The Chimera of Being a “Good” Person


Most everybody not only wants to be a “good” person but thinks they currently are. Such self-assessments are natural, and possibly critical in maintaining a sense of self-worth — of your psychological wellbeing. As this article points out, everyone thinks they’re good. More than that, they think they’re better than most everybody else. But how can everybody be right about this?

In part, the problem is due to a quite malleable definition of the term “good”. Have you ever helped a little old lady cross the street, or held the door for someone who needed that assistance, or said a kind and comforting word to a friend in need? No doubt you have, in part because being kind makes you feel good. If you have, you’ve probably mentally placed yourself in the “good” column, based on your tribal knowledge of what that word means – ‘aren’t these things what we all call “good”’? After all, you can even take and pass tests online that tell you you’re good, reinforcing your opinion (you’ll get the opportunity to take a more honest test a little later).

People today pursue their concept of good, which they’ve learned from their parents or friends or teachers. Currently, more so than in recent times, there is a huge degree of peer pressure at work in the formulation of one’s ideal of good. That is, it is not thought of so much as a personal virtue as it is a social norm. Fewer and fewer young folks today are willing to take a stand defining goodness that violates the ideals held by their friends.

What is quite surprising to many of us who are older is the intensity of their professed commitment to their view, and the unanimity of belief as to what the key tenets of that view are. Those of us old enough remember debates about which values were good (e.g. democratic freedom vs communism, passive resistance to war vs patriotism, or welfare vs. workfare, etc.); which things were actually virtuous, which not, and why.

Today these values are not the product of discussion, let alone debate. They are simply the result of lifelong indoctrination provided by teachers, peers, and the ever-present media narrative. Somehow, we have lost the will to be curious about such views – not just of morality or ethics, but of nearly everything.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Barton Swaim on the so-called “New Perspective” on the Apostle Paul[i], captures the essence of this phenomena this way:

“Even in the permissive, materialistic age, people go to extraordinary lengths to atone for their guilt.  Consider the vast numbers of Americans who spend their days maniacally trying to prove their upright status in the eyes of secular deities — conspicuously announcing their support for enlightened causes, loudly denouncing bigotry and xenophobia, proclaiming their sympathy with the marginalized and their loyalty to ethically manufactured products.  How delightful it might be to hear that salvation is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should virtue-signal.”

In this intellectually weakened state, we have adopted a kind of self-righteousness of confidence in our views, no matter how little we have actually thought about them, that is pervasive. For such people, any other view has to be immediately dismissed as not just wrong, but evil, lest the weakness of their own thinking becomes exposed. It’s difficult to come to a sound understanding of “good” (or any other social or moral topic) if you’re unwilling to entertain any ideas other than those you hold and are dependent upon.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about minor differences. In many cases we’re talking about the difference between a position and its antithesis. The United States was founded, for example, on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” emblematic of those ideals which, when achieved, were “good”. Today there are many who argue for their opposite: the ability to take life arbitrarily, to limit the liberty of others if it suits them, and for punishing those who pursue happiness, again if such pursuit violates their sensibilities.

Why this disconnect? It’s not simply age. There are otherwise mature adults pursuing behaviors opposite of those prevalent during their upbringing. No, this is far more pernicious than simply your standard “generational divide”.

Today’s conception of what is good has metastasized from a cauldron of several contemporary causes, among them:

  • The idea that whatever happened before now wasn’t so much wrong as irrelevant. Surely a lot of it was wrong – slavery, segregation, crony capitalism, wars created by politicians, etc. But whatever it was, this thinking goes, is irrelevant to how we live and behave today.
  • The lack of education about this history that is now deemed irrelevant. It’s easier to wave your hand to brush away the lessons of history if you know next to nothing about it.
  • The isolation from the public square of God. The number of people in the US and Europe who today claim to believe that God even exists is at a low point. Of those remaining, less and less of what He prescribed for the interaction between people is being taught either in homes or churches. To the extent God is interjected into a discussion, the one doing so is dismissed as bigoted or hateful or just backward.
  • The rise of emotionalism. This is far more than “if it feels good, do it!” This says: “If you and your friends say it’s right, it’s right.” Such an approach tosses out conventional, rational approaches to issues and replaces them with a kind of tribalism in which your tribe is always in the right. And oh, by the way, the other tribes which disagree aren’t just wrong, they’re evil.
  • The kidnapping of the language. Now words mean what the hearer or speaker says they mean. You are not allowed to use words that a tribe may find “offensive”. If you do, you will be punished, be it verbal harassment, physical attacks, removing you from your job, etc. We’ve even coined a phrase to describe these utterances and make it easier to prosecute you for them – “hate speech”.
  • The rise of hubris. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. While the trend toward self-absorption has existed for many decades now, it’s hard to overstate just how fixated on one’s self and their personal validation these folks have become as the principal animating force in society. If you worship yourself, then your interpretation of everything in your environment is colored by this idolatry. If it’s good for you, then it’s at least OK. But if it’s bad for you (in your own mind), it is to be attacked and destroyed.
  • The rise of ‘relativism’. Today there are no absolutes. Technically, therefore, there is no such thing as “good”. This mentality sees no reliable foundation of virtues or ideals, such as those that have undergirded the development of Western civilization. Instead they see the events in their lives and related political issues in their society as unique transactions requiring a personal reaction. And that personal reaction is devoid of any encumbrance of ideals built upon centuries of careful thought. On the contrary, your reaction is based only on your personal assessment of what you and your tribe think is best in the moment.

What is “good”? What makes a person a “good” person?

This is where our natural instincts fail us, because, frankly, we have no informed basis to guide us, and have set our own selves as the arbitrary and low bar. “If I think I’m good, I’m good.”

If you know absolutely nothing that informs your life about Plato or Kant or Thoreau or Kierkagaard or Mother Theresa or Frank Laubach or George Meuller…or Jesus, you have no idea what gifted and committed humans have even thought about the subject, let alone lived out. From such a position of cluelessness, how can such a person claim authority on the subject, even for themselves?

We need to think about this for a minute. If “goodness” is so highly valued and universally prized, shouldn’t it at least cost us something to purvey? If we extend “good” to another, shouldn’t we have to pay some kind of price – to forego something to provide that good? Or, think about it the other way round: if it doesn’t cost us anything, how “good” can it be?

The mantra of those supposedly leading today’s culture has nothing to do with actually giving or doing good, but simply espousing platitudes of this or that attitude or cause or oppressed group that we should agree with and ‘support’. Support? What is that, exactly? If it’s more than agreement with, what more? Where is the action in “support”? Where is the help, the care, the cost in “support”? “Oh, but I have compassion for them” is a vacuous claim often heard. Compassion is simply an emotion, a feeling. It’s not love expressed in action. If, as one who sees himself as compassionate, you have much to teach us all about being good then by all means, let’s examine your life and learn from it! Show us.

I’m not saying that you don’t get the endorphins flowing from “supporting” your chosen cause or oppressed group. No doubt you do. Marching and holding up placards, writing letters and posting tweets can be quite intoxicating. You might even give them a $25 donation from time to time. But the question we’re trying to explore is does this justify your self-assessment of “good”? Have you, in fact, paid any cost in giving care or helping? Have you, yourself, given up something in order to give to the other, thereby making it truly a gift of yourself?

My contention is that this cheap self-aggrandizement is a kind of opiate to which many moderns today are addicted, and through which they see themselves as superior, but that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to self-sacrificial giving, which is actually the best you and I can hope for as deserving of the title “good”. Why do I say that?

In a word, because the Bible says that. Now before you stop reading here and move on to something else, you might want to take this brief test of your own “goodness”.

There is no greater authority on “good” than the writings that first prophesied the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer of Mankind, and then documented His life and teachings. The model of Christ it presents is unparalleled in our human experience. There is literally nothing else like it. It is a prescription for human (and divine) relationships, not a philosophy of personal or societal perfection. It is a documentary of the consequences of being led by yourself rather than by the One who created you. And it is the record of the One who came to show us and teach us how to live, and to die for us so that we could.

So what does the Bible have to say about being “good”?  Well, for openers, it says no one actually is (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19 – if Jesus doesn’t deem Himself “good”, surely none of us can make such a claim). We then have the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). What we learn from this story is that goodness involves giving – sacrificing – for the other, even one who has been your oppressor. Of course there is Jesus’ famous proclamation (Matthew 22:37-39) that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. A moment’s consideration reveals that in order to love another as we do ourselves requires a kind of sacrifice of ourselves, as when we are engaged in love for the other we are not engaged, as a higher priority, in love for ourselves. Self-love has been given up.

And then we have Jesus’ famous quotation in the book of John:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

From this scantest of surveys we learn that for God, goodness is defined by one’s sacrifice for another, Jesus and His sacrifice for us being unquestionably the ultimate model.

We don’t know these things because we haven’t been taught them. And so, from ignorance, we deem ourselves “good” on whatever basis suits us. And having assumed that mantle, we deride, disdain and even persecute those who don’t agree with whatever opinions we may hold.

This is the state of modern society in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s time for some education to take place, if it’s not too late.

[i] The Wall Street Journal, Friday, May 17, 2019, “A New Take on the Apostle Paul”, p A13