positivity? Thank you again. I appreciate you taking your time to answer us all in depth the way that you do. -- From A
A: When things go sideways for me I pray to God Psalm 130:1-2, "Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications." I feel better when I remind myself that I am not alone in my life struggles.
The next thing I do is I try to help someone who is worse off than me and it reminds me to be grateful for all my blessings. I prefer to work at soup kitchens. One day a little girl who was living in a car with her mother and brother came through the line and saw a birthday cake that a baker had donated to the soup kitchen through Island Harvest on Long Island, N.Y. She started to cry and said, "How did you know that today is my birthday?" It was her first ever birthday cake ever. When you see that, dear A, it is impossible to be depressed about your own life.
There is a wonderful story from the Sioux peoples about a chief who sat his grandchildren around him and told them, "There are two wolves inside of me and they are at war with each other. One wolf is the wolf of despair and sadness and the other wolf is the wolf of happiness and hope, and the war between the two wolves that is going on inside of me is also going on inside of each of you." Then one of the old chief's grandchildren asked him, "Grandfather, which wolf will win?" He smiled and said, "The wolf that will win is the wolf you feed."
So, on your bad days, pray to God, serve birthday cake to a girl living in a car, and feed the right wolf.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2018 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.