Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Good must We be to be Good Enough?

In the reception following a heady symposium on ethics, I met a playwright. She surprised me, saying, “The motivation behind liberal ethics is our misguided quest to quiet the conscience.”

“How do you mean that?”
I asked. She seemed to be a liberal herself, so I was taken back by her transparency.

“We have to do good to quiet our guilty consciences. This is made even worse by the privileges that we enjoy as educated Westerners.” I was impressed by her bleak, yet penetrating analysis.

“How many good deeds would you need to quiet your conscience?
” I asked. Again, I was surprised by her response: “Always a little bit more!” She clearly realized that the conscience is insatiable. There is no amount of good deeds that will quiet it. Shame and guilt seem almost impervious to the most profound self-sacrifices. These emotions are never satisfied. They serve as unrelenting taskmasters compelling us to always do more. No sacrifice will suffice, at least not for long.

We try to convince ourselves that God will grade on a curve. We might figure that if the top 70% will get a passing grade, we can self-righteously assure ourselves that we have made the cut. Ironically, while we justify ourselves in this manner, we are in effect compelled to de-justify what we find in others! It’s not good enough to score “90%,” if half of the class scored higher.

Another version of this rationalization is the one adopted by Islam. If our good deeds outweigh the bad, we’ll make it in. However, we still find that our conscience remains adamant that there’s a serious problem even when the good seems to predominate. Consequently, it is impossible to experience any authentically joyful confidence. We are still endlessly trying to prove ourselves, often at the expense of others.

Scripture helps us understand why our conscience remains so implacable. It might be a surprise for us to learn that the Apostle Paul affirmed that, in agreement with our conscience, we can never be good enough:

• [The] purpose [of the law] is to keep people from having excuses and to bring the entire world into judgment before God. For no one can ever be made right in God's sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God's law, the clearer it becomes that we aren't obeying it
(Romans 3:19-20; NLT).

In many ways, we all fall far short of God’s standards (James 3:2; Romans 3:23; Psalm 143:2). Although it is truly depressing to learn that we can never be good enough for God, this revelation seems to accord with our ceaseless self-indictment of guilt and shame, or the more prevailing sense that we’re simply not good enough.

Once again, let’s look to Paul to see what light he can shed on our pride:

• If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing
(1 Cor. 13:2-3, NIV).

However exalted our ethical standards, we’re no better than others. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior, and no sacrificial act we could possibly dream up can change this, even if we pay the ultimate price with our own life.

This is terribly offensive to most of us. We have convinced ourselves that we are more deserving than others, and this teaching is just too humbling and depressing to bear. However, this seems to be the uniform indictment of Scripture! The only way we can receive salvation is as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). It just cannot be earned or achieved. Interestingly, our conscience agrees. Even Israel’s greatest king came to realize that His blessedness was a matter of the mercy of God. David wrote autobiographically:

• Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit
(Psalm 32:1-2).

However, this message is not only offensive, but it seems to us to be unbelievable, as well. From our own myopic perspectives, humanity just doesn’t seem to be so bad, at least among our colleagues, family and friends. Certainly not bad enough to deserve eternal separation from God! We erroneously come to this conclusion because, on the one hand, we fail to apprehend the extent of our own sinfulness. On the other hand, we have no true conception or appreciation for the awesomeness of a God who created and sustains everything. We characteristically want to domesticate Him and remake Him in our own image. We want to diminish God’s holiness and His holy requirements to assure ourselves of our own worthiness.

Ah, but there most certainly is another way to live our lives. I freely and joyfully confess that I now embrace the “unbelievable!” Let me share with you what I mean.

Five highly recommended psychologists and psychiatrists each tried their best to free me from my accusing conscience. They tried building my self-esteem; they tried psychoanalysis; they tried unblocking my emotional channels. They even tried prescribing the latest neurological “wonder” drugs. However, each of their therapies left me worse off than I was before.

Instead, I’ve come to find that my Savior has the perfect answer. He has silenced my conscience with His blood. He has taken upon Himself the just penalty that I rightly deserved. I can never be good enough for Him. I can never deserve the slightest smile or “thank you” from Him. However, by admitting my hopeless predicament, He joyfully gives me all things! Encouraged in this manner, I want to engage His world in a way that pleases Him!

When my conscience starts to make its tired old accusations, I laugh through my tears of joy. He has convinced me that I no longer bear my sins, although it took a while for this truth to permeate my being:

• To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free"
(John 8:31-32).

Freedom comes at a price, but He paid the price in full. I now have every confidence that He will continue to protect His investment – me!

I didn’t have an opportunity to share any of this with the playwright. She was gone before I could piece my answer together. I wanted to tell her, “You are so right. Morality will never satisfy guilt and shame. They are realities that laugh at all of our attempts to placate them. They remain indictments against all of our self-righteous attempts to eliminate them. They taunt every act of self-sacrifice and all the monuments of self-importance that we attempt to erect as tributes to ourselves. But, if we listen carefully to their denunciations, they will point us to His freedom.”

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