Goodness

Over on the “Et Tu?” blog, Jen made a post about a month ago that I wanted to address (I know, I know; I’m a procrastinator; I’m working on it). The post was titled “Why I’m a better person now that I’m a Christian.” Here’s some of her explanation:

…when I heard people say things like, “I’m a better person since I found God,” it struck me as selfish. Why not be a good person either way? Why does it take some “God” and perhaps the carrot stick of an eternal payoff to motivate you to do good things?

But now that I’m one of those people who bores others with my own talk of being a better person since becoming a Christian, I see statements like that in a different light. I have a new perspective that resulted from the conversion of heart that accompanied my intellectual conversion.

I think that I am a much better wife, mother, friend, daughter, and person than I used to be before I was religious (and word on the street is that my friends and family would agree).

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day I woke up and realized that I had a love for my fellow human beings that didn’t used to be there. I never thought that things like cynicism, biting sarcasm, and criticism of others were wrong, and I never intended to change those areas of my personality…yet I found that the longer I was involved in Christianity the less room there was in my heart for them. They were slowly edged out by profound peace, joy, and love.

Now that I’m a Christian, I work hard at becoming a better person — being kind to others, helping people in need, forgiving those who have wronged me, putting others first — not out of eagerness for an eternal payoff, but out of love.

I don’t know Jen personally, but I am positive that she is a better person since becoming a Christian. She’s not sure exactly what happened, just like most Christians can’t precisely describe how God works in their lives. He is infinite and eternal, after all, and if you thought calculus was hard, try getting a handle on that. But I think we can understand God better by further exploring the subject of how He makes us better.

Let’s start out by breaking things down as simply as possible: What do we mean when we say “better”? I think we can safely say that “better” means “more good.” So, what do we mean by “good”? Why are some things good and others bad, and what makes good things good?

I’m not talking about good like butterscotch brownies or Jackie Chan movies. I mean things that are fundamentally, universally good, like loyalty, generosity, and love. Why do we consider those good?

“Well, that’s a stupid question,” you say. “They’re good just because they are.” Well, not necessarily. In a cosmic, metaphysical sense, there’s no reason we should value those qualities above any others. They’re not necessarily more valuable or practical. You can make a reasonable argument that love leads to pain just as often as joy, that selfishness is more beneficial than sacrifice. Certainly a lot of people act like that’s the case. But no parents teach their kids to grow up hateful and selfish (not on purpose, anyway). Nobody admires those qualities in other people, because they’re not good.

So, we’re still left with the question, “What makes good things good?” If you’re not tired of reading this post already, speculate with me for a minute:

Let’s stipulate, just for the sake of argument, that the world was created by a Creator. And let’s assume that this Creator was God, just because that’s the first creator I could think of. It would be safe to assume, I think, that anything created by God would carry his fingerprints. Just like you can tell the difference between a Picasso and a Monet by the style of the painting, if God is a distinct, independent intelligence, you should be able to see His style in His creation.

Style isn’t something that you have to think about; it’s a revelation of your personality. When I write something, I don’t wonder, “What would Jason say about this?” I just write what comes to mind. When I buy clothes or furniture, I don’t have to stop and think, “What would Jason like?”
I just prefer some things over others. I think that those things are “good.” But they’re not good in an absolute sense; they’re just good to me. Since other people might have different preferences, they wouldn’t necessarily say my style is good, but they would say that it is indicative of my unique personality. Or, to say the same thing in a shorthand way, they’d say it’s “very Jason.”

If I created a universe, I would create one that was “very Jason.” The things that I liked would be the things that were considered “good,” and the beings that I created in my image would rejoice in those things like I do. And it would be that way not because I thought about it, but because it was a reflection of my nature as the creator. In my universe, 1 Corinthians 13 would say, “And now these three remain: peanut M&M’s, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Star Wars. But the greatest of these is Star Wars.” Come to think of it, this universe is probably better than mine would be. But the point remains: The stuff that we see as good is the stuff God likes; the reason we see it as good is because He likes it. This universe is indicative of His preferences; it’s “very God.” It all boils down to this, my one-liner Philosophy of Goodness:

When we say “God is good,” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what good is–good is God.

Whew, that took long enough. Now that we’ve established what good is, we can address why Jen, along with everybody else, is a better person for becoming a Christian. The purpose of the Christian life is to bring yourself–your thoughts and actions, your likes and dislikes–closer to God. He is goodness itself, the source of all good things. So, moving closer to him, by definition, makes us better.

It’s a lifelong journey, and we never make it all the way there. Christians have their good days and bad days, good years and bad years; times when they’re fully focused on their walk with God, and times when they lose sight of Him altogether. For whatever reason, God didn’t set it up as a switch that you turn on or off, but as a growth process. But as long as we pursue His goodness, we get better. That’s just the way it works.

Our atheist buddies and other skeptics might say, “Hey idiot, what about good people who aren’t Christians? Are you saying that if you’re not a Christian you can’t be ‘good?'” Well, it’s not necessary to be so abusive, but you raise a valid issue.

My answer to that would be in two parts. First, a lot of the people we call good are just good compared to other people, and let me tell ya, people are worse than anybody I know. Second, it’s possible to move closer to God even when you don’t mean to. When you see someone who is exhibiting goodness, what you’re seeing is God is working through them, whether they realize it or not. And the reason you like seeing that is because He likes it too.

Author’s Note: If you’ve hung with me through this entire post, thanks and congratulations! Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?

5 thoughts on “Goodness

  1. Wow, this is a really great post. Very interesting thoughts. I will be linking to it.

    I don’t know Jen personally, but I am positive that she is a better person since becoming a Christian.

    Though you don’t know me personally, you are one of the few people who knows about both Et Tu and my other site (the one with the smack-talking coffee cups and whatnot). I think that an outsider would look at that site and at Et Tu and think, yeah, something big has changed here. (Hopefully). 🙂

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