There is an interesting story in the book of Acts about some people who sold some land. At the end of chapter four, a man named Barnabas sold a piece of property and then brought the proceeds to the disciples to be passed out to those who were in need. That kind of thing was actually fairly common in the Church in those days. But there was also a couple, Ananias and Saphira, who had heard about Barnabas' gift and were impressed by it. I mean, who wouldn't be impressed by someone who sold a piece of property and just gave the money to the church, right? Well, Ananias and Saphira, we can only assume, wanted people to be impressed with them as well but didn't want to make the same sacrifice. So they came up with a plan. They sold a piece of property, then acted like they were giving all of the proceeds to the church when they were really keeping part of it for themselves. When Ananias came to present their gift to the apostles, Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard (Acts 5:3-5, HCSB).
The story demonstrates how people can sometimes do the very same things for very different reasons and that our motivation really can mean the difference between sin and a good deed. Barnabas brought his gift because he wanted to help the poor within the Church. Ananias and Saphira brought their gift because they wanted to look good, as evidenced by the fact that they wanted everyone to believe they had given everything when they really hadn't. Their problem wasn't that they didn't give all of the proceeds from the sale to the Church; Peter made it very clear that the money was always theirs to do with it whatever they wanted. The problem was that they wanted to convince people (apparently, even God!) that they were better, more generous people than they really were. Barnabas and Ananias both sold property and gave the proceeds to the church but their motives were very different. One was an act of charity. Another was a selfish act of deceit.
How often do we engage in the same kind of behavior as Ananias and Saphira, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? How often do we volunteer, not to help, but so that we look good? How often do we give just to get people to leave us alone or to assuage a guilty conscience rather than because it is right to meet a need? How often do we do things we really don't want to just to win political points or convince someone of our moral superiority?
God judges us not just by our actions, but by the attitude of our heart. God alone can always tell when an act of kindness is deceitful or when our generosity is really a photo-op. So don't stop doing the right thing, just make sure you adjust your heart so you're doing it for the right reasons.