Underneath the complexities of life’s many paths lies this small question. And there it remains, quietly weaving itself into our pursuit of jobs, careers, relationships and futures, and the entirety of life itself. Without realizing it, we strive tirelessly to answer this question in one capacity or another. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck even asserts that this is the question of life:
“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well or ill?”
Sometimes, even the best attempts we make at justifying ourself or our goodness can end in sin and struggle.
A fruitless pursuit
In sixth grade, I decided I was going to be good. My motivations are now a little vague, but from what I remember, I had this sense that being good was what was required of me, and if I couldn’t achieve goodness then I would be a failure. And so I got to work: I cleaned the house when my parents didn’t ask me, I studied and received straight A’s, I did quiet times and volunteered.
I was proud of my goodness, of moments I chose obedience and discipline, it made me feel better than others and gave me a sense of control that whatever direction I was headed in, it was the right one. This quest for goodness continued through high school and into college, but soon, I found myself tired, burned out and confused. At the end of my freshman year, I was struggling with eating disorders that left me weighing just over 100 pounds.
As humans, pure goodness in thought, deed or both will always remain unattainable because of our sins. Adam and Eve’s story turned everything on its head for us, and shows us that the ability to rebel from our Creator turned into our default state as humans. We live in a fallen state of rebellion, where we will continually make the choice toward evil when we refuse God’s counsel.
The war within
The Bible shows us over and over again that an inward search for righteousness only leads us further away from the perfect righteousness we so desperately need. If we believe original sin to be true, we can’t rely on our hearts to be good, because “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
And even Paul, after his conversion, acknowledges his constant, inward struggle between sin and righteousness,
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:18-24)
What hope do we have, then, and where should we look, if a reliance on our inward goodness continues to fail us? The only answer to that question is found in Christ crucified—Christ who remains outside of us, separated from our sin and the sins of the world.
Hope for glory
Here is the tension in which the Christian lives: While we are assured by Scripture that Christ gives us peace, we still live in a world and in bodies marred by sin. We live in what theologians call the “already-not-yet”: We’ve already been saved and justified by Jesus, and we’re also not-yet completely free from the consequences of sin—both in us and around us.
Our only hope for goodness is to receive Christ’s goodness which is perfect and completely beyond us.
Martin Luther called this goodness alien righteousness: “the righteousness of another, instilled from without.” Alien righteousness settles the debate about goodness once and for all because it is gifted to us from a Savior who remains perfect and untarnished by our hearts.
The turn outward
It is Christ who is both perfect righteousness and the one who gives such righteousness to us so that the worry of whether we are good enough no longer plagues. The turn outward, away from myself, is a turn not only to Christ but to my neighbor—to the comfort that I am free to stop measuring my goodness and love my neighbor without want, fear or return.
Remember that your heart will always will be a work in progress. The war between right and wrong, good and evil, the old self and new self in Christ rages on, and so to look for instructions and fulfillment on how to live better lives is like looking to a country in the midst of civil war for instructions on how to set up a functioning government.
We get it so backward. At least I know I did for so long. The question as Christians is not, “Am I a good person?” Rather, the question we should be asking is “Where do I look for my goodness?” And if we can answer, “Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, the perfecter of my faith” then we have our answer to both questions.
Over and over again—perhaps sometimes in boring repetition—we must turn our eyes and our hearts outward, away from the unrest and imperfections of our hearts to Christ—Christ crucified, Christ found in Scripture and Christ’s assurance that in God’s eyes, “It is finished,” means we are His and His goodness is ours. We can rest and know that all else that is good flows from this foreign truth.