Being good has its perks.
When you are young, if you are good – if you behave well and properly – then usually good things happen. Your parents probably trust you more, and are proud of the fact that you’re not setting grocery store displays on fire. Your teachers are apt to approve of you, and you avoid being slapped with the “troublemaker” label. You might get extra treats or privileges. And, if you are good, people like you. Good and well-behaved children are almost uniformly pleasant to be around.
And this philosophy extends, in sundry ways, into adulthood. Many of us hope that if we behave well and are good at our jobs we’ll perhaps earn raises, or our supervisor’s trust, or better assignments. If we’re excellent spouses, then we’ll have close-knit and happy families full of love. If we’re good parents, our children will love us and hopefully turn out well.
Subtly, inextricably, we link our “goodness,” however we define it, to positive outcomes. And over long years, we absorb a philosophy: If I am good, good things are likely to happen. And if I am bad, bad things are likely to happen. Sometimes, after a while, that philosophy turns into this one: Good behavior earns good things, and bad behavior earns bad things.
Most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, wrongly apply this policy to Christianity, too.
We know when we’re “being good” spiritually. (And I put that in quotes for a reason – our “goodness,” even when we perceive it as stellar, doesn’t amount to much.) Still, you know what that feels like: when you’re hitting on all cylinders with God, when your prayer life and your Scripture study is rich and vibrant, when you’re close to the Lord. And we know when we’re being “bad” too: when we’re in the middle of a persistent sin, when we’re willfully turning away from God, when we’re neglecting our relationship. Every Christian goes through these cycles throughout their lives.
The problem is that I – and many of us – tend to interpret what is happening in our lives through the lens of how “good” we happen to be doing in our Christian walk, which results in trains of thought like these:
So many good and amazing things are happening to me lately and I’ve had so many opportunities – God is really pleased with me!
Nothing is going right. Why is everything wrong? What did I do to make God so mad? …have I screwed up?
And those attitudes can lead into a bizarre sense of entitlement and superiority:
God, I’m being good, so why can’t I get what I want?
God, they’re such awful Christians; why aren’t you punishing them?
The problem is that when we perceive of our relationship with God and its outcomes in terms of “good” behavior versus “bad” behavior, we’re completely neglecting the grace and mercy inherent in the redemptive act of Christ. There is no good that is good enough. There are really only shades of bad next to God’s holiness! God says our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). But God loved You enough that He offered you a chance anyway in Jesus.
God did not save you because you were good. He saved you – and is saving you, and shall save you – because He loves you and because He is good. He does not owe you anything. He has never owed you anything. You cannot use your “being good,” such as it is, to control what He does and does not do or give you or allow. You cannot lean on your own behavior as leverage to make God behave in the way that you want. And – this is most important – we cannot lean on our good behavior as evidence of our own growth, superiority, or holiness.
If there is anything good in us, it is because we know Christ, who is the source of all the good in us. And if we do good, it is not in the hopes of accomplishing something – because the grandest thing that God could accomplish has been accomplished, and it has not one whit to do with your goodness. The only reward worth earning is one we were given, not one that we worked for, or that we ever could work enough for.
Let goodness be a sign of wanting to please God. Let it be an expression of love for God, or an act of faith. But never – as Timothy Keller warns frequently in his works – make the mistake of assuming that your goodness holds the responsibility for what grace has worked in your life. Never stake your superiority in your ideas of your own progress, your own improvement, your own goodness, or in anything that relies or hinges upon your behavior.
What goodness we display is from God, and we offer it to God out of our grea love for God. But the moment that we come to claim it as ours – the moment that we throw up our acts and our behaviors to God as evidence of what we deserve or are entitled to – we’ve Pharisee-ed ourselves. We’ve become those who depend on their deeds to advance them, and we’ve become people who believe that we can become the god of our own lives through our own behavior.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Let us not forget it.