Friday, October 21, 2016

Aren't We Inherently Good?

A few weeks ago, as we approached the end of our Church–y Words series of forums, we discussed the topic of sin. That would usually be a very uncomfortable subject, but we had a very edifying conversation by taking a general approach to it. Still, sin is never easy to talk about, and one of the questions asked by someone in attendance shows why. The question was, “Aren’t we inherently good?”

This is not a common question. Few people actually ask it. Far more often, they simply assume the affirmative. To the average person, it does not even seem worth asking. Sure, there are a few bad nuts out there, but for the most part people are good. We might mess up occasionally, but in our souls we want to do the right thing and help people out. So we have nothing to worry about.

That begs a few questions, though. For one, are you sure? For another, does our everyday experience bear it out? And lastly, if you take the Bible as having any type of authority, then does it teach that human beings are inherently good? There is no obvious dividing line between these questions, of course. But we will try to work them out.

Live and Let Live

So to begin with, what makes people so sure that humans are good? In general, it is an argument from the absence of evidence. One of the rules of society is “live and let live.” We are fine with most people just so long as they leave us alone. And that is easy. No one knows everyone. If you think about your average day, how many people do you interact with in any way? On the road, at the office, in the store, at home, wherever. Now of all of them, how many do you really know? With how many do you have a relationship?

I am certain there are a few, but they are a fraction of the whole. It is the same for all of us. Most of them are “good” so long as they don’t get in our way. Things start to get a little hazier the better we know them, though. Think about some of your coworkers, and your friends and family. You know they can be good, but you also know the ways they can be annoying. For some, those closest to them are downright cruel. We only learn this through the time we spend with them and experience the impact of their varying levels of selfishness.

My point in saying all of this is to call for a bit of perspective. The people we know have a capacity to harm us, to different degrees. They are, in a very strict sense, evil (which sounds harsh, but follow me here). We can extrapolate from that realization to see that other people are also not good. Not all the time. If we knew them better, we would see how that is true.

Basically Good

So we should not be so sure that people are inherently good. But wait, you might say. Everyone is capable of doing the wrong thing, sure. And they all do on occasion. What if they are mostly good, though? Aren’t we mostly good?

Well, that wasn’t the original question, but we can approach it anyway. Since I’m the one writing this, though, I am going to take the liberty of answering your questioning of my question with a question (try saying that five times fast). What is your definition of “goodness?” How do you decide what makes a person good or bad? Or, what gives you the right to decide? If each of us gets to set the standard, it is wholly subjective. Which means, it is not worth very much. It is just a way for us to label others according to the way we feel about them.

And that leads us to a further important point in all of this. Our standard for goodness is usually ourselves. Few people think of themselves as bad. It is a comparative morality. We look around to see what other people are doing, or have done. People who generally act like us are “good,” reaffirming our self-perception. And we can feel even better about ourselves by finding a few people whom we are “better than.” “Sure, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not Hitler!” “It could be worse. It’s not like I’m eating people!” Absurd examples to prove the absurdity of the premise. Saying people are mostly good is saying they are mostly like us. It is our way of comforting ourselves that we are mostly good, particularly in comparison to a few rotten apples. And that means we don’t have to go to the trouble of changing anything.

If we are honest about it, though, it doesn’t hold up. We all do selfish things. Anytime you put yourself ahead of others, or put short-term gratification ahead of long-term good, you are behaving badly. It is, sadly, part of being human. That does not make it right.

We cannot be the measure of goodness, because we know we often do the wrong thing. That means, there is a standard outside of ourselves. There is a measure for perfection, which we cannot attain, and to which we are accountable. We often strive toward it, but find ourselves unable to reach it. Inherently, we want to be good. But also, we want to be bad more. Otherwise, we never would be. So that means, there is evil in all our hearts.


Well, that’s a downer. And actually, we aren’t done yet. But I do think I need to offer some encouragement right now. I’m not saying all of this to make you feel bad about yourself. Or at least, I am not trying to make you hopeless. We do have to be honest, but if I am just pointing out flaws, then I am engaged in the same type of comparative morality that I am condemning, and this is just about me proving that I am better than you. And I’m not. We are all in this together. Fortunately, there is hope. We simply have to look in the right place.

The Biblical Battle

For now, though, back to the less-than good news. By observing ourselves and others, we find that we are not inherently good. Nor are we even mostly good, in comparison to the standard of perfection that we perceive outside ourselves. If we then look to the Bible, we find it saying the same things. There is a standard for goodness, flowing from the character and will of God. And we do not live up to it. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), “There is none who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:1–3), “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). We are far from perfect, and it stains us. It leaves us unacceptable to God. And it is part of each one of us. There is evil in us all.

We have to be aware of that. There is an additional element of great importance, though. The biblical perspective is that, yes, we are inherently evil. We do not and cannot live up to God’s desire for us. We all sin. But the Bible is also clear that we are inherently good. It is not precisely and “either/or” proposition. We are certainly flawed, but “flawed” is a key word.  We were intended to be something else. Initially, we were supposed to be like God (Genesis 1:26, 27). We still retain part of that reflection, which means there is still good intrinsic to us. It is obscured by the bad, but it is there.

What we have, then, is a war. In each of us, there is a battle between good and evil. But it is not one we can win on our own. There is no such thing as “basically good” or “more good than bad.” It is not like there is some great cosmic ledger and so long as we have more in the nice column that in the naughty, God is going to be all right with us. He isn’t Santa. Remember, His standard is perfection. If we fall short of that at all, then He will not accept us. He sees us as evil because we are not like Him, as He made us to be.

The Biblical Answer

This, however, is where the real hope finally comes in. We cannot do anything to make things right. But God, though He is just, is also love. In spite of the separation caused by our sin, He still loves us and desires for us to achieve the potential He purposed at the beginning. He does not simply leave us to the fate our actions deserve. Instead, He paid the price Himself by taking on our sin and being the sacrifice for it (2 Corinthians 5:21). Only trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of sin can conquer the evil in you and me. But thank God, it is more than enough to conquer all of it.

So, are we inherently good? From a certain perspective, yes. We are good in the ways we resemble God, and we all do so partially. But we cannot rest on that because we are also inherently evil, and we cannot overcome it alone. If you think you are “basically good,” then know that everything outside of “basically” is more than enough to drag you down. It doesn’t matter how much worse your neighbor is. God uses Himself as the standard when considering your case. So unless you think you are as good as God, you need God to step in for you. And if you have already asked Him to, then you need to tell others about it, as well. Plenty of people think they are good enough. It would be hateful to let them continue in that delusion.

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