Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Good Deeds without Truth: The Consequences of Do-Goodism

Do we have to choose between the two? Doesn’t virtue and truth go together? Not according to some, who think we can do good deeds without the necessary theological underpinning. However, according to Scripture, good deeds arise from a theology-fed heart. Giving grows out of gratefulness, and gratefulness from the understanding that we have a lot of reasons to be grateful. Gratefulness might not be the only foundation stone, but it’s an essential one. Paul instructs Titus:

• “And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:8)

What are “these things” that Titus must instruct his flock? We need to know the full extent of our riches in Christ:

• “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

Jesus’ mercy is totally undeserved and not at all dependent upon the things we had done or even our spiritual heart. We need to reject the twisted theology that strokes our pride by insisting that God chose us because He knew that we – being more spiritual than others – would respond positively to His gracious overtures. It is the reverse that is true – God purposely chose us when we were total failures so that we wouldn’t have any basis for boasting (1 Cor. 1:26-30).

Sadly, we often take these incredible words for granted and live our lives as if our ultimate home is the here-and-now and our salvation is a matter of our own goodness. Therefore, Paul begins his admonition by exhorting Titus to remember the absolute sewer we were living in when Christ rescued us:

• “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3)

Many Christians might consider this depressing. Why must we always rehearse our folly and failures? Don’t we need to be positive and not negative? However, Biblical revelation insists that there are things we need to rehearse if we are to understand the mercy of Christ with poignancy and excitement. When we acknowledge how undeserving we are of anything good from God, our hearts are revived to the glory and grace of what we have been given.

Biblically speaking, good works aren’t merely the product of self-control and the strenuous exertion of the will, but of the Holy Spirit who elucidates Biblical truths. Virtue depends upon theological, Spirit-led elucidation. Otherwise, our virtue tends to go to our heads, and we begin to look down on others (Luke 18:9). Today, we have little appreciation for humility, but the ancients realized that its absence bred negative consequences (Proverbs 11:2; 13:10; 16:18). It was therefore imperative for Israel to never forget their humble beginnings:

• “After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deut. 9:4-6)

Forgetting this valuable lesson would inevitably enable Israel to believe that they were better and more entitled than other peoples. This, in turn, would produce pride and arrogance – something that God found detestable. Boasting in our own successes is bad enough, but if God is the author of these successes, boasting becomes even more repugnant. Without an appreciation of the fact that all good things come from God, whatever virtuous acts we perform are evil and self-serving at their core. Besides, arrogance bears seeds of its own destruction.

For their own well-being, Israel needed to rehearse the precious revelation of their unworthiness. Moses helped them in this regard. He continued to assault Israel with lengthy lists of their failures to keep them humble and dependent upon their God.

Humility is the mother of virtue, but humility must be suckled by theological instruction. Rehearsing of our rags-to-riches story – the mercies of our Savior – is imperative to produce the right climate to bear virtuous fruits.

What happens when we lack this doctrinal underpinning? What if we just decide to live our lives to do good? For one thing, it can produce a lot of poisonous fruit – arrogance, pride, and an entitlement mentality. Before Heinrich Himmler laid the foundation for what later became Hitler’s SS, and before he became one of history’s worst murderers, he had been a moralistic do-gooder. In his History of the SS, G.S. Graber writes:

• “There is ample evidence in his diaries that Himmler most earnestly wanted to be a ‘good boy.’ He would turn with alacrity to the performance of good works, visiting the sick, doing favors for people…When any of Himmler’s fellow students fell ill, they found in him a diligent and sympathetic visitor. He would run errands for them and their families. Just causes found his ever-ready support. He also acted in a benefit play for underprivileged Viennese children.” (10-11)

Were Himmler’s good works entirely disconnected with his legacy of genocide? Can our estimation of ourselves as “good and deserving people” contribute to the flip-side – evil? Can this identity enable us to commit acts that normally we wouldn’t do? Did Himmler’s self-identity as a “good person” give him the leverage to override his conscience and commit abominations?

The example of the Khmer Rouge (Reds) and their determination to establish a communistic workers’ paradise might shed some light on this question. Their very obvious sacrificial devotion to their “good” cause had even won a number of serious Buddhist monks into their ranks. The monks had an understandable respect for sacrificial discipline – the very thing they were finding among the Khmer Rouge. Their leader, Pol Pot, exemplified this quality as had many other communist luminaries, including Lenin:

• “In describing Pol Pot, a former companion of his appropriated the celebrated remark made by Axelrod about Lenin: that he was ‘the only man who had no thoughts but thoughts about the revolution, and who in his sleep dreamt of the revolution.’” (“The Tragedy of Cambodian History,” David P. Chandler, 239)

We may disagree with Pol Pot and Lenin, but these men were so committed to their ideal of the “good,” that they were willing to sacrifice themselves, and consequently others. It’s amazing how glibly the do-gooder can talk about the use of terror. Lenin was forthright about how the “bourgeoisie must be actively oppressed…

• The state is a special organization of force; it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” (David Noebel, Understanding the Times, 284)

How could the Communists resort to violence with such ease? They had convinced themselves that they were agents of the good and were therefore entitled to subjugate others! While the communists broadly exhibited unfailing devotion to their vision, the Nazis also labored tirelessly for their ideal of a “great” society. However, we don’t have to look overseas to see that the drive to perform the virtuous, without the necessary theological foundation, can lead to some bad fruit. In my fifteen years working for the NYC Department of Probation, I observed a number of people who labored sacrificially to put into place good programs for youth and other offenders. However, success – even moral success – has a way of going to our heads, and these devoted people often became quite poisonous to the others around them.

Conversely, humbling experiences can make us act more humanely, at least for a time. One co-worker often verbally abused his subordinates. However, over the course of years, he had been arrested several times on minor offenses. Interestingly, right after these arrests, his behavior improved dramatically. For a brief period, at least, he didn’t feel entitled to abuse others. While a high regard for our virtue and self-importance can inflate our egos, humbling circumstances can bring us back to reality.

We nod our heads in agreement that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Such power exalts us in importance above others, but our “good deeds” achieve the same thing. What if we regard ourselves as morally superior to others? Why do we find such a strong connection between “do-goodism” and the Killing Fields of human history? For one thing, when we perceive that we are good and devoted to our virtuous cause, we tend to develop an entitlement mentality, justifying violence, because we believe we are better than they. We convince ourselves that we have earned the right to impose our ideals on them.

My years with probation taught me that those who commit domestic violence are convinced that they are the good ones in the relationship, and it’s all their mate’s fault. Conquerors have little problem convincing themselves of their superiority and that they are doing something good by annexing others’ lands, thereby spreading their “civilization” to “inferior” peoples. We Americans justified our expansionism with the philosophy of “manifest destiny.” The Japanese and the Germans did the same thing. In fact, it’s almost a rule of thumb that when a nation becomes rich, powerful, and self-assured, they feel entitled to dominate others, if not exterminate them.

Our sense of superiority can come in many forms. The theory of evolution led us to believe that Caucasians were the ultimate in an evolutionary march toward our ultimate destiny. This idea of our superiority entitled us to treat the “inferior” races with contempt, as evolutionist Karl Giberson has written:

• “How shocking it is today to acknowledge that virtually every educated person in the Western culture at the time …shared Haeckel’s [racist, Darwinist] ideas. Countless atrocities around the globe were rationalized by the belief that superior races were improving the planet by exterminating defective elements…there can be little doubt that such viewpoints muted voices that would otherwise have been raised in protest.” (“Saving Darwin”)

Regarding ourselves as members of a “superior” race can enable us to override the voice of our conscience. Consequently, when I hear mention of a new utopian idea, I see scenes of death and enslavement.

I’ve digressed from the point – that good deeds, without the necessary theological underpinning, can breed pride and eventually, victimization. In fact, any sense of superiority can do this. However, Biblical faith rules decisively against such thinking. This is one reason why we shouldn’t denigrate theology.

Surprisingly, even Christians are now expressing contempt for theology and believe that true virtue, in God’s estimation, can exist apart from Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6). They have embraced a false dichotomy that says, “It’s about how we treat others and the quality of our relationships and not about our doctrines.” However, this piece of dogma doesn’t stand up to Biblical scrutiny. It’s not a matter of either doctrine or love, but both doctrine and love, together! Similarly, love cannot exist apart from truth. To separate love and virtue from truth is to separate a tree from its roots.

Let’s try to bring this issue closer to home – knowing that He saved me, not because I did anything to deserve it, but purely on the basis of His grace, humbles me and prevents me from looking down on others. Christian theology compels me toward the good and castigates me when I treat others with contempt. I’ve learned that every good thing comes as a gracious gift, as proof of His love for me (James 1:17; 1 Cor. 4:6-7). Consequently, my good deeds are not my self-enhancing gift to the world, but God’s gift to me. How then can I be proud!

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