It’s at the beginning of a familiar conversation that we hear Jesus make a remarkable statement - Mark 10:17-22 : 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. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
“No one is good except God alone.” And we learn that our qualification to enter eternal life only begins with obedience to God’s commands. What we find is a complete and absolute surrender of everything to be with Jesus and like Jesus in everything. You see, goodness isn’t a qualification, because you will never be good enough.
Goodness is that quality that is at the very heart of the nature of God. One of David’s psalms describes the goodness of God in such powerful terms – Ps 145. He talks about God’s goodness in terms of his holiness and majesty and creative power, but then he speaks of God’s goodness in terms of his caring and provision and compassion toward his people. And it is this dual nature of goodness that we see in God.
Because it is the nature of God, Paul tells us in Galatians 5 that it is one of those qualities you will find becoming more and more your nature as you allow the Spirit of God to sow the seed and reap the fruit of goodness in your life.
As in so many of the Christ-like qualities, though, I have to realign my faulty, worldly definition to one that comes from God’s word. If we continue to allow goodness to remain undefined or mis-defined, we do injustice to one of the greatest fruits of the Spirit.
Not just the world, but even Christians have defined “goodness” as “don’t do this, don’t do that” – it is the absence of bad and evil.
By that definition, nearly everyone is “good” most of the time. We look at somebody who minds his own business and doesn’t run around on his wife and brings home his paycheck and stays out of trouble and we call him a “good ol’ boy.” The world calls him good, because you can’t really call him “bad.”
But how good is good enough? You see, the problem is that goodness is not measured on a sliding scale. We’re not comparing ourselves to others, who may or may not be better or worse than us. We must see goodness as it is portrayed in the Bible as a quality of and from God. When Paul describes goodness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, he’s not telling us to compare ourselves with God but to imitate God.
When the Bible describes God as good it isn’t as a scale of virtue where God is at the top and we’re somewhere down the scale from him. Goodness describes a quality of life that involves two dimensions which combined show us the nature of God.
Goodness must display: Moral excellence or holiness - combined with and tempered by – Generosity and compassion
We would certainly expect to find this notion of moral excellence or righteousness or right living in any definition of goodness.
Peter tells us, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48).
Because of God’s holiness, any virtue or activity which honors him or serves his purpose would, by definition, have to be honorable and upright. Nothing evil can be called “good.” We can’t imagine an activity that is sinful or even questionable being pleasing to God – and it won’t measure up to our definition of goodness or find a place in our life.
None of us could expect to be a liar or a thief or a cheater and be “good” by God’s definition. Nor can there be the hint of immorality or unfaithfulness and be called “good” by God. Goodness and evil are polar opposites. Goodness is the nature of God – evil is the nature of Satan. Where evil exists, goodness will not abide. Where goodness has taken up residence, evil retreats. “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” (3 Jn 11).
We have traditionally thought that we could legislate and regulate goodness by creating rules to enforce goodness. The truth is that goodness comes, not because we’ve made enough rules to keep us from violating God’s law, but because we have so focused our eyes on God that he becomes our heart’s desire. Our pursuit of goodness is a natural overflow of desiring God. And if we are having trouble establishing and maintaining this moral excellence it is because we have taken our eyes off of God. We are good, not because of rules but because our heart belongs to God.
Now, when we switch gears and examine goodness through the lens of generosity and compassion, we see many examples where the Bible speaks of God’s goodness to his people in reference to blessings of good things, his goodness in caring for and protecting his weak and helpless flock, his goodness in providing the necessities of life.
A couple examples give us the sense of this: “How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” (Ps 116:12-14).
Nehemiah described God’s goodness to his people – providing for their needs, blessing them over and over, but how tragically they did not respond to God’s goodness:
“They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness…. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.” (Neh. 9:25,35).
God’s goodness is the expression of God’s love for his people – he is the father who gives and provides what his children need – and his blessings are often in spite of our ingratitude and lack of response.
I like the way Haddon Robinson expressed this thought: “With God the calf is always the fatted calf; the robe is always the best robe; the joy is unspeakable; and the peace passes understanding. There is no grudging in God’s goodness. He does not measure His goodness by drops like a druggist filling a prescription. It comes to us in floods. If only we recognized the lavish abundance of His gifts, what a difference it would make in our lives.”
If we are to imitate this goodness of God, we must be involved in seeking out and meeting the needs of people around us. Goodness means we take people where they are at, and love them in spite of their unlovability.
Both/and, not either/or
The difficulty comes when we try to combine these two dimensions into one quality, because we often see them as contradictory.
From our human perspective, on the one hand, goodness and holiness imply a harshness and uncompromising refusal to make allowances for anyone’s shortcomings. The Pharisees are examples of righteousness without compassion. They exalted the law and prided themselves on keeping it precisely and without compromise. But how many times did Jesus condemn them because they lacked God’s heart for people. They demanded holiness, but they lacked compassion. They might have been holy, but they were not good.
On the other hand, we often tend to lean in the other direction. We see goodness as caring for needs and mercy toward the shortcomings of others. And when we look at goodness only through the lens of compassion, we tend to ignore or blur God’s call to holiness – we become soft on sin, our own and others’. We are merciful, but we are not good.
Can we combine the two together in such a way that we exhibit both dimensions and still be true to the spiritual quality we are called to in Christ? The Bible tells us, not only that we can, but we must, if we are to be good as God is good.
No one can be called good who does not display in her life a moral excellence – a person who lives with integrity and honesty. But I have known many Christians who, like the Pharisees, were righteous in their own personal conduct, but very harsh and even contemptuous of other people who fell short of their standards. And if that is the case, then they could not be called good – there is something missing.
The truly good person is one who strives to live righteously without being self-righteous. He’s urgent to defend the truth without leaving the impression that he alone possesses all of it. He lives separate from sin, without setting himself up as the judge of others. If he has to tell someone they are lost in sin, he has tears in his eyes when he confronts them.
What I am saying is the good man is the one who can hold on to the standard of holiness which God has set, and yet be compassionate enough to hurt with those who fail to live up to it.
And that is the catch -- If we stress the love of God without the holiness of God, it turns out to be compromise. But if we stress the holiness of God without the love of God, we practice something that is hard and unforgiving.
Goodness is the quality that holds these two dimensions in tandem and tempers one with the other. Goodness shapes not only my own behavior, but how I react to the behavior of others. It is a combination that could only be found in God and developed by his Spirit.
Perhaps it would help us to see this quality with greater clarity if we put some flesh and bones on it. Luke tells us of a Christian man named Barnabas. In Acts 11:24, Luke says of him, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” (I hope you don’t miss the close connection that is evident between this goodness and the Holy Spirit).
The first time we meet Barnabas is in Jerusalem during the earliest days of the church – Acts 4:34-37 “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
The next time is in Acts 9. Saul has just become a Christian, but the Christians are terrified of him – except for Barnabas: “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9:26-27).
When we next find Barnabas, he and Paul are working together as missionaries in Asia Minor. They have spent nearly a year spreading the good news of Jesus. During that first missionary journey, a young man named John-Mark had accompanied them (this is the same Mark who authored the third Gospel). But a few weeks into the journey, Mark got discouraged and went home. When it came time to make a return trip, Barnabas wanted to take Mark, but Paul refused because Mark had deserted them. Barnabas stood his ground and he took Mark with him, while Paul went his separate way. Barnabas championed the cause of those who needed a second chance.
Look closely at this “good” man Barnabas. He was generous in behalf of the needy. He had credibility among the disciples because of his own personal character. He was an encourager and a man of forgiveness. He was an evangelistic man. These are not qualities that stand apart from “goodness” but they identify the specific ways in which goodness demonstrated itself in his life. It was God who made Barnabas good, not Barnabas.
When we turn back to this morning’s scripture reading in Mark 10, we see a rich young ruler, with a desire to be right, but needing to give more than he was willing to give of himself. I see in this rich young man’s confrontation with Jesus, a striving after acceptance, acceptance for who he was and what he had accomplished. Instead, Jesus challenges his very definition of acceptability. You see, this young man thought goodness was the necessary element for acceptance, and he approaches Jesus and says, “Good teacher.” He thought they had something in common, and when Jesus mentions the commandments, he had followed them all from his youth. In his estimation, they were good, both he and Jesus. He was startled when Jesus said, “Why do you call me good?” Jesus is not denying his own goodness, in fact, he is making a strong comment on his own deity. But what Jesus is saying to this young man is that he has misjudged goodness. Here you are trying to qualify for eternal life on the basis of goodness, when the very quality you see as goodness, in comparison with God, is no cause for pride at all. His goodness was inadequate.
I’m not so sure we’re much different – we come before Jesus with our above average lives and say “Look at me, I’m a good ol’ boy, isn’t that enough?” And sadly, Jesus will say to us, “One thing you lack.”
It isn’t by your goodness that you will stand righteous before God. Your goodness isn’t good enough. It wasn’t intended for that purpose. We are created for, not saved by our goodness.
Are you tired of trying to be “good enough?” You’re not alone in that struggle. Paul described his own struggle in Romans 7:18-20 “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
If that were where it ended, it would be a pathetic state – but he finished by writing in verses 24-25 “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
When it is not you but the Holy Spirit, it is not a constant drain trying to be good, trying to be something you’re not, in the process it becomes your very nature. Your goodness is God’s goodness – and that’s good enough.
An old rabbinic story is told of a young man who went to a wise old rabbi in his community to inquire of him about the right way to live. The wise man led him down to a river, and the two of them walked some distance out into it. The young man, perhaps thinking that some sort of purification ritual was about to take place, did not question the old man. After they reached a certain depth in the river, the old man took hold of the younger man, pushed him under the surface and held his head submerged! The young man began to struggle with all his might to escape, to get his head above the water. Seconds ticked by and the young man grew desperate and finally managed to free himself from the older man’s grip and thrust his head above the surface. As he gulped in the precious air, the wise man asked, “When you thought you were about to drown, what did you want more than anything else?” “Air!” the young man gasped. Then the older man replied, “When you want righteousness as much as you wanted air just now, then it will become a possibility, but not one second before.”