Doing Right for the Wrong Reason

Brian Johnstonchristianity, church, doctrine, doubt, obedience, testimony 31 Comments

Is it good to do something right for the wrong reason?

[A story from Prairie_Chuck at, adapted by permission]

In Sunday School last week, the lesson topic was about motivation for obedience and service to others. The teacher referred to Elder Oakes’ talk titled “Unselfish Service.” Elder Oakes discussed reasons why people serve, saying that 5 of the 6 reasons were selfish: having a desire for blessings, wanting the association with others that callings bring, and fear of condemnation to name a few. The only right reason to have a calling was because one loved God and had faith.

The teacher referred to D&C 124:119-120 where the Lord says that those who pay for stock in the Nauvoo House must believe in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations, that anything less than this would result in curses rather than blessings.

In answer to the question from the teacher “Is it ever good to do something right for the wrong reasons?” everyone in the class responded “no.” You should only do callings and obey commandments if it is done for the right reason. According to Elder Oakes’ talk, faith and belief in that commandment or calling was the only proper motivation.

So I decided to play devil’s advocate. I asked “So if someone didn’t have a complete testimony of tithing, she shouldn’t pay tithing. Right? According to verse 120, anything more or less than this ‘cometh of evil.’”

Members in the class responded “No, but paying tithing leads to a testimony.” I pointed out that it was a selfish reason to pay tithing, if someone did it to gain a testimony. And what if someone never gained a testimony of a calling they have? Without complete belief in the calling or the person extending the calling, they shouldn’t take it.

Someone in the class quoted Alma 32, where it mentions having faith like a seed. Someone else referred to the story in the Book of Mormon about the Rameumptom tower, where people prayed for vain reasons (Alma 32). I understand all that, but on one side you have people who have complete faith in all church things, on the other side are those who are vain or deceitful. In the middle are most of us — we who lack perfect faith, who struggle with belief on some level. According to the lesson, as it was being presented, these people in the middle are cursed for accepting a calling to serve or obeying a commandment for less than perfect motives.

The teacher then began talking about how faith in Christ completes us, compensates where we are lacking. That should have been the focus of the lesson! Afterward, the teacher said to me “I hope I explained that well enough for you.” I agreed 100% with his final conclusion: that faith in Christ is what counts. Applying D&C 124:119-120 to everything we do in Church would put us all in impossible situations, more or less cursed for lack of belief.

It was funny because there were times when the class seemed so close to what I wanted to get at–we need faith in Christ. He will compensate where we are lacking, when we sometimes just go through the motions. Isn’t it better to do good in the world and serve our brothers and sisters, than to do nothing at all for the sake of pure motivation? I can hardly imagine that is what God has in mind.

I apologized for derailing the class. I said “I guess I’m just the defender of the unbeliever.” The direction they were headed in the lesson is one of the reasons my husband left the church — because he didn’t feel like he was permitted to believe less than 100%. He felt like what little he did believe or practiced was hypocritical according to the community standards. Even if he did the right things, it was counted a curse to him because he lacked faith. The all-or-nothing focus on the pure ideal did not uplift him, and instead pushed him away from a place that can feed and encourage the best in us.

-Brian Johnston,

Comments 31

  1. I’m surprised by the reaction of the class. I think people do the right things for “less than” the right reason all the time, and by the logic of the class, people should stop doing the right if they’re not there 100%. That’s kind of messed up reasoning, imho. Whatever happened to the old idea of acting how you want to become?

    I heard a similar talk by Elder Oaks while I was in the MTC. He listed off the 5-6 reasons why we serve missions. I thought the talk was very helpful, and it forced me to examine my motivations. I didn’t hear him say, however, that if any missionaries were motivated by #’s 2 through 6, they shouldn’t be there. Rather, it was for self-examination and for improving our motivation.

    Doing the “right thing” for the “wrong reason” seams pretty b & w to me. I see it more as “right, or even just pretty good thing” for “all kinds of reasons, some of which are right, mostly right, or not very right” but that doesn’t mean we should drop doing good if we’re not totally converted to the reasons behind the action.

  2. “I agreed 100% with his final conclusion: that faith in Christ is what counts. ”

    So if you don’t have faith in Christ, you shouldn’t pay tithing, pray, fulfill a calling?

  3. Post

    “So if you don’t have faith in Christ, you shouldn’t pay tithing, pray, fulfill a calling?”


    I think all-or-nothing reasoning fails no matter what. Doing good is good, even if it is less than absolute. Being kind to someone is still good, even if someone does not believe in Christ, or any other prophet/god/God.

  4. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason certainly beats doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason. I agree with AdamF’s comment, too. I was very surprised at the class’s answer. It must have been phrased in a leading way by the instructor. Everyone does things for the wrong reason sometimes. Hopefully, they do the right things for the wrong reasons more than they do the wrong things regardless of reason.

  5. Doing the right thing, for whatever reason, is what matters. Worry about progressing to better reasons as you go, but first things first, as Spike Lee said, do the right thing.

  6. Thanks Valoel, for bringing more discussion to this topic.

    “I think it is faith in Christ that counts” This is the edited version of my already edited version of the discussion. What I said was in response to the teacher saying “Faith in Christ completes us, it fills in where we lack faith and sanctifies our labors, even when our motivations or belief are not 100%.” (And I probably have a more liberal view of what “faith in Christ” entails–something for another blog?) I rejected the teacher and class’ universal application of D&C 124:119-120. This verse (as it was applied to the lesson) bothers me because it doesn’t merely say we shouldn’t serve if we don’t believe but that if we serve while lacking belief we are cursed. I instead held that faith in Christ would complete our work, would make good our imperfect service, that it was NOT the absolute belief in the BoM and prophet’s revelations that made our service acceptable. It seemed to me that we were substituting a prophet and the BoM for Christ, making a belief in the prophet the sanctifying element. (I’m probably still not being clear, which is why I shouldn’t write blogs, just stick to commenting now and then. 😉 )

    And yes, I do think the question was leading, as are virtually all the questions in the SS lessons I attend. I have a hard time with class members who fall for the leading question and then continue to defend it when challenged, which is what happened in this class.

  7. I agree that doing the right thing is better than doing the wrong thing, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, especially if by “right thing” we mean treating others well. For example, I don’t care if the only the reason the person I’m doing business with doesn’t screw me over is becaue he’s afraid of being prosecuted. Sure, it would reflect better on him if he did it out of genuine personal integrity, but when push comes to shove, as long as I’m not screwed over, it doesn’t make that big a difference to me.

    HOWEVER, when it comes to the works of the gospel, I don’t think doing the right thing for the wrong reasons amounts to a hill of beans in God’s eyes. That doesn’t mean you have to have 100% pure motives all the time, because let’s face it, nobody does. But it does mean that, in general, you do the things you do and make the choices you make out of a genuine love of God.

    Here’s a brief personal experience that illustrates why I’ve come to see it this way. There was a time in my life when I was doing all the right things out of fear that if I didn’t, I’d look bad or go to hell. I was utterly miserable. On the outside I had everything together; on the inside I was withering away and losing my faith. Far from leading me to God, my good works for the wrong reasons were driving me from Him.

    But as I loosened my grip and let go of trying to do it all, over the years, I developed a more authentic faith in Christ–and became truly converted to Him. Now I don’t do all those things–hell, there are some I don’t even try to do anymore, because I don’t see how they bring me closer to God. I’m sure there are members of my family and ward who are concerned about me spiritually because the exterior isn’t nearly as polished as it once was. The truth is, I am far more alive and vibrant in my spiritual life and relationships with God than I’ve ever been in my life.

    In other words, I think you’re right, Valoel: the center of it all is your faith in Christ. The rest ain’t worth much.

  8. I have actually had a rather different kind of experience in my class. In Elder’s Quorum (and I bet many EQs have this discussion), we talked about how doing right for the right reasons will net you the most blessings (e.g., doing your home teaching because you are full of charity for your brothers and sisters)…doing right for the wrong reason will net you blessings too (e.g., doing your home teaching because it is advised/commanded/whatever.)

    I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure these people also appealed to some scripture or words of GA (maybe it was just something said at conference). They made it pretty clear that if you don’t have a testimony of something and can’t be convinced of the “right reason” to do something, you still should do that thing…your obedience in and of itself will “condition” you to see the right reason.

  9. I think our desires tell us much about ourselves. I desire to do all the right things for all the right reasons, but I am not even close to actually being there. The desire to be doing it all for the right reasons though is enough for now, because it will continue to grow as I pray for it to and as I learn through actually doing the right things.

    I have a problem with people who do the right things just to look good and for no other reason. If their desire is only to give a certain impression than I think doing the right things will eventually come back to bite them. I don’t ever think it is a good idea to do things so that you appear to be a certian type of person if you really don’t desire to be that type of person.

  10. Andrew S – I have heard that argument too, something along the lines of, If you do the right thing for the right reason you get both temporal blessings (e.g. friendships, admiration, quid-pro-quo benefits) and you get spiritual (e.g. you become a better, more Christlike person). If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, you only get the temporal blessings, but not the spiritual ones.

    Of course, many people do the right thing for the wrong reasons which is why we have laws in our country and commandments in our church. Perhaps you don’t need commandments if you are Christlike because commandments would be redundant.

  11. Why does this conversation have to be couched in gospel or christian terms? That kind of construct leaves everyone else on the outside looking in. So if you don’t believe in Christ or god there’s no way you can do good for the right reasons? The world is full of people who do not believe in the LDS or christian idea of god, and they do things for their love of their god or, even better, for their love of their fellow man and because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sure this is not the interpretation anyone is intending, but frankly, I fail to see how faith in or love for Jesus has anything inherently to do with it. What better reason is there for treating your fellow man well than because it is to his benefit and you genuinely love HIM, not some unseen third party who told you to. The great irony in this debate, in my opinion, is that I keep hearing that doing things for external or because of ulterior motives is not ideal, but what is being defined as the “right” reason is also an external reason. You’re really not advocating doing good to others for THEIR sake; you’re advocating doing good to others for HIS sake. People in the church, and maybe religion in general, don’t see good for the sake of being good as the best or most noble reason. You are still talking about treating one person well for the sake of someone else. Doesn’t that seem backward to anyone else? My wife deserves to be treated with respect and love because as a human being she deserves it, regardless of whether anyone, including god or jesus, told me I should or whether I believe in them. If you agree with this statement, then I think we should change the paradigm from “because you have faith in or love for christ” to “because you love your fellow man” or “because you have personal integrity.” Am I off in left field here?

  12. Motivations are always multiple. Accentuate the positive ones, eliminate the negative, and try to avoid Bro. In-Between.

    We will never have perfect and pure motivation — we aren’t capable of being perfect and pure in this life. So do the best with what you’ve got, be honest with yourself and God about where you fall short, and repent about that all the time.

    I don’t know what more to do.

  13. We don’t need god or christ to know and do what is right. Why do they have to be at the center of everything? For a man who was as humble as christ was in the new testament, does he really want to be at the center of every motivation to do good? Morality exists whether god does or not.

  14. I suppose the discussion is couched in Christian terms because it was presented at church under a religious pretext.

    I agree with Dexter that belief in God is not necessary to knowing and doing what is right. One can have morals, ethics, and standards without religion.

    Where God comes in is here: I think we’d all agree we’re fooling ourselves if we thought we could come remotely close to doing the right things for the right reasons in every circumstance. It’s just human nature to be selfish, inconsiderate, dishonest, etc. Laws and ethics exist to try and mitigate these tendencies–and indeed are generally successful at preserving some semblance of order–but at our core, most of us are almost always looking out for #1.

    Christianity recognizes this as an inherent “brokenness” within humanity that has no cure outside of divine intervention; the message of Christianity, then, is that God works in you to change your motivations. I guess there are some folks out there–religious or not–who for whatever reason have less of a problem with selfishness than the rest of us. I just haven’t met one yet.

  15. #15 – I don’t take any issue with your premise, Katie, but I think your last statement is a bit deceptive by the way you’ve presented it.

    “I guess there are some folks out there–religious or not–who for whatever reason have less of a problem with selfishness than the rest of us. I just haven’t met one yet.”

    This statement presupposes that atheists, or any kind of non-christians, are presuming that they have less of a problem with lacking self-awareness or selfishness than the rest. Where did you get that idea? In fact the opposite is true. Religions are the groups that are proclaiming to have all the answers, including the recipe for perfection. So in reality, you (the editorial “you” as a christian) are the one claiming that you have less of a problem with selfishness, or at least that through your religion you can acheive it. The problem with that statement is that the facts don’t back this up. If that were the case, wouldn’t things like drug use, teen pregnancy, divorce, pornography and other “evils” be considerably less in a “true” church, or even in any religion that, as you say, recognizes a “brokenness” that the rest of are apparently blind to? Even if you would argue that it’s only a goal and no one is perfect, surely you have to admit that there would be some obvious difference in the way christians are living their lives as opposed to non-christians. Where are the differences? I don’t see them. Christians, including mormons, are subject to the same temptations and shortcomings as everyone else. I’m certainly not suggesting that they’re any worse than anyone else, but I think what is being argued is that christianity is better, and I think that’s unsupported by any objective criteria.

  16. brjones, great point. Let me clarify. I don’t think there’s a quantifiable separation between an atheist’s propensity toward selfishness or a Christian’s (or a Mormon’s). In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that a given atheist could have less propensity toward selfishness than a given religious person. At the very least, I would never claim that I am somehow exempt. I’m bitchy to my husband, yell at my kid, swear when I write things on the internet, think mean thoughts about people–and so on.

    My point is simply that we’re all broken. Ours is a universal plight; no one is exempt. In fact, the fact that the evils you cited in your post are so pervasive even within the church is, to me, a powerful reminder that we desperately need help.

    (And for what it’s worth–and at the risk of opening a can of worms–I think Mormonism has a tendency to underemphasize the “fallenness” of man, which actually encourages people to hide their sinful natures instead of seeking change in Christ.)

  17. Another thought is that selfishness or acting in one’s self-interest may be how the world is set up so that we will do the “right” things. When you act selfishly in your long-term interests, you are typically doing the right things. When you act selfishly in your short-term interests at the expense of your long-term interests, you are doing the wrong thing, typically.

  18. “I’m bitchy to my husband, yell at my kid, swear when I write things on the internet, think mean thoughts about people–and so on.”

    I knew I liked you, Katie L.

  19. I confess that when it comes to callings I have seldom accepted for a good reason. Usually, I am dragged into them kicking and screaming and then, as often happens, when I discover that I actually enjoy the calling, I feel greatly embarassed.

  20. 18 Hawk
    “When you act selfishly in your long-term interests, you are typically doing the right things. When you act selfishly in your short-term interests at the expense of your long-term interests, you are doing the wrong thing, typically.”

    What if you think the world is going to hell so there are not much potential in a long term payout you agnostic or atheist but you still feel good doing the right thing?

    What pay off does this person get? Whats the motivation? There has to be millions of these guys around the world involved in charities and service to their fellowman with no hope of a short or long term payout.

  21. What if you think the world is going to hell so there are not much potential in a long term payout you agnostic or atheist but you still feel good doing the right thing?

    I’m trying to decipher this, but I think you forgot a few words or punctuation or something.

    I will say this…as an agnostic atheist, I don’t do things for heaven or hell. So, I guess if long-term means “eternal” interest, then nope, that’s not what motivates me.

    However, I do think that whether “the world goes to hell” or not is something that we determine. So, we can either accelerate, delay, postpone or eliminate that unfortunate event based on our mutual actions. So, if I’m going to do things for the “long-term,” it’s for a long-term outlook of trying to avoid ‘the world going to hell.’ However, if it is the case that the world will go to hell (e.g., because even though I’m trying my hardest to prevent that, everyone else seems to want to accelerate it), then this still doesn’t mean that it’s worthless. To be specific, my “pay-out” isn’t the achievement of the world not going to hell (that would be a sad and dreary state). Rather, it’s having that goal, having that mindset, having that motivation and cultivating it. It’s having the clearness of conscience to know that, even if the world does go to hell, what little I was able to do in life probably did not accelerate that.

  22. James #21 – perhaps you misunderstood my comment. When I said long-term, I was referring to the payout of the kind of person you become through doing the right thing. I was not implying some sort of afterlife supernatural reward. Also, if you are an agnostic or atheist, why would you think the world is going to hell? And if you are misanthropic, why would you feel good doing the right thing? I believe that most people who do charitable work do it because they want to benefit their fellow men and doing so makes them feel good, both in the near term and in the long term, but if it’s inconvenient, they still enjoy the feeling of making a difference to another person.

  23. “I think Mormonism has a tendency to underemphasize the “fallenness” of man, which actually encourages people to hide their sinful natures instead of seeking change in Christ.”

    #17 – Some Mormons certainly do; Mormonism certainly doesn’t. There might not be a clearer description of the fallen state of man than the BofM’s “natural man” warning. If compared to the unbridgeable gap theory of other Christian theologies, Mormonism absolutely under-emphasizes the “depravity” of man – but that’s an entirely different topic about the breadth and depth and scope of grace.

  24. Ray, by “Mormonism” I was referring to my experience in mainstream Mormon culture–specifically what gets emphasized most often in church and even General Conference. I agree that the scriptures (esp. the BOM and Bible) are quite clear that we are fallen and need Jesus.

  25. #11. It’s related to what Christ said… when the Pharisees fast and pray “to be seen of men,” even Christ admits, “Verily they have their reward.” So yes, even Christ would say that there is a “reward” for doing good for the wrong reasons.

    In my case, one of the more profound things I’ve heard in Sunday school… the teacher asked once what it takes to develop charity. A lot of people said a lot of inane things (read scriptures, pray, etc.), and one person astutely observed, “It just takes practice.” That really hit home for me. Developing charity is basically like learning to play an instrument. I’m not sure playing an instrument comes naturally to anyone… Mozart, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Yo-Yo Ma included. They all just had to practice, practice, practice. It feels awkward at first. There are a few months where you wonder if you can even do it, or if being able to play an instrument is worth the effort. But eventually it becomes second nature.

    And for me, when I went on my mission, I experienced many important and amazing things. But one in particular. I remember once, probably about mid-way through my mission, something happened. I don’t know if this is the appropriate place to share the experience, so I won’t. But after that happened, I had this feeling like a sledgehammer hit my chest (in a good way) because I realized for a moment, I had true charity. For like five minutes. After about a year of going through the motions and doing charitable things for 1) good feelings, 2) potential blessings, 3) duty, and 4) future hot wife maybe? 🙂 But the point is, I think I’ve felt TRUE charity maybe twice or three times in the last five or six years. It startled me because it was so real… it felt so amazing. I was doing something for the right reasons. It also startled me because I realized how few those experiences are.

  26. When we can learn to love others for who they are NOW, not just for whom we want them to be EVENTUALLY – when we can learn to appreciate and value every part of the body of Christ (every instrument in the orchestra) as equal and needed – when we intentionally and consciously pursue the acquisition of the godly characteristics given in the Sermon on the Mount and other places – when we can internalize 1 Corinthians 12:

    Then, and only then, I believe, will we be able to understand more fully the practical message imbedded in 1 Corinthains 13. We quote 1 Corinthians in isoltion too much, divorcing it from the practical blueprints that we have about what it means in reality and how to get there. We need to pray for charity, and we need to “practice it” (which is a much higher application than “just” prayer), but I believe we also need to “become” it – and I have come to believe that only occurs as we strive to change (“repent”) our very natures and literally begin to see things differently – to see people as God sees them.

    I get frustrated too often by people, as my occasional conflicts with some people even here illustrate so well. (I”m trying, but it isn’t easy in some cases when I see things so differently than someone else.) However, I have focused intentionally for almost two years on consciously trying to change myself one characteristic at a time – and the effort has had a profound effect on me. It doesn’t happen “naturally”, but it can happen – and I hope it continues to happen within me until I no longer get frustrated by anything or anyone and, instead, simply love them for who they are.

  27. As mere mortals, we are incapable of doing anything perfectly — entirely for the ‘right’ reasons — It is outside our nature because of the corruption that is inherent in our carnality. That is why we rely on Christ to be perfected in Him. There is no other way. It is only His grace that sanctifies our motives and fills the gulf between our lofty spiritual aims and our paltry physical offerings. (Moroni 10:32-33; Mosiah 2:21)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *