The Danger of Being Good

(All Scripture quotes are from the New King James Version

unless otherwise noted.)

Perhaps you have read Dr. James Dobson’s book, The Strong-Willed Child. Do you remember that he also referred to another type of child--the compliant child--in that book? The compliant child is the one who seeks to please while his strong-willed sibling is bent on having his own way.

I was, for the most part, a compliant child, and therefore the lessons I’ve needed to learn are those that will probably apply to other compliant children more than to the strong-willed ones.

Most people probably think we compliant children are good little boys and girls who don’t need much "preaching at." In fact, I have seldom heard sermons geared to our particular issues. Except, that is, when Jesus or Paul are the preachers! Jesus and Paul have a lot to say to us.

In John 16:7-15 Jesus is telling His disciples that it is to their advantage for Him to go away so that the Helper will come. Then He says, "And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment"(John.16:8).

I looked up the Greek word for convict in Zodhiates’ Complete Word Study Dictionary-New Testament and it is elegcho (Strong’s #1651): "meaning to convict, to show to be wrong, Followed by peri (#4012), meaning "concerning" in Jn.16:8." So Jesus was saying the Holy Spirit would show the world they were wrong concerning sin, but also that they were wrong concerning righteousness.

How can we be wrong concerning righteousness? I believe Paul tells us in Romans 10:3-10: "For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them.’ But the righteousness of faith…what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’" Paul then reiterates this to the "Galatian" in us: "Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? …Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness"(Galatians 3:3,6).

To generalize then, the strong-willed child is wrong concerning sin. She needs to be shown the truth about sin. But the compliant child is wrong concerning righteousness. She needs to be shown the truth about righteousness.

I knew how to be good. (I feel compelled to italicize good, for "No one is good but One, that is, God"[Mt.19:17]. I am speaking of good in the way the world uses that word.) I could see that pleasing my parents and my teachers and my friends earned me a place of acceptance with them. Being good became addictive because it made me feel good about myself as addictions do, at least for a season. When I came to God, then, I brought my addiction to being good with me. Oh, I set it down temporarily to enter in by faith--much like you put your hand-held luggage on the conveyer belt at the airport on your way to your departure gate--but I picked it up again after passing through and hitched it up onto my shoulders like the baggage that it was.

It was when Jesus gave me a fresh baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11) that my Helper began to burn this addiction to "being good" or "trying to be righteous in my own strength" out of me. This is important. If the Holy Spirit hadn’t come to show me I was wrong concerning righteousness, I wouldn’t have known it in my heart (John 7:38-39)--even though I might have had some understanding of it in my head. The Holy Spirit is a good little girl’s (or boy’s) only hope for freedom from her own "good."

What is so bad about being good? It seems the main thing is that it keeps me relying on myself rather than relying on my Lord. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Galatians 3:6) and without this believing faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). I didn’t have what it takes--that’s why I needed to be born again from above. Now I do have what it takes--Christ in me (Colossians 1:27b), the Holy Spirit whom Jesus described as "streams of living water flowing from within" (John 7:38-39). If I still insist on being good in my own strength, I am sabotaging God’s grace.

But there are also many other things wrong with it. If I keep trying to "be good" I will either succeed--at least in the eyes of the world--and become self-righteous or fail and become "guiltified" (frozen by guilt--but you won’t find it in the dictionary!). I will probably do both.

If I keep trying to "be good" I will get very tired and eventually give up or give out.

I will misinform other believers--especially new ones--and "bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders" (Mt.23:4) as I do on myself.

I will do my good deeds to be seen by men (Matthew 23:5). I will hide my darkness within me for to confess and repent would make me look bad (Matthew 23: 27-28). I will be vulnerable to the temptations to judge others, to gossip, to compete in religious arenas, etc. I will be an easy target for the accuser’s condemnation.

I will be trapped in a confining space for "being good" keeps me on a very short leash.

And I will miss the experience of grace, mercy, joy, peace, love, power and all the abundant life that Jesus purchased for me. This is truly taking His Name in vain—calling myself Christ’s but not living by what Christ made available to me. Paul said of himself, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me"(I Corinthians 15:10). (Italics mine.) He also said, "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain"(NKJ),"for nothing" (NIV) (Galatians 2:21).

It is no easy thing to overcome an addiction to being good. In a way, it is like having an addiction to food whereas an addiction to more obvious sin is like having an addiction to alcohol. The alcohol is something that can have a very strong hold on a person, but it can also be avoided. You can keep it out of the house and stay away from the bars, for example. But food can’t be avoided. You have to have it around and eat it on a regular basis. As believers we know that we are to do good. The key, though, is to learn to do it not by might nor by power but by the Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). If we have succeeded in doing good by our own efforts, learning to be led by the Spirit instead doesn’t "feel" right. It certainly doesn’t always seem to "look" right.

I might as well just admit that I used to have trouble with the way Jesus often did things in the Gospels. For instance, He said things like, "You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs--beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. You try to look like upright people outwardly, but inside your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 28: 27-28, NLB). This kind of talk did not fit into my criteria for being good, which included the philosophy "If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all." After all, the reason I’d adopted the "be good" strategy in the first place was that it made me pleasing and acceptable to other people. Talking the way Jesus talked certainly wouldn’t achieve that goal!

If what I think is being good doesn’t square with what Jesus did, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of us is off base. How did Jesus know when it was good to be compassionate and encouraging and when it was good to be confrontational?

In John 5:19 Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." In John 8:28 He says, "…I do nothing on My own but speak just what the Father has taught Me." In other words, Jesus offered Himself to be led by the Spirit, just as we are instructed to do. Luke 12:12: "…for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say." John 16:13a: "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth." I Corinthians 2:10-11: "…God has revealed it to us by His Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."

Being good allows me to remain dangerously self-sufficient. But knowing that "No one is good but One, that is, God" brings me to a desperate dependency upon Him to be the Good within me. And that is exactly what He is: "This is the name by which He will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness"(Jeremiah 23:6b).

I can’t finish this until I quote the first part of Philippines 3 from The Message:

"…all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, first-hand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant--dog dung. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by Him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ--God's righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally..."

There you have it.