We all want to believe that there is something good in us, if only we figure out how to activate it. Those in the church have grown up thinking that the preacher’s job is to activate the core in us that is good, and thus motivate Christians to do more for God, in new radical ways. But is this core even there or are these guys just yelling at dead people to stand up and dance?
Preachers are masters at telling people to do things for God. Most people would call this an accurate job description of the pastor. The problem is that once the preachers tell someone to do something it becomes unclear if they are now just obeying to appease the pastor or to actually glorify God. This could expose all of our piety as actually self-justifying unbelief. In the age of application-driven sermons, when all we get at church are new ways to improve ourselves, our conduct begins to rule our entire relationship with God. If our conduct is the basis for our relationship, we are building our faith on the assumption that the core of humanity is good.
But what is going on with our core? Do we even know? We could look at the bible, our experiences, and culture to discover what is going on in there, and if it is good.
In the bible, we find that God doesn’t have much faith in human achievement. Even when we find the “righteous man” of the Old Testament, it is quite clear that part of the story is God making that person righteous, which keeps us wondering whether there was any good there to begin with. Does the bible say we are good at our core or not? You have heard me quote all of the scripture (if you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time) where the bible makes it explicitly clear that we are not good at our core. In fact the bible says that, left to our own devices, we are downright faithless, rebellious, self-justifying, deceived and deceiving. You are just depressing us, Jake! How is this good news? Well, listen, right now I’m simply trying to highlight why what you have heard for most of your Christian experience is not good news. Pointing people to the “good inside” is not going to help them because it isn’t there, according to the bible.
(The good news, to jump ahead a bit, is the God creates ex nihilo – out of nothing – which means he calls us lovely and that is the thing that makes us lovely. The liberation of that truth is that when we feel overwhelmed by our unloveliness, we can simply go back to the Word which promises we have been made lovely. And that stirs up profound gratitude. If we don’t go back there in our unloveliness, we will be forced to resort to resolutions of personal self-improvement. “I’m unlovely now, but wait’ll you see me in 6 months!” That doesn’t sound like freedom to me.)
Next, we can look at our experiences to find evidence for this good internal core. Generally, I would say most of us have no clue if our experiences reveal a good person underneath. I would readily say that you are likely a normal person, but good person, I’m just not sure. There is one experience that calls every other experience into question, that I think is a case for why we simply cannot be sure how good we are. This is the experience of exerting profound effort and telling ourselves in the process that our motives are other-focused/selfless/altruistic, only to find out after a time of reflection that we had selfish motives for doing that work from the beginning — we just didn’t see them at the time. This experience reveals the gullibility of our hearts to believe the goodness of our works despite potentially obvious signs that our works are completely selfish. I’m not saying all of them are, I’m just saying, I don’t think we can be sure of our goodness once we discover how regularly we deceive ourselves. When you tell yourself that you are doing something good: how do you know that you can be trusted?
(If you think I am again just stripping away any motivation to be nice to people, I’m sorry! Truly, I prefer it when people are nice to other people. More importantly, though, I very much want people to feel free around me. If someone is having a bad day, it is unloving for me to demand they should put on a nice face and pretend they have it together. I want you to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, because it gives birth to deeper intimacy with those with which you share that vulnerability. And it opens up ways for us to be truly loved when we know it’s not a mask that people are falling in love with, but rather our core self with all of our selfish streaks and insecurities.)
We can also look to art for a verdict about our loveliness. Really, though, this is just another way of looking at our experiences, because the art that we are drawn to is usually somehow a reflection of what is going on inside of us, which is usually tied up in what we have experienced. But perhaps a good rule of thumb is that the insecurities of our favorite artists are likely insecurities that we share, which makes me think, If we are insecure, almost by definition that means we aren’t sure how good we are at our core. And often art is insecurity that has been dragged into the light so that people can feel the liberation of calling a thing what it is. So studying art makes me conclude that we can’t actually know how good or bad we are, but we can know that we are a little bit scared.
So in conclusion: most of us probably aren’t sure how good or bad we are. Everything in us wants a self-evaluation that says we are good or bad, but I don’t think we would believe anything like that even if we had it.
Coming to this place of vulnerability where you are free to admit that you aren’t sure about your motives, actually feels like your identity is coming apart. Everywhere Jesus went people had identity crises. You don’t even have to subscribe to the gospel for it to really freak you out, but simply positing the question of whether you are as good as you think you are is enough to make you tremble. Trust me, it’s a daily struggle.
Here is the good news. Admitting the uncertainty of our good works is an echo of Paul saying in Galatians 2: “I died to the Law so that I might live to God.” Admitting that you can never look to your own works to locate your goodness forces you to look outside of yourself to Christ given for you.
And he is yours, indeed. Cling tightly.