Friday, November 25, 2016

How God is Not a Divine Bookkeeper


. . . “And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.”

It is tempting to fall into the closed-minded, legalistic way of interpreting this passage (and others in Scripture), and I do it quite often. The train of thought looks like this: If I do enough good works on this earth, I’ll balance out my struggles with sin and be accepted into heaven. If I offer enough prayers, earn enough indulgences, volunteer enough hours, or give enough money, God will cut me some slack and put my name in the “book of life.” Scripture and Catholic Tradition teach something quite different.

In his commentary on this passage, Fr. Frank Doyle, S.J. states that:

Scripture makes it very clear that all the good we do does not originate from us but is God working in and through us. If our lives are full of good works, it is because we have opened our hearts to God and taken him into our hearts so that we become transformed through his love working in and through us. (Living Space)

In other words, our works do not originate with us; they are God’s own works operating in and through an open, faithful heart that loves and receives God’s grace. God does the work through the Holy Spirit. In faith, we cooperate and offer ourselves to him.

Fr. Doyle further explains that our often-held false conception of a ledger-keeping God opposes the true God of love and mercy who became incarnate in Christ:

It would also be wrong to imagine God keeping a credit and debit ledger of our lives and that, provided we end up with a plus rather than a minus, we will “go to heaven.” God is not an accountant; there is not a ledger with some entries in black and others in red. It is clear from the Gospel that God does not work like that. (Living Space)

Being judged by our works, then, means we are not judged by the good works we do on our own volition, seeking to earn points on a divine stat page. Instead, we are judged by our openness to and cooperation with the Holy Spirit entering in and renewing our lives in Christ. In paragraph 2008 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writers state:

The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

Our charitable works are not ours; they are “due to God” and “proceed in Christ.” When we try to attribute what we do as payment for what we shouldn’t do, we adopt a false view of God’s grace and our redemption. God is not a bookkeeper. He is a loving, merciful Father who wants us to choose his grace and allow his love to penetrate and dwell in us so we can shine it on the people we meet and serve in the world.