What is good?

My husband and I sit at the end of a long picnic-style table in the restaurant, and I can’t completely tune out the conversation a few feet away, even in the din of the dinner rush. Four men exchange all sorts of ideas in a buoyant conversation, and the generous application of expletives is hard for me to tune out. Then I pick up on a few key words that always get my attention.

“He’s like, ‘Which Jesus do you believe in?’” one of the men describes to his comrades. “And I’m like, what does that even mean? No one ever asks, ‘Which Buddha do you worship?’” His friends nod and he goes on. “In the end, the only thing that matters is that you’re a good person.”

It’s a wonder the whole restaurant can’t hear my heart groan.

Not that I’m surprised at the conversation on comparative religion, or the conclusion of the matter. I’m not so naive or overly pious to pass judgment on my dinner companions. I just wish folks like those gentlemen who have thoughts of Jesus and religion and goodness on their minds would think just a little further and ask the real question.

What is good?

I suppose I’d get as many definitions and explanations of “good” as people I put the question to, but they’d pretty much come to the same general idea. Good is what benefits others, what the general population agrees upon as moral or excellent or of high quality. Good is not bad. And so, by definition, good is a relative term, which makes it hard to pin down.

And therein lies the problem, especially when we try to apply the idea of being good to things like religion, spirituality, and morals. How good does someone have to be to be truly good? Whose definition of good counts when it comes to such critical matters as holiness and heaven and eternal things?

At one level, I’m pushing the discussion far beyond what these four men intend, I’m sure. When it comes to living day-to-day here on this planet, being a good person who’s considerate of others, kind, generous, and compassionate matters a whole lot. There aren’t enough good people in the world, religious or otherwise. Spend ten minutes on the freeway and you’ll soon know there are very few truly good people out there behind the wheel. Hang out in a fast-food restaurant and then tell me how many good people treat the folks behind the counter with consideration and respect. And don’t get me started with folks in airports. “Good” is a commodity in short supply these days.

That is, of course, assuming we can agree on a definition of what “good” is. I won’t numb us into oblivion with the tedium of opinions on food or music or art - that’s beside the point I’m trying to make. Let’s stick to moral “good” for now. Is saving up all your money good? Or is giving it all away? Both extremes have problems - one side makes you a miser and the other makes you broke. So maybe moderation is good, if we know where the lines are that we should not cross. Oh, I could get really thorny here if I want to. Is homosexuality good? How about marijuana use? This gets messy quick, doesn’t it? Seems like “good” depends a whole lot on one’s personal perspective and preferences. And yet, if the gentleman I overheard is right, then being good is the only thing that matters. Too bad it’s so hard to define, then.

So I have to reject the attractive but flawed assumption that “good” living can even be accomplished. Too many squishy concepts in there for me to bank my life on. While I applaud the plea that we all strive for kindness, generosity, and good character qualities that make life on earth tolerable, that’s not the only thing that matters.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Whew! There it is! Something finally strong enough to hold on to. I find so much comfort in actually having a definition for “good” that’s even remotely measurable. And even though I come up way, way, short - and we all do - at least there’s some solid ground to stand on and have a discussion. Trying to live a “good” life with nothing to point to that’s truly and unequivocably good means wandering in the fog of relativism, and that’s unbearable and untenable in the end.

But now that I think about it a little bit more, in light of Jesus’ own words, perhaps living a good life is the only thing that matters, in a sort of round about sense. See, if Jesus is right, then God alone (and Jesus by inclusion) is good. The Bible teaches over and over that only the “good” - the truly holy and perfect by God’s good standards - can stand in the presence of and live with a good and holy God in heaven. And if only good people go to heaven, then I’ve got a problem. I’ve already blown it on the “living a good life” standard. Today. In the first five minutes out of bed.

Good thing I don’t have to give a “good” life. Because Jesus lives a “good” life for me and gives me His life in exchange for my own.

He makes me “good”.

Which is why we call the gospel “good news.” And it’s why we celebrate the death of Jesus on the cross on a day we call Good Friday. He gives up His truly good life so you and I can exchange our whatever-we-want-to-call-it lives for His. We get to be “good” without having to live “good” - which hardly seems fair, and isn’t fair, and sounds ridiculous, but that’s what amazing grace is. And a heart that gets it, that knows a good thing when we see it and understands the ludicrous love that motivates such a good offer - well, the only reasonable response is to want to live such a good life that we can begin to express our gratitude for His goodness.

It’s good that we don’t get to define “good” for ourselves, no matter how popular the notion might be. Because when we know that God alone is good and He alone makes us good, then and only then can we finally truly be good ourselves.

So let’s not deceive ourselves with nice sounding words about living good lives as if we can accomplish such a thing. We can’t even define it, let alone do it. Instead, let’s give up our lives to the One who truly is good, and let Him be our good and make us good for our good so we can do good. This, in the end, is the only thing that really matters.

Kat CannonComment