Our Misplaced Search For Goodness
By Jay Haug
Special to Virtueonline
November 23, 2012
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good-except God alone. Mark 10-17-18. Jesus encounter with the rich young ruler has always intrigued me.
As in many other encounters with religious leaders, the crowd and his disciples, Jesus takes the words of the questioner and turns the question back on the one who uttered it. In this case the question of "goodness" begs several higher ones. Is Jesus God? If not, then "Why do you call me good?" If so, then "good teacher" is a false title. The dilemma is thrown back on the questioner to decide. His answer will test the true mettle of his soul. Later on , having deceived himself concerning the commandments that "all these I have kept since my youth," the young man cannot let go of the one thing that proves he has failed at this enterprise, the wealth that keeps him from God's kingdom.
But have we clearly looked at Jesus shocking statement with clear and fresh eyes? "No one is good but God alone." It is simple and devastatingly radical. Jesus says that you and I are not good. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us "evil." "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?" Matthew 7:11.
These remarks are not delivered to religious leaders but to his disciples and the crowd. They are universal in nature. There are no escape hatches, exceptions or qualifications. Jesus attempts no elaboration or justification. None is needed, except in the mind of modern man, even modern Christian people, who have embraced a false idea of their own goodness.
Last summer, at the dinner table in Maine, our daughter Hope asked a question of her uncle that implied he was "trustworthy." I was surprised to hear him dissuade her and imply that appearances are deceiving and that her confidence was misplaced.
The three giants of western Christianity all struggled with this very issue (four if you count John Wesley). The Apostle Paul, Augustine and Luther all had to face two monumental questions that were two sides of the same coin.
First, why has my "religion" made me worse and not better? (More cruel in the case of Saul of Tarsus, more confused in the case of Augustine, and more despairing in the case of Luther.)
Secondly, what do I do with my own evil heart that persists after conversion? It was Luther's discovery through reading Romans of simul justus et peccator, meaning "at the same time justified and a sinner" that freed him from this dilemma and the self-deceived hope of becoming "good" in this life. Despite hours and hours of confession, Luther would never become "good enough" in this life. According to Jesus, this will never happen because only God is good.
This is why the truth of justification by grace through faith is so liberating. It asks that we give up on self-justification, pretending and hiding. It promises that God will justify us unconditionally based on the finished work of Christ, not on anything we have done or ever will do. Justification by grace through faith lets us be honest,. It empowers us to forgive and love others. Jesus himself in his finished work sets us free from the frantic search for false goodness in others or in ourselves and pledges us to find it only in God.
Unfortunately, this has not stopped many Christians from the futile attempt to locate goodness within human beings, an enterprise doomed to failure. How does this work? There are essentially two ways of conducting the false goodness search: attempting to find goodness in ourselves or in others. Lets take the first. If we are people of higher self-esteem, we may actually believe we have achieved some kind of superior way of life. Some Christians believe that since they are new creatures in Christ, the new nature has obliterated the old. The danger is that we become blind to our own continuing character defects. Paul applies it to Jews in Romans.
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth- 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? Romans 2:17-21."
Paul is telling the religious folk of his day that they are no better off morally than the pagans they look down on. A fiend of mine says he used to think that if Christians ran the world, things would be much better. He now says, "I don't think that way anymore. I now believe they would screw it up too." We must be careful that our message to the world is not, "Come to Christ and you too can be morally superior." To those who know they are not, either before or after Christ, the burden of moral superiority is both too much to bear and a supremely unattractive prospect. Like Jesus, they know that "no one is good but God alone."
At a deeper psychological level, this can lead to problems. Paranoia can be experienced as the evil people "out there" attacking the goodness inside the fearful person. In some of its more troubling forms, church leaders can wrap themselves in goodness by defining every question about their ministry as disloyalty or worse an undermining of the kingdom.
Some even refer to themselves as "the Lord's anointed" (I Chron. 16:20-22. ) to keep the belief in inner goodness going. Often this leads to deception. What happens when we come face to face with continuing sin? We can either face it and confess it, sometimes painfully. Or we can cover it up. (Psalm 32) Unfortunately, cover-ups require still more cover-ups until we are wrapped in self-deception. This is the downward spiral of either believing in our own goodness or giving the appearance of it.
The belief in our own goodness is often and thankfully dethroned by experience. I have a circle of friends that started in my early twenties. We started our careers together and have stayed somewhat in touch over the years. All are Christians. Most were Christian leaders of some sort. All of us started out believing we had something to offer.
This confidence may have been combined with a belief in the value of our contributions or in our moral standing. But reality intruded. We are all now in our 60's. To a person, each of us has instead been confronted with our own limitations, character flaws and downright blindness to our own evil actions. Having desired to lead others, we have instead been confronted with the inability to lead ourselves. Some have been rejected by the institutions they sought to lead or been disappointed by life circumstances.
In many cases this has lead to fear, anger and resentment that lasted for a while and still plagues some. But those who have grown and are growing out of disappointment have this in common. They have begun to acknowledge their own character flaws and begun to deal with them on a daily basis. They have given up illusions of perfection or perfect progress this side of heaven. They have become more human, more accessible, more real. The realization that "no one is good but God alone" has made them hunger more for Him and surrender the false persona that was a spiritual dead end.
The second way people search for goodness is in other people. If they cannot find it in themselves, perhaps another human will do. This starts in childhood with a "godlike" faith in parents. It is overcome in the teenage years and finds balance in adulthood. Unless it doesn't. Sometimes this false search for goodness in others eventuates in splitting the world between "good people" and "bad people."
The "object relations" school of psychology shows how this idea can distort reality. One parent is seen as the "evil parent" and one the "good parent." Groups are divided up similarly, instead of seeing individuals as possessing both. Instead of good and evil battling it out in every heart, people look for good and bad hearts. But in looking for good, we are disappointed by evil. In seeing evil and turning away, we miss the good in others that lurks unseen.
The co-dependent model is instructive here. Some attach themselves to others in the mistaken belief that their own inner badness can be mitigated, replaced or atoned for. The old Roman Catholic belief that somehow the priest could be "good for me" when I could not be good is an example. For Protestants, this false search can lead people to find movements, dispensations or seminars that can solve their inner "badness" and remove it permanently.
In my early Christian years, I believed somehow that I could "reckon" my sin into oblivion in a kind of magical thinking. Today, this has been replaced by an honest confession to a group that struggles as I do. It is a pastoral tragedy in today's church that too often the command to "confess your sins to one another" has become limited to the clergy or not engaged in at all. The result can be inauthentic fellowship that is both unreal and unattractive.
So where does the belief that "no one is Good but God alone" lead us? How can the understanding that I am "evil" liberate me? For one thing, it can free us to stop pretending we are good. It can create a deeper hunger for the goodness "in God alone." It can deliver us from false expectations of others that lead to disappointment and despair. On the contrary, resistance to it can produce a whole of host of troubles that lead us down the wrong path in vain pursuits of justification, co-dependency and hopelessness. Far from being a threat, the belief that "no one is good but God alone" can be one of the most liberating realities we can possibly experience once it settles in our souls and sets us free.
Jay Haug is author of Beyond the Flaming Sword available from Amazon.com. He is member of the Church of the Redeemer (Anglican) in Jacksonville, Florida and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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