Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chapter 4 - Goodness


As I mentioned briefly last week, making it through a full chapter a week will sometimes be too challenging for me to pull off, what with the rather tidal tumult of other duties my vocation(s) require. Thus, this week you are treated to the first half of chapter 4. But it comes with a word of warning - the same warning I mentioned last week: this is part of a book, not a complete essay.

This is doubly true because the early chapters of the book are cycling in a Law/Gospel dynamic very much like much Lutheran preaching. The foundation of the faith is the movement between our maladies on this earth and the answer that God has given to those maladies in our Lord. This is not a stale repetition of formula, but a reality that is in, with and under all that we see and do. From our frustrations with our own vanity to our wrestling with decay, understanding the first creation and the promises of the new creation is at the epicenter of our faith.


This is all to say that, if today's reading leaves you feeling a little incomplete, that's because it is largely in the diagnosis of a particular problem. This diagnosis is intending to build up our understanding of the "why" and the "how" God's answer to that problem in our Lord makes good, clean sense. Today, the chapter will just end before that prescription is made clear. I am certainly open to your feedback on this. Perhaps the majority would prefer to have the whole pill at once? I will only know this if you leave comments. XD So, without further adieu, the first half of chapter 4: Goodness.

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The value of a human is not in what he does, but in what he is.

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, Jesus of Nazareth is approached by a young man who is both rich and had great influence. The young man is eager to speak with Jesus, and he asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus gives a strange response. First, he seems to rebuke the young man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” What did he mean?

The point made by Jesus to this young man who would walk away not having the answer he thought he was seeking, is one which is forgotten or ignored by many Bible teachers of the late-modern American age. If a person, like this young man, is looking for the right checklist, a ten-step process toward building the God-pleasing life, Jesus' answer is not merely disheartening. It is downright bizarre. No one can question the young man's intentions and zeal, just as no one can judge anyone else's passion or sincerity. But the simple reality which Jesus preached is that it doesn't matter what you do at all. No matter how sincere, authentic, real or well-intentioned a person's efforts to be good might be, no one is good except God alone.

This is not the way humans normally think. In fact, the most natural thing in the world for us is to base all of our hopes, desires and self-worth on what we do.1 Almost everything that we do, day in and day out, we do in order that we can look back on it and say, “See what I did,” and then add, “Aren't I swell fort this?” Encouragement and praise are things that every person craves. We resonate when we're around things or people that make us feel capable, competent and able to do something. We tend to prefer people who value our thoughts and our words, or who rely on our deeds. This is all because it is in human nature to find your value in what you do.

Strangely enough, the disappointing result of this kind of thinking is a life spent feeling like you have never quite done enough, like you always could have done something more, or done it better, or, in some cases, not done what you unfortunately did even though it wasn't what you now think you had wanted to do.2 No matter what you accomplish or do, no matter if you make a name for yourself that endures millennia, whether you are an Alexander or Caesar, a Shakespeare or a Ghandhi, the reincarnation of the Buddha, the highest paid athlete in the world or the poorest nun sacrificing your life to the needy in the slums of the third world – not matter what you do, nothing that you do is quite good enough. Nothing quite escapes your vanity. Nothing is powerful enough to stop the entropic curse. This is because all the good works that humans can do and have done are made up of the wrong kind of goodness.

There are lots of good people in the world.3 There are people who have worked for peace, who have aided orphans and widows, who have sought to lead nations into a better world. There are people who will give you the coats of their backs and the food from their tables, even though this might mean they would go without. These people are harder and harder to find in the United States, but there are and have been entire civilizations that esteem honor and justice more than life itself. And these good people are not limited to any one religion or philosophical system. There are good people in all kinds of spiritual disciplines. There are righteous pagans and compassionate atheists.

But according to that one man who rose from the dead, as good as all these people are – even that young man who meant well, and who never once disobeyed his parents, never killed, never lied, never stole – according to Jesus all the goodness that you do is the wrong kind of goodness for overcoming the vanity and decay which is sending our world to hell in a hand-basket. In this regard, in terms of the salvation this entire planet needs, no one is good except God alone.

There are two kinds of goodness. And the real goodness – the better goodness – does not consist in what you do, but in what God does.

Of Earth and Heaven

There is a goodness which is of this world.4 It is the goodness of honor, justice and vocation.5 To speak a little archaicly, it is the goodness of office. It is the goodness of doing the right thing in the right moment, of seeing what will help and pursuing it, of facing what needs to be done and seeing it through. This is the goodness that is found in relationships. It is a worldly goodness, easy to observe and to judge because such good works are good. There is right and there is wrong, and there is good and there is evil, and whether you have done one or the other is easy enough to see. They're conspicuous.6

The desire for this kind of goodness is common to all people. But this goodness is not the only kind of goodness that there is. More importantly, this goodness is not the best kind of goodness that there is. This kind of goodness is weak. It lives or dies in a moment, and as much as all mankind pursues it, we never seem to reach it. Too often, history shows us reaching the very opposite.

Yet there is another kind of goodness. This goodness is not of this world. We could call it holiness except that most religions (and many Christians) also think that holiness is what you do. But the other kind of goodness is something that no man does. In a sense, it is not even something that God does. First, it is who God is.7 After that, all that God does flows from it – from himself.8

If mankind will ever overcome death and decay, it will because we once again are restored to this kind of goodness – no a matter of what we do, but of who we. Do we have God's goodness flowing to, in and through us? This was how we were created in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were not called good because of what they did. First, they were created, and then God called them good because he had put his goodness in them. God's goodness was part of who they were.9 They were not only creatures crafted by God's own hand and breathing with his own life, but they were formed in the very identity of God's goodness, in his own good image.10

The problem is that, after our jump into vain entropy, this gift of good identity was broken. The holiness which flows from God, this better and more necessary goodness, was lost in our attempt to make a goodness that would exist without God.11 Adam and Eve took the fruit because they believed that what they did would make them better than they already were.12 The better goodness was traded in for a worse betterness! Ever since, like our parents before us, we run about as mad, busy ants, trying again and again to make our own goodness better. In our hiding from shame, we believe that the goodness that we do might one day become good enough to replace that better goodness we once had been freely given.

But it never happens. It is just not possible. Not even the most good man ever born of women came anywhere close to achieving this kind of goodness, in spite of all the good he did do.13 By nature, we are just not capable of producing God's goodness. On top of all that, it really begs the question whether even the goodness we are capable of is half so good as we'd like to pretend that it is.

Humans are full of curses for every little thing that goes awry, whether its a world war or spilled milk.14 We claim to want justice for every minor offense, but dodge and parry any accusation that we might have fallen short or be in error.15 Our eyes wonder in lust.16 The more promises we make, the more untrustworthy we actually are.17 And this is to say nothing of the significant American problems of divorce, abortion, teen-sex, the rise in suicides and drug-abuse, and the rampant, deadly narcissism which is sweeping our culture like a plague. It just isn't in you to turn the other cheek, to give unconditionally and without limit, and to love especially and consistently the people who are most rude and abusive to you.18

Even the worldly goodness which God created for this world to do is pure perfection.19 We flatter ourselves when we whisper sweet nothings in the mirror about how both God and history will overlook our endless failures on account of our sincere belief that tomorrow we'll do a little better.20 The slight immoralities, the white lies, the simple jealousies – all of this is not merely a reason for an angry God to cast sinners into hell. This is the reason that this life is already a hell of a place to live.21

The sad fact is that the more we follow our own ways and seek to make some value out of ourselves, the more worthless we end up being.22 It's not that there is no good in this world, or that you or I or anyone should stop trying to do the right thing when it is before us. It's that we must stop believing that our worldly goodness can be the final answer to our heavenly needs. There are two different kinds of goodness, and the one we need the most is the one we can never do. Nations, religions and cultures all alike set up rules and systems for bringing heaven down from above by our actions, but the result is always that we have yanked more hell up from below.23

Our very world-wide refusal to believe in the limitations of our goodness proves the problem doubly so.24 The height of our wickedness is that we cannot see how we are wicked.25 In the end, trying to redeem ourselves by what little goodness we manage to do, we are forced to lie to ourselves and those around us in order to hide the fact that the real goodness – the heavenly goodness – is still terribly, terribly missing.26

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The final image of a woman weeping against the wailing wall in Jerusalem, where God's holiness once dwelt but has departed, points us forward to next week's conclusion of Chapter 4: Goodness.

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1. Psalm 135:15 “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.”
2. Ecclesiastes 12:12 “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
3. Proverbs 9:9 “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” Genesis 6:9 “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.”
4. Ecclesiastes 7:15 “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.”
5. Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land.” Confer with Titus 2:1-10, and Colossians 3:18-4:1
6. 1 Timothy 510 “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.”
7. Isaiah 45:21 “And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.”
8. Psalm 71:19 “Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?”
9. Genesis 1:27-31 “God created man....And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, ti was very good.”
10. Genesis 1:26-27 “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.”
11. Genesis 3:5 “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”
12. Genesis 3:6 “The woman saw...that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”
13. Ecclesiastes 7:20 “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Luke 7:28 “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
14. Matthew 5:22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Romans 3:14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15. Isaiah 59:7-8 “For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies; your tongue mutters wickedness. No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies.”
16. Matthew 5:28 “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
17. Matthew 5:37 “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
18. Matthew 5:39-47 “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
19. Matthew 5:48 “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
20. Psalm 36:2 “The wicked flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.”
21. Galatians 3:10 “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written,'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'”
22. Psalm 53:3 “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
23. Romans 10:6 “The righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' ” Proverbs 30:4 “Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know!”
24. Proverbs 12:15 “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes.”
25. Revelation 3:17 “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
26. Romans 3:23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

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