But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:4-7
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Beyond Doing Good
One of my favorite songs is “Vigilante Man”. I have the electric slide version by Nazareth as a ringtone. I enjoy Ry Cooder’s acoustic slide cover as well. It was written by Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a talented songwriter and musician. Back in the ‘70s, David Carradine played Guthrie in a fairly honest movie, Bound for Glory. In my opinion, Guthrie was a despicable human being. Despite being portrayed heroically in the film, it’s not hard to pick up on Guthrie’s attitude. Sometimes he is described as being a socialist or communist. He was probably more of a sociopath than a socialist. Popularizing socialism was an easy way for Guthrie to further his own ends.
The point is this: Being good at what you do does not necessarily make you a good person.
This seems obvious in the case of a truck driver, a mechanic, a farmer, an accountant, a software developer, or a car salesman. But it is also the case with artists, actors, singers, poets, writers, CEOs, educators, judges, military personnel, preachers, police officers, and politicians.
I guess the corollary is that being a good person doesn’t mean we will be good at any given job.
Consider some examples: George Gordon Lord Byron was a great poet. He was famously described by one of his many female conquests as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” One of the “best” preachers I ever heard was a manipulative bully, wife-beater, and chronic adulterer. I’ve heard Ricky Skaggs tell how Bill Monroe wrote and sang the Gospel but struggled to live it. LaVerne Tripp sang and wrote gospel songs for the Blue Ridge Quartet in the early ‘70s while battling alcohol and drug addiction.
Doing good cannot make us good. The rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to “do” to have eternal life. Jesus had already answered his question when He responded, asking, “Why do you call Me good? There is none good except God.” The flesh can do and say things that are beneficial, truthful, and even inspirational. I would even say that we can be inspired such that our efforts express God’s love, grace, beauty, and truth -- without being set free by that truth.
The confusing thing is that Jesus “went about doing good.” Good deeds and good words flow from the good person. Yet as long as we are trying to conform, trying to be penitent, trying to win God’s favor, trying to impress the people around us, etc., we are failing to understand, and we will fail to be delivered from the bondage of sin and self.
Romans 8:10 says, “Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness.” "Christ in us" is not an accomplishment on our part but a result of grace, a fact which we accept by faith. Some people get this and seem to run with it. Others, like me, are slow. I am yet only imperfectly grasping the truth that I can simply reject the flesh’s demands for satisfaction, attention, and glory. I am not obligated to the flesh (Romans 8:12).
The world, the flesh, and the devil are going to come around and tell us that Dewey Cheatum is a good person because of all the wonderful things he does -- his rousing oratorical skills, his soaring vision of a better world, the deep suffering he has endured for the sake of his nation, the sacrifices he has made to serve his neighbors, and how much he loves his family. The truth is, though, that old Dewey is a wicked, conniving, self-serving little pervert from whom one should not buy a setting hen.
Some people may say that this is the path of cynicism. Then Jesus Himself was a cynic: Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)
There are good people in the world. There are people you can trust. There are people who have serious flaws but are loyal friends. We can and should forgive even those who betray us. If some, though, betray us over and over again, if we catch them time after time in lies, if they remain unrepentant, remain defiant, it’s time to admit that we can have no confidence in them, and that no matter what their words and deeds, they are not good.
Am I talking about one of my friends? An unsavory business associate? A cheating spouse? Some political leader?
No, actually, I'm talking about my self. My flesh betrays me. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15). Paul battled this same troubling entity. He was delivered by grace, and we can be as well. The Spirit is at work in each of us, and He is the one who gives us life. We owe the old man nothing. Pay no attention to his blathering and babbling. I AM doesn't go on so much. Be still and know I AM.