“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” – Romans 7:15 & 17-19
Why can we so rarely manage to be the people we want to be, to consistently act the way we resolve to? Why are we—you, me, everybody—such hypocrites? There are a million answers out there, but I have a new favorite.
Social scientists call it “moral licensing.” Here’s how it works: I do a good, ethical thing—give money to a guy in need on the street, say. Having done that, I wind up giving myself license to act worse in the future, worse even than I might have if I hadn’t done the good thing in the first place—I’m downright rude to the next person who asks me for money. I’ve already proven how kind and generous I am; I don’t need to keep working so hard at it.
It happens all over the place. You exercise and eat right, so you feel like you can have unprotected sex—which you convince yourself is OK because you are actually a Healthy Person. You always tip the housekeeping staff generously at hotels, but you’re sometimes rude to waiters—which is OK because you are actually a Person Who is Good to People. A nation elects its first black President, and then starts acting racist as hell because it has already proved that it is Not Racist.
It’s usually unconscious. You don’t even know you’ve given yourself permission to be meaner at the Deacons meeting tonight because of how patient you were at the faculty meeting this morning.
That’s exactly what you’ve done, though. You’re not all bad; you do a lot of good. There’s not some evil force in the world getting you to misbehave; the truth is way worse than that. The fact is that it’s your own sense of having done good that makes way for the misbehavior. But if the truth is way worse, the fix is way easier: once you know what’s going on, all you have to do is refuse yourself permission when you ask.
God, don’t let my goodness turn me into a bad person. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.