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Great to Good

Great social reforms are not achieved by good people; technological advances are not made by good people; medical breakthroughs are not discovered by good people; military victories are not masterminded by good people. Those kinds of pivotal, life-changing events are the domain of the exceptional. In comparison to those accomplishments, endeavoring to be good feels like a compromise for those who can’t do better.

Given the choice, we’d all like something more than just good. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, shows the comparison in the business world. He describes good companies as those which ticked along without any real distinguishing characteristics – average. In comparison, great companies he characterized as those which outperformed the average multiple times over.

A rather different view of good to great is in the story told in Mark 9:33-35 of the disciples arguing over who would be the greatest. Jesus’ response highlights the core message of this week’s lesson: “if anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all.” (NKJV) Christ’s words highlight the first point about goodness: it is not aspirational. Goodness results from intentional action.

It is at the same time reassuring and challenging to consider that goodness isn’t an innate quality that some people have in more abundance than others: reassuring because it means that we, too, have the opportunity to be good; and challenging because it means that goodness is the result of clear and purposeful decisions. The old lady at church, who always has a kind word and sweet smile to offer (there should be at least one in every congregation), did not get her goodness along with her grey hair and forgetfulness with names. To think that would absolve us of responsibility for our actions, taking away the deliberate nature of goodness. Psalms 34:14 tell us to ‘depart from evil and do good’. Here we see the two options laid out starkly before us. There is no question of whether goodness is an intentional choice or not when it’s presented as plainly as that.

Secondly, goodness is about motivation. A good act is not enough in itself: what is crucial is our motivation for doing it. Reflecting back on the contrast between goodness and greatness, the key difference from a human perspective is that greatness is about drawing attention to myself, to highlight my achievements or position of prominence. Goodness, on the other hand, is about what I can do for others. That’s why Christ says we should be the “servant of all”, choosing to dedicate ourselves to fulfilling others’ needs.

God is pleased with us when we do things to benefit others. John Ortberg describes this aspect of God’s nature in his book Love Beyond Reason, with the words “love me, love my ragdoll”. It describes how God wants us to express our love for Him through loving others, even those who we might not want to love (Luke 6:35). Being good is not supposed to be easy. We cannot choose when we will exhibit goodness or to whom we want to exhibit it. It’s not about convenience or whim. The lesson explains that it is an active, even aggressive, goodness that is implied in the Greek original.

We live in a world where there is no end of opportunities to express goodness to others: as I write from Haiti, surrounded by overwhelming human suffering, that fact is clear. The question of why God allows suffering is a topic for another discussion. But regardless of the answer to that, what is undeniable is that the needs of others present us with the opportunity to display the goodness to which God calls us – to “do good” to others. Of course, goodness doesn’t have to be motivated by something as monumental as a humanitarian tragedy of the nature of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. There is no ranking of goodness in order of importance and impact. We are simply commanded to do good to all people at all times. Which brings me to my third point.

Goodness is about persistence. The biblical description of goodness is a dogged commitment, an attitude of continually choosing to do the right thing. In humanitarian funding circles we have the concept of donor fatigue. This is when the extended exposure to a particular need, or situation leads to apathy and decreased interest and engagement. To the Christian this ought to be anathema, because the greater the need, the more the opportunity to do good. In this context, goodness is not just an attitude or an action: it is also a reaction to the state of things around us. Just as Amos brought a message to the people of his time to correct the systematic injustice prevalent in their society (Amos 5:24), so for us our acts of goodness should reflect the needs in our surroundings: needs which are often pervasive, persistent and seemingly intractable. That is why in Galatians 6:9 Paul admonishes us to ‘not grow weary while doing good’.

Thinking about the biblical concept of goodness while working in a humanitarian emergency of the nature of Haiti has given me pause for thought. The idea that goodness is only expressed through action means that what I do is important, not just to those around me in need, but also in my relationship with God. Recently a former colleague and humanitarian passed away. Over the years that we had worked together I grew to admire him for his dedication to humanitarian work, volunteerism and compassion. He was intentional in his commitment to doing good, motivated by his faith and the compelling needs of others, and persisted to do good, even at personal cost. We can probably all identify people in our lives who have exhibited those characteristics.

When we consider goodness in that sense it does, after all, start to take on an aspirational quality. A life dedicated to doing good is an attractive proposition: being a blessing to others and to God. The consequence of this life is described in Amos 5:14: ‘the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is’. This is, after all, the highest aspiration that a Christian can have.

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