“Everybody does it. … At least I’m not doing what they’re doing!”
The argument should sound juvenile to most adult listeners. Indeed, if we haven’t heard our children make such a case, we can most certainly remember a time when we ourselves presented such a defense to our parents. I can also remember, vividly, my father’s response: “You are not everyone else! You are my son!”
While most “grown-ups” would avoid such argumentation, recent research would indicate that the desire to be graded on a sliding scale is deeply entrenched.
In a recent New York Times article, David Brooks describes what he calls the “Good Person Construct.” For many generations, people in the West saw themselves as sinful beings, waging a daily battle against evil. “But these days,” he says, “people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. … They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory.”
Brooks references a new book by researcher Dan Ariely, entitled The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. The book describes a number of experiments taken to test its subjects’ honesty. In one test, Ariely placed cans of cola and plates of dollar bills in the common kitchens in college dormitories. Students typically walked away with the sodas, but left the dollar bills. His conclusion: students chose the soda over the money because taking the dollar bills felt too much like stealing.
In another test, Ariely had two colleagues – one sighted, one blind – take identical cab rides. The cab drivers proved to be willing to take the “long route” with the sighted passenger, even though he would have been much more likely to detect the unnecessary distance. Presumably, cheating the blind passenger would have made the drivers feel guilty. Cheating the passenger who was not visually impaired? Less so.
“[M]ost of us think we are pretty wonderful,” Brooks says. “We can cheat a little and still keep that ‘good person’ identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.”
Brooks compares this approach to life to a “moral diet.” “I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.”
The danger of the Good Person Construct, from a Christian perspective, is that it inevitably leads to the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. “Lord, thank you that I am not like these other people . . .” (Luke 18:11). When we begin to separate ourselves from those around us based on moral performance, we also begin to separate ourselves from God, who alone is the “author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
The Apostle Paul might be one of the greatest examples of Good Person Construct ever recorded. According to Paul’s litany of position and achievements to the church in Corinth, his moral ledger was safely in the black. Yet, upon his meeting with the Christ whom he persecuted, Paul realized that his résumé fell short of the standard of righteousness established by the Savior.
“Be perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), Jesus said, not, “Be a more-or-less good person.” Who can live up to the divine standard of perfection? Only One, and it is He who came to save us from our sins. Anything short of Christ’s atonement leaves us on the same level as the vilest of criminals; with our accolades, moral standing, and good works lying as dirty rags at His feet.
Concluding his article, Brooks suggests that aiming for “goodness” is ineffectual, since the standard is too nebulous and forgiving. “You should shoot for rectitude,” he says, “. . . attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.” The determination of what standards to live by is left to the reader.
But “rectitude” is every bit as illusory as “goodness.” Both purport to be an end unto themselves, allowing us to say at the end of the day, “What a good person I am!” They both obscure the human condition that requires salvation from an outside source. The purpose of moral behavior remains our own satisfaction and, perhaps, a leaving of the world in a little better place than before. It shuts out a God who alone has the transformative power to change both heart and soul.
Ironically, it is the acknowledgement of our own depravity that opens the door for truly “good” behavior – behavior that seeks no record or comparison, but only seeks to bring honor to God and serve Him. Our deeds have value, not because of some human construct, but because they bring joy to our Father. The “good person” identity is shed, and the opportunity to be truly “good” is realized as we identify with Christ, who alone can be called “good” (Mark 10:18).
Listen to our Heavenly Father’s call, “Christian, you are not everyone else! You are My child!”