If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

There is a difference between being motivated by love and being motivated by self-justification, and we can usually feel the difference. When we send an email to a co-worker that was a bit harsh, we may be extra nice and accommodating to them the next time we interact — maybe to apologize in humility (a motivation of love), but also maybe to feel like we aren’t terrible people (a motivation of self-justification). These motivations are hard to pin down, and the things we do could be motivated by both forces at once — they often feel that way to me.

I remember complaining to my husband once about the ways that politicians drive me crazy by divisively deciding they’re right with no room for conversation or listening to other points of view. He listened and then reminded me that sometimes people aren’t trying to be divisive — sometimes they’re trying to be loving and they just think their policies are the most loving, and so they fight for them. His reply gave me pause and reminded me that whether it is politics or everyday life, there are different motivations for the things we do. And it isn’t necessarily up to us to determine if someone else’s motivations are right or wrong — God is very capable of knowing the hearts of others without our input. (Though as soon as He asks for my input I am READY to give it.)

But no matter our ability to differentiate between good and bad motivations for the things we do, we are still guilty. This is what the law tells us: “No one is righteous, no not one.” We are guilty of selfish motivation and self-justification. Feelings of guilt convict us of sin, a blessed and painful reminder that we are humans in need of a savior. But if we forget (as is so easy to do in this world) that we do in fact have a forgiving savior, we may do whatever we can to feel less guilty than we are.  Here we find our never-ending tit-for-tat approach to balancing the scales and desperately trying to feel like good people. But this is a tiring game with no end in sight that only starts fresh the next day, with the next mistake we make. (The internal dialogue is anxiety-inducing: “Did I offend that person? How do I prove to them that I’m ‘good’?”)

I have been seeing this lately all over social media. There are a lot of great conversations happening around racial inequities in our country — conversations that are rooted in love — and there are also a lot of puffed-up shows of solidarity that are more about being seen as righteous. Resounding gongs and clanging cymbals. It’s not always clear which is which, and I don’t know that it’s my place to decide, but we all know they’re both out there. I am certainly guilty of being another clanging cymbal. Again and again we see the human urgency to self-justify and prove our worth “that I may boast.”

Guilt can convict us of real sin that invites repentance, but self-justification likes to see that feeling fade, and naively hopes it will never return. Feelings of guilt do return because, of course, we are guilty of many things. We feel convicted of sin, self-justify by doing something that makes us seem moral to others, feel better about ourselves (via “virtue signaling”), and then the feeling of guilt dissipates, and we hope we are on the “right” side again. Then it’s back to normal life.

This pattern of guilt, self-justification, boasting, and then indifference, is cut to it’s core with the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians about the nature of love. Good works that come from guilt or self-justification are not patient or kind. They are not selfless, but rather fully focused on self. They will not bear all things or even last very long because as soon as we feel that false relief of self-justification, we can drop the act.

But good works coming from love — those are the real deal. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, these are the kind of good works we don’t think twice about, the kind of good works that don’t puff up, because they are born of love — genuine interest in our neighbor’s well being — instead of self-promotion. This kind of love is an act of God in us, a death of self and a resurrection within.

Self-justification is not actually what justifies us. It does no good to seem better than we are. As St. Paul writes, “man is justified by faith alone, not by works.” It is the imputed righteousness of Christ to ourselves that justifies us and calls us “good,” whether or not our best and worst actions have pure motives. This is why, when we find ourselves face-to-face with our sin, feeling the heaviness of guilt in our hearts, we can afford to give up the act of self-justification — not because we righted the wrong on our own, or even apologized. Being justification by faith frees us from the anxieties of self-justification and the endless search for perfect motivations. We are given this free gift of grace that we do not bring about, but only accept, dumbfounded, tears in eyes.

Love does not envy or boast, and we do not do it well. But God does it perfectly, on a cross. His righteousness is now ours and there is no need to prove a thing. From this death comes life, and from life comes fruits, like love.