Do you need God to be good?
I think a lot of Christians would quote something like Isaiah 64 on this one: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Or they might point to the words of Jesus to the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10: “No one is good except God.” However, the standard of good that Jesus is referring to is a pretty darn high one: not what we think of when we typically say ‘good.’
The rich young ruler says that he has kept all the commandments: which, in Jewish terms, basically means that you deserve a big thumbs up — and in our terms today, means you’re doing a lot better than that. But Jesus holds him to a higher standard, challenging the man to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Though the man thinks that he’s pretty good, that seems like a lot to ask. He might be ‘good’, but he’s no saint.
Jesus is calling the man, and us readers, to a higher standard of good, a standard that is so high that if we actually came close we might get called ‘saints.’ Will we go above and beyond the call of duty of just following the laws? Or will we give all of ourselves to help the weak and vulnerable? That’s a pretty high standard of good, and not many people live up to it, even amongst so called followers of Christ.This standard gives Christianity a definition of good that differs from that in the ‘real world.’ These days, the meaning of ‘good’ outside the church is pretty relative. Everybody seems to have a justification for why they do this or that, even if it’s harmful to the environment, or supports child labor, or breaks copyright laws. Nobody wants to be called ‘bad’, and so if we find ourselves having to cheat little to succeed, or fudge a few numbers, we keep a long list of excuses at the ready. “But Jimmy did it first!”
Ever notice that even the bad guys in films often have excuses for why they do what they do, like Magneto in X-Men, for instance? He might even argue that what he’s doing is ‘good,’ in a sense.
Most people would say that they’re good, because they’re not serial killers, and that they try to be nice to people. But when you really think about it, we’re not very good. In fact, we’re all pretty evil. Consider this, from comedian Louis C.K.:
“My life is really evil, like, there are people who are starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti. That’s really evil. There are people who would just starve to death. That’s all they ever did. There’s people who are like born, and they go, ‘Oh, I’m hungry,’ and then they just die. And that’s all they ever got to do. And meanwhile, I’m in my car, having a great time, and I sleep like a baby. It’s totally my fault, ‘cause I could trade my Infiniti for like a really good car, like a nice Ford Focus with no miles on it, and I’d get back like $20,000. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money, and every day I don’t do it. Every day I make them die with my car.’
(watch the video here.)
It’s hard to disagree with him. I’ll end with two points. Firstly, if you believe in Jesus and Scripture, then you have a number of stories and messages that give meaning to the words ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ If you don’t have a religion, or well defined worldview, then ‘good’ can mean pretty much whatever you want it to. In which case, you CAN be good without God––you just might be the only one who thinks so. This worldview of relativism inevitably breaks down, however. What if I think it’s good to kick you in the shins every time I see you? Who are you to tell me that’s evil? What ends up happening in the world, then, is that the bigger, stronger, richer people get their way, and the weak get taken advantage of. They need a bigger story, a better definition of good, to appeal for justice, like the one found in Scripture.
Secondly, if you accept God’s definition of goodness, then no, you cannot be good without God. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be seen by him as ‘good.’ God made a way for us to be reconciled with him, to have our sins forgiven. It has nothing to do with our actions, and everything to do with Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be good.
I’ll leave you with these words from the mouth of the woman who is pretty much the go-to standard of ‘good’-ness these days.
God doesn’t require us to succeed, he only requires that you try.
We might never meet God’s standard of goodness. But have you at least tried?