Action: Natural vs. Supernatural and Good vs. Evil

Q: What is the difference between naturally and supernaturally good and evil actions?

A: If one is looking at an action from the outside, it would be good or evil depending on its conformity with the laws of God and, after that, depending on its effects. Thus, all things being equal, to give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person would be an objectively good act, while to withhold a cup of cold water from a thirsty person would be an objectively evil act (let us assume the person had a right to the cup of water to keep the example simple).

However, this analysis of the goodness or evilness of an act does not address the question of the person’s motives in performing it. This is the area in which we normally speak of an act being naturally good, supernaturally good, naturally evil, or supernaturally evil.

A person has a supernaturally good motive if he performs an act out of unselfish love for God, whether it is direct act of love for God (such as an act of worship) or an indirect act (such as giving a cup of cold water to one of God’s people).

A person has a naturally good motive if his motive is good but is not one of unselfish love for God. Thus, for example, if he intended to do a good deed to obtain a reward from God or because he has a natural love for the person for whom he does the act (such as wishing to please his wife or win his child’s natural affections).

A person has a naturally evil motive if his motive is evil but not one of raw hatred for God, such as a selfish desire to keep something for oneself which rightfully belongs to another.

And a person has a supernaturally evil motive if his motive is one of hatred for God, such that he does the act in order to strike at God.

A fallen human has the capacity to do any of the latter three classes of acts. He can do evil acts out of hatred for God, he can do evil acts for other motives, and he can even do naturally good acts. However, without the grace God gives to the justified, he is unable to do any supernaturally good acts whatsoever.

Only those in a state of justification can do such acts, and consequently only those in a state of justification can receive a supernatural (eternal) reward from God since only supernaturally good acts receive a supernatural reward. Thus Jesus says:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47, RSV)

Thus in order to receive a reward from God on the last day we must show the same kind of unselfish love for others that God does. That is the way we will truly be “sons of our Father” — by showing the family resemblance of unselfish love, a love which is by definition supernatural as it is above human nature’s capacities. If we only have the same kind of natural love for others that even sinners (tax collectors) or unbelievers (Gentiles) have, then we must expect no supernatural reward.

In thinking about all this, it is important to keep three things in mind:

First, only evil motives are evil motives. This is, of course, a truism, but it is a truism Christians often forget since they wish to focus on supernatural love for God. It is perfectly fine to do things due to natural love. Pleasing one’s spouse and winning the affections of one’s children are perfectly fine things to wish to do. In fact, God built these drives into human nature. If we did not have natural love for those close to us, the human race would not have lasted very long after the Fall. Thus Jesus notes that “you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children” (Matthew 7:11). It is only when our natural loves lead us into sin that they become evil (such as leaving the Church in order to please a Protestant spouse or fiancee).

Second, humans almost always have mixed motives when we do good. This is because of the harmony between nature and supernature. Thus we may teach the Faith to our children both because we love God and want others to embrace his truth and because we want our children to be united with us in the Faith so that our household will be united in religious solidarity (thus promoting family peace). This is entirely as it should be. God intends us to receive natural goods (such as family peace) as a result of pursuing supernatural ends (such as spreading the Faith to others). Human sin may interfere with this process (such as when a spouse or child rejects the truth), but it is nonetheless God’s overall plan. Thus there is nothing at all wrong with having naturally good motives alongside supernaturally good ones. Similarly, it is perfectly fine to do an act both because we wish to receive a reward from God and because we unselfishly love him.

Third, one can do acts of love for God implicitly, without consciously thinking about the fact one is serving God. This is because we recognize in others a finite quantity of the same intrinsic value that God has in infinite measure. By responding to the intrinsic value of other humans, we respond to the same thing that makes God intrinsically valuable, even though we are not thinking about him at the time. Thus Jesus say:

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40, RSV).

The difference between ordinary humans and God is that while humans have finite intrinsic value given to them by God, God himself has infinite intrinsic value. But by unselfishly recognizing the value ordinary humans have, we recognize the quality in them that God shares in infinite measure, which means if we were thinking about God at the time we would recognize his infinite value.

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