One of the hard teachings of the Church is “the end doesn’t justify the means” (CCC 1753). We would all like to believe that good deeds and bad deeds lay on a scale, with good things being positive and bad things being negative. It is not that way because God had the wisdom to know it would make it harder for people to do the right thing. If the end did justify the means, people would be allowed to “make up for” a sin by doing something good. This would make it easier for people to convince themselves that they could sin. They would get in a habit of doing good deeds just to sin later. In effect, they would be planning to sin. But God doesn’t want us sinning at all. Anything that would make it easier for someone to choose sin is wrong, and so God made sure there was no way we could ever justify sin.
The end doesn’t justify the means can be a discouraging teaching for those that are suffering addictions to serious sin. Just one of those sins is enough to keep them out of heaven. They may think, “Why even try to do good things if I can’t stop this sin? Either way I end up in hell.” While it is true that not being in a state of grace will keep someone out of heaven regardless of how much good they have done (CCC 1861), good deeds can affect sins indirectly.
People that do a lot of good are closer to God, so they receive a lot more grace from God. This grace, called actual grace (CCC 2000), helps a person make good decisions. As long as a person lives, they have access to God’s grace no matter how many bad things they may have done. It can make the addicted person have an easier time choosing to stop their sin. In addition, God is more forgiving of people that do many good deeds. He’s less likely to become angry at a person for continually having to return to the Sacrament of Confession when he knows they are doing many good things. Going over and above with good deeds can even be part of the sinner’s penance to heal from the sin they committed earlier. If they can just gain control of that one sin, they will be a saint. In the same vein as confession comes the idea of “perfect contrition”.
Outside of the Sacrament of Penance (confession), perfect contrition is the only way a person can be forgiven for a mortal sin. A person who is good everywhere else except an addictive sin has a good chance of being capable of perfect contrition. They can’t rely on it, but they have less to worry about. Of course, being in a state of grace through perfect contrition is only a last resort. In order to even qualify for perfect contrition, the person has to intend to receive the Sacrament as soon as they are able (CCC 1452).
Finally, there is a reward for all the good deeds a person does. Both Jesus and St. Paul said each person would be paid in heaven according to their works (Jesus: Mt 16:27, Paul: Rom 2:6-7). I truly believe that the holiest people will occupy a higher place in heaven. All people will still be equal in that all will be in heaven in God’s presence, but I think the holiest people will be closer to God in some way. If that addicted person has any hope of getting away from their sins, they can be comforted in the thought that their sins will not outweigh their good deeds. If they go to confession and are forgiven of the sin, God wipes his memory of the sin, but the good deeds are still there. For a short moment, the person is literally a saint. They have no sin on their soul, yet all these many years of good deeds. If they died that second, they would go to heaven according to all that good work they did.
I decided to write this article because like St. Paul said, I had a thorn in my side for a little while (2 Cor 12:7-8). I found that many times after I committed a sin I felt like trying to compensate for it. I felt so guilty I would make myself do something good. While my actions after the sin were good, they definitely couldn’t compensate for it. Because my good actions couldn’t make up for my sin, it was easy to give up trying to be a good person. Eventually, after much prayer and study of the faith I saw that good deeds still had something to offer me even when I was struggling with sin. Now, whenever I sin, I have a much easier time getting back on track. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can get back to making progress towards holiness.
May God bless you with his abundant grace,