In his book, Following the Equator, Mark Twain included a photograph of himself sitting on a chair, his feet bracing the railing of a ship while looking out pensively across the ocean, with not a soul in sight. His hand-scribbled caption (written no doubt while his tongue prodded into his cheek) reads: “Be good and you will be lonesome.”
Something tells me the caption might have been more accurate if he was surrounded by his friends!
Humor aside. He was right. Being good isn’t easy. Consider the following:
Jesus Christ was the very embodiment of goodness (cf. Mt. 19.16-22). He alone “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5.21; cf. Heb. 4.15). Never did a single evil thought arise in his heart, nor did a single evil word pass through his lips, nor yet did a single evil deed stain his soul. He was perfectly good (Heb. 5.8-9; 2.10; 7.28; 1.8-9; cf. Deut. 32.4; Ps. 25.8).
Nevertheless, in spite of all the “good” that he “went about doing” (Acts 10.38), he was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53.3). He “came to his own, and his own did not receive him” (Jn. 1.11). Even his own disciples abandoned him at his finest hour, when his goodness, on clear display, ultimately led him to the cross (Mk. 14.50). So “he died alone for you and me.”
If that is the case with regard to the goodness of our savior, then surely our own attempts at goodness will be met with similar difficulties (cf. Mk. 13.13; Amos 5.10; 2 Tim. 3.12). It appears the old maxim is true: no good deed goes unpunished.
Still, we must, like our Lord, pursue what we know is right, even if it costs us our friends and makes us “lonesome.”
Certainly, no one is capable of being “good” in the same way that God is good (Rm. 3.10-18). But it is at least possible to be good in a relative sense. Though we are all guilty of wrongdoing (Rm. 3.23), we are still capable of living a life that is generally patterned after God’s holy character — of behaving consistent with sacred principles of right and wrong (1 Pt. 1.15).
Proverbs 12.2 reads: “A good man obtains favor from the Lord, but a man of wicked intentions he will condemn.” In the New Testament, Barnabas was described as a “good man” (Acts 11.24). Hence, it is possible to be a good person, even without being perfect.
More to the point: the Lord of heaven and earth is actively seeking
“those who, having heard [his] word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Lk. 8.15).
What Does It Mean To Be Good?
Many people seem to have their own definition of what it means to be good.
The Greek philosopher, Protagoras (c. 481-420), whom Plato identified as a sophist (one who reasons cleverly but speciously), asserted: “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, Theaetetus 152a; cf. Protagoras). To him, right and wrong are defined solely by each individual’s mood, not by any absolute standard. What is right to you, may be wrong to me — and vice-versa. And even that can change on a whim.
Protagoras’ theory of moral relativism is still alive and well. John Steinback’s Grapes of Wrath character, Jim Casy, may have captured the spirit of our modern age. Casy was a hypocritical preacher who would baptize a girl in the river and then have his way with her in the field. Growing tired of feeling bad about his hypocrisy, he finally woke up one morning with an epiphany: it’s much easier to say:
“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do (24).”
Such a position has surely eased the conscience of many a guilty soul.
In more recent times, statements like — “Nothing is right or wrong. It’s all an interpretation of which lens we are looking through” (Tarun Sharma) — are commonplace.
Let’s examine how God, the very essence of good, defines the term. His “lens” is the only one that truly matters. In the passage above (Lk. 8.15), Christ identifies the good person — the “good ground” (v. 8) — in three ways.
First, a good person is one who “hears” God’s word with an open and honest heart (Lk. 8.15a). He does not think he himself has all the answers (as Protagoras and others self-righteously insist). Rather, a good person depends upon a higher source to learn what is good. Two qualities are necessary to be a good listener:
(1) One must be open-minded. The Jews of Berea were regarded as “more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica [who had rejected the Christian message, AP], in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17.11). Their minds and hearts were open to conviction; they weren’t instant skeptics.
Some people think like this: I won’t believe, unless you can make the case for me (cf. Jn. 20.25). For them, everyone is guilty until proven innocent. This attitude does not reflect a fair heart.
The Bereans were of a better mindset: I’m willing to believe, so let’s hear the case. The Bereans were not gullible (they still “searched the Scriptures” to corroborate what they heard); but they were reasonable. And that is one quality that made them such good listeners.
(2) One must be agreeable. Paul told Timothy that a “servant of the Lord” will be “gentle to all” (2 Tim. 2.24). The term denotes one who is mild, affable (cf. 2 Cor. 10.1).
More to the point: it describes a person who possesses not just a willingness to hear (an open-mindedness)— but even a desire to exonerate (or defend) rather than condemn or resist. A gentle soul loathes to “quarrel.” When something seems to be “missing” in a person’s line of reasoning, the good person will not pounce mercilessly, and impulsively reject what has been said. Rather, a “good heart” will, with gentleness, be ready to fill in the gaps, if possible.
Hence, when it comes to “hearing” God’s word, the good-hearted person is ready to hear the case, and even possesses a desire to accept it as true, allowing all the evidence supporting it to be sufficiently established. A good person is not quick to dismiss it or mock it.
Second, a good person is one who, to the best of his ability, keeps God’s “commandments” (Mt. 19.17; cf. 1 Jn. 5.3). He does not pursue what “seems right” (Prov. 14.12) to his own heart; rather, he allows God, through the Bible, to define worthy conduct (Acts 4.19-20; 1 Thess. 2.13). The good person not only accepts God’s commandments, he keeps (i.e., obeys) them (cf. Rm. 6.16-18; Heb. 5.9).
This obedience must be: 1) sincerely offered (1 Pt. 1.22); and 2) comprehensive in scope. Accepting only part of what God instructs is not obedience (cf. 1 Sam. 15.1-23). A good person is not selective when it comes to God’s commandments (cf. Mt. 5.17-20). Keeping the command: do not murder; while ignoring the command: do not commit adultery, is not obedience (Jms. 2.11).
Likewise, those who try to live morally before their neighbor, in the way God instructed, without caring about religious duties (e.g., church membership, obeying the plan of salvation, etc.), which God has also commanded, are falling short of God’s goodness (2 Thess. 1.8-9).
In the end, all our “works” — whether “good or evil” (2 Cor. 5.10) — will be judged on the basis of God’s “word” (Jn. 12.48; Rev. 20.12). The good person will recognize this and live accordingly.
Third, according to Christ, a good person is one who, “having heard [his] word with a noble and good heart, keeps it and bears fruit with patience” (Lk. 8.15). Being productive for God is the natural result of living a good life as God defines it. This manifests itself in two ways:
(1) A fruit-bearer will make oneself a better person.
Good fruit is designed to furnish health and life:
“The fruit of the righteous is the tree of life” (Prov. 11.30).
The more you learn God’s word and keep it, the better equipped you are to avoid the pitfalls of the flesh that lead to spiritual ruin: i.e., “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries” etc. (Gal. 5.19-21).
Instead, you will transform your own life (cf. Rm. 12.1-3), and will start producing “the fruit of the Spirit:” i.e., “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23). These qualities are what makes a soul desirable to God (cf. Col. 1.10; Rm. 7.4; 1 Pt. 3.4).
(2) A fruit-bearer will make others better.
We have a responsibility to help others become productive for God too. Jesus said: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5.16, ESV). Bearing fruit means we will teach the truth to those who are “faithful…who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2.2). In this way, we will “bear much fruit” (Jn. 15.8).
But Goodness Is Not Enough
There are many who are good to others — whose intentions are noble. This is commendable. However, a good person is not necessarily a saved person. Sadly, many good people are lost (cf. Mt. 7.21-23; 2 Cor. 4.3-4).
There was a centurion who lived in Caesarea “called Cornelius” (Acts 10.1). This man was “just” and “devout;” he “feared God…gave alms generously to the poor, and prayed to God always;” Cornelius had “a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews” (10.2, 22). This was a good man, morally and religiously.
Still, he was not yet “saved” (Acts 11.14) — i.e., his past sins were still being held against him. He needed them to be washed away. He needed to be converted to the cause of Christ.
Consequently, God sent Peter to this man and his household, so that they might “hear all the things commanded by God” (Acts 10.33). Once they accepted Peter’s message, Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10.48).
This episode demonstrates that a truly good person will allow himself to be immersed in “water” (v. 47) to receive the “remission of sins” (Acts 2.38; 22.16), be “saved” (Mk. 16.16; 1 Pt. 3.21), and to become a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12.13; Acts 2.41-47), for these are the commandments of God. And a “noble and good heart” will:
1) hear God’s word;
2) keep his commands; and
3) bear fruit with patience.
Salvation is not an easy endeavor. According to Christ, “many” will take the path of least resistance, which leads “to destruction” (Mt. 7.13), while only “few” will “find life” (Mt. 7.14). Choosing to follow Christ may cost you friendships, family relations, business partnerships, etc. You may, at times, feel “lonesome” in your pursuit of heaven. But you are never alone!
Consider this. You may lose
“house, or brothers, or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands” for becoming a Christian, but you will surely “receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk. 10.29-30).
Take note of the conjunctions here: or…and. The Lord’s subtle point is this: Christianity may cost you a few things, but its gains vastly outweigh the losses, both in this life, and in the one to come.
Become a truly good person — as God defines it — despite the cost, and you will be blessed indeed!
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Bantom Books, 1969. Twain, Mark. Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: The American Publishing Company, 1898.