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Do Christians do good because they fear Hell?

satan drawing

Imagine that I go for a walk in the mountains. Halfway up, I come across a little unexpected stream, with bracing cold water that sparkles over the mossy stones. The sweet smell of the waving weeds intoxicates me, and for one giddy moment, the shadow of a falcon races over my path. There are berries and wildflowers, sweet breezes and a new kind of birdsong, something wild and delightful that I’ve never heard before.

So I tell everyone about it. Most people say, “How beautiful! I love the mountains, too.” But one guy sneers, “Yeahhh, I’d scuttle up there too, if I shared your primitive fear of carnivorous valley monsters.”

I go, “Huh?”

And another guy goes, “Why, I don’t blame you a bit. It’s probably emotionally healthy for someone with your neurotic anxiety over coronary disease to take an aerobic uphill hike.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

That’s kind of how I feel when I talk about being a Catholic, and two different types of atheists respond. When I posted about my little girl’s belief in God, the first type berated me for “[t]elling a 5-year-old they need to obey a magical ghost who lives in the clouds or else terrible things will happen to them.”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

And the second one is like the much more civil atheist, who said that he would have had a far less polite response to the first atheist, speaking “as someone who doesn’t worry about going to hell for doing whatever I feel like.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

These two atheists have something startling in common: They both assume that a major feature of Catholic life is a constant fear of Hell.

Now, I believe in Hell. And I do fear it. At least two of my daily prayers specifically ask God to preserve me from that fate. But does a fear of Hell motivate good behavior?

When someone is nasty to me, my first reaction is to respond in kind (and too often, I give in). My second reaction, though, is to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Can I do a little better?” And why would I do that?

If you can stand another analogy, imagine that I’m sitting at a table with a beloved friend and mentor—someone who has always been kind and patient with me, and who is always secretly fixing things up to make my life better.  Today he has prepared a delicious meal, with all my favorites: five courses, perfectly matched wines, everything fresh and prepared with love and skill.

So I’m enjoying this meal tremendously, talking, laughing, having a wonderful time. Suddenly my host looks out the window and says, “Oh look, it’s that guy who commented on your post! Why don’t you wrap up one of these extra rolls and toss it to him?”

And I say, “NO!!! No, no, NO! It’s mine, all mine! I’m too tired! He’s a jerk! Why should I! Nobody cares about me! I can’t spare it anyway! I can’t believe you expect me to do that! Wahhhhhhhh!” and I fall to the floor, pulling the tablecloth with me, and lie there in a puddle of spilled gravy and broken glass.

Or, I could say, “Ehh, it’s just a roll, and I have this huge feast. Okay, buddy—my host seems to see something in you that I don’t. So here you go.” And I do it because I love my host. Am I afraid that he might cut me out of his will if I don’t share the roll? Maybe—but in practice, the relationship just isn’t like that. I worry less about his wrath than I do about my own foolishness: When I behave badly, it’s because I’m not thinking of him or his generosity at all.

Most of the time, when God asks us to do something good—to do something better than our original impulse—we do it not out of fear of punishment, but because we recognize that God is so good to us, so generous. And most of the time, all he asks us to do is to toss the other guy a roll. It’s not fear that motivates good behavior. It’s because we realize that God has given us a tremendous amount of love, and the least we can do is to pass it on from time to time.

Is the fear of Hell a useful way to control my sinfulness? Sometimes. But most often, if I commit a mortal sin, it’s when my heart is halfway in Hell anyway—so the fear of going there is not much of a deterrent. I behave much better when, rather than trying to avoid Hell, I’m trying to act more like I’m already in Heaven. I’m much more likely to share the wealth if I take a minute to look around and realize what a feast I have in front of me.

So yes, I fear Hell. No, fear of Hell doesn’t usually do much to change my behavior. Believe it or not, atheists, but that’s how it goes!

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

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Would your kids know what to do if someone molested them?

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I don’t care about the Duggars any more than I care about any family in the news. Many Catholics see them as role models, but  they seem to have attitudes about children and women which are antithetical to Catholic ideas. Did their son molest girlsbecause of his upbringing? Maybe, maybe not.  I’m not familiar enough with their parenting style to know. I do know that it’s possible for parents to do their hardest to raise their kids right, and their kids do shitty things anyway. It’s also true that families who look squeaky clean and happy on the outside are hiding a lot of interior darkness. I haven’t followed the story closely, so I don’t have an opinion about whose fault everything is. 

But the story made my ask myself: would my kids know what to do if someone molested them?

There are always going to be predators in the world. Your child is reasonably likely to come into contact with one eventually, and this is true whether you home school or use Catholic or public or private schools, and it’s true if you keep your kids tucked under your wings or let them roam. It’s true if most of your friends are conservative Catholic or none of your friends are even religious. It’s a good world, overall, but there are bad people in it. You can’t change that.

What you can do is give your kids a clue about what is reasonable behavior and what isn’t, and what to do if someone is behaving badly.

This pdf guide for parents gives a reasonable overview of how to discuss keeping kids safe from sexual abuse. It’s secular, and pretty basic, so you can use it as a starting point for conversations.  No one wants to talk about these things, but you must. You must. Don’t assume that they’ll be fine, and don’t assume they’ll know what to do if something goes wrong.

Don’t forget to ask your kids if they have any questions after you talk! Young kids think very concretely, about real-life circumstances, and they always remember information better if they asked about it themselves.

And also: talk to your kids all the time, about everything. If you’re not in the habit of chatting about this and that, why would they come to you when there’s something scary and weird to talk about? I know some kids just don’t like to talk — or, in some cases, they may just not enjoy talking to you. When that’s the case, it’s a good idea to tell them, repeatedly, that they can talk to you, or that they can talk to your spouse, or that they can talk to [trusted adult X]. Some kids need you to open a door a thousand times before they even think of putting a foot through.

 

 

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Only a rightly-ordered heart feels grief

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e know some couples who don’t fight very much, but they don’t seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other’s enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they’ve carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it’s easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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