by Alastair Sterne
March 11, 2014
5 min read
A little over a year ago, I posted The Good Person Pandemic. I’ve found time and time again, that most people within Vancouver and Western culture consider themselves relatively good people. While I think this self-appointed goodness can be misplaced, the truth is there are a lot of decent people. It’s not always misplaced. The question is, why is being good never good enough?
In the gospel of Luke there is a story about a centurion who had a servant who was on the verge of death. The lights are about to go out. Under the looming shadow of death, the centurion sends elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant. And when they get to Jesus they say, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5).
These elders stand by the centurion’s goodness. He is worthy in their eyes. He is worthy of Jesus’ help because of what he has done. He has loved and served their community. What’s incredible is that Jewish elders are recognizing, affirming and even endorsing a Gentile’s goodness. Despite their religious and national divides, they are looking at him and saying “If anyone deserves a miracle, it’s him!”
We all have people like this in our lives. Friends, family members, co-workers who don’t follow Jesus, but who are remarkably good, kind and generous people. I don’t think it’s bad to affirm the good in people. But our theological paradigms shouldn’t crumble when we meet people who don’t hold our beliefs, who are pretty good people, who may even be significantly more moral than ourselves. It’s a matter of how we affirm it.
I’m sure we would agree with the elders’ assessment of the centurion. He’s a pretty good person. But he sees himself in a very different light. When Jesus draws near to his house, he sends friends on his behalf to speak to Jesus. He says “Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:6-7). The people say to Jesus “this man is worthy!” and he says of himself, “I am not worthy!”
What’s remarkable about this man is that he doesn’t see his loving nature, or his generosity, or his morality as something to be leveraged. Nor does he allow public regard to give him some sense of entitlement. Here we meet a man who is worthy in the eyes of others, but unworthy in his own eyes. Here we meet a man who understands the true place of goodness. You should try to be a good person, you should be generous, you should love your neighbours! But you shouldn’t presume to think that these sorts of things give you any type of clout before God. Morality isn’t a bargaining chip.
God operates within grace and mercy not within our quid pro quo mentality.
If we really understand grace, we have to accept that people who are more moral and more immoral than us stand in the exact same place as we do before God. God isn’t required to trouble himself with us. We’re not worthy of his presence. We cannot presume upon him. And yet, God meets us. It’s grace. It’s mercy. We’re unworthy of it, no matter how good we are. God operates within grace and mercy not within our quid pro quo mentality.
I meet good people all the time. While attempts to deconstruct how one categorizes oneself as good can be helpful at times, what is also helpful is helping people construct an understanding of how God’s kingdom works. The challenge for good people is to recognize that goodness isn’t a currency that can be exchanged for the kingdom of God. The way we think and see the world is so saturated by consumerism that we have to patiently help people realise that the currency of the kingdom is grace. No matter how good someone is, they don’t inherently deserve it.
Goodness matters, but the moment someone speaks about goodness as if it makes them deserving of the kingdom, they’ve laid their cards on the table: They’re good but they’re also self-righteous. They think that their character and acts of kindness warrant God’s recognition and grace. They’re operating in the wrong economy.
While following Jesus will transform our lives, the only major difference between any Christian and anyone else is the acceptance of their unworthiness and their need for mercy. Christianity isn’t about getting up on some moral high horse but about God’s grace being on display.
People considered worthy by the world’s standards, but who accept their unworthiness by the kingdom’s standards will find themselves in the perfect posture to receive grace. Much like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World, we are to cast ourselves before the feet of God saying “We’re not worthy.” People need not throw their kindness and morality out the window, they simply need to stop using it as currency and see it as a part of their humanity. Grace comes to the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, the kind and the unkind. It comes to all who see their unworthiness of the kingdom but who seek it nonetheless.