I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who told me something I have heard from many other people: “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” Of course, this is based in the widely-held presumption that the purpose of religion— and my purpose as a pastor— is to help bad people become good.
I have to admit that in years’ past, I would have attempted to push back on statements like those with some version of, “You know, no one can truly be good without God.” Or if I was feeling more gracious, I might have said, “You know, the church at its best takes good people and makes them into better people.” Isn’t that clever?
But I found myself saying something like this to my friend: “I don’t need religion to make me into a good person, either. In fact, that’s not why I am a Christian.” He didn’t respond to that, so I didn’t elaborate. (Lucky for him!)
Later on, our conversation got me to rethink something rather odd that Jesus said. The more I dwell on it, the more relieved I am that he said it.
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”Luke 18:18-19
Christians tend to do some creative tap-dancing around this problematic response from Jesus. Was Jesus claiming he was not good? (“Of course he wasn’t!” we reply. “He was just pointing the man to God.”) Oh good… Whew! Moving on.
But what if Jesus was trying to say something deeper than that? What if he was trying to edge us out of the moralistic goodness mindset altogether?
This may sound strange, but what if Jesus was really saying, “Stop trying to play the game of being an upright, good, moral, righteous person. Your striving to be good is way overrated.”
Now I know why that may sound strange, even heretical. The church’s predominant approach to human beings has typically been sin management and growth through moral goodness. We’re the moral police… or so we think. So, through Christ, confess your sinfulness, and by grace become less prone to sin, more morally upright using the rules we give you, keeping in mind the whole time that we are nothing but sinners. That tends to be the Christian message.
However, we Christians were not the first ones to take this sin management and growth through moral goodness approach to God and life. The man who approached Jesus, a fellow Jew, asked Jesus what kind of good must be done in order to live eternally. That was his way of asking, “How good do I need to get? What specific good do I have to do to get what I want?” And he presumed that Jesus, being a good teacher, would have known the formula.
Yet the man in the story and most of the rest of us have been unable to grasp this goodness of God that Jesus pointed to and where it is to be found. The rest of the conversation which you can see here was an elaboration on that point.
So what happens when our prime goal of becoming good people is by means of rule following and moralistic perfectionism? Without fail, ego steps in, especially when we believe that goodness is something we don’t have and must acquire from somewhere external— a set of rules, a holy text, a God who is watching and judging us. So we strive for it. We try to change up our behaviors in conformity to the rules and expectations. We throw out and squash what we perceive to be bad. If we’re successful, we feel like we’re better people!
Then the comparisons begin. We reference our goodness against others.
Often, we pride ourselves for being better. Remember Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee praying in the temple? The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God he was not like other people, especially that awful tax collector praying next to him (Luke 9:1-14).
Or, we shame ourselves and others for not being good enough. God knows I’ve spent too much of my life loathing myself for not measuring up to what others or I have claimed I should be. Too often I have felt like Paul who called himself a “wretched man” because no matter how hard he tried to be good, he failed (Romans 7:14-23).
When worthiness in the eyes of God, ourselves, or others becomes a measure of how well we behave and how morally perfectionistic we can be, then we are drawing upon the worst of ourselves, which is our fragile sense of ego. The results are horrific— pride, shame, critical and judgmental attitudes, walking around with squinty eyes estimating the goodness of ourselves and others with a measuring stick that no one can possibly live up to.
Jesus is right. God alone is good. No one can succeed at being good enough.
Let me suggest something to you that is changing the way I look at myself and others:
Goodness begins with the recognition that there are things inside us all that are perpetually good because they are a gift from God, who alone is good.
Within each of us are two things which are good gifts from God— our soul and God’s Spirit. Please allow me some space to try to define what I mean from a biblical and experiential understanding. And keep in mind that these thoughts are thoughts in process!
My understanding of “soul” from the Hebrew and Greek sense is “our essential self.” We rarely see it. It’s often hidden away within us. The soul is like a blueprint from God that defines our very best self. It’s the divine schematic for who we really are. Our soul hums and resonates with peace and joy when we live into being who we were created to be, which is always wonderfully good. It guides us into our vocational and relational purposes as a child of God, and let me tell you, there is no greater satisfaction than living from within the very soul of who we are.
God’s Spirit is that divine essence which was given to Adam when God breathed into his nostrils, giving him life (Genesis 2:7). Within each of us is God’s presence, infused into our very being, enlivening, prompting, loving, nurturing, healing, speaking, guiding us into all goodness. When we tune our full awareness to God’s Spirit within us, we truly come alive. Soul and Spirit work in tandem to love and live in full communion with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Thus, our goodness is a gift from God, not a merit badge to be earned. It’s already within us to be treasured and lived into. This goodness is our true self. If we intentionally mine into this essential goodness within ourselves and our neighbors, we take on the humility and compassion of God. We rejoice in goodness wherever we see it, recognizing God’s good presence within all created things. We draw upon and and encourage that goodness from within them.
“What of sin?” you may ask. Isn’t there sin within us, too? Oh yes. Sin is our purposeful disconnection from God’s goodness. For some reason, we simply have a hard time accepting pure goodness and love abiding in us. So we choose what we think is safer and more accessible. We settle for power, pride, and hate, while seeking cheaper, flimsy forms of false goodness apart from the God-given treasure within us. That choice distances us from God, our soul, and others. This self-isolating, lonely distance is the true tragedy of sin.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we could only bring ourselves to accept that the presence of God conjoined with our God-fashioned soul is there all along, we would simply fall and rest into that pure goodness, reclaiming the very likeness of God.
That, friends is real goodness! Goodness is not some exterior virtue apart from us that we must acquire. It’s a treasure within— our truest self— into which we ground our mind and heart.
If you’re still not convinced of all this, look back at the story of Jesus and the ruler for a moment. Jesus’ final invitation to the man seeking after eternal life was a call to step down from his elevated social status, sell off his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. That was Jesus’ way of challenging the man to strip away his pride, riches, religious accomplishments and social pretentiousness. Abandon the false ego self that struggles to achieve goodness, value, power and distinction, and learn the way of self-giving, self-emptying love. That would have forced the man to part ways from everything false, and to live from within the goodness of God already planted within him— his living soul and the Spirit. If only he had made that choice!
After all, that’s the way Jesus lived. He emptied himself. He became nothing except a lover and servant for the sake of the whole world (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus learned great love through trust and suffering, and from the very depth of his being, he shows us what it means to live in full loving communion with God and all people. For me, Jesus is not just some outer authority to conform myself to; he is a way of life— the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)— to emulate within being.
Again, that is goodness. And it’s a far cry from the morally perfectionistic goodness game that too many of us try to play. It turns out, God had made us good all along. It’s time to claim it and live it.