Let’s start with a story from the Gospel of Mark. (I’m combining several accounts and helpful commentary to ‘flesh out’ the details).
When He had traveled on, a young man came and knelt in the dust of the road in front of Jesus.
Young Man: Good Teacher! What good thing must I do to gain life in the world to come?
Jesus: Why are you so concerned about that good thing, and why are giving Me, teacher, the title of ‘good’? Don’t you believe and teach that no one and no thing but God and God alone has this honor?
You know the answer you have been taught. If you want to be good enough to enter into the world to come, you have to keep the Commandments of Moses: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not slander, do not defraud, and honor your father and mother.”
Young Man: Yes, Teacher, I have done all these since I was a child.
Then Jesus, looking at the young man, saw that he was sincere and responded out of His love for him.
Jesus: Son, there is still one thing you have not done. Go now. Sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. You have forgotten the most important command: Have no other gods in my presence. After that, come, follow Me.
The young man went away sick at heart at these words because he was very wealthy…
[Jesus teaches on the dangers of wealth becoming an idol]
The disciples: Then who can be liberated (saved)?
Jesus: For human beings it is impossible, but not for God: God makes everything possible. (Mark 10: 17:26 )
* * * * *
We lack good people in our world.
The Harvey Weinstein story has brought this front and center in a very particular area: sexual harassment and assault. He has opened the floodgates, and now you can’t read a news story without another actress –and a few actors – talking about cases where they have been the victims of sexual sin. Sadly, this seems to have simply shone a spotlight on what women have always known and men have too often dismissed. There’s a reason #metoo has been trending.
Meanwhile, many women around the world have turned to the men in their life and said, “I am so glad you are not like that,” and the men have been more than happy to agree that indeed they are not, and to remind their wives and girlfriends how lucky they are to have a good man like him around. Good men are hard to find. Thank God we made ourselves so obvious.
But for Christians, the standard for all of our conduct is much higher than simply that which can be observed. Jesus said that adultery – sexual unfaithfulness expressed in action – is bad, but those who nurture sexual unfaithfulness in their heart are also guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:28). In other words, obeying God’s law outwardly is important, but it’s not the ultimate standard of goodness. Good people don’t simply do good things; good people have good hearts. Good people desire the good as well as do the good.
Which puts us all in a really uncomfortable spot.
We do not all commit the same outward sins, and we don’t all struggle with the same kinds of sins, but we have all given in either outwardly or inwardly to some form of sinfulness. If we haven’t done it, we’ve thought a lot about doing it, and liked the idea. We dreamed about it. We pondered how it might be accomplished. We envied those who did the things we would never do but really, really wanted to do. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could have the testimony where I partied like a rock star and then settled down with Jesus?” Our hearts have been ravaged by the sin that has crouched at our door (Genesis 4:7).
This is what we call bad news. “The heart is deceitful, and desperately wicked. Who can trust it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Christianity demands that we never stand on a pedestal and point down toward the ‘losers’ who have given in to sin. We kneel on the level ground at the foot of the cross with everyone else and offer our hearts to a Savior who alone can heal.
Let’s talk about what I mean by level ground. Jesus said there are some things that deserve greater condemnation (Matthew 23:14). There is something unique about sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18). You dare not hurt kids. (Luke 17:2). Does this mean some of us are greater sinners?
I think this has to do with the ripple effect of what we do. Some sins leave more brokenness in their wake than other sins, and some do more damaging formation in people’s lives. A physical assault hurts a body; a sexual assaults hurts a soul. Both are bad; but one damages in a way the other does not.
I have not done what Harvey Weinstein has done, so I have not left that terrible legacy. But I don’t have to do what he did to have a soiled heart that expresses itself in broken actions that leave their own kind of damage. I’m not suddenly good just because Harvey is terrible. Harvey Weinstein is not the standard of goodness. In fact, the minute we start to establish whether or not we are good by comparing ourselves to others, we are in trouble. We can live in such a way that we lower the condemnation we deserve – and that would be good, because that would mean people around us weren’t being hurt – but that is not the same thing as being good.
• What if the Las Vegas shooter only shotone person? What if he sat around all day in a room filled with loaded weapons and thought about it but did nothing? Each of those would deserve less condemnation in that his immoral “footprint” would be smaller, but that wouldn’t make him good. If you found out your neighbor was watching people through the scope of his rifle all day long and pretending he was killing people, you wouldn’t clap him on the shoulder and say, “Love your self-control, dude. Well done!” You would say, “Uh, brother, you need help.”
• If I found out a friend was indulging in fantasies about someone else’s wife but didn’t actually do anything, would I congratulate him on his goodness? I’m glad he’s not acted on his thoughts, and I would affirm that, but we have to address the fact that he wants to offend. He wishes he could. He might protest: “My immoral footprint did not step on her.” Well, no, but not for lack of wanting it to. And he knows – we all know – that while it is a good thing not to follow through on the sinful desires of our hearts, our self-control alone does not make us good people.
None of us have lived up to the standard Jesus set. So while we rightly condemn the physical actions of moral monsters, as Christians we must do so while recognizing that our hearts have something in common with theirs: they are desperately wicked and in need of a transplant.
* * * * * *
This is where the good news of the Gospel begins. There is a solution.
God can create in us a new heart and renew a right spirit within us (Psalm 51:10). The desires of our hearts can become so transformed that God will give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4) Jesus even talked about how blessed people are who are pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). God commands us to become good, and God will empower us to fulfill his command.
So how does this work? Let’s do a little background first. The Hebrew word for good, Tob or Tov, is about ‘superlative goodness and beauty.” When Moses met God on Mt. Sinai, he asked to see God’s glory. God responded that He would show His goodness, but even then Moses could only handle his “back,” which some have understood to mean God would show him how His presence leaves a mark of goodness on the world.
“You [God] are good (tob), and what you do is good (yatab)…” (Psalm 119:68)
Goodness begins in God – it’s part of God’s nature – and is revealed in His works. His creation is tob (Genesis 1:18); His intrinsic tobness is seen in the land (Psalm 27:13). But even though we see it, we only glimpse the surface.
The New Testament uses different language to capture the same idea.
Agathós describes something that is inherently or intrinsically good. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and Ephesians 5:9 describes it as being one of “the fruit of the light” for Christians who have been made new in Jesus.
Do you remember our baptism imagery? Immersion has to do with pickling. Baptism into Christ is an immersion of who we are into who Jesus is, and in that spiritual immersion we are fundamentally, spiritual changed. Now we have been pickled (?) in God’s goodness. It is changing who we are – which means it is changing how we live. God makes us good so that we can do good.
“A good (agathos) man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)
So there is some really good news here: we, who are inherently not good people, can become good people through the presence and work of a good God in our life. “What good thing can I do that will make me deserving of eternal life?” asked the young ruler. None. There is nothing you can do that makes you good enough. But…. “with God all things are possible.”
This is the good news of the Gospel: we whose hearts are desperately wicked have a God who responds to prayer: “Create in me a new heart, O God.” And God, who is rich in mercy, does this.
So what does this mean to us when we walk out of here today? I have three thoughts; I am sure there are plenty more to add.
This should give us hope. When we give our lives to Jesus, He can bring goodness into our life where there is none currently. We don’t have to live in despair about our failures and sins. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
This should point us toward God when we fail. The Bible calls us to actively pursue moral excellence, but when we fail – and we will – we can rest in the knowledge that God’s grace will help us. God knows the heart you were born with, and he know you need a new one. He has begun a good work in you, and he will be faithful (Philippians 1:6).
Christian community should be a place where we don’t have to live in shame about our lack of goodness. (Luke 11:4) I sometimes smile at the optimistic promises in wedding vows. I have these interjections that I keep to myself:
• “I promise to never disappoint you.“ (Oh, you will.)
• “I will honor you every moment” (Well, not every moment. Not when you’re tired, or sick, or maybe even awake)
• “You will always feel the warmth of my love (You might break that one by the end of the reception.)
• “There is nothing that will distract me from you!” (Except Netflix, The Lions next loss, bacon, and Candy Crush.)
Our goodness – our attempts at doing the right thing on our power – will never be enough. We must acknowledge this or we will either hide or judge. We will hide out of fear that we will never be enough and will be rejected because we can’t be perfect, or we will judge those around us because they just aren’t good enough for us and should be rejected.
This is not the freedom God has prepared or you and that Jesus offers to you.
The freedom is this: though we are all broken sinners, Jesus saves, delivers and heals. Jesus will empower us to confess our lack of goodness to God and others, and he will empower us to offer forgiveness. “Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive those who sin against us.”
And then we raise our voices together in prayer and ask the God of goodness to increase while we decrease (John 3:30), to be strong where we are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9), to shine through the cracks of our brokenness (2 Corinthians 4:7) not just for our collective good – not just so we can now have a good ‘moral footprint’ instead a bad one – but so that the glory of a good God can be seen in the transformation of our lives.