23 November 2015

Dispelling the “Basically Good” Myth

Photo by Julie Moore [#julebugphotography]
I remember a now-ancient Berenstain Bears movie where Sister Bear learned about character via a Mama Bear object lesson on wormy, rotten apples.  The illustration is perhaps cliché, but is still revealing of the way human beings evaluate and judge one another.  Racism is based on ethnicity, speech, skin color.  Compassion (or lack thereof) for the homeless and the mentally ill is based on their physical condition, attitudes, appearance.  Most often, dating relationships begin with emphasis on the peripheral -- the looks, the interests, the tastes -- before any of the sinew and tissue and heart muscle of the true character beneath is ever exposed and valued.

Whether we ignore a book because its cover is lackluster or we leave an apple at the bottom of the grocery store barrel because it has lumpy flesh, we are presuming that the exterior says something true about the interior.  The way we shop for produce indicates how superficial our judgment values can be.  Is being a picky shopper a sin?  Probably not.  The reality, however, is that we don’t really know what the inside of that apple looks like until we take a big bite.  More often than not, a wrinkly skin hides great sweetness while a gorgeous exterior belies a deeply rotten core.

The world wants to subscribe to the theory that what is outside is separate from what is inside.  In other words, what I do does not (or should not) necessarily reflect who I am.  My mistakes shouldn't bear any reflection upon my identity -- they are the exception to the rule of my basically good character.  The world says, "My flaws are external to who I really am.  I’m a basically good person who happens to make mistakes.  To be human is to err.  Therefore, I’m not to be judged or held accountable to anyone for my failings."

"I'm a good apple with a lumpy, bruised skin."

This is flawed, self-deceptive human reasoning at its most basic level.  We deceive ourselves because we don't really know ourselves (Jer 17.9).  Socrates purportedly trolled the "unexamined life" as not being "worth living," according to Plato's Apology.  Whether we define that concept as the pursuit of self-knowledge or the exploration of options and potential, we are still acknowledging that, as individuals and as a society, we human beings lack a fundamental understanding of ourselves and must quest to find it.  In fact, the very school of philosophy and the countless world religions all exist because humanity recognizes the inherent holes in our self-identity as a species.  Though we feign otherwise, we are truly rotten to the core -- no matter how good the skin might look.

The very premise with which we operate is wrong: I am not a human who must go on a pilgrimage to define my own identity and transcend my own shortcomings.  Mistakes of character evidence an incompleteness that I cannot overcome on my own.  Evolutionary theory says humanity has not yet arrived at the “final state” of evolution and that, as a species, we will continue evolving toward a state of perfection.  This philosophy places man on an optimistic trajectory that goes against the grain of everything we see both in our world today as well as in ages past: immorality so severe that neither media nor individual nor historian can help but label it as pervasive, degenerate, pan-generational behavior.  Broken political structures and failed governments litter the pages of history and current affairs, altogether power- and/or wealth-hungry and drenched in blood.  "Harmless" selfishness corrupts on all interpersonal levels, deriding the beauty of and potential for personal sacrifice: look-at-me style social media; no-strings-attached, favor-my-preferences sexuality; broken family structures and utterly careless "parenting"; abortion as a thoughtless escape from personal responsibility; time theft and slander of employers; and countless other aspects of our self-centeredness are historically endemic of our species, even if they looked different in the past.

Things don't get better when they're perpetually flawed -- not over millennia, not over eons: they get worse.  Entropy isn't just a property of physics.

By contrast, the Bible says man isn't on a trajectory at all -- one mistake all by itself, one slip of the tongue or one impure thought is enough to condemn us to permanent spiritual death (Jas 2.10).  It's spilled wine on a white sheet -- it's irreparably tarnished.  And most of us have done more than just one bad thing with our choices.  Nothing short of perfection is "good enough" when you must stack up your filthy laundry against God's standard of holiness.

It turns out that we're not on a road headed somewhere.  We're standing in a quagmire and sinking deeper.  Those of us who think we're headed somewhere positive are doing headstands in their eagerness to get to the bottom of the pit.

If you've served in any branch of the military, you know that the standards of personal cleanliness and discipline are extraordinarily high: as soldiers, sailors, pilots, etc, our armed forces are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than the average citizen.  To an even higher degree, that is what God requires: perfect conduct, perfect thought-life, perfect desires.

To make matters worse, we’re guilty of more than G-rated "mistakes."  Romans 1 attests that we act in full, albeit repressed, knowledge of what is true, right, and good.  In other words, somewhere deep inside, we all know the truth about a holy, omnipotent Creator God and yet choose to reject it.  Whether you've had rough experiences with faith and lost trust in religious figures or whether you harbor absolutely no animosity towards Bible-toters and have simply doubted the existence of God your entire life, there still exists within all of us an abstract knowledge of morality and cloudy, half-forgotten purpose.  These inexplicable fragments, coupled with the miracles of life and the miraculous order in a massive, clockwork universe, altogether point toward the reality that we are not the epitome of evolution we might otherwise think.

The harsh reality is that is that the kind of moral pit to which we have condemned ourselves comes with a tremendous penalty.  The Apostle Paul tells us that the toll for imperfection is death -- a soul-rending, eternal, spiritual death (Rom 6.23).  But instead of recognizing this reality for what it is, we choose instead to think we are the exception to the rule.

We say, "If you just understood what I’ve been through, you'd overlook what I did."

We insist, "God can't condemn me for my choices because my life has been absolute hell."

We obfuscate, "I am truly following the path that I believe to be right, so God will honor me for my faith -- even if it was 'misplaced.'"

The reality is that all of our reasons for why we chose what we did don’t change the fact that we still violated the law.

It's like getting a speeding ticket.  I get pulled over for going 45 in a 25 on my way to work, keep my fingers crossed as the cop runs my license and insurance through the database, and then feel justified outrage when he comes back to my window with a $250 ticket in his hand.

He doesn't know me, I scream in my head.  This is the first time I've been caught speeding in years!  He should let me go and go chase that Mustang that just raced through here instead -- THAT guy deserves the ticket, not me who's just trying to get to work on time!!

In my anger, I ignore the reality that, regardless of my reason, I've still broken the law.

"Breaking the law" is a little harsh... 

Was I speeding?

Well, yes, but --

Was I speeding?


We don’t fully understand guilt or culpability.  Sin is not as gray as we might want it to be.  We over-contextualize our choices so that motivation becomes the hinge on which a guilty/innocent verdict swings.  We insist that we deserve better than what we are given because our motive was pure (and even that's doubtful).  I've been done injustice by this $250 ticket, I insist.  However, even if my wife is in labor and I'm racing to the hospital to get to her, I've still earned a speeding ticket for breaking the law.  If the cop listens to my story and gives me a break, he's granting me mercy, not justice.

In fact, if I demand justice, then I should write the ticket myself.

That's our problem.  We aren't "basically good" people who simply make mistakes.  We violate the law of God's eternal, perfect character, and therefore -- regardless of our reason for doing so -- we stand condemned to an eternity of spiritual isolation and condemnation.  This is our just reward for our inherent selfishness, arrogance, and ungodliness.

It is not murder that earns me hell.  It is placing myself at the center of my existence instead of God.

In light of all this, I must change my premise: I am not a pilgrim on a journey to self-realization; I am a hopeless sinner in need of redemption.

Here, then, is the hope that God gives: we have been granted mercy.  He has withheld justice from us and fulfilled it in His Son.  Jesus Christ, the Divine incarnate, accepted the wages we had earned and carried them on His own shoulders when He went to the cross on our behalf.

He didn't have to do this.  He chose to do it.

Jesus the Messiah forgives and restores: He accepts you just as you are and He loves you enough to not leave you that way.  He pays for our speeding tickets and then-some.  It doesn't matter if you've cheated on your spouse, shoplifted, or hated your brother.  His grace is sufficient to cover any and all sins.  His unmerited, redeeming favor teaches us gratitude and accountability for our previous wrong-doings.  It teaches us to love Him and others above all else, to grant forgiveness as we've been forgiven, and to restore to those we've wronged out of the abundance of grace and mercy now rooted in our own hearts.

The only condition God places on salvation is that I must believe, trust, love, and pursue Him alone.  I must surrender all my deep-seated notions about being a "basically good" person and instead embrace the reality of my own sinfulness, so that I can be covered by His holiness and renewed.  He did the heavy lifting; as His children, we bear an easy and light burden, because our righteousness is actually His righteousness attributed to our account.

He offers freedom -- freedom from having to work my way toward heaven, only to fall so far short in eternal disgrace.  Freedom from myself.

It takes humility to recognize that we need this -- to recognize that we are slaves to our own desires and helplessly lost in our own moral darkness.  Once we do so, we can breathe in deeply the fresh, aromatic air of redemption, stepping out of our dank, "basically good" prison cells and into the golden warmth of daybreak.