“I’m a good person.”
“I try to live a good life.”
“Everybody’s got their issues, but X is one of the good guys.”
We hear these kinds of statements constantly. We might even say them ourselves. But what does it mean to be a good person? What does our culture have to say about it?
I checked Twitter to see what came up the most commonly. People were saying things like “being a friend,” “having good manners,” “be kind,” “keep your promises,” “be fair,” “be nice to people and say yes to everybody.” Okay—most of those sound okay (though I’m not so sure about the last one!). But being a good person has to go deeper than that, doesn’t it?
Because one thing I noticed was that an awful lot of people were on Twitter complaining about the whole “good person” idea. They were saying things like “I have always been a good person but other people treat me badly,” or “they take advantage of me,” or “nobody else really sees how good I am.” Still others were saying things like “Going to church doesn’t make you a good person,” or “saying prayers at the mosque doesn’t make you good.”
So there are problems with the whole “good person” idea. And people disagree on who exactly qualifies as a good person. So I went elsewhere. I looked at what Jesussaid.
And right there, in Mark chapter 10, this came up:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
Whoa. That seems a bit harsh to me. Clearly the man was just trying to be polite by addressing Jesus as “good teacher.” But Jesus takes him very literally. Who is really good? If we’re talking about real goodness, not just once-in-a-while or most-of-the-time or pretty-good-overall—well, then it’s God only. The rest of us mess up.
“But isn’t that human?” we ask. “If I mess up once in a while, well, I was having a bad day. Everybody has bad days sometimes.” And that’s true, too, for all the people we see, as far as we look, all around us. Everybody walking this earth is less-than-good sometimes. None of us are 100% perfect.
So that forces us to ask: What do we mean by a good person? Good according to whose definition? Good how much, and in what ways? Good for what purpose? Does doing good things make me a good person, or is there more to it than that?
I went back to Jesus to see what he had to say. And there was this:
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45)
Jesus is using the picture of a tree to describe this whole good person/bad person concept. And for him, it’s all about the fruit—is the person doing good? Then it’s a good person. Is the person doing evil? Then it’s not.
So far, so clear. But there’s a catch. Nobody produces all-good fruit all the time. I know that my personal “fruit” is really mixed. There are good bits—I volunteer in the community, I try to be kind to people, I am loyal to my family, I take care of those in need. But there are also bad bits. I lose my temper sometimes (and it’s not always with a good reason). I’m lazy. I forget to do as I’ve promised. I let other people down.
So what about me and my mixed fruit? What about you?
Here’s where Jesus and the judgement of the world collide. The world will say, “Oh, as long as the good you do outweighs the bad, we’ll consider you a good person.” (Unless your one bad thing impacts us directly, in which case we’ll start frothing at the mouth on the internet about you.)
Jesus, on the other hand, says, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18). All of humanity is in a fix, because none of us truly measure up. And that has catastrophic consequences for all of us, because everything we do, good and bad, impacts the people around us. The good deeds don’t cancel out the bad. For example, if I’m kind to my neighbor at the same time as I’m polluting a nearby stream by dumping my car oil down a sewer, do the two things cancel each other out? No. It’s good that I’m being kind, but the ecological harm remains. For me to think they cancel out, or to keep a running “score” of my good deeds vs. bad, is childish. I am responsible for everything I do, and the evil is as real as the good. The effects of both remain.
I can try harder. (I have.) And I can try harder than that. And so on, and so on, and so on. There’s a reason why New Year’s resolutions cause laughter. Almost nobody manages to keep them. And those resolutions are in a limited area—“I’m going to get to the gym twice a week,” or “I’m going to spend more time with my family.” Even those we have trouble with. We need help.
I take that back. We need more than help. A little extra boost, a good pep-talk, some new psych techniques—none of these is going to succeed in changing our mixed fruit into truly good fruit, any more than it would succeed in changing a tree from producing crab apples into producing Fuji apples or Granny Smiths. What we need is the same thing the tree would need—to be re-created. To be made new. Not a make-over—a new creation.
And that, believe it or not, is what Jesus offers. “Come to me,” he says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
He promises to re-create us—to give us new hearts. He promises that God’s Holy Spirit will live in us and through us. It’s not going to be just a cosmetic change—something on the surface, to make us look better. No, this change is going to go all the way to the bottom of our lives—into areas we haven’t thought about for years, sometimes.
So it’s a risk. Do we want God messing around in the deep areas of our hearts and minds? Who knows what he might do while he’s remaking us? It might be easier just to shut God out and keep trying to be good on our own. We know we’re going to fail, yes—but failure can be comfortable. We’re used to it.
Or we can take the risk and let God in. (Scary.) Let him start his re-creating work in us, work that isn’t going to be finished till the end of our lives. Does that mean we’re going to be perfect? Not immediately, no. God isn’t flashy like that. If he struck people instantly perfect, everybody around us would notice for sure, because that just doesn’t happen. It would be a moral and psychological miracle. After seeing something like that, what choice would they have but to believe in God? But God doesn’t like to force people to believe in him. So he’s not going to do an instant miracle and take away people’s free choice. But he will do a gradual miracle and make us more and more what we were truly meant to be—our best selves, made in the image of God. As the apostle Paul describes it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
So, back to the question we started with. Should we focus on being a good person? What if we focused on being a new person, a new creation, instead?